The Rise of Modern Philosophy

By Anthony Kenny | Go to book overview
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Descartes to Berkeley


The seventeenth century, unlike the sixteenth century, was fertile in the production of philosophers of genius. The man who is often considered the father of modern philosophy is René Descartes. He was born in 1596, about the time when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, ina village in Touraine which is now called after him La-Haye-Descartes. A sickly child, he was exempted at school from morning exercises and acquired a lifelong habit of meditating in bed. From his eleventh to his nineteenth year he studied classics and philosophy at the Jesuit college of La Flèche. He remained a Catholic throughout his life, but chose to spend most of his adult life in Protestant Holland.

In 1616, having taken a degree in law at Poitiers, Descartes gave up his studies for a while. In the wars of religion that divided Europe, he enlisted in both camps. First, he was an unpaid volunteer in the army of the Protestant Prince of Orange; later he served in the army of the Catholic Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, who was then at war with the Palatine Elector Frederick, son-in-law of King James I of Britain. After he left the army he did not adopt a profession. Unlike the great philosophers of the Middle Ages he was a layman in both the ecclesiastical and the academic sense. He never lectured in a university, and he lived a private life as a gentleman of means. He wrote his most famous work not in the Latin of the learned world, but in good plain French, so that it could be understood, as he put it, 'even by women'.

While serving in the army, Descartes acquired a conviction that he had a call to philosophy. He spent a winter's day of 1619 huddled beside a stove,


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The Rise of Modern Philosophy


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