René Descartes

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René Descartes ( Frans Hals , 1648)

René Descartes [ ʁəˈne deˈkaʁt ] ( Latinized Renatus Cartesius ; born March 31, 1596 in La Haye en Touraine , † February 11, 1650 in Stockholm ) was a French philosopher , mathematician and scientist .


Descartes is considered to be the founder of modern early modern rationalism , which Baruch de Spinoza , Nicolas Malebranche and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz continued in a critical and constructive manner. His rationalistic thinking is also called Cartesianism . He wrote the famous dictum cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am.”), Which forms the basis of his metaphysics , but also introduced self-confidence as a genuinely philosophical topic. The assumption that the thinking soul is the origin of knowledge has three implications: First, the source of all knowledge is no longer to be sought in the tracing of the thoughts of God; second, the thinking ego makes the body an object of the physical world like others (body-soul dualism); thirdly, laws of movement apply in the area of ​​the body, which are not broken by any interference of the soul in the event (mechanistic world view). However, the questions remain open as to how the world of the body affects the thinking ego via the sense organs and how the will can affect the body world (according to Descartes, it can at best change the direction of the body's movement, but the impulse remains the same).

Descartes' view of the existence of two mutually interacting, different " substances " - mind and matter - is known today as Cartesian dualism and is in contrast to the different variants of monism and Isaac Newton's dualistic natural philosophy , which argues that the interaction is more active immaterial Teaches “forces of nature” with absolutely passive matter (see Newton's Laws , First Law of Motion).

Descartes is the founder of analytical geometry , which combines algebra and geometry. His scientific work - his rejection of the gravitational principle or his vortex theory - were refuted early on by Newtonian physics; However, they are not to be underestimated, since Descartes was one of the most important and strictest exponents of the mechanicism that replaced the older Aristotelian physics.

His ethos of duty and self-conquest influenced 17th century French classical literature, particularly Pierre Corneille , Nicolas Boileau , Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and Jean de La Bruyère .


Descartes was born as the third child of a small noble Touraine family. His father, Joachim Descartes (1563-1640), was a councilor (Conseiller) at the Supreme Court of Brittany in Rennes . His mother, Jeanne Brochard, died on May 16, 1597 after giving birth to their last child, who did not survive. Since the father quickly remarried, Descartes spent his childhood with his maternal grandmother and a wet nurse , who raised and survived him and whom he lovingly considered in his will (see Adrien Baillet , La Vie de Monsieur Descartes , 2 vol. 1691). At the age of eight he came to the Jesuit College Henri-IV de La Flèche as a boarding school student , which he left eight years later with a classical and mathematical education.

Years of study, apprenticeship and wandering

Then Descartes studied law in Poitiers from 1612 and passed a law exam there in 1616. Instead of embarking on a legal career, however, he completed a course in fencing, riding, dancing and good behavior at a Paris Académie for young aristocrats, and in the same year 1616 hired himself out to the general Moritz von Nassau in Breda, the Netherlands . There he met Isaac Beeckman , a doctor and natural scientist who was six years his senior , who inspired him for physics and to whom he dedicated his first scientific work, the mathematically and physically oriented Musicæ compendium (1618).

After traveling through Denmark and Germany, Descartes hired himself as a soldier again in 1619, now with Duke Maximilian of Bavaria , under whom he took part in the first battles of the Thirty Years' War on the imperial-Catholic side and thus also in the conquest of Prague in 1620 .

In November 1619, shortly after visiting the workplaces of the astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) in Prague and that of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) in Regensburg , Descartes developed the idea that there was “a universal method for researching the truth "And that he was called to find it, whereby he was not allowed to accept any knowledge except that which he had discovered in himself or in the" great book of the world "and checked for plausibility and logic . Descartes began work on the Regulae ad directionem ingenii (rules for aligning the power of knowledge) . In his Descartes biography, Adrien Baillet (1691) reports three dreams that Descartes allegedly had in the night from Sunday the 10th to Monday the 11th November 1619 when he spent a long time in the Free Imperial City of Ulm (according to other sources in Neuburg an der Donau ) stayed. In the fragmentary Olympica from Descartes' own notebook, the content of which has been partially preserved due to excerpts from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, there is no coherent description of these dreams.

