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May 13, 2013

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1660) is a French philosopher who is considered by many people as a father of modern philosophy. Descartes emphasized the importance of mind and thinking being a rationalist philosopher. His rationalism was vividly expressed in his thesis, “I think, therefore I exist”.

In the process of thinking Descartes honored questioning as the most important. He put forward the principle of methodological doubt. A person should not immediately take on trust everything he or she is said or what he or she sees and feels. Everything has to be questioned. Descartes was also a philosopher-dualist. He thought that both material and spiritual beginnings lied at the heart of the world: physical and thinking. Spiritual exists alongside with physical and physical with spiritual side by side. They do not intersect, but interact with each other due to a higher power which is called God. Descartes also believed that a human mind contained some ideas that did not depend on a person’s actions (“innate ideas”).

Alfred Whitehead wrote that the history of modern philosophy was the story of Cartesianism in two aspects: idealist and mechanistic (res cogitans (“thinking”) and res extensa (“length”). The father of modern philosophy, Descartes, had a strong philosophical productivity, being influenced by new physics and new astronomy. Retaining a lot from scholastics, however, he tried to rebuild the edifice of philosophy ex novo (anew). Since the time of Aristotle nothing like this was seen. This was a manifested symptom of the new faith in people themselves. Descartes works have a freshness which is not present in any of the previous philosophers, including such well-known ones as Plato. Philosophers of that time were teachers, and their behavior presented visible printing of professional excellence. Descartes wrote not as a teacher but as a pioneer, eager to report his findings. His style of writing is easy and devoid of pedantry, being aimed at all educated people. Besides, his style is simply superb. The fortune of modern philosophy has given an excellent literary gift to her pioneer. Followers of Descartes, both in Europe and in England, up to Kant retained his non-professor tone and some of them – his stylistic discovery as well.

Galileo was convinced (his belief had metaphysical nature) that the world was mathematically structured with a mathematical thought; therefore, there was a possibility to penetrate into the harmony of the universe. By bringing this concept to its logical conclusion not in the broad sense that mathematics helps, but in a much more narrow sense, Descartes managed to state that a human mind formulated a knowledge of the nature of its own – similarly as it creates math as a science. Methods, physics and metaphysics are all firmly intertwined in the philosophical doctrine of Descartes. “The philosophy is like tree roots of one tree where one is metaphysics, a trunk is physics and branches growing from the trunk are all the other sciences”.

Providing a biographical perspective, it can be stated that René Descartes (Latinized name Cartesius) was born in Lyae, in Touraine, March 31, 1596. Hailing from a noble family (his father, Joachim, was an Advisor to the Parliament of Brittany), he went to the Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou very early – it was one of the most famous schools of the time. This way Rene received a good philosophical and scientific education according to the existing requirements in those days: six years of studying humanities and three – mathematics and theology. Inspired by the ideas of scholastic philosophy and relying on an active struggle of the Catholic Church against constantly reborn heresy, his education, though not shy of scientific discovery and learning mathematics, has caused dissatisfaction and protest in the soul of Descartes. He quickly felt a huge discrepancy between the surrounding cultural environment and new scientific and philosophical trends, as well as the lack of a serious methodology, controlling and directing the search for truth.

The study of philosophy, organized in accordance with the codification of Suarez, drew young minds to the past and endless debates of scholars, leaving little time to study contemporary issues. Remembering those years, Descartes wrote in his “Discourse on Method”: “Talking to people from other eras is like travelling – of course, it is good to know the customs of other nations to better judge their own, but when a person spends too much time traveling, then in the end he becomes a foreigner in his own country. Similarly, those who are too interested in the past for the most part are not aware of reality”. Although Descartes criticizes philosophy, returning to studies in mathematics he still is not satisfied. He writes: “Most of all I liked mathematical disciplines due to the accuracy of reasoning and evidence, but I did not find a standing use for them; seeing that they are used only in the art of mechanics, I am surprised that in such strong and stable foundations still there is nothing created higher”. As for the teachings of theology, it is limited to remark: “When I learned that the way to heaven is opened equally to ignorant and educated people, and that the truths revealed in order to get there are beyond our understanding, I would have never dared to cover them with my weak reasoning”.

So, Descartes left the college of La Fleche, not having the slightest idea in ​​what area of ​​knowledge he could use his abilities. After further studies at the University of Poitiers, where he attained the rank of bachelor’s and a degree in law, he still did not define the field of his research and decided to dedicate his life to the military career. In 1618, with the advent of the Thirty Years’ War, Descartes joined the forces of Maurice of Nassau to win the freedom of the Spanish Netherlands. In his delirium, he firmly befriended a young physicist and mathematician Isaac Beckman who drew his studies into physics. Catching the project “Universal mathematics” in Ulm, where he was with the army of the Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, between 10 and 11 November 1619 Descartes experienced a kind of intellectual revelations about the basics of “the wonderful science”. In gratitude for this “revelation” Descartes made a vow to make a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto. In his diary he wrote about the “surprising discovery” that would develop in the future into “The Science of Mental Health” (1623) and into “The Rules for the Direction of the Mind” (1627-1628).

Descartes came to the conclusion that the only reliable instrument of a human mind is questioning. He started to search at a point where the other people end their search. It is necessary to bring a question to the extreme limits, so that all questionable is exhausted. Here then, perhaps, something undeniable, a fulcrum, a solid foundation on which materials may be subjected to criticism may be revealed and used to erect a new building. This would require a limit exertion, mental and physical. So, before a person commits to doubt, it is necessary to work with a fatal doubtful existence. Horse riding and fencing helped him win the first and an important victory – over himself, over his own feebleness.<…>

In other words, Descartes offered a practical philosophy by which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, stars, heavens and all other bodies that surround people, humans might use them for different purposes to become masters of nature. A practical method of Descartes was to move from the general to the particular, the foundation of which had always been mathematics. He believed that all sciences must be subordinated to mathematics: it should have the status of “universal mathematics”, for it contained everything so other sciences could be called “parts of mathematics”. This meant that the knowledge of nature is the knowledge that can be fixed mathematically.

The role of Descartes and his philosophy is hard to overestimate. His influence on all subsequent philosophical thoughts is huge. Doctrine and various trends in philosophy, developing the ideas of Descartes, were called “Cartesianism” (from the Latinized form of his name – Cartesius). Therefore, a French philosopher, a mathematician, a physicist and a physiologist Descartes is respectively called “a father of modern philosophy”, as he is the founder of modern rationalism. The philosophy of Descartes was based on the dualism of a body and a soul, “thinking” and “extended” substances. There is only one mere undeniable fact – a doubt is a way of thinking. Descartes concludes: “I think, therefore I exist”.

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