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History of Modern Philosophy
Descartes
by Falckenberg, Richard


The long conflict with Scholasticism, which had been carried on with ever increasing energy and ever sharper weapons, was brought by Descartes to a victorious close. The new movement, long desired, long sought, and prepared for from many directions, at length appears, ready and well-established. Descartes accomplishes everything needful with the sure simplicity of genius. He furnishes philosophy with a settled point of departure in self-consciousness, offers her a method sure to succeed in deduction from clear and distinct conceptions, and assigns her the mechanical explanation of nature as her most imperative and fruitful mission.

René Descartes was born at La Haye in Touraine, in 1596, and died at Stockholm in 1650. Of the studies taught in the Jesuit school at La Flèche, mathematics alone was able to satisfy his craving for clear and certain knowledge. The years 1613-17 he spent in Paris; then he enlisted in the military service of the Netherlands, and, in 1619, in that of Bavaria. While in winter quarters at Neuburg, he vowed a pilgrimage to Loretto if the Virgin would show him a way of escape from his tormenting doubts; and made the saving discovery of the "foundations of a wonderful science." At the end of four years this vow was fulfilled. On his return to Paris (1625), he was besought by his learned friends to give to the world his epoch-making ideas. Though, to escape the distractions of society, he kept his residence secret, as he had done during his first stay in Paris, and frequently changed it, he was still unable to secure the complete privacy and leisure for scientific work which he desired. Therefore he went to Holland in 1629, and spent twenty years of quiet productivity in Amsterdam, Franecker, Utrecht, Leeuwarden, Egmond, Harderwijk, Leyden, the palace of Endegeest, and five other places. His work here was interrupted only by a few journeys, but much disturbed in its later years by annoying controversies with the theologian Gisbert Voëtius of Utrecht, with Regius, a pupil who had deserted him, and with professors from Leyden. His correspondence with his French friends was conducted through Père Mersenne. In 1649 he yielded to pressing invitations from Queen Christina of Sweden and removed to Stockholm. There his weak constitution was not adequate to the severity of the climate, and death overtook him within a few months.

The two decades of retirement in the Netherlands were Descartes's productive period. His motive in developing and writing out his thoughts was, essentially, the desire not to disappoint the widely spread belief that he was in possession of a philosophy more certain than the common one. The work entitled Le Monde begun in 1630 and almost completed, remained unprinted, as the condemnation of Galileo (1632) frightened our philosopher from publication; fragments of it only, and a brief summary, appeared after the author's death. The chief works, the Discourse on Method the Meditations on the First Philosophy and the Principles of Philosophy appeared between 1637 and 1644,--the Discours de la Méthode in 1637, together with three dissertations (the "Dioptrics," the "Meteors," and the "Geometry"), under the common title, Essais Philosophiques To the (six) Meditationes de Prima Philosophia published in 1641, and dedicated to the Paris Sorbonne, are appended the objections of various savants to whom the work had been communicated in manuscript, together with Descartes's rejoinders. He himself considered the criticisms of Arnauld, printed fourth in order, as the most important. The Third Objections are from Hobbes, the Fifth from Gassendi, the First, which were also the first received, from the theologian Caterus of Antwerp, while the Second and Sixth, collected by Mersenne, are from various theologians and mathematicians. In the second edition there were added, further, the Seventh Objections, by the Jesuit Bourdin, and the Replies of the author thereto. The four books of the Principia Philosophiae published in 1644 and dedicated to Elizabeth, Countess Palatine, give a systematic presentation of the new philosophy. The Discourse on Method Appeared, 1644, in a Latin translation, the Meditations and the Principles in French, in 1647. The Treatise on the Passionswas published in 1650; the Letters 1657-67, in French, 1668, in Latin. The Opera Postuma 1701, beside the Compendium of Music (written in 1618) and other portions of his posthumous writings, contain the "Rules for the Direction of the Mind," supposed to have been written in 1629, and the "Search for Truth by the Light of Nature." The complete works have been often published, both in Latin and in French. The eleven volume edition of Cousin appeared in 1824-26.[1]

[Footnote 1: Of the many treatises on the philosophy of Descartes those of C. Schaarschmidt (Descartes und Spinoza 1850) and J.H. Löwe, 1855, may be mentioned. Further, M. Heinze has discussed Die Sittenlehre des Descartes 1872; Ed. Grimm, Descartes' Lehre von den angeborenen Ideen 1873; G. Glogau, Darlegung und Kritik des Grundgedankens der Cartesianisch. Metaphysik (Zeitschrift für Philosophie vol. lxxiii. p. 209 seq), 1878; Paul Natorp, Descartes' Erkenntnisstheorie 1882; and Kas. Twardowski, Idee und Perception in Descartes, 1892. In French, Francisque Bouillier (Histoire de la Philosophie Cartésienne 1854) and E. Saisset (Précurseurs et Disciples de Descartes 1862) have written on Cartesianism. [The Method, Meditations, and Selections from the Principles have been translated into English by John Veitch, 5th ed., 1879, and others since; and H.A.P. Torrey has published The Philosophy of Descartes in Extracts from his Writings 1892 (Sneath's Modern Philosophers). The English reader may be referred, also, to Mahaffy's Descartes 1880, in Blackwood's Philosophical Classics; to the article "Cartesianism," Encyclopedia Britannica 9th ed., vol. v., by Edward Caird; and, for a complete discussion, to the English translation of Fischer's Descartes and his School' by J.P. Gordy, 1887.--TR.]]

We begin our discussion with Descartes's noëtical and metaphysical principles, and then take up in order his doctrine of nature and of man.

The Principles
Nature
Man
Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works