In 1620 Descartes hung up his soldier's coat and made a pilgrimage to Loreto , which he had vowed to the Virgin Mary in thanks for the “vision”. In the years that followed, he traveled for several months through the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy, where he tried to gain insights of all kinds and to talk to a wide variety of people, especially scholars.

In 1625 he settled in Paris. Here he socialized with intellectuals and moved in the circles of high society, where he also won a duel. He read a lot, continued to write the Regulae ad directionem ingenii until 1628 and gained increasing reputation as an astute mind. In particular, he impressed Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle , chairman of the Council of State and opponent of Cardinal Richelieu , so much at an evening party that he was invited to a private audience and then asked to present his theories in more detail and thus to reform philosophy.

Time of maturity and philosophical works

Descartes, engraving by Balthasar Moncornet

In 1629 Descartes moved to the Netherlands, presumably because of the greater intellectual freedom that prevailed there. Here he spent the next 18 years in exchange with intellectuals of various backgrounds and backgrounds, but still relatively withdrawn, frequently changing apartments and places of residence and having a daughter with one of his servants, Helena Jans van der Strom, in 1635, Francine, who died at the age of five on September 7, 1640. Descartes described Francine's death as "the greatest pain of his life" ( Adrien Baillet ). On October 13, 1642, he wrote to his friend Constantijn Huygens , father of the famous Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens , that we humans were born “for much greater joys and greater happiness than we can experience on this earth. One day we will find the dead again, with the memory of the past, because we have an intellectual memory that is undoubtedly independent of our body ”. According to Descartes, he was “convinced of this afterlife for natural and very obvious reasons”.

Above all, Descartes corresponded intensively with his Paris friend Marin Mersenne and through him, who only knew his respective address, with scholars from all over Europe as well as with some intellectually interested, high-ranking women.

During his first time in the Netherlands, Descartes worked on a treatise on metaphysics in which he hoped to provide a clear and compelling proof of God . However, he put it aside in favor of a large-scale scientific work that was to be written in French and no longer, as his previous texts, in Latin. However, he left this Traité du Monde "(Treatise on the World)", as it was to be called, unfinished when he learned of the fate of Galileo Galileo , who in 1633 was forced by the Inquisition to revoke his theories confirming the research of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler had been. 1637 published Descartes in the Dutch Leiden anonymously his Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, plus la Dioptrique, les Météores et la Géométrie qui sont des essais de cette méthode (German title: Discourse on Method of correct use of reason and scientific research into truth ), literally: "Treatise on the method to use one's reason well and to seek the truth in the sciences, in addition to the refraction of light , the meteors and the geometry as experimental applications of this method". The Discours de la méthode , designed as a popular scientific work at a high level , became Descartes' most effective book in the long term.

The main points of the discourse are:

  • an epistemology that only accepts as correct what is verified as plausible through its own step-by-step analysis and logical reflection ,
  • an ethic according to which the individual has to behave dutifully and morally in accordance with established social conventions,
  • a metaphysics that assumes (by logical proof) the existence of a perfect Creator God, but leaves little room for church-like institutions,
  • a physics that regards nature as regulated by God-given but generally valid laws and makes its rational explanation and thus ultimately its control a task for humans.

The next works by Descartes also sparked intense discussion in specialist circles and were effective in the long term:

  • The Méditations sur la philosophie première , dans laquelle sont démontrées l'existence de Dieu et l'immortalité de l'âme (the title of a French translation from 1647; German “Meditations on the First Philosophy, in who is proven the existence of God and the immortality of the soul ”). The second edition in Amsterdam in 1642 appeared with a different subtitle, “because I cannot prove that God cannot destroy the soul, but only that it is of a completely different nature from the body and does not die with the body” (letter to Marin Mersenne from December 24, 1640). The subtitle was now: Méditations sur la philosophie première , dans laquelle sont démontrées l'existence de Dieu et la distinction de l'âme et du corps (German “Meditations on the First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the difference between soul and Body is proven ”).
  • The work Principia philosophiae (“Foundations of Philosophy”, 1644) was also only subsequently translated into French .

