PHILOSOPHY – René Descartes


René Descartes was a French 17th century philosopher, famous above all for saying ‘I think therefore I am’, but worthy of our attention for many reasons beyond this. What makes him stand out is that he was a fierce rationalist. In an age when many philosophers still backed up their arguments with appeals to God, Descartes trusted in nothing more than the human power of logic. This is how he defiantly kicked off his book ‘Rules for the Direction of the Mind’: ‘I shall bring to light the true riches of our souls, opening up to each of us the means whereby we confined within ourselves, without any help from anyone else, all the knowledge that we may need for the conduct of life.’ Descartes had immense faith in what introspection guided by definition, sound argument, and clarity of thought could achieve. He believed that much of what was wrong with the world was caused by misusing our minds by confusion, bad definition, and unconscious illogicality. His life was an attempt to make our minds better equipped for the task of thinking. To solve key questions, Descartes proposed that one always had to divide large problems into small, understandable sections by way of incisive questions. This is what he called his ‘method of doubts’. We get muddled by certain questions like ‘what’s the meaning of life’, or ‘what is love?’, because we’re not careful enough about how we break these big inquiries down. He described the method of doubts as akin to having a large barrel of apples where good ones are mixed with bad ones. To be a philosopher means a commitment to sorting out the entire barrel to inspecting each apple Individually and throwing away all the bad ones to ensure only those of the best quality are left. Another way to think about Descartes, and this explains why he would among other things, turn out to be such a hero to the leaders of the French revolution, is that he believed in grounding all of our ideas in individual experience and reason, rather than authority and tradition. In his greatest book ‘Discourse on the Method’ published in 1637, he explained how he had come to write it: ‘A long time ago, I entirely abandoned the study of letters resolving to seek no knowledge, other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent my youth traveling visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks gathering various experiences, testing myself in situations which fortune afforded me, and at all times reflecting personally upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it.’ Descartes spent a large part of his adult life away from his native France in the Dutch Republic, since he held the belief, not entirely unwisely, that the mercantile Dutch would, as a people, be far too concerned with earning money to pester a free-thinking man like himself. However it turned out that the Dutch were a little less materialistic than he’d hoped, and the philosopher ended up moving 24 times to keep ahead of spies and government agents. Descartes’ subjective approach to philosophy reached its climax when he arrived at the famous phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ —’I think therefore I am’. The phrase first appeared in French—’Je pense donc je suis’—in the Discourse on the Method before then appearing in Latin in the Principles of Philosophy of 1644. It was intended to be Descartes’ ultimate answer to a question that philosophers sometimes get perhaps unreasonably interested in, namely ‘How can one know that anything including oneself, actually exists rather than being some sort of dream or phantasm?’ On his quest was certainty around this question of whether it might all be a dream Descartes began by observing that our human senses are deeply unreliable. He couldn’t, for example, he said, be trusted to know whether he was actually sitting in a room in his dressing gown next to a fire, or merely dreaming of such a thing. But there was one thing he could know for sure: he could trust that he was actually thinking. His existence could be proved by a neat tautological trick. He could not be thinking and wondering if he existed if he did not exist, therefore his thinking was a very basic proof of his being or to return to the maxim ‘I think therefore I am’. This might not sound like a huge insight, but Descartes used it as an Archimedean point in an epistemologically unsteady world. With this certainty safely banked, Descartes argued that his mind could go to discover other similarly irrefutable truths. Some of the charm of Descartes’ work comes through his entwining of personal details, along with more arid philosophical passages. He tells us, for example, that his revolutionary idea came to him during the winter of 1619, when he’d escaped the fierce cold of the low countries by hopping into a stove and spending the whole day meditating inside. Descartes epitomizes the solitary end of philosophy. One can, in his eyes, solve the most profound problems by searching deep within oneself. Teams of individuals, or ideas passed through the generations as they are in universities are deeply suspect for Descartes. Philosophers don’t need gangs of scientists using expensive equipment, unheard-of terminology and huge datasets. They just need a quiet room and a rational mind. At another point, Descartes recounts that he mocked friends of his who once showed up at his home at 11 in the morning and was surprised to find him still in bed. ‘What are you doing?’ they inquired skeptically. ‘Thinking,’ Descartes replied. The group was stunned, but Descartes criticized them in turn for privileging often nonsensical practical tasks over the beauty of pure quiet reflection in bed. In 1649, Descartes finished another great work: ‘Passions of the Soul’. It was the outcome of six years of correspondence with a royal acquaintance, the Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who was a keen amateur philosopher, and a rather emotional and turbulent soul. She had written to Descartes begging him to write about passions in order that she might get to know and control her own more clearly. Descartes obliged. Thinking that the ancient philosophers had done a poor job of analyzing the passions and that ordinary and not-so-ordinary people would benefit immensely from another look at the topic, he therefore opened the Passions of the Soul with a characteristic claim: ‘I shall be obliged to write just as if I were considering a topic that no one had dealt with before me.’ The word provides a beautiful taxonomy of pretty much any passion one might feel, as well as descriptions of their causes, effects, and functions. This is followed by another section called ‘The Discipline of Virtue’, a manual of advice on how we can control our passions and enjoy a virtuous life. Descartes identified six fundamental passions: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. From these they’re followed in his eyes an unlimited number of specific passions; combinations of the original ones. Descartes didn’t believe in vanquishing passions as the ancient stoic philosophers had proposed, merely in learning how to identify them in oneself and understand their impact on one’s behavior. He would have been very sympathetic to psychotherapy. He believed that a key task of being a philosopher was to help people understand and therefore control their passions; that is, become a little less anxious, status-driven, scared, or inclined to fall head over heels in love with inappropriate people. He was optimistic about how much progress we could make psychologically. Even those who have the weakest souls can acquire absolute mastery over their passions if they work hard enough at training and guiding them. Descartes’ psychological and philosophical work attracted ever more powerful admirers. In 1646, Queen Christina of Sweden got interested in sorting out issues in her mind and began a correspondence with Descartes. She even persuaded the philosopher to move to Sweden to tutor her in passion and philosophy in 1649. However, the early working hour was required. the queen could only make time for lessons at 5:00 a.m., and the harsh cold soon made Descartes ill. He died of pneumonia in 1650 at the age of 53. To remember Descartes by ‘I think therefore I am’ is perhaps not as shallow as one might initially have presumed. The sentence does truly capture something important about him and the task of philosophy in general. It signals a commitment to working through emotional confusion, prejudice, and unhelpful tradition, in order to arrive at an independent rationally founded vision of existence.


