René Descartes

Rene Descartes

Dubbed the father of modern western philosophy, much of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day. He spent about 20 years of his life in the Dutch Republic.

As a child, he expressed curiosity about the natural phenomena. In 1604, at the age of 8 years old, he is entrusted to the new settlement of the Jesuits of La Flèche, a bastion of Aristotelian thinking. Here he will be studying Latin and Greek, as well as mathematics, physics, logic, morality and metaphysics. Descartes gets to know Marin Mersenne and the two will carry a vast and varied correspondence and will maintain a long relationship of intellectual friendship.At 14 years old, he began to compose works of mathematics and philosophy. In 1612, he went to Paris where, encouraged by his friend,Mersenne, in 1615 he became fully dedicated to mathematics.Between 1614 and 1617, he takes his baccalaureate degree in law from the University of Poitiers. In 1616 he graduated in Law at the University of Poitiers.

In April 1619, he leaves Netherlands for Denmark and Germany. Descartes assists at the coronation of Emperor Ferdinand II in Frankfurt on 28 July. He spends the winter in Neuburg, on the Danube, engaged in the Catholic army of the Duke of Bavaria during the “30 Years War” (1618-1648). On the night of 10 to 11 November he has a famous “dream” which reveals “the foundations of an admirable science”, guiding ideas of his method later.Between 1621 and 1622 he spends his time in his native city, La Haye, in France. He sells his property to secure his peace and “material independence”. René has a short stay in Paris between 1623 and 1625. He travels to Switzerland, Tyrol and Italy. In 1628 he writes in Latin “Rules for the direction of the mind”, an unfinished work remained unpublished until 1701.

In 1644,“Principia philosophiae” (Principles of Philosophy), written with the intention to replace the Aristotelian textbooks contributes to enhance the reputation of Descartes and to the Cartesian philosophy dissemination. Between 1645 and 1646, at the request of the palatine Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia,René writes “Les Passions de l’âme” (Passions of the soul), which was not published until 1649. Descartes maintains a significant correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. Descartes accepted in 1649 an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to travel to the cold and distant north territory. He died on 11 February 1650 from pneumonia contracted during travels from his residence to the royal palace to teach philosophy at 5 o’clock in the morning, the only time of the day when the Queen believed that she had a “clear mind”. The remains were transported in 1667 in France at the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Cemetery. Only in 1792 they were transferred to the JardinElysee. The Cartesianism remained one of the dominant currents of thought throughout the second half of the 18th century, being continued on the metaphysical plane by Leibniz and Spinoza.

René Descartes’ work provided the basis for the calculus developed by Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who applied the infinitesimal calculus to the tangent line problem, thus permitting the evolution of that branch of modern mathematics. His rule of signs is also a commonly used method to determine the number of positive and negative roots of a polynomial.Descartes discovered an early form of the law of conservation of mechanical momentum (a measure of the motion of an object), and envisioned it as pertaining to motion in a straight line, as opposed to the perfect circular motion, as Galileo had envisioned it. He outlined his views on the universe in his “Principles of Philosophy”.

Descartes also made contributions to the field of optics. He showed by using geometric construction and the law of refraction (also known as Descartes’ law or more commonly Snell’s law) that the angular radius of a rainbow is 42° (the angle subtended at the eye by the edge of the rainbow and the ray passing from the sun through the rainbow’s centre is 42°). He also independently discovered the law of reflection, and his essay on optics was the first published mention of this law.

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