These writings met with such violent rejection by theologians in Utrecht and Leiden that Descartes considered moving to England in 1645 and in the following years fled Holland several times to travel to France. In the Principia Descartes deals not only with the direct emotional reflexes, e.g. B. fear, but also the spontaneous emotions, z. B. love or hate. In 1649 the treatise Les Passions de l'âme (“The Passions of the Soul”, 1649), which Descartes had written for his correspondent, the Palatine Princess Elisabeth , was published.

Christina of Sweden discusses with René Descartes

He interprets the passions as all too natural mental outflows of the creatural corporeality of the human being, but obliges them - as a being at the same time endowed with a soul - to control them through the will and to overcome them through rational impulses such as B. selfless renunciation or generous forgiveness .


In the late summer of 1649 he accepted an invitation from the young Queen Christina of Sweden , with whom he had exchanged letters since around 1645, and traveled to Stockholm. There, however, he had to wait several weeks for the absent queen and only got a few audiences in the second half of January at five o'clock in the morning to explain his philosophy to the queen. At the beginning of February 1650 he fell ill and died ten days later in the house of his host, the French ambassador Pierre Chanut . The thesis put forward by Theodor Ebert in 2009 that Descartes was poisoned with arsenic found little recognition in specialist circles. It is still widely believed that Descartes died of pneumonia. Descartes' tomb has been in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris since February 26, 1819, after being reburied several times . His body lies there except for the skull, which has been kept in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris since 1878 .

Prohibition of his writings

In 1663 Descartes' writings were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Holy See . After his death, complaints arose that he had left no room for God in his scientific studies. The Jesuits were at the forefront for banning his work. The indexing of 1663 was followed by a long series of prohibitions, including the royal ban in 1691 against the dissemination of all of Descartes' teachings in French schools.


Philosophical method

Descartes' method is shaped by his practice as a mathematician. In his view, the four basic rules of the method are an application of the procedures and working methods customary in mathematics. The philosophical method formulated in detail in Descartes' Discours de la méthode is summarized in four rules (II. 7-10):

  1. Skepticism: not taking anything to be true that is not so clearly recognized that it cannot be doubted .
  2. Analysis: Dealing with difficult problems in partial steps.
  3. Construction: progress from the simple to the difficult (inductive approach: from the concrete to the abstract)
  4. Recursion: Always check whether the investigation has been completed.

This heavily compressed and abbreviated presentation contrasts with the posthumously published Regulae ad directionem ingenii - a work that remained unfinished and therefore only sets out 21 of the 36 originally planned rules. Descartes' early methodology relied several times on the faculty of intuition ; With their help, according to Descartes, humans grasp the truth of the simplest statements (such as: a triangle has three sides) - the method itself essentially consists in breaking down complex problems in such a way that their individual elements are intuition as true can be recognized. Only later does Descartes add a metaphysical dimension to his conception by questioning how intuition can vouch for the truth of what has been known (one could, according to Descartes, always be wrong in even the simplest things). The search for an Archimedean point finally leads to the famous cogito ergo sum or "ego sum, ego existo ... quamdiu cogito" - "I am, I exist ... in the execution of thinking" , but contradicts the principles of the early methodology, so that Descartes finally stopped working on the regulations.


Descartes elaborates a new epistemology in his six Meditationes de prima philosophia from 1641.