100 Responses

  1. Dragos Savic

    March 30, 2019 11:50 am

    Find yourself someone who believes in you as much as Descartes believed in his proof of God's existence.

  2. nemo

    May 3, 2019 10:28 am

    I have discovered the missing words to the great seventeenth century French scientist , mathematician and philosopher's maxim " I think therefore I am…." . After it's inspection by the world's most outstanding handwriting and writing paper experts , librarians , scientists , and numerous radio carbon dating which conclude the date to the very second , the full Descartes epiphanous adage is " I think therefore I am confused and have a headache " !

  3. Bilal Mohammed

    May 12, 2019 7:55 pm

    Descartes as a westren philosopher and al-Ghazali as an eastern philosopher— both their method of philosophy is the same. They pinpoint their journey towards seeking the truth beyond things prior they go seeking things before truth. The pinpoint can be translated as "faith", and "seeking" can be understood as skepticism. It is of rationality— when you are intending of getting into a free space world like philosophy— to have your starting point identified or fixed in, so whatever, when you are being lost in a sea of limitlessness that you have drawn yourself an approach on which you can trace back to return, or at least if really lost in a desert of philosophical limitlessness one could really observe how much miles you passed from your starting point, and if you are not lost and could have the recognition that you have to return to whereas you had your first go you would be aware that the time you went off travelling from your pinpoint is not the same time you are returning to the same pinpoint, and you would feel your returning way looking different this time as many things you could recognise your first way as many things you recognise your second way, but you cannot tell the exact difference seperately from one side each. So out of both the ways: one is foreward way and one is backward way, which each one of them cannot recognise the other, hence new knowledge that is neutral to both ways would be recognised. A fresh ideas then would come along life's old ones.

  4. Jonathan O

    May 19, 2019 8:33 am

    If the world is a dream it still exists as much as reality but we only know if anything exists if we can observe it. It doesn't matter if you think or not, anything you observe exists as information at least. It is human nature to think about anything we observe

  5. David Kugel

    May 20, 2019 11:14 pm

    Descartes is a very important person. He is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. He is also regarded as the father of modern mathematics. That is amazing. As a math teacher, I used his coordinate plane every day.

  6. Eric Lager

    June 4, 2019 3:55 pm

    Question: If Eve offered the 🍎 of knowledge to Adam and he said "I think not." Would he be denying his existence to both Good and Eve? Is there freewill?

  7. Eric Lager

    June 4, 2019 4:03 pm

    I do reply as a mathematician, philosopher, and historian. I do accept Rene's anatomical idea of hydraulic idea of the movement of the muscles was wrong but it was Ingenious!

  8. Mark M.

    June 6, 2019 6:04 pm

    Theist philosopher Descartes had a dream that he was visited by an angel who told him the the secrets of the world can be found in numbers and measurements. Not the type of information they share at MIT.

  9. S P

    June 9, 2019 11:29 am

    So his thought came from a dream, something beyond thought. Who's to say then that it is real? If you study psychology post-Descartes, there is a thing called the subconscious from where vision arise while the rational mind slumbers. He exists perhaps because he dreamed himself up.

