Rene Descartes’s Inventions, Early Life, Education and History
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who is widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy and the founder of analytic geometry. He is also known for his inventions such as the Cartesian coordinate system, the mechanical calculator, and the refracting telescope. He is famous for his philosophical statement “I think, therefore I am”, which expresses his method of doubt and his quest for certainty.
Early Life and Education
Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in La Haye en Touraine, France, which is now called Descartes. He was the third child of Joachim Descartes, a lawyer and councilor in the Parliament of Brittany, and Jeanne Brochard, who died when Rene was one year old. He had four siblings: Pierre, Jeanne, Anne, and Joachim.
Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Fleche from 1607 to 1614, where he studied classical languages, literature, logic, physics, theology, and mathematics. He was a brilliant student who excelled in all subjects, but he was also dissatisfied with the scholastic philosophy and the Aristotelian physics that were taught at the college. He felt that they were based on authority and tradition rather than reason and observation.
Descartes left the college in 1614 and enrolled at the University of Poitiers, where he obtained a law degree in 1616. He then traveled to various countries in Europe, such as the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and France, where he met various scholars, scientists, and philosophers. He also joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau in 1618 and participated in the Thirty Years’ War.
Inventions and Discoveries
Descartes was interested in mathematics and physics and made several inventions and discoveries in these fields. Some of his inventions and discoveries are:
- The Cartesian coordinate system: This is a system that uses two or more perpendicular axes to locate points in a plane or space by their distances from the axes. Descartes invented this system in 1637 in his book ‘La Geometrie’, which is considered as the first treatise on analytic geometry. The system is named after him because he used letters from the end of the alphabet (such as x, y, z) to denote unknown variables and letters from the beginning of the alphabet (such as a, b, c) to denote known constants.
- The mechanical calculator: This is a device that can perform arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division using gears, wheels, levers, and springs. Descartes designed a prototype of such a device in 1624 but never built it. He described his design in a letter to Marin Mersenne in 1635. His design was later improved by Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz.
- The refracting telescope: This is a type of telescope that uses lenses to bend light rays and magnify distant objects. Descartes invented a new design of such a telescope in 1630 that used two convex lenses instead of one convex and one concave lens as used by Galileo Galilei. He also proposed a method of grinding lenses to reduce spherical aberration. He described his invention in his book ‘Dioptrique’ in 1637.
Philosophy and Writings
Descartes was also a prolific writer who wrote several books and essays on philosophy, mathematics, physics, optics, meteorology, physiology, psychology, and metaphysics. Some of his most influential works are:
- ‘Discourse on the Method’: This is a philosophical essay that was published in 1637 along with three scientific essays: ‘La Geometrie’, ‘Dioptrique’, and ‘Les Meteores’. The essay outlines Descartes’s method of doubt and his search for clear and distinct ideas that can serve as the foundation of knowledge. The essay also contains Descartes’s famous statement “I think, therefore I am”, which expresses his discovery of his own existence as a thinking being.
- ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’: This is a philosophical treatise that was published in 1641 along with six sets of objections and replies from various scholars. The treatise consists of six meditations that explore various topics such as the nature of human knowledge, the existence of God, the distinction between mind and body, and the possibility of error and deception. The treatise also presents Descartes’s arguments for the dualism of mind and body, and the ontological proof of God’s existence.
- ‘Principles of Philosophy’: This is a philosophical textbook that was published in 1644 as a summary and systematization of Descartes’s previous works. The textbook consists of four parts that cover various aspects of philosophy, such as the principles of human knowledge, the principles of material things, the principles of the visible world, and the principles of the earth. The textbook also introduces Descartes’s laws of motion and his theory of vortices.
History and Legacy
Descartes lived a nomadic and solitary life, moving from one country to another to avoid religious persecution and political turmoil. He settled in the Netherlands in 1628, where he spent most of his productive years. He also visited Sweden in 1649 at the invitation of Queen Christina, who was interested in his philosophy. However, he died there on February 11, 1650, due to pneumonia.
Descartes is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of all time. He is credited with initiating the modern era of philosophy and science by challenging the authority and tradition of the medieval scholasticism and introducing a new method of rational inquiry based on doubt and evidence. He is also recognized as the founder of analytic geometry and the father of modern mathematics. His works have inspired and influenced many philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and writers, such as Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Rene Magritte, Albert Einstein, and Jean-Paul Sartre.