In accordance with his method , the first section deals with “that which can be doubted”: The common assumption that scientific knowledge arises from sensory perception and thinking must be questioned. Neither of the two sources can be trusted unchecked. Our senses often deceive us, because we do not simply perceive, but rather earlier perceptions that constitute our body, condition our current perceptions - we project. But one must not trust one's thinking without checking either, because an evil demon could affect the mind in such a way that one draws wrong conclusions and is mistaken. Therefore, everything is to be doubted first of all.

Second meditation: But how do I know whether what is happening to me is doubt, whether I am mistaken that I am “I” and that I “am”? But if I doubt, then even if I am mistaken, I cannot doubt that I doubt and that it is me who doubts, i. H. as a thinker I am in any case existent. The first indubitable sentence is therefore: “I am, I exist” (original Latin: ego sum, ego existo ). According to Descartes, it is “necessarily true whenever I say it or think it”. Descartes then analyzes this doubting ego and defines it as a judging, thinking thing: as res cogitans .

Aurelius Augustinus (354–430) had already formulated this argument in a similar way: “ si enim fallor, sum. nam qui non est, utique nec falli potest ”(“ Even if I am mistaken, I am. For whoever is not, cannot be mistaken either. ” From the Divine State 11:26).

In the third meditation Descartes moves on to a theory of the absolute. A cause cannot be less perfect than its effect. Since one's own idea of ​​God is far more perfect than one's own perfection and reality , it can be concluded that God exists.

Then the incompatibility of "deceitful" and divine perfection is tried to show: the former would be a defect, the latter excludes any defect. So God could not be a genius malignus , as it had been considered in the first meditation for the sake of argumentation.

But this also means, so the fourth meditation goes on, that we can trust in the correctness of our empirical experiences (which was still doubted in the first meditation) because God exists and he is not a deceiver. Descartes sees the reason why man can nevertheless come to incorrect conclusions in his judgment is that man’s God-given freedom of choice extends to things that he judges, although his mind does not see them clearly. Although reason may guide the deliberations, the will ultimately seals all judgments. Not by the will itself, but by the fact that it is not used correctly, we would be led to wrong judgments. We would have to continue to guard against errors, but at least we could trust everything that we would have seen clearly and distinctly (“clare et distincte”) .

Indigenous ideas ideae innatae

First of all, Descartes saw in the ideas, as it were, “images of things” that could be divided into two aspects. So according to their origin :

  • Ideas based on object perceptions: ideae adventitiae
  • Ideas generated by the imagination: ideae factitiae
  • the innate ideas: ideae innatae .

Descartes gave a key position in his theory of human knowledge to considerations of innate ideas, ideae innatae . However, they are not to be thought of as something independently existing , as in Plato , for example , but are to be grasped by thinking. From which he concluded that the innate ideas were closely related to the thinking, self-conscious subject, since an idea to be recognized requires something that thinks it. In Cartesian innatism, an innate idea would be an imaginary thing.

For him the innate ideas (the ideae innatae ) must:

  • clear and precise,
  • immediately evident as well
  • as a basis for the certainty of knowledge a priori


For him, the most important innate ideas, which under no circumstances can be gained or invented from experience, were:

  • the idea of ​​infinite substance (God),
  • the idea of ​​finite and thinking substance (the human mind) and
  • the idea of ​​finite and extended substance (matter).


Page from La Geometry

In mathematics, Descartes is best known for his contributions to geometry: He linked geometry and algebra and is thus one of the pioneers of analytical geometry , which enables the computational solution of geometric problems. However, nowhere in his work does the right-angled Cartesian coordinate system named after him appear, the inventors of which Apollonios von Perge , Nikolaus von Oresme , Pierre de Fermat and Johan de Witt can rightly be considered to be. The term Cartesian or Cartesian means generally introduced by Cartesius and occurs in various places in mathematics, in addition to the coordinate system, for example in the Cartesian product .

Around 1640 he made a contribution to the solution of the tangent problem of differential calculus . Descartes chose an algebraic approach by adding a circle to a curve. This intersects the curve in two points, unless the circle touches the curve. This enabled him to determine the gradient of the tangent for special curves. This approach received a lot of attention among his contemporaries, but hardly contributed to the actual solution of the problem, since it did not get any closer to the concept of derivative.

