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René Descartes (1596–1650)

24 September, 2015 - 16:32

It is important to keep in mind that Descartes’s strictly philosophical works are but a tiny portion of his overall output. DesmondClarke’s insistence that Descartes was a ‘practicing scientist who, somewhat unfortunately, wrote a few short and relatively unimportantphilosophical essays’ is a useful corrective, although it’s not quite true.

One of Descartes’s earliest works (1629-33) is The World (also known as the Treatise on Light). Descartes decided not to publishit in light of Galileo’s run-in with the church over the Copernican hypothesis. In 1637, Descartes published the Discourse on Method, which includes a summary of parts of this early work.

Descartes published the Meditations in Latin in 1641; a French translation soon followed. Some of Descartes’s friends circulatedthe manuscript and collected objections to the work, to which Descartes replied.

In 1644, Descartes published his Principles of Philosophy, a work he hoped would replace the standard scholastic textbooksthen in use. Our selection sets out the basic categories of his metaphysics and should be read alongside the Meditations.

(Textual note: the standard translation is The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, edited by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff,and D. Murdoch (‘CSM’). The original texts are Ouevres de Descartes, edited by P. Adam and C. Tannery (‘AT’). If you arewriting a paper on Descartes, you will want to consult the CSM, which is on reserve at Newman. Other editions—those of RogerAriew, or Haldane and Ross—can be used as well. Many of Descartes’s works are available on the web.)

We begin with an excerpt from the Discourse on Method, in which Descartes summarizes some of his conclusions in The World. This introduces Descartes’s mechanical conception of nature, a conception that extends to animals, human and otherwise.

This is followed by selections from the Principles, the Meditations, and the Objections and Replies.

In these selections, it is important to keep in mind Descartes’s overall project: sweeping away the Aristotelian world of forms andanimal and vegetative souls and replacing it with a world of machines.