René Descartes, The Man Who Doubted His Own Existence

Rene Descartes

René Descartes, better known as the father of the modern philosophy, is a pioneer figure of the continental rationalism. Many of the subsequent philosophical waves are, more or less, in response to his philosophy. His were the days of relative stagnation in the realm of philosophy, as the late medieval period was predominated by the Church, and influenced sharply by Aristotle.

René Descartes was born in 1596 and his insatiable thirst for knowledge made him set off for a number of different European countries in quest of wisdom. Even during his infancy, he evinced inquisitive hankering for achieving insight into the nature of man, and of universe.  However, as he delved into the depths of philosophy, developing vast and versatile erudition, he became increasingly doubtful about his own ignorance, exactly like Socrates.

His biographical accounts suggest that being very sensitively susceptible, he had got poor health, therefore, he was granted permission to stay in bed till 11 o’clock, a practice he maintained all through his life.

As antiquity had its great system-builders in Plato, and Aristotle, and the Middle Ages in the persona of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance found its system-constructor in Descartes. A philosophical system is one which is built up from the ground up, and pertains to ferreting out explanations to the very fundamental questions. The years following the Renaissance brought up anew the welter of new and old ideas concerning God, man and the nature of the universe, raising scores of questions previously unsettled.

The first of the major tasks confronting Descartes was epistemological one of establishing what might be the “Certain Knowledge” to be a stepping stone in pursuit of the ultimate truth. True and perfect knowledge, he believed, was attainable only through reason. It should not be taken for granted that all that we read in books is true. Even we must not let us fall for what our senses might lead us to believe. Only the reason can steer us toward the ocean of undiscovered true knowledge. Later, Descartes dismissed the formal learning as fragile, providing little of substance.

Cartesian Doubt

The chief question with which he remained preoccupied was: “what we can know” or in other words, certain knowledge.  Only that which we are able to perceive distinctly beyond any doubt can be embraced as true, a process often referred to as Cartesian doubt or methodological scepticism, or hyperbolic doubt. He laid down the following principles to that effect:

  1. Never be duped into believing unless convinced of it distinctly and clearly.
  2. Break down a compound problem into as many single factors as possible.
  3. Order your thoughts from simple to complex; our point of departure must be the simplest of the part of the problem until by disentangling ins and outs of every single point we get to the complex one.

Descartes stressed that philosophy must go from simple to complex, and only then would it be possible to construct a tangible insight. He went a step ahead to believe that he could doubt even something as manifestly fundamental as whether he had a body. He insisted on doubting everything. Descartes ended up doubting even his very existence. But then, something dawned on him; that had to be true, and that was he doubted. For him to doubt, he had to think a thought. Now that he was entertaining colossal of thoughts, he was a thinking being.  Putting in his own words, “Cogito, ergo, sum” (I think, therefore I am.)

He followed this up with a simple thought experiment. He fancied a demon whose sole end was to lead him astray, and asked himself whether there was anything about which the demon would not be able to deceive him. With it, he carried this experiment to the conclusion that it was his act of thinking that demon would never be able to mislead him that he was thinking when he was not.

Cartesian Dualism

Having dispelled all the doubts, and dismantled the corpus of old ideas, he set out on reconstituting the world, and a philosophical construct worked up on scientific and concrete lines. Now that he cleared all the rubble off the site, he ventured into picking up the gauntlet of mind-body relationship. Like Plato, he firmly believed in the sharp division between the matter and the spirit. He viewed the reality as having two distinct forms/substances being thought or mind, and extension or matter. The mind is inherently conscious, and takes up no room in space. Matter, on the other hand, is intrinsically extension, having the property to occupy room in space, and to be subdivided into smaller and smaller parts. However, it lacks consciousness. Both of these two substances exist independent of each other. In other words, Descartes was out and out a dualist. As regard the animals, he perceived them to be mechanically complex automaton. They belonged to the extended reality, lacking in mind.

Concerning the human beings, they, he observed, were dual creatures possessed of the properties of thinking and taking up room in space. It is noteworthy that Plato, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, more or less, held similar views. Moreover, Descartes could not rule out the constant interplay between mind and body. Thereupon, mind is hugely affected by feelings and passions issuing forth from bodily needs. For him, it is body that ages; mind is essentially thought. Baser passions such as desire and hate are precisely linked to body.

René Descartes was a mathematician as well. He is termed the father of analytical geometry, and made some significant contributions to the science of algebra, and this very reason prompted him to resort to mathematical techniques even for philosophizing. His whole scheme of philosophical construct centred on reason, for reason alone tends to offer certainty.

Idea of God

Descartes did not dispense with the traditional notion of God, viewing that since the idea of a perfect majestic entity could not originate from one who was himself imperfect, idea of a perfect entity, that is God, must spring up from that entity itself. Thus, for him, the belief in the existence of a perfect God was as unshakeable and self-evident as his certainty of thinking a thought being distinctly true. Furthermore, the idea of God is innate, stamped on us from birth ‘like the artisan’s mark stamped on its product.’ Then, he went on to draw upon the intuitive feeling of the perfect entity. He maintained that since we had an overwhelming impression of a corporeal world around us, an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omni-benevolent God would ensure that such a world did in fact exist.

In 1649, Queen Christina invited him to Sweden which he termed ‘the land of bears, ice, and rocks’. His health deteriorated precipitously during his short sojourn there, bringing on an attack of pneumonia. Ultimately, the great genius passed away in the winter of 1650. Sweden was a protestant country while Descartes was a Catholic. He was buried in a graveyard primarily for unbaptized babies. However, later on, his remains were transported to the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris.

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