There are also two movements named after Descartes. With the sign rule of Descartes one can determine an upper limit for the number of positive and negative zeros of a polynomial in the real numbers . The four-circle theorem from 1643 solves a contact circle problem that was already considered in antiquity, namely to find a fourth for three mutually touching circles, which in turn touches the other three.


In 1935 the lunar crater Descartes and in 1993 the asteroid (3587) Descartes were named after him.


The teleological world view of Aristotle is replaced by a kausalistisches , located in the inside of the object world (the world of res extensa all makes so) required by pressure and shock. This assumption has become a prerequisite for the formation of theories in many empirical sciences and is a general characteristic of mechanistic thinking.

In the second part (On the principles of corporeal things) of his Principia philosophiae , published in 1644, Descartes deals with the fundamental properties of matter and establishes elementary laws of nature, which are reproduced below after a German translation.

Properties of matter

Matter = expansion
Descartes' concept of matter reduces the essence of material bodies to their spatial expansion in terms of length, width and depth. Because only this expansion can be clearly and distinctly imagined in the light of reason , whereas other properties such as hardness, weight or color are based only on sensory perceptions, which are fundamentally mistrusted as a source of knowledge. For Descartes, material and geometric bodies are identical.
Impossibility of a vacuum
Since matter and spatial expansion are of the same nature, there cannot be an empty (material-free) space ( vacuum ).
Infinite divisibility
According to Descartes, atoms (indivisible bodies) cannot exist, since every material body, no matter how small, can be mentally divided.
Unlimited expansion
Beyond every room, no matter how large, there is always an even larger “truly imaginable”, that is, “really”. This unlimited space "also contains an endlessly expanded physical substance."
Uniformity of matter
From the identity of space and matter it also follows that matter is essentially the same everywhere. In particular, there is no difference between earthly and heavenly matter.
Matter is not only freely divisible, but also movable in its parts, so that it is “capable of all the states that follow from the movement of its parts”.

Movement theory

Relativity Principle
There is no real difference between rest and movement, as a body (e.g. the passenger of a ship) can be at rest relative to its immediate surroundings (ship), while it moves relative to other bodies (shore). If a body A moves relative to a body B which is thought to be at rest, this can just as well be understood as a movement of B relative to A, which is thought to be at rest. However, the first to formulate this principle is Galileo Galilei (1632).
Maintaining Movement
Descartes sees one of the characteristics of God's perfection in his permanence. From this he concludes that God ensures that the amount of movement ( quantitas motu , also movement size ), which he initially created together with matter, is preserved. This can be seen as a cognitive preliminary stage for the conservation of momentum and kinetic energy . However, Descartes does not yet distinguish between these two sizes. He quantifies the amount of movement as the product of the size of the body (Descartes does not yet know the concept of inertial mass) and speed . This corresponds to today's term impulse , but neglecting its vectorial (directed) character.

With the “immutability of God” Descartes also justifies a few other rules that he expressly declares as “natural laws”.

