Descartes' Discourse on Method, and Other Writings

Excerpt

Descartes is often called the founder of modern philosophy, and the statement contains a solid core of historical truth. But generalizations of this kind tend to suggest more than they really mean, and it seems best to begin with an attempt to characterize the philosophy of Descartes as a whole.

Descartes himself would no doubt have welcomed the title bestowed upon him by most historians of philosophy as signifying what he had intended from the start. He was, in fact, disposed to claim for his philosophy an absolute beginning, to see in his achievement, as Bertrand Russell has said in his History of Western Philosophy, a self-centred, and self- sufficient philosophical edifice, established on original foundations, and owing nothing to any other architect or builder. And his family circumstances were such as to encourage him in this attitude. His first biographer, the Abbé Baillet, made an attempt to establish a claim to noble birth for his hero, but there seems to be no very good reason for accepting this claim. The fact is that Descartes came of what we should now call a well-to-do professional family, and that there was nothing exalted about his heredity or his circumstances, just as there was nothing to suggest his future greatness. His father, indeed, a councillor in the Parliament of Brittany, looked askance at what he called his son's propensity for 'having himself bound in calf', that is, for publishing tomes of philosophy; but the family was wealthy, and René Descartes' share in the family fortunes was sufficient, although he was the younger son, to keep him in moderate affluence all his life, and to leave him free to pursue his vocation as a philosopher -- philosophy itself being, in the definition accepted by Descartes, the pursuit of wisdom. The competence which Descartes enjoyed was inadequate, as he frequently complains, to cover the cost of all the experiments he needed to make in order to renew, as he hoped to do, the whole of human knowledge; but it was adequate to free him from the . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Baltimore, MD
Publication year:
  • 1960

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