  10. Distractd

    June 15, 2019 2:25 pm

    You are providing information in such an entertaining manner but the pace of visuals is actually hard for to keep up.

  11. Bill Bright

    June 29, 2019 8:09 pm

    Sounds logical enough. Life is pretty much what you make of it.
    One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch girl, give it one more chance, before you give up on love.

  12. K. Theodos

    July 3, 2019 5:55 pm

    A hero to the leaders of the French Revolution? Which leaders? The maniacs that went around beheading thousands and tried to make their own calendar ?

  13. mahero nicholas

    July 18, 2019 2:40 pm

    not to take away from the content but i could listen to this narrator speak all day.

  14. Creepy Old Man

    July 19, 2019 4:46 pm

    The only reason I even know who this guy is because of the “Give her the dick” meme lol

  15. susannahXD

    August 3, 2019 9:44 pm

    Funny that Descartes thinks the same thing as Alain de Botton. Aka: a book detailing emotions ("passions") and breaking them down would be useful (they sell something like this on The School of Life website) and we can learn more about ourselves through self-reflection, and 'the historical equivalent of psychotherapy'
    These short films all point towards The School of Life's founding arguments and philosophies. Interesting, really helpful and educational and well-intentioned they are, objective and neutral they are not. But then, I guess, what is.

  16. Siberius Wolf

    August 8, 2019 5:05 am

    00:16 – Except when it comes to Libertarian Free Will. Sadly.

    I haven't delved into his position too deeply, but it seems to essentially be, that he thinks there is free will, but also says god knows everything that will happen and put it all in motion. It's all preordained.

    So as far as reconciling this issue (since he still wants the "free will")… he says that it's just beyond our comprehension, god is all powerful and can pull it off. Because either way, it's just "self evident" as far as our personal experience, that we have Libertarian Free Will.

    Damn that is lazy. "The human power of logic" went out the closest window on that one.

  17. Milan Dilan

    August 8, 2019 9:43 am

    Read Ťhe Pŕesent åt the wėbsitė of the globaltruthproject and discover all the answers of the big questions about life.

  18. Michael Evans

    September 20, 2019 6:24 pm

    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle
    And Hobbes was fond of his dram,
    Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
    “I drink therefore I am”.

    Monty Python, Bruces’ Philosophers Song.

  19. Julian Waddell

    October 7, 2019 4:58 pm

    you show many other rationalists, such as leibniz, as ‘relying on God’ rather than logic. You fail to mention that they too are rationalists, and that descartes only thought the senses are trustworthy because of Gods goodness, rather than pure logic

  20. Jacob Lanier

    October 10, 2019 4:55 am

    With NO mention of geometry, the scientific revolution and death of Aristotelian physics, and his “proving” of Gods existence we are only left with a video that turns Descartes major works away from epistemology and into existential psychology. This video leaves out the most important parts of Descartes influence.

  21. Cather Kamala

    October 16, 2019 4:58 am

    Descartes wrote in his book Passions of the soul that love is simply attraction towards a person who makes our 1/2 complete, that we believe that we’re a defect of our own, and we long for someone who can complete us. Make us whole, or have all the goods the world could possibly give.

  22. Aaklit Taneja

    October 21, 2019 5:59 pm

    Talking about Descartes without having an emphasis on his meditations is a vain exercise in understanding him. PArticularly his third meditation and the concept of God as an innate idea.

  23. Feminism Destroys Men

    October 24, 2019 2:22 pm

    Descartes believed in religion based on his basic assumptions also. Let's not act like he was different than any other organized-religion pusher.

  24. Robert Parker

    November 2, 2019 5:12 am

    I've said it before and I'll say it again.. I think there for.. I know I'll die… Fear of death is why every thing goes wrong for all people all of the's the root of all things that we know including.. evil.. money.. ect… when the thoughts of death get to me in my deepest worries… of what I am… what we are .. and what does any of it even matter … I watch this video and it just doesn't bother me for atleast half a day….

  25. Ramaraksha

    November 3, 2019 12:57 am

    Thanks to advances we now know that the reverse is true as well – "I do, therefore I think"
    Studies have shown that if we force ourselves to laugh, we feel better
    And of course anyone who has gone thru a workout knows that they feel great afterwards

  26. Johannes Bekker

    November 16, 2019 11:42 am

    Rene Decarte was a dunce ; he said man is a ignoramus coz he couldn't go beyond the physical reality like Rudolf Steiner. "We'll never know" He was so wrong.

  27. John Donwood

    November 26, 2019 4:54 am

    Descartes didn't directly dismiss God from his philosophy, he tried to philosophically reconnect to God.

  28. 2000jago

    November 29, 2019 11:07 am

    The animations that go along with your video's are so distracting I have to minimize the video so I can focus on what you're actually saying.


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