Principle of inertia
Descartes defines this principle, which later became known as the first Newtonian axiom , as the endeavor of a body to maintain its shape and its state of motion (not its location) in the absence of an external influence.
Every body strives to continue its momentary movement in a straight line without the influence of external forces. In this way Descartes also explains the centrifugal force that occurs in a forced circular movement .
Laws of collision
These concern the (central) collision of two bodies and their behavior afterwards. During an impact process, “movement” can pass from one body to the other, but always in such a way that the sum of the movement quantities is retained.
Descartes differentiates between seven cases, of which the first correctly describes the elastic collision of two bodies of equal size (Descartes calls them B and C), which approach each other at the same speed. The rebounding to both sides with unchanged speed, claimed by Descartes, corresponds to the (classical physical) reality from today's point of view.
However, it already becomes problematic in the second case study, where “B is a little larger than C, but everything else is as before”. Now "only C would back away, and both would move to the left at the same speed". This would be true for the plastic impact , but not for the elastic one.
The unclean or ultimately missing separation of plastic and elastic collisions is one of the reasons why, except for the first, all the rules of collision promulgated by Descartes are wrong. A second reason lies in the neglect of the vectorial character of the impulse. In his fourth rule of impact Descartes asserts: “If C is completely at rest and is slightly larger than B, B, no matter how fast it moved against C, it would never set it in motion, but it would be pushed back by it in the opposite direction . ”This would be in harmony with the conservation of energy, but would blatantly violate the conservation of momentum.
Rejection of observational science
Descartes may already be aware that some of these results of his rationalist speculations may not be true. As a precaution, in a concluding remark on his laws of collision, he puts the knowledge gained from thinking once and for all over that gained from observation:
"Also, there is no need for proof for these provisions, because they are self-evident, and even if experience seemed to show us the opposite, we would still be compelled to trust our reason more than our senses."

On the basis of these physical principles, Descartes developed a complicated theory of the origin of the cosmos and our planetary system, whereby he only assumed a collection of vortices of matter created by God as a starting point ( vortex theory ). From this all observable celestial phenomena are explained step by step. Descartes also tries to explain the origin of the earth and the natural phenomena observed on it, such as gravity, physical states (solid, liquid), properties of minerals, fire, magnetism and much more. His theory of light propagation is of particular importance, according to which this occurs through the transfer of pressure between the so-called "celestial spheres". This idea continued in the light ether hypothesis and prepared the ground for the wave theory of light .


Mechanical animal by Jacques de Vaucanson

For Descartes, physiological models were an integral part of his philosophy . Descartes negates the Aristotelian emphasis on the organic . He reduced the living human organism to its mechanics and thus became the founder of modern iatrophysics , in which human models and (tried or imagined) constructions of human automata played an important role. The human body is described once as a mere “limb machine”, then again as a “ corpse ”. This consideration has its continuation in the way of thinking, to view the human being physically as a mechanical apparatus, i.e. as a machine and to compare his thinking today, for example, with the functioning of computers , if not to equate it.

For fear of the Inquisition , Descartes did not publish his treatise Traité de l'homme (“Treatise on Man”, 1632) throughout his life; it did not appear until 1662 under the title De homine .

René Descartes, however, was thoroughly religious; His division of the human being into a mechanically functioning organism and a soul has probably remained his best known and most criticized approach. In the second meditation Descartes, curiously enough, indirectly - quite Aristotelian - explains the soul as that which makes the difference between a corpse and a living person. Descartes hardly received Aristotle himself, but he did read the writings of Scholasticism , in which Aristotle was often referred to.

Impact history

Descartes has strongly influenced philosophy up to the present day , mainly by making clarity and sophistication of thought a maxim . The mindset of scientism also goes back in part to him.

Due to the influx-physicus problem the theses of Descartes were still in the 17th century to the later so-called occasionalism developed. Their representatives were therefore perceived in the contemporary discussion as the "Cartesians". The teachings of Nicolas Malebranche and Arnold Geulincx , for example, were discussed in an influential manner . They defended Cartesian substance dualism with the corrective thesis that it is not a physical influence, but rather God who mediates between body and mind.

Blaise Pascal rejects the proofs of God as rationally undecidable and criticizes that God degenerates into a mere "stopgap" who has to establish the connection between res cogitans and res extensa : "The God of Abraham is not the God of the philosophers", Pascal writes in his pensées . Pascal transforms Descartes' dualism into a three-part system: At the side of res extensa (physical) and res cogitans (thought) he places the "heart" or the "spirit of the subtlety".

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant criticizes the "problematic idealism of Descartesius" (Immanuel Kant: AA III, 190): According to Kant, the certainty of the I think , which Descartes starts with, presupposes an inner experience (perception of time). For the determination of the subject in time, however, an external (spatial) experience is again a basic condition. Hence one's own existence cannot be more certain than that of external experience.

