Tag Archives: Descartes

Descartes, The Doubter

A few weeks back I was having a discussion with my good friend Kavita  about Doubt and Belief. Any discussion about these subjects is incomplete without talking about Rene Descartes and his philosophy. In today’s VERITAS we will talk about Descartes and how his philosophy became the foundation of the modern Scientific method.
Most of the material for this VERITAS has been taken from Bertrand Russell’s ” The History of Western Philosophy” and E.T Bell’s “Men of Mathematics”.

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Descartes was born in 1596 in Indre-et-Loire in France. His father was a judge in a local court. He studied law after his schooling and earned a law degree in 1612. But he did not practice law. He wanted knowledge- real knowledge. He traveled around Europe and met people to gain knowledge from “the great book of the world”. But wherever he went, his friends followed him. So to secure a more complete quiet he joined the Dutch army in 1617. In the winter of 1619-1620 he was posted in Bavaria. It was on one of those cold winter days that he sat next to a stoveand thought about a philosophy that he would later describe in the “Discours de la Methode”. In 1622 he returned to France. He sold all his property in 1923 and invested it in bonds so that he could have a secure lifelong income. He went back to the Dutch republic in 1928 and spent the next twenty odd years there. These were the most productive years of his life in terms of his Philosophical and Mathematical work. In Amsterdam he had an affair with a servant girl, Helene Jans with whom he had a daughter in 1635. His daughter Francine died in 1640. In 1949 Queen
Christina of Sweden sent a warship to fetch him. She wanted him to be her personal teacher. All his life Descartes had been a late riser- he would never get out of bed before noon. But the queen insisted that her lessons should start at 5 AM. This early rising and the cold Scandinavian winter did not suite Descartes’ health.

  He died in 1650 of pneumonia in Sweden.

Now let’s talk about Descartes’ ideas. Descartes was a philosopher, a mathematician and a man of science.

In mathematics his greatest contribution was the invention of co-ordinate geometry. Many of us have studied this in our class 11 and 12th. For the others I will say this: coordinate geometry is the study of geometry using the algebraic description of shapes and figures. So instead of drawing a circle we can use the equation of a circle. There is, similarly ,the equation  of a line and an ellipse and sphere etc. It is a very powerful method and a great revolution in mathematics.

Now let’s talk about Descartes’ contribution to philosophy. In 1637 he published the “Discourse on Method”( also known as “Discours de la Methode”. In 1642 he published Meditations. These two books discuss his Philosophy which is based on doubt. Descartes refers to it as “Cartesian doubt”. Descartes believed that in order to have a firm basis of philosophy one should start with doubting everything. And then he would build on that.

His first step was to doubt sense perception. He knew that our senses sometimes tell us things that are not true. Now Descartes realized that if he doubts everything then there is no place to start his philosophy. So he decided that since he is thinking these thoughts and since he is doing the doubting therefore he must exist. So the foundations of his philosophy is “Dubito ergo, Cogito ergo, sum”. Which translates as ” I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”.

So Descartes doubted sense perception. But he believed in thought. So in his philosophy “Thinking” is real knowledge. Sense perception is unreliable. He put forward the wax argument. He touches a piece of wax- it has a certain shape, feel and colour. He then places it on fire- immediately the shape, feel and colour changes. His senses( eyes, touch etc) tell him that this new form of wax is different from the old form. But the mind tells him that it is the same wax. So the senses have been fooled but the mind perceives the real truth. The perception of wax is not “a vision or touch or imagination, but an inspection of the mind”.

The method of critical doubt is of great philosophical importance. In fact if applied in a healthy manner, it is the basis of the modern Scientific method. But of course, the doubting has to stop somewhere( or for sometime) for this method to be useful. In Science it stops at experimental verification. In Descartes’ original philosophy it stopped at “I think”.

And finally let’s end by some quotes from the doubter himself:

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

“It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”

Kanwar

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Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;
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