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Rene Descartes

Descartes was a French mathematician and philosopher. It was Descartes who formulated the axiom, Cogito ergo sum, "I think therefore I exist."

Descartes was a product of the church and his philosophy reflected the times in which he lived. Descartes was a dualist, viz. a man was of two natures, a spiritual nature and a temporal nature. Now whether this was a belief held deeply, might be a matter of some question, what is clear is that he would have professed his beliefs, such, that, they were in keeping with the doctrine of the time, as promulgated by the all powerful church.1 As a dualist, Descartes, would have accepted that there exists a priori truths (truths not derived from experience; truths such as the existence of God). And, while Descartes accepted some ideas were developed from experience, he was steadfast in his belief that certain ideas were innate. By pure deduction Descartes evolved for himself entire universes that neither he, nor anyone else, could perceive by the use of their natural senses. All that was necessary, for Descartes, was intense self examination and intense reason, and, through this process, all would be revealed.2

Descartes, it would seem, in his philosophical work, continued along the same lines of the church philosophers: the deductive approach, viz., accepting notions which have no basis in reality, and then to proceed to build on those. No one can trust the result of such a process: a conclusion can never be more trustworthy than the premises on which it is built. For one to profess a belief in such a process -- in such a philosophy -- is to profess one's ignorance of the fundamental universal principles, or natural laws, which have guided man along a very long evolutionary past.3

Many people, however have been inspired by Cartesian philosophy; it gives considerable dignity to the human as a thinking being, one with a free will. It is for this reason Cartesian philosophy has found a following. (See, for example, Leibniz and Berkeley.) The two major works of Descartes are Discourse on Method (1637) and Principles of Philosophy (1644).

In the final analysis, the subject of philosophy, as a science, was not much advanced by Descartes. For real progress we are obliged to turn to Francis Bacon and those that came after him, those who followed a scientific method, a method of inductive thinking.


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1 Descartes was influenced by his fear of the "wrath of the church." [Henry Alphern, An Outline History of Philosophy (Forum House, 1969) p. 17 and p. 27.]

2 This, in spite of Descartes's pronouncement, in his work, Meditations (1641): "I shall proceed by setting aside all that admits of even the very slightest doubt, just as if I had convicted it of being absolutely false."

3 To be fair to Descartes and all of the philosophers who preceded him, one should point out that it was only in 1859 that Darwin's shattering work, The Origin of the Species's came out.


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Peter Landry