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Philosopher and mathematician René Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophy for defining a starting point for existence, “I think; therefore I am.”
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Since Descartes believed that all truths were ultimately linked, he sought to uncover the meaning of the natural world with a rational approach, through science and mathematics—in some ways an extension of the approach Sir Francis Bacon had asserted in England a few decades prior. In addition to Discourse on the Method, Descartes also published Meditations on First Philosophy and Principles of Philosophy,
among other treatises.
Although philosophy is largely where the 20th century deposited Descartes—each century has focused on different aspects of his work—his investigations in theoretical physics led many scholars to consider him a mathematician first. He introduced Cartesian geometry, which incorporates algebra; through his laws of refraction, he developed an empirical understanding of rainbows; and he proposed a naturalistic account of the formation of the solar system, although he felt he had to suppress much of that due to Galileo’s fate at the hands of the Inquisition. His concern wasn’t misplaced—Pope Alexander VII later added Descartes’ works to the Index of Prohibited Books.
Descartes never married, but he did have a daughter, Francine, born in the Netherlands in 1635. He had moved to that country in 1628 because life in France was too bustling for him to concentrate on his work, and Francine’s mother was a maid in the home where he was staying. He had planned to have the little girl educated in France, having arranged for her to live with relatives, but she died of a fever at age 5.
Descartes lived in the Netherlands for more than 20 years but died in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 11, 1650. He had moved there less than a year before, at the request of Queen Christina, to be her philosophy tutor. The fragile health indicated in his early life persisted. He habitually spent mornings in bed, where he continued to honor his dream life, incorporating it into his waking methodologies in conscious meditation, but the queen’s insistence on 5 am lessons led to a bout of pneumonia from which he could not recover. He was 53.
Sweden was a Protestant country, so Descartes, a Catholic, was buried in a graveyard primarily for unbaptized babies. Later, his remains were taken to the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. They were moved during the French Revolution, and were put back later—although urban legend has it that only his heart is there and the rest is buried in the Panthéon.
Descartes’ approach of combining mathematics and logic with philosophy to explain the physical world turned metaphysical when confronted with questions of theology; it led him to a contemplation of the nature of existence and the mind-body duality, identifying the point of contact for the body with the soul at the pineal gland. It also led him to define the idea of dualism: matter meeting non-matter. Because his previous philosophical system had given man the tools to define knowledge of what is true, this concept led to controversy. Fortunately, Descartes himself had also invented methodological skepticism, or Cartesian doubt, thus making philosophers of us all.
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