Front Page Titles (by Subject) SPECIAL INTRODUCTION - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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SPECIAL INTRODUCTION - Réné Descartes, The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes 
The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, translated from the Original Texts, with a new introductory Essay, Historical and Critical by John Veitch and a Special Introduction by Frank Sewall (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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Tothe Frenchman, René Descartes, modern learning is indebted for some of the most potent factors in its advancement. These are: in Mathematics, the invention of the Binomial Theorem and the application of Algebra to Geometry in the Analytical Geometry; in Physics, the suggestion of the evolution of the universe through Vortices and the discovery of the laws of the Refraction of Light; in Physiology, the doctrine of the Animal Spirits and the theory of the Mechanism of the soul's operation in the body; in Philosophy, the finding of the ultimate reality in subjective consciousness and the deducting thence of an argument for, if not a proof of, the Existence of God; in Epistemology, the grounding of scientific Law on the existence of a true God; in Ethics, the tracing of evil to the necessary error arising from judgments based on finite and therefore imperfect knowledge.
Whatever significance we attach to the alleged flaw in the argument in proof of God's existence drawn by Descartes from our mind's necessary conception of a perfect being, which conception in turn necessarily implies the existence of its object, the fact remains that in this ultimate unity of the soul's apperception whereby the many are brought into relation to a single all-embracing, all-regulating Whole lies the possibility of a science of the universe, and that in uniting the subjective certainty of consciousness with the clear precision of mathematical reasoning Descartes gave a new and vital impetus to human learning in both its physical and metaphysical endeavors.
René Descartes (Lat. Renatus Cartesius) was born in La Haye, Touraine, France, on the 31st of March, 1596. His parents were well to do, of the official class, and his father was the owner of considerable estates. His mother dying soon after his birth, he was given in charge of a faithful nurse, whose care for him, a child so frail that his life was nearly despaired of, was afterward gratefully rewarded. His father intrusted his education to the Jesuits and at the age of eight years he was sent to the college at La Flêche in Anjou, where he remained eight years. It was then, in his seventeenth year, that we read of his becoming dissatisfied with the hollow and formal learning of the Church schools and demanding a free and deeper range for his mental faculties. One study, favored of the Jesuits, mathematics, so deeply interested him that on leaving the college and going to Paris to taste the pleasures of a life in the world, he became in a year's time wearied of its dissipations and suddenly withdrew himself into almost cloistral retirement, in a little house at St. Germain, to give himself up to the fascinations of Arithmetic and Geometry. The disturbed political life of the capital led him to leave France, and in his twenty-first year he went to the Netherlands and enlisted in the army of Prince Maurice of Orange. After two years' service in Holland during an interval of peace, he enlisted again as a private in the Bavarian service in the war between Austria and the Protestant princes. In this war he was present at the battle of Prague, and in the following year he served in the Hungarian campaign. Quitting the service in the year 1621, he journeyed through the eastern and northern countries returning through Belgium to Paris in 1622. Disposing of some inherited property in a way to yield him a comfortable income he now starts on a tour in Italy and Switzerland. Paying his vows at Loretto and visiting Rome and Venice, he returns again to France in 1626, where he resumes his mathematical studies with his congenial companions, the famous mathematician Mydorge and his former schoolmate the priest Mersenne. He was now interested in the study of the refraction of light, and in the perfecting of lenses for optical instruments. His military zeal again caused an interruption of these peaceful studies in calling him away to be a participant of the siege of Rochelle in 1628. Returning to Paris, his mind divided between his delight in adventure and the charms of the deeper problems of science and philosophy, and finding a life of seclusion impossible there, at the suggestion of Cardinal Berulle, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, he leaves Paris and in 1629 settles in Holland where for twenty years he devotes himself to developing his philosophical system and publishing his works. Three times he visits Paris to look after his family affairs and to receive the pension twice awarded him by the Government. He made a hasty visit to England in the study of magnetic phenomena in 1630.
The last year of his life was spent in Stockholm, Sweden, whither he had been called by the young Queen Christiana, daughter of Gustave Adolphus, who, in her ambition to adorn her reign with the lustre of learning, desired the immediate tutelage of the now renowned philosopher, as well as his assistance in planning an academy of sciences. In the pursuit of these duties under arduous circumstances the philosopher (compelled to give an hour's instruction daily to his energetic royal pupil at five o clock in the morning) contracted an inflammation of the lungs, and ten days after delivering to her the code for the proposed academy, he died. His remains were carried to France and after remaining in the Pantheon until 1819 they were transferred to the Church of St. Germain des Pro's, where they now repose. Gustave III. erected a monument to his memory at Stockholm.
