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Descartes, Rene (1596-1650)

French philosopher and natural scientist. He is often said to be father of modern philosophy. Descartes shifts attention from the question of what is the nature of what we know, to can I know anything at all for sure? The legacy of this is that modern philosophy effectively still deals with problems set by Descartes. In terms of scientific achievements he is the first to provide full world picture to challenge (and replace) Scholasticism. It is a fully mechanistic schema - including biological phenomena.

Cartesian thought holds that there are two worlds, one of mental objects and one of material things, including animals and human bodies. The mental objects are states of consciousness (e.g. pains, fear, joy, experiences), the material objects are more or less ‘bits of clockwork’. Mental states and states of the body are logically independent but causally interrelated: causal interaction is like glue, bonding mind to body in each individual person. The veracity of all our ideas in this system is guaranteed by God’s existence and goodness. His modern-day critics see him as the exponent par excellence of dualism, but contemporary scholarship is presently engaged in the task of trying to separate the man and his ideas from the caricature that has been assembled of him in the history of Western philosophy.

He was schooled at a Jesuit college called La Fleche, after this he joined the army and travelled around Europe. He had a revelation in 'well heated room' and decided to take up philosophy in a serious manner. Legend tells of his habit to meditate in bed until noon. In 1649, he took up a position with Queen Christina in Stockholm, but died of pneumonia.

His main works include: ‘The World’ (Le Monde), 1634; ‘Discourse on Method’, 1637; ‘Meditations’, 1642; ‘Principles of Philosophy’, 1644.

Contributed by: Richard P Whaite

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