In his history lectures, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel expressly praises Descartes for his philosophical innovative strength: With Descartes, modern thinking began in the first place, its effect could not be presented broadly enough. Hegel criticizes, however, that Descartes did not yet make the distinction between understanding and reason . In Descartes' Archimedean point of thought of the “ cogito ergo sum ”, Hegel sees evidence that thinking and being form an “inseparable unity” (cf. Parmenides ), because at this point diversity and identity coincide. Hegel adopts this “beginning in pure thinking” for his idealistic system. In contrast, he sought to develop Descartes' proof of God further in his Critique of Kant's considerations (1831).

Franz von Baader transformed the Cogito ergo sum into Cogitor ergo sum ("I am thought (by the absolute), therefore I am.").

Friedrich Nietzsche , too , initially found words of praise for Descartes, because his turn to the subject was an "assassination attempt on the old concept of soul" and thus an "assassination attempt on Christianity ". Descartes and the philosophy after him are therefore "anti-Christian, but by no means anti-religious". He calls Descartes the “grandfather of the revolution, which granted the authority to reason alone ” (Beyond Good and Evil) . On the other hand, Nietzsche rejects Descartes' dualism and contrasts it with his own theory of the “will to power”. He also defends himself against the “dogmatic recklessness of doubting” and thereby indicates that radical doubt cannot take place without preconditions (see the objections of Peirce and Wittgenstein below).

Charles Peirce considers Descartes' radical approach to doubt to be exaggerated on one point: every formulated doubt presupposes a "sufficiently functioning everyday language ". Schelling , too , hit this point: language cannot be reconstructed from an initial pre-linguistic certainty, because "where would we begin?"

The early analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell calls Descartes the “founder of modern philosophy” in his History of Western Philosophy , but, like Heidegger, objects that he is still dedicated to many scholastic ideas (e.g. Anselm's proof of God ). Russell, however, appreciates his accessible writing style and appreciates that Descartes was the first philosopher since Aristotle to set up a completely new system of thought. He emphasizes v. a. his radical approach of doubt. Russell considers Descartes' essential knowledge that all objects or any kind of certainty are mediated in thought. This idea will occupy a central position with the rationalists . While the idealists would adopt this insight "triumphalistically", the British empiricists would take note of it with regret. Russell also criticizes that the “I think” premise is invalid. In reality Descartes should say: "There are thoughts." After all, the "I" is not given.

In the Cartesian Meditations (CM), Edmund Husserl from Descartes adopts the ego cogito as an apodictically certain ground of judgment on which philosophy is to be founded (CM § 8). Contrary to the Descartian doubt method, the method of the epoché , inaugurated by Husserl , does not lead to an inner-worldly subjectivity, but to an extramundane, transcendental consciousness. According to Husserl, Descartes misses the transcendental turning point because he still believes that he has saved a “little end of the world” in the apodictic ego (CM § 10).

Martin Heidegger sees Descartes as the key to the genesis of science in modern times . Through the (anti-Aristotelian) bracketing of the qualities of the organic and through fixation on the quantification of the object world, his philosophy represents the beginning of the ominous technical domination of the world. For Heidegger, the approach to doubt is only apparently new, because Descartes is still firmly established in scholasticism anchored. In “cogito ergo sum” Heidegger sees the “planting of a fateful prejudice”, because Descartes explores the cogitatio , but not the “ ontology of sum”.

Even Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that one absolutely certain something known (prelinguistic) foundation was mentally not completely einholbar because everything always done already within a presupposed (presumed) system.

By the historian and philosopher Wilhelm Kamlah Descartes was the first outstanding representative in the northern Italian workshops tradition of Renaissance developed "New Science" (-sauffassung) with their specific methodological durchgeklärten combination of mathematical theory and technical empiricism appreciated that the foundation of modern scientism was . That is why he is understood as the "first philosophical dogmatist of mechanics [...] factually and historically more comprehensive" than as a "philosopher of cogito sum, the discovery of the self out of doubt" .