If such a thing can be conceived as a knighthood of pure intellect it was emphasized in this illustrious Frenchman whose 3 career almost entirely outside of his native land gives the country of his birth a place in the front ranks of philosophic achievement. While accounted generally the founder of the rationalistic or dogmatic philosophy which underlies modern idealism, on the other hand it may be claimed with equal propriety, as Huxley showed in his address to the students in Cambridge in 1870, that the principles of his “Traité d' l'hómme” very nearly coincide with the materialistic aspects of modern psychophysiology. A man so devout in spirit that his “Meditations” read like the “Confessions” of St. Augustine and so loyal to his Church that he made it the first of his maxims of conduct “To abide by the old law and religion,” and who died in the happy conviction that he had succeeded in proving with a certainty as clear as that of mathematics the existence of God, he was, in the half century succeeding his death, to have his works placed in the Index Expurgatorius by the Church, his teachings excluded from the university, and an oration at the interment of his remains in Paris forbidden by royal command. In England, Bishop Parker of Oxford classed Descartes among the infidels with Hobbs and Gassendi, and Protestants generally regarded as atheistic his principle that the Bible was not intended to teach the sciences, and, as an encroachment on the Church's authority, his doctrine that the existence of God could be proved by reason alone. The man who perhaps more than any other has brought the lustre of philosophic renown upon France lived nearly all the years of his literary activity beyond its borders, taught in none of her schools and even as a soldier fought in none of her foreign wars. Laboring for years and with unflagging zeal in the elaboration of his Equation of the Curve and his system of symbols which made possible the Binomial Theorem, yet he avows that geometry was never his first love and that mathematics are but the outer shell to the real system of his philosophy. Nothing, at least, would satisfy him short of the universal mathesis or a view of relations and powers so universal as to embrace the whole field of possible knowledge. He was never married. Although he wrote poems and was devoted to music in his youth, yet he seems to fight shy of even these recreations as he does of the enticements of friendship, preferring the cool and calm states of solitude as conducive to his life's chosen task, — that of finding the truth of science in the truth of God. The twenty years of his life in Holland during which he resided mostly in a number of little university towns was the time of a brilliant court under the stadtholder Frederick Henry and of the famous art of Rembrandt and the scholarship of Grotius and Vossius. But these were as nothing to Descartes who shows a contempt for all learning and art for their own sake. Knowledge, he maintained, must be grounded in intelligence rather than in erudition. He studies the world, men, states, nature only as spectacles of a deep inner and immortal principle into whose secret he would penetrate. For this he keeps himself aloof from personal and political entanglements, not allowing even his family affairs to engross him; and, while he keeps himself in touch with intellectual movements in Paris through the correspondence of his friends there, he does so with the precaution to keep his own whereabouts a secret from the world at large. It is as if he would make his mind a perfectly clear, cold crystal reflecting like the monad of the later system of Leibnitz, in perfect distinctness that truth of the universe and its God that he would give to the world. Destined as they were to be for a time put under the ban of both the Church and the universities, yet immediately on their publication, the doctrines of Descartes were received with a popular enthusiasm that made them the fashionable cult of Cardinals, scholars, and princes in the court of Louis XIV., and the favorite theme of the salons of Madame de Sevigné, and the Duchesse de Maine. Although already forbidden by the Index in 1663 and condemned as dangerous to the faith by the Archbishop of Paris in 1671, still in 1680 the lectures of the popular expositor of the new philosophy, Pierre Silvan Regis, were so sought after in Paris that seats in the audience hall could with difficulty be obtained. The principle of his physics and mathematics soon assumed their essential place in the progress of modern science and in Holland, where from the first the new philosophy found many advocates, Spinoza, seizing upon the Cartesian principle of the development of philosophy from the a priori ground of the most certain knowledge, founded his system of Idealistic Monism which has largely entered into all the modern schools of speculative thought.
