An Animated Introduction to Rene Descartes & His Philosophy of Radical Doubt

Ear­ly Enlight­en­ment French philoso­pher and math­e­mati­cian René Descartes invent­ed a new genre of phi­los­o­phy, we might say, one that would dom­i­nate the cen­tu­ry to come. Before Locke, Leib­niz, or Kant, Descartes stood out as a “the­ist ratio­nal­ist.” Rather than trust­ing in rev­e­la­tion, he leaned sole­ly on log­ic and rea­son, cre­at­ing a set of “rules for the direc­tion of the mind,” the title of one of his books. He believed we might think our way—solely unaid­ed by unre­li­able exter­nal sources—to belief in God and “all the knowl­edge that we may need for the con­duct of life.”

Descartes’ proofs of God may not sound so con­vinc­ing to mod­ern ears, slip­ping as they do into the lan­guage of faith when con­ve­nient. But in oth­er respects, he seems dis­tinct­ly con­tem­po­rary, or at least like a con­tem­po­rary of Lud­wig Wittgen­stein. He believed that phi­los­o­phy suf­fered from improp­er def­i­n­i­tions and lacked clar­i­ty of thought. And like the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry log­i­cal pos­i­tivists, he put tremen­dous store in log­ic and math­e­mat­ics as ana­lyt­ic tools for acquir­ing knowl­edge about the world. These, along with the sci­en­tif­ic method Descartes cham­pi­oned, were indeed the sole means of acquir­ing such knowl­edge.

Descartes, then, has become known for intro­duc­ing the rad­i­cal “method of doubt,” which sup­pos­ed­ly strips away all prej­u­dice and pre­con­cep­tion, every arti­cle of belief, to get at the most fun­da­men­tal­ly ascer­tain­able core of knowl­edge. Upon doing this in his 1637 Dis­course on Method, the French philoso­pher famous­ly found that the only thing he could say for cer­tain was that he must exist because he could see him­self doubt­ing his exis­tence—cog­i­to ergo sum, “I think there­fore I am.” The process involved cast­ing aside all author­i­ty and tra­di­tion, which made Descartes a hero to French Rev­o­lu­tion­ists. His free­think­ing also made him very much the ene­my of many in the Catholic church.

Describ­ing in Dis­course on Method how he had aban­doned all reliance on oth­er texts and resolved to derive the answers to his ques­tions from expe­ri­ence and rea­son, he seemed to dis­miss the author­i­ty not only of church hier­ar­chy and dog­ma but of scrip­ture itself. Rather than fix­ing God at the cen­ter of the uni­verse, Descartes used the “Archimedean point” of his own cer­tain exis­tence to anchor “an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal­ly unsteady world.” Nonethe­less, he was com­mit­ted to keep­ing faith intact, even as he seem­ing­ly demol­ished the foun­da­tions of its exis­tence, including—for Catholics—the cher­ished idea that priests could turn bread into flesh.

It might have been an attempt at self-preser­va­tion or appease­ment, but it seems more to reflect sin­cere belief: in the Med­i­ta­tions on First Phi­los­o­phy, Descartes sought to prove the exis­tence of God in much the same way as he had proved his own exis­tence, through cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing and argu­ments that split mind and mat­ter into two dis­tinct camps. Descartes cre­at­ed a dual­ist view of the world that became a major prob­lem in his phi­los­o­phy. At the time, many of his crit­ics were less con­cerned with this onto­log­i­cal puz­zle than they were with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of his hereti­cal thought inter­fer­ing in world affairs.

Descartes’ rad­i­cal doubt threat­ened not only church doc­trine but also church pol­i­tics. One schol­ar claims to have found evi­dence that a Catholic priest—fearing the French free­thinker would jeop­ar­dize the con­ver­sion of Sweden’s Queen Christi­na to Catholicism—murdered Descartes with an arsenic-laced com­mu­nion wafer. If so, it would have been a cru­el­ly iron­ic death, per­haps by design, for the man who dared to write in the Med­i­ta­tions that transubstantiation—one of the Church’s cen­tral super­nat­ur­al teachings—should be “reject­ed by the­olo­gians as irra­tional, incom­pre­hen­si­ble and haz­ardous for the faith,” and to hope for a time when “my the­o­ry will be accept­ed in its place as cer­tain and indu­bitable.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

The Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix: From Pla­to and Descartes, to East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to 25 Philoso­phers by The School of Life: From Pla­to to Kant and Fou­cault

His­to­ry of Mod­ern Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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