Term Paper: Descartes Rene Descartes: Historical and Philosophical Context

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Descartes

Rene Descartes: Historical and Philosophical Context

Rene Descartes is widely considered to be one of the founders of modern philosophy. But geniuses are not born out of thin air - rather they are products of the era that they are born into. With this in mind, this paper will examine Descartes's life and thought from the perspective of the historical context in which he lived as well as the philosophical context that gave rise to his unique method. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on how Descartes came to form some of his most important contributions to rational thought in our time.

Like a lot of philosophers both before him and after him, Descartes lived in relative isolation from the pressures of the external world - an isolation that was no doubt self-imposed. For this reason, history did not interfere with Descartes's life in a practical way - although his thinking and the presentation of his ideas were certainly influenced by major events of that era. This is especially true for the debates going on between religion and science during the first half of the seventeenth century - a debate that was difficult for a philosopher to avoid. As Descartes was to emerge as one of the leading figures of the mechanistic science of this era, it is important to note the philosopher's involvement with this struggle.

By the time Descartes reached adulthood, the scientific revolution was already going at full speed. Such noted scientists as Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and Nicolas Copernicus had posited a new scientific worldview that contradicted Biblical accounts of the origins of the universe, which had never before been contradicted in the history of Western civilization. Their thinking gave us a new conception of our place in the universe. The Church reacted angrily to these developments. They banned a lot of the ideas of these scientists from being published; where they were published, these ideas were only to be offered up as theories, rather than facts.

In the year 1633, this conflict would reach new heights. It was during this time that the Church formally condemned Galileo and arrested him for asserting that his findings on cosmology were the truth, rather than a fiction. This happened around the same time that Descartes had finished his major cosmological work, the World. In this work, he embarked upon a project similar to Galileo's in which he attempted to assert that the heliocentric system was in fact the truth, rather than mere theoretical speculation.

After news reached Descartes of Galileo's harsh treatment by the Church, Descartes decided not to publish the World, for fear of receiving similar punishment. For this reason, the World was not published until after the death of the philosopher.

It is likely that Descartes suppressed the work for other reasons, as well. Descartes was a deeply religious man. Thus, he did not merely fear for his own well being in the wake of Galileo's punishment - he also respected the Church, and wanted it to be sympathetic to his work. Approval by the religious establishment was quite important to Descartes for moral reasons. He was certainly not a radical, but someone who wishes to unite Christian theology with rational thought.

Nevertheless, the Galileo incident would remain in the shadows of Descartes's activity for the rest of his life, as his work attests. For the rest of his working life, Descartes would tread very lightly when it came to scientific thought, so as not to offend anyone. Even when he included his cosmological theories in his Principles, he would modify it considerably from the original, so that the earth would remain static. What is more, Descartes would go to the trouble of adding lengthy caveats to each of his philosophical works in order to deny that anything he had asserted could contradict the word of God. At the same time, Descartes wrote, God could confirm all of the arguments he was making. In this respect, God became an integral part of Descartes's philosophy (Baird and Kaufmann 1997).

While Descartes's scientific achievements in the seventeenth century were not unique, he was the first figure to come forth with an ambitious, comprehensive philosophical response to the new ways of viewing the world that such figures as Galileo and Copernicus had developed. Thanks to Descartes, philosophy underwent a major, radical change.

In the preface… [END OF PREVIEW]

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