What has given Descartes a unique hold upon the thought of modern times is his making the mind's position of universal doubt the proper starting place in philosophy. This he does, however, not in the spirit of skepticism, but in the effort to construct a system of truthful knowledge. As Bacon was dissatisfied with the assumption by the schools of a priori principles that had no ground in experience, so Descartes, finding himself disposed to question the authority of all that was taught him, conceived the idea of allowing this very doubt to run its full course, and so of finding what ground, if any remained, for a certain knowledge of anything whatever. Thus doubt as the natural attitude of the mind, instead of being combatted as an enemy to even the highest and surest knowledge, was itself to be forced to yield up its own tribute of knowing. This it does in bringing the doubter to the first and fundamental admission that in doubting he is thinking, and that in order to think he must at least exist. Therefore, the existence of the thinker, or the fact of thinking, is a fact beyond the possibility of doubt. Hence the basic maxim of the Cartesian philosophy, Je pense, donc je suis. In developing his philosophic method, Descartes lays down the following rules for his guidance:
“Convinced,” he says, “that I was as open to error as any other, I rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken as demonstrations; also that thoughts, awake, may be as really experienced as when asleep, therefore all may be delusions; yet in thinking thus I must be a somewhat; hence cogito ergo sum. The doubter's thinking proves his existence. I conclude that I am a substance whose existence is in thinking, and that there is no proof of the certainty of the first maxim to be adopted except that of a vision or consciousness as clear as this that I have of my own existence.” But in thinking of his own existence, he is immediately convinced of the limitations and imperfections of his mind from the fact of its imperfect knowledge of things causing him to doubt: hence he is led to infer the existence of a being who is perfect and without limitations; for it is impossible to conceive of imperfection without conceiving at the same time of perfection; and it is this perfect being alone which can be the cause of all other beings, since it must be the perfect which gives rise to imperfect and finite rather than that the imperfect should be the cause of the perfect. Hence we derive the idea of the being of God as the perfect being. But the idea of the perfection of anything involves that of its existence; hence Descartes concludes by a logic, whose validity has often been challenged, that the perfect being must exist; and hence, he holds, we are assured of the existence of God. The proof is strengthened also by the reflection that the idea itself of a perfect being could only have come into a finite mind from such a perfect source. The idea of God in the human mind at once implies the existence of God as the only possible source of this idea; and the idea of God as a perfect being without existence it would be impossible to conceive. Further, the knowledge now clearly attained of the existence of God shows us that God as perfect must be a beneficent being whose only object toward his creatures must be to enlighten and to bless them. Therefore, he would not create beings only to deceive them by making them subject necessarily to delusion. The evidence of the senses, therefore, as to the existence of an objective world which is as real and as certain as this certain world of thought, must be a true evidence. The external world exists as truly as the internal. But as external, it is utterly without thought and without consciousness. The created universe is, therefore, under God, who is the one perfect self-existent Substance, dual in its nature, or composed of two subordinate substances utterly discrete in their nature and incapable of any intercommunication. The one is the world of thought, the other the world of extension. To the one belong our minds, to the other our bodies. But while there can be no intermingling or community of those substances so absolutely unlike, yet there is in man a minute organ, the pineal gland in the brain, where the two alone come into such contact that, by a miraculous and constant intervention of deity, the action of the soul is extended into, or made coincident with, that of the body. This discreteness of the two planes, or degrees of substance, matter and thought, their perfect correspondence and their mutual influence by contiguity and not by continuity or confusion, forms one of the landmarks of modern philosophy, and is carried later by Swedenborg into a much more perfect development in his doctrine of Discrete Degrees and their Correspondence. The treatment of the problems of the mutual influx of these two degrees of substance, mind and matter, has been a distinguishing mark of subsequent schools of philosophy, culminating in the theory of parallelism, which is current at the present day. While Descartes accounts for the parallel action of these two utterly unlike and incommunicable substances by the supposed immediate operation of God upon both on the occasion of either being affected, his immediate follower Geulinx regards the coincident action of the two substances as divinely foreordained, so that the action of one accompanies that of the other, like the movements of the hands of two clocks made to run exactly alike, and yet in no way to interfere with one another. This is the theory of “pre-established harmony” applied by Leibnitz to his world of monads. Malebranche, however, another disciple of Descartes, held that the interaction of the two planes, in nature inexplicable, becomes possible through their hidden unity and harmony in God, in whom is all life and motion. Swedenborg, opposing with Descartes the doctrine of physical influx, sets forth the doctrine of a perfect “correspondence” of the discrete degrees of being, such that motions may be imparted by the contact of these degrees without any intermingling of their substance and by virtue of the harmony of their interior form, all exterior and material things being symbols and vessels of interior things.
With Descartes the lower animals and men as to their purely animal nature are perfect machines and form a part of the stupendous mechanism of the world. Man alone by virtue of his rational soul presides like an engineer in the midst of this vast machinery and governs the conduct of the body by the dictates of wisdom and virtue. Man's soul, a thinking principle, is composed of will and intellect, and the intellect is composed of partly innate and partly derived ideas. The thoughts of the finite mind must be imperfect, whereas the will partakes of the infinite freedom of God. The tendency of the human will is therefore to wander beyond that which it clearly sees in its own limited understanding, and hence from the abuse of the finite human thought arise error and sin. These privations suffered by human thought are however evidences of God's goodness and justice since the universe is more perfect for the multitude and variety of its imperfect parts. God is in every one of our clear thoughts, and so far as we abide by them in our judgments we are right; so far as in our own free will we transgress or exceed them we are in error and come into unhappiness. As regards the thought of God it is not the thought itself that effects the existence of God but the necessity of the thing itself determines us to have this thought. The thought of God being therefore the ground of all the certainty of any knowledge of anything, the truth of all science must depend on the knowledge of a true God The soul's immortality is inferred in the sixth “Meditation” from the fact that we have a clear and distinct idea of thought, including sensations and willing, without anything material appertaining to it; hence its existence must be possible independent of the material body.
Such is an outline of Descartes' arguments in proof of the existence of God, and of his method of attaining to true knowledge. They are given in the “Discours de la Méthode pour bien conduire le raison et chercher la Vérité dans les Sciences,” published in the “Essais Philosophiques” at Leyden, 1637, and in the “Meditationes de prima philosophia, ubi de Dei existentia et animæ immortalitate; his adjunctæ sunt variæ objectiones doctorum virorum in istas de Deo et anima demonstrationes cum responsionibus auctoris,” published in Paris 1641; and in another edition in Amsterdam in 1642. A French translation of the “Meditations” by the Duke of Luynes and of the objections and replies by Clerselier, revised by Descartes, appeared in 1647. In 1644 appeared in Amsterdam the complete system of Descartes' philosophy under the title “Renati Descartes Principia Philosophiæ” This, after a brief outline of the subjects discussed in the “Meditations,” deals with the general principles of Physical Science, especially of the laws of motion and the doctrine of the evolution of the universe through vortices in the primitive mass, resulting in the whirling of matter into spherical bodies, the falling or sifting through of angular fragments into the solid central bodies and the formation thence of matter and the firmament and planets. In this vortical theory of creation which anticipates that of Swedenborg, Kant, and Laplace, the method is that of deducing hypothetical causes from actual results or projecting the laws of creation backward from the known effect to the necessary cause. It differs from the theory of Swedenborg in producing the center from the circumference instead of animating the center or the first point with its motive derived from the infinite and thus developing all motions and forms from it. (See Swedenborg's “Principia,” Vol. I., chap II. “A Philosophical Argument concerning the First Simple from which the World, with its natural things originated; that is concerning the first Natural Point and its existence from the Infinite.”) The phenomena of light, heat, gravity, magnetism, etc., are also treated of. Descartes here while not venturing to openly oppose his rationalistic theory of the creation to that of the Bible, apologizes for suggesting the rational process, in that it makes the world more intelligible than the treatment of its objects merely as we find them fully created.
While rejecting the Copernican theory by name out of fear of religious opinion, he maintains it in substance in his idea of the earth as being carried around the sun in a great solar vortex.
In the “Essais Philosophiques” appeared also, together with the “Discours de la Méthode” the “Dioptrique,” the “Météores,” and the “Géométrie.” The “Principles of Philosophy” were dedicated to the Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of the ejected elector Palatine, who had been his pupil at The Hague. To his later royal pupil, the Queen Christiana of Sweden, he sent the “Essay on the Passions of the Mind” originally written for the Princess Elizabeth and which was published at Amsterdam in 1650. The posthumous work, “Le Monde, ou traité de la lumière” was edited by Descartes' friend Clerselier and published in Paris 1664, also the “Traité de' l'homme et de la formation de fœtus,” in the same year by the same editor. It was this work with its bold theory of the Animal Spirit as being the mechanical principle of motion actuating the lower animals by means of pure mechanism, without feeling or intelligence on their part, that raised such an outcry among the enemies of Descartes and was not deemed safe to publish during his lifetime. In it occurs the graphic illustration of the animal system comparing it to a garden such as one sees in the parks of princes of Europe where are ingenuously constructed figures of all kinds which, on some hidden part being touched unawares by the visitor to the garden, the figures are all set in motion, the fountains play, etc. The visitors in the garden treading on the concealed machinery are the objects striking the organs of sensation; the water flowing through the pipes and producing motion and semblance of life is the animal spirit; the engineer sitting concealed in the center and controlling the whole is the rational soul.
“Les Regles pour la direction de l'esprit” which is thought to have been written in the years 1617–28 and to illustrate the course of Descartes' own philosophical development, and the “Recherche de la vérité par les lumières naturelles” were published at Amsterdam in 1701. A complete edition in Latin of Descartes' philosophical works was published in Amsterdam in 1850, and the complete works, in French, at Paris, edited by Victor Cousin, in 1824-26. In 1868 appeared, in Paris, “Œuvres de Descartes, nouvelle edition precédée d'une introduction par Jules Simon.”