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Sunday, 5 October 2014

René Descartes

René Descartes was born at the farmhouse of his great grandma.on March 31, 1596. It was located in La Haye en Touraine, a small town in the Indre-et-Loire, now named after him – Descartes.

The house where he was born in La Haye en Touraine

His father Joachim Descartes, was a prominent councillor in the parliament of Rennes. He belonged to a family that had produced a number of learned men.

Rene was raised by his grandmother after the early death of his mother and re-marriage of father.

At the age of eight he entered the Jesuit College Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche, which was regarded as a school of the highest level. He was taught scholastic philosophy (using human reason to understand Christian doctrine) , the humanities, science and mathematics.

Descartes' school recognized the powers of reflection when lying in bed after sleep and encouraged this on condition the thoughts were committed to essay and debate or else the students were flogged..

After graduating from the Royal Henry-Le-Grand, Descartes studied at the University of Poitiers, graduating with a Baccalauréat and Licence in law in 1616.

In May 1617 Descartes set out for the Netherlands to enlist in the army of the Prince of Orange, with the intention of following a military career. He served for several years as a volunteer in the Dutch and Bavarian armies.

On the night of November 10-11, 1619, while stationed in Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes shut himself in a room with a masonry heater to escape the cold. While within, he had a series of three dreams that inspired him to devote the rest of his life to developing a new, universal method for the perfection of all human knowledge.

In 1628 Descartes took part in the siege of La Rochelle.

In 1628 Cardinal de Berville urged Descartes that it was his duty to devote himself to developing his mathematical philosophy and he retired to Holland to do so.

Descartes at work

Descartes sold his properties in France and moved to the Netherlands to find a more studious atmosphere. He lived in a number of different cities including Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht for the next 20 years.

"However perfect a country house may be, it will always lack an infinity of commodities which can only be found in the cities." Descartes letter to Guex de Balzac 1631.

Descartes never married, but he had a daughter, Francine by a young servant named Helene. When Francine died at the age of five, he was grief stricken.

It seems Descartes had a hankering for women with strabismus; a condition commonly known as "crossed eyes." Ever the thinker, he tried to put a logical spin on his preference: he believed that, as a child, his wet nurse was afflicted with a definite squint.

His first book was a treatise on fencing written at the age of 6.

Descartes was in the middle of writing The World, a book on the universe in which he accepted the views of Copernicus, when he heard that Galileo had been condemned for believing with Copernicus that the sun was the centre of the universe and not the earth. Descartes decided to abandon the work.

His 1637 Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method) was a series of mathematical and metaphysical speculations. It was an attempt to rebuild human knowledge using a foundation “I think therefore I am.” In the process Descartes founded modern philosophy.

Discours de la Méthode was written unusually for a philosophical book of his time in French rather than Latin to allow a wider readership.

Descartes had an interest in medicine and regularly toured slaughterhouses to sketch the insides of dissected carcasses.

Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland (which is in the brain area) . Later scientists performing autopsies were upset to find this location of the soul was calcified.

Descartes made anatomical dissections and investigated the anatomy of the eye and the mechanism of vision. Descartes has put his knowledge to practical use by designing a machine that grinded hyperbolic optical lenses.

Descartes' 1637 Dioptrics laid the foundation of modern optics.

A 1618 meeting with the Dutch physicist Isaac Beeckman revived Descartes' fascination with mathematics. Whilst stationed at Breda in Holland he discovered his scientific genius by solving a very difficult mathematical problem set in a competition.

Descartes had the idea of developing the mathematical system of co-ordinates when during his military service, lying on his bed, he watched a fly hover in the air. He realized the fly's position could be described by locating its distance from three intersecting lines.

Descartes' system of mathematical co-ordinates (using numbers to locate a point on a surface) meant that geometrical problems could be solved by using algebra.

In 1637 Descartes wrote the first book on analytical geometry, La Geometrie.

Descartes' theorem states that for every four kissing, or mutually tangent, circles, the radii of the circles satisfy a certain quadratic equation. By solving this equation, one can construct a fourth circle tangent to three given, mutually tangent circles. The theorem is named after René Descartes, who stated it in 1643.

He believed that geometry represented the ideal for all sciences of philosophy. Descartes applied certain methods of mathematics to science teaching that the universe is explainable in mathematical terms.

He was the first to use the last letters of the alphabet to designate unknown quantities and first letters to designate known ones. (as in a(b+c) )

Descartes also introduced the use of figures above 1 to the right of a number to express powers.

His Cartesian philosophy undermined Aristotelian concept of reality which European thought had adhered to for two millennia, restabling the thoughts of Plato.

His 1641 Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), argued that though we may be deceived into believing in false things at least we know that we ourselves exist. The church didn't like this and accused Descartes of atheism.


Descartes' 1644 Principia Philosophiae (The Principles of Philosophy) explained physical phenomena scientifically rather than spiritually. It was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia, who lived in the Netherlands and with whom Descartes had formed a deep friendship.

Rene Descartes once constructed a robot in the form of a girl which he transported by sea on one occasion. The ship captain spotting it packed in the chest was so horrified at its realistic form that thinking it could only be the devil in disguise, he threw the chest and its contents into the sea.

Descartes was a Catholic who rejected his religion’s tradition of philosophy. For the French philosopher the universe was a mechanical system activated by God, the first cause of all motion. He claimed that no imperfect, finite mind could have thought of the idea of an infinite God, so God must have put the thought in us.

Frans Hals - Portrait of René Descartes

“I cannot forgive Descartes;” Blaise Pascal commented in his Pensees, “in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God. But he could not avoid making him set the world in motion with a flip of His thumb; after that he had no more use for God”

In 1649 Descartes was persuaded to be tutor to the 19 year old Queen Christina of Sweden.

René Descartes died on February 11, 1650. The French philosopher was a late riser and was accustomed to meditating in a warm bed until 11.00 am. However he fell into bad health after being summoned to Queen Christina of Sweden's court. The teenage headstrong Swedish queen insisted on taking her philosophy lessons from him at the unearthly and uncomfortably chilly hour of 5.00 am.Descartes passed away from pneumonia five months after arriving in Sweden.

As a Catholic in a Protestant nation, Descartes was interred in a graveyard mainly used for unbaptized infants, in Adolf Fredrikskyrkan in Stockholm. Later his remains were taken to France from Sweden and buried in the Church of St. Genevieve-du-Mont in Paris. A memorial erected in the 18th century remains in the Swedish church.

A once popular scientific toy known as the Cartesian was named after Descartes. This consisted of a transparent container with a floating object which dived when the top of the container was pressed.

Dictionary of Eponyms,  Faber Book of Anecdotes, Giant Book of Facts and Trivia

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