Descartes' Meditations and Discourse apply a radical scepticism towards knowledge in order to finally refute it, founding certainty on the immediacy of self-knowledge, usually considered the great break in modern philosophy.

In general, we know that Descartes wrote during the turn towards natural sciences and away from Aristotelean scholasticism, during which time authority was disputed at many levels, from religious wars to Gutenberg and Protestant sola scriptura.

Did Descartes undertake his work in direct response to any particular doctrines, issues, or thinkers? What problem was he trying to address? Was there anything more immediate or specific than a concern with "the foundations of belief"?


It wasn't as much of a problem that made Descartes go back to square-one as it was the need to lay the groundwork for a more concrete set of assertions. He was bothered by the mysticism that had found its way into Philosophy. Having a background in both Physics and Mathematics, he tried to bring geometric precision to what he dealt with. Just as importantly, he realised very early on that reason and faith must be separated, and most would agree that he did a good job at it.

Now, since Descartes' philosophy rests to a good deal on the concept of self-evident facts that can be proven without assumptions, I feel it's important to point out that these 'self-evident facts' could only be proven through one of two process: induction or deduction. Without them, any articulated thought would by default have limitless scope. So, and it's purely my opinion, Descartes' philosophy was inherently corrupt.

I'd like to quote a little something from Descartes that sheds light on how he wanted to go about the undertaking:

The first (rule of method is to) never accept anything true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is, carefully to avoid haste and prejudice, and to include nothing more in my judgements than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all reason for doubt.

And more than the turn towards sciences and rationalism in the time period quoted, there was the question of how to add clarity to all disciplines and remove any chance of doubt.

This is the question that the philosophers of the 16th and 17th century occupied themselves with. And you can see two very distinct approaches to this. One was from Descartes, and the other from the British empiricist John Locke.

Descartes voted reason whereas Locke felt that the answer lay in the nature of knowledge.

And so this was the main aim of Descartes, to answer the one question that had been asked for ages:

What, if anything, can ever be known for certain?

He also sought to integrate certain concepts of Physics, Theology, Philosophy and Mathematics that would in turn, he felt, help us scrutinise the contents of each subject better.

For Further Reading:-

1) An Essay Concerning Human Knowledge BY John Locke

2) Discourse On The Method of Rightly Conducting The Reason BY Descartes

3) Kierkegaard and Descartes BY Ronald Grimsley

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    Thanks for reply, good summary. But I was hoping for more specifics, as I said. As with Hobbes, the urge to firmly secure knowledge may have been driven by the religious wars. Since Descartes remained within the Church, I assume he is also working with a long history of Aristotelian and humanist debate, reignited by the "naturalists." I asked because it is quite common that a philosopher, especially a "purifier," begins with an argument against another philosopher or doctrine. – Nelson Alexander Oct 11 '15 at 14:47
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    @NelsonAlexander The last part of your question clearly asks for an issue that he tried to tackle. He maintained a running dialogue with many of the prominent thinkers of the time, without ever having been directly influenced by any of them. I am certain that he did not take up the undertaking in a bid against any philosophy, or for that matter, religion. But with that said, God was central to his philosophy, and in regard to how carefully he scrutinised God's existence, opinions are expected to differ. – Sampark Sharma Oct 13 '15 at 9:31
  • Thanks. So it seems there wasn't "someone" to Descartes as, say, Hume was to Kant, Newton to Leibniz, etc. so that's a good answer to my question. – Nelson Alexander Oct 13 '15 at 12:57

Descartes was educated in a college run by Jesuit priests. Here he received an in-depth training in scholastic philosophy.

The new founded order of Jesuits united the main proponents of scholastic philosophy. The subject was teached in an authoritative form, relying heavily on Thomas Aquinas and on the works of Aristotle. It was used as a safeguard to support and to defend the doctrines of the Catholic church. We know about internal instructions to the philosophical teachers of this order. They should avoid introducing new thoughts and even new philosophical methods.

Descartes undertook his work primarily not in direct response to the scholastic doctrine, but in response to scholastic method. He was unhappy with the uncertainty of the disputed speculations. He was driven by the search for certain knowledge. And he was fascinated by the reliability of the mathematical method to obtain certain knowledge. It is a methodological problem that Descartes addresses.

Referring to the doctrine there was one main issue and some minor ones, which Descrates considered different from the Jesuits' official teachings. First, Descartes represents the heliocentric model that the earth moves around the sun. Secondly, some examples for minor issues: Descrates rejectes the Aristotelian causa finalis as useless for natural science (Med. IV, section 6). He also rejects the Aristotelian teachings of four fundamental elements. Instead, Descrates operates with the concept of matter and its fundamental property of extension.

  • Thanks, good answer. You are right to point to "method" rather than "doctrine," since it is right there in the title. It was somewhat by accident, I believe, the Jesuits began to excel in mathematics. "Infinitesimal" by Amir Alexander is good book on the topic, some material on La Flèche. – Nelson Alexander Oct 11 '15 at 16:56

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