Modern philosophy emerged out of ancient philosophy, beginning in the 17th century, with the French philosopher Rene Descartes. He differed from the classical thinkers, on two key issues. First, he rejected the splitting of corporeal substance into matter and form. Second, he rejected any appeal to final ends, whether natural or supernatural, in explaining everyday phenomena. In this way, Descartes became one of the most notable intellectual representatives of the Dutch Golden Age. He is also the father of analytical geometry, along with the Cartesian coordinate system that allowed number lines and graphs to be drawn for the first time. This makes him just as important to science as philosophy. Descartes’ mathematical contributions, alone, would be enough to make him a noteworthy historical figure and influential scholar, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Rene Descartes had a number of great accomplishments in his life.
For instance, using his rather linguistic-based approach to philosophy, Descartes was able to make very important distinctions between different concepts. Think of it like this. To know what the meaning of life is, one must first understand what meaning is, as well as life. Only in clearly defining the terms “meaning” and “life”, can one understand the phrase “the meaning of life”. As another example, Descartes was able to show the subtle, yet highly significant, difference between certainty and truth. The former is that which must be so, while the latter is that which is. What I’m getting at is that, this allowed Rene to hone his razor sharp intellect. In line with this, he believed in the supremacy of logical reason over traditional authority. This is best explained in his monumental manuscript, Discourse on the Method, which was published in 1637.
He felt that it was possible to infer a valid understanding of everything, with nothing more than the mind itself. Descartes was the first person in history to use introspection and definition, the way he did. He wanted to make his mind better equipped to think properly, so he devised a number of time-honored techniques. For instance, he proposed that all one needs to do to solve a large problem is to break it up into much smaller, more manageable, problems. This meticulous sectioning of questioning is what he called the “method of doubts”. Essentially, the tactic required him to thoroughly re-examine everything he thought he knew, to find out what it is, if anything, that he actually understood. Think about it. How do you know what something is? Have you ever thought you saw someone, or something, that you really didn’t? Better yet, do you always know that you are dreaming, during your dreams? For that matter, can you prove that you’re not in a highly advanced simulator right now?
Given that there is no way to tell when you are properly perceiving something, and when you are not, there is no way of knowing what’s real. Having realized this, Descartes wondered if there is anything that he could know for sure. He even got to the point that he wondered how he could be certain of anything anymore. Rene Descartes understood that there are things which are false, but which he used to believe to be true. So, it stood to reason that there are probably things that he still thought to be true, but which were actually false. That’s how, and why, he developed Cartesian skepticism by becoming a radical skeptic. That is to say, one who questions whether or not anything at all can be known for certain. He began by rejecting everything. Then, he set about critiquing each and every one of his personal beliefs, one by one. In the process, he only accepted the ideas about which there could be no doubt. In this way, he realized that he could know that he was only believing things that are true. This is how he arrived at his famous foundational belief, “I think, therefore I am”.
No matter what, Descartes simply couldn’t doubt the fact that he was a thing that can doubt. In other words, the only thing that he could be certain of was his own mental state. This is where the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” came from. The only thing Descartes really knew is that he could know. This important insight also proved the existence of the soul to him, because Rene could never know if his body were simply imaginary, but his soul couldn’t be. Ultimately, the fact that he could have experiences was the only thing that he could not dismiss, as mere hallucination or delusion. This simple, yet highly effective, tautological trick gave him the indubitable proposition, “I think, therefore I am”, which then served as a framework upon which all other knowledge could be built.
As I said, Descartes not only believed that logic was the function of a healthy soul, he also understood that the mind is something more than just what the brain does. Rene Descartes was a substance dualist, which is to say that he believed that the mortal body and immortal soul are made up of two different types of things. He attributed ontological status to both, which separates Cartesian dualists from monists, who only believe in physical particles. Their reductionistic materialist interpretation of the world assumes that psychological characteristics are all just byproducts of the interaction of objects. In sharp contrast to this, Descartes was convinced of the fundamental nature of immortal souls. Of course, the concept of physical bodies that are inhabited by metaphysical souls leads to the nagging question of how these separate things interact with one another. This is known among philosophers as the interaction problem.
Obviously, Rene Descartes didn’t have it all figured out. His rational argument for the existence of the soul may be valid, but his argument for God isn’t. His work is hotly debated. As part of that legacy, he wrote a number of prominent texts, such as Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641, as well as Principles of Philosophy, in 1644. Plus, he was an epistemologist, a theist, a mathematician, a psychologist, a skeptic and so much more. This can make him rather difficult to study, but well worth it. After all, modern philosophy really began with the advent of Cartesian skepticism, so everyone ought to be familiar with Descartes’ work anyhow. More importantly, just as he had intended, everyone should make use of contemplation, introspection and reflection to better understand who they are, as well as how to be a better person. Ultimately, he wanted people to analyze their experiences, to better understand how their personal beliefs shape who they are. Simply put, by questioning and re-questioning your thoughts and feelings, the “method of doubts” will help you find truth. In turn, this will provide you with greater meaning and purpose, all thanks to the first modern philosopher.