In his analysis of the sociology of knowledge, the sociologist Norbert Elias sees Descartes as a prototypical representative of the individualization caused by the Western European integration and state-building process . Descartes' philosophy sees Elias as the unreflected outflow of the then still rare and since the 19th century in Europe widespread human self-experience as an isolated individual, as "homo clausus", as "we-less I", which has since shaped and limited classical epistemology .

For Foucault , Descartes' image of the machine “man” shows the first modern philosophical basis for the development of the technocratic and disciplinary processes that ushered in a new politics of the body and a new economy of power ( biopower ) in the 18th century .

The theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann takes up Descartes' religious-philosophical thoughts to prove the existence of God and to life after death. Descartes distinguishes between hard and gentle proving; H. between convaincre from Latin vincere = (with striking proof) to defeat and persuader from Latin suavis = sweet, lovely. Like all love, God's love cannot be proven “hard”. (On the other hand, cf. Blaise Pascal : "The God of Abraham is not the God of the philosophers"). The theologian's knowledge-guiding interest is the question of life after death. For "God is not a God of the dead, but of the living" (Mk 12:27). After losing her faith, she said, “the beginning and the end of the Christian creed: God and eternal life” remained: “hope and love” ( No and Amen. My farewell to traditional Christianity. 7th edition. Munich 2007, p . 413 ff.).


Principia philosophiae , 1685

Total expenditure

  • Charles Adam, Paul Tannery (ed.): Œuvres de Descartes (11 volumes + appendix), Léopold Cerf, Paris 1897–1913 (French and Latin)
  1. Correspondance Avril 1622 - Février 1638 , 1897
  2. Correspondance Mars 1638 - Décembre 1639 , 1898
  3. Correspondance Janvier 1640 - Juin 1643 , 1899
  4. Correspondance Juillet 1643 - Avril 1647 , 1901
  5. Correspondance May 1647 - Février 1650 , 1903
  6. Discours de la méthode & Essais , 1902
  7. Meditationes de prima philosophia , 1904
  8. Principia philosophiæ / Epistola ad G. Voetium. Lettre apologetique. Notæ in programma , 1905 (two parts)
  9. Meditations et Principes. Traduction française , 1904 (two parts)
  10. Physico-mathematica. Compendium musicæ. Regulæ ad directionem ingenii. Research de la verité. Supplement a la correspondance , 1908
  11. Le monde. Description of the corps humain. Passions de l'ame. Anatomica. Varia , 1909
  12. Vie & œuvres de Descartes. Étude historique / Supplément. Index générale , 1910/1913 (two parts; yearbook review )
  • F. Alquié (Ed): Oeuvres philosophiques. 3 volumes, Paris 1963–1973.

Newer editions

  • Meditations on the basics of philosophy with all the objections and replies. Transl. And ed. v. Artur Buchenau. Meiner, Hamburg 1994, ISBN 3-7873-0030-9 .
  • Meditationes de prima philosophia. Lat. with German foreword. C. Grumbach, Leipzig 1913 Project Gutenberg eText (currently usually not available for users from Germany)
  • Meditationes de prima philosophia. Latin-German, ed. v. Lüder given. Meiner, Hamburg 1992, ISBN 3-7873-1080-0 .
  • Meditations on the basics of philosophy. Edited by Lüder given. Meiner, Hamburg 1993, ISBN 3-7873-0032-5 .
  • The principles of philosophy. Trans. V. Christian Wohlers. Meiner, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-7873-1697-3 .
  • Discours de la méthode. French-German, transl. and ed. v. Lüder given. Meiner, Hamburg 1997, ISBN 3-7873-1341-9 .
  • Regulae ad directionem ingenii. Latin-German, transl. and ed. v. Heinrich Springmeyer, Lüder Gäbe and Hans Günter Zekl . Meiner, Hamburg 1993, ