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Descartes, René

1. Dates
Born: La Haye, Touraine, 31 March 1596
Died: Stockholm, 11 February 1650
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 54
2. Father
Occupation: Aristocrat
His father was a counsellor of the Parlement of Britainy-- noblesse de la robe. Descartes was also the grandson and great grandson of physicians--on his mother's side, I believe.
It is clear that he grew up in wealthy surroundings.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French, Dutch, Swedish
Death: Swedish
4. Education
Schooling: Poitiers, Franeker, Leiden
Descartes entered the Jesuit college of La Fleche in 1606, two years after its foundation, and was there until 1614.
He spent the following two years in Paris, mostly devoting himself to mathematics.
He studied law in Poitiers in 1616. Crombie (DSB) says that he graduated in law from Poitiers. This is the only reference to a degree that I can remember seeing, and I am wholly inclined to doubt it.
In 1617 he set out for the Netherlands and the Dutch army. He wandered through Europe (at least he saw Germany and Italy, in addition to France) during the following eleven years before he settled in the Netherlands in 1628.
He matriculated in Franeker in 1629. He matriculated in Leyden in 1630. There is no mention of a degree at either university. As an aristocrat who was never concerned with earning a living, a degree was without relevance to him.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Optics
Subordinate: Mechanics, Physiology, Music
There can be no debate about mathematics and natural philosophy in my view. There can also be no debate that he devoted serious attention to the other four disciplines. Again in my view optics and mechanics have to be included among his major disciplines, and I think that he clearly devoted more attention to optics.
The problem arises from the fact that Descartes also devoted serious attention to medicine, anatomy, embryology, and meteorology. As the grandson and great grandson of physicians, he was always attracted by the art of curing and frequently expressed his desire to contribute to it--but I think through his natural philosophy. He devoted extensive time to dissections of all sorts of animals, but since no anatomical discoveries that I know of emerged, I am willing to categorize this under physiology. His treatise on embryology seems to me to fit readily under natural philosophy, for it was essentially an exercise in his mechanical philosophy. I'll say the same for his treatise on meteorology. Perhaps I should expand the space in the dBase file in order to be able to list more disciplines; however, Descartes is the first serious problem (found when I am about eighty percent done) presented by too little space. (I now know of other cases, but I do not think the problem is serious enough to warrant the considerable labor to effect this change.)
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
After La Fleche Descartes spent fifteen years wandering, first in France and then over much of Europe. He was a volunteer who received no pay in the army of the Prince of Orange. Descartes himself spoke of nine years of leisure-- 1919-26; I am not aware of what distinction he saw between them and the previous six. The point is that through this period he was never in need of gainful amployment.
Sometime during this period he inherited one-third of his mother's property, which he sold for about 27,000 livres. This produced enough income for him to live on. He had a pension from his father during the years of wandering, and later he inherited more extensive property from his father. At one point he considered buying a governmental position that would have cost about 50,000 livres (and would then have produced corresponding income), but he decided not to.
In 1628 Descartes left France for the Netherlands in order to isolate himself. It is clear that he lived quite comfortably; he did not aspire to live extravagantly. He himself asserted that he had received enough property from his family that he was free to choose where and how he would live. And he did.
Note that in 1633 he withdrew Le monde from publication lest it compromise his freedom and leisure. The decision makes it clear that he felt no need to establish a name for himself.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Aristrocrat, Court Official, Government Official
Perhaps one should list here Descartes' meeting with Cardinal Bérulle in 1628. Certainly he received the strongest sort of moral support from the Cardinal, who pressed upon Descartes very strongly his obligations to employ his talents, urging that God would hold him responsible for what he made of them. There was no overt material support, but this encounter has all of the trappings of patronage.
In the controversy with Voet in the early 1640's, when there seemed the chance of measures against him on religious grounds, Descarts called upon the protection of Huygens and through him (and through the French ambassador) the protection of the Prince of Orange--both of which he received.
When Bourdin, a Jesuit, attacked him, Descartes appealed to the highest authority among French Jesuits, P. Dinet, who silenced Bourdin. Dinet went on to become the confessor to Louis XIII, and he remained Descartes' protector.
By the mid 40's, Descartes was beginning to be concerned with publication and recognition of his philosophy. He dedicated the Principles to Princess Elizabeth. The whole relation with the Princess is surely revealing of the patronage system. She had no monetary rewards to give, just the prestige of a royal name.
About 1647 Mazarin arranged a pension for Descartes--which he never received, though he might have had he decided to move back to France.
In 1648, Montmor offered Descartes a country house near Paris with a revenue of 3-4,000 livres. Descartes thought this would make him Montmor's domestic and he refused. Gassendi (who did not have a personal fortune) later accepted a similar offer from Montmor without hesitation.
Chanut, the French ambassador to Sweden, was instrumental in arranging the offer from Queen Christina of Sweden, who brought Descartes there in 1649. She planned to naturalize him and to incorporate him into the Swedish aristocracy with an estate on conquered German lands.
Descartes himself, hardly at the bottom of the social hierarchy, was a patron to Ferrier, Gillot, Rembrantsz, and Waessenaer, to name the most prominent.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Medical Practice
With Ferrier and others Descartes was involved in trying to perfect optical instruments. He designed a machine that would grind non-spherical (i.e., hyperbolic) lenses.
His correspondence is full of references to his medical interests and his conviction that an effective matural philosophy would extend life.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
In Paris, he was in the circle of Mersenne, Mydorge, Morin, Hardy, Desargues, Villebressieu. Later the Abbé Picot should be added to this list.
In the Netherlands there was first Beeckman and then a network of followers that included Reneri, Regius, Constantijn Huygens, Herreboord, Heydanus, Golius, Schooten, Aemelius.
He established close relations with the artisan Ferrier, the cobbler Dirck Rembrantsz, his own domestic Gillot, the surveyor Waessenaer, and Gutschooven.
He carried on a mathematical controversy with Fermat.
  1. G. Cohen, Écrivains français en Holland dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle, (La Haye, 1921).
  2. A Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, (Paris, 1691).
  3. J.R. Vrooman, René Descartes: a Biography, (New York, 1970).
  4. C. Adam, Vie et oeuvres de Descartes, vol. 12 of the Oeuvres, (Paris, 1910).
  5. Descartes, Corresponance, ed. C. Adam and G. Milhaud, 8 vols. (Paris, 1931-63).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. John Cottingham, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, (Cambridge, 1992).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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