René Descartes, 1596-1650
Because Descartes is clearly one of the most celebrated intellects in the western intellectual tradition, you will find a great deal of information about him on the Internet. For biographical details, be sure to consult the relevant articles at the MacTutor, Clodius Piat's discussion in The Catholic Encyclopedia and a short piece at the ILTweb Study Place. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent and very thorough article about Descartes. The Galileo Project at Rice University also contains an important Descartes "fact sheet." And don't forget to read W. W. Rouse Ball's essay on Descartes from A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (4th ed., 1908). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes on essay on Descartes' epistemology and at Bryn Mawr you can find the essay, René Descartes and the Legacy of Mind/Body Dualism.
What follows is a brief extract from Descartes' Discourse on Method (1637). A select bibliography follows the selection.
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As a multitude of laws often furnishes excuses for vice, so that a state is much better governed when it has but few, and those few strictly observed, so in place of the great number of precepts of which logic is composed, I believed that I should find the following four sufficient, provided that I made a firm and constant resolve not once to omit to observe them.
The first was, never to accept anything as true when I did not recognize it clearly to be so, that is to say, to carefully avoid precipitation and prejudice, and to include in my opinions nothing beyond that which should present itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to doubt it.
The second was, to divide each of the difficulties which I should examine into as many parts as were possible, and as should be required for its better solution.
The third was, to conduct my thoughts in order, by beginning with the simplest objects, and those most easy to know, so as to mount little by little, as if by steps, to the most complex knowledge, and even assuming an order among those which do not naturally precede one another.
And the last was, to make everywhere enumerations so complete, and reviews so wide, that I should be sure of omitting nothing. . . .
I had long remarked that, in conduct, it is sometimes necessary to follow opinions known to be very uncertain, just as if they were indisputable, as has been said above; but then, because I desired to devote myself only to the research of truth, I thought it necessary to do exactly the contrary, and rejected as absolutely false all in which I could conceive the least doubt, in order to see if afterwards there did not remain in my believe something which was entirely indisputable. But, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wanted to suppose that nothing is such as they make us imagine it; and because some and err in reasoning . . . and judging that I was as liable to fail as any other, I rejected as false all the reasons which I had formerly accepted as [true]; . . . I resolved that everything which had ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I observed that while I thus desired everything to be false, I, who thought, must of necessity [exist]; and remarking that this truth, I think, therefore I am [cogito ergo sum], was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. . . .
After this, and reflecting upon the fact that I doubted, and that in consequence my being was not quite perfect (for I saw clearly that to know was a greater perfection than to doubt), I [wondered where] I had learned to think of something more perfect than I; and I knew for certain that it must be from some nature which was in reality more perfect. [And I clearly recognize that] this idea . . . had been put in me by a nature truly more perfect than I, which had in itself all perfections of which I could have any idea; that is, to explain myself in one word, God . . .
[Source: Rene Descartes, The Discourse on Method and Metaphysical Meditations, trans. G. B. Rawlings (London: Walter Scott, 1901), pp.32-35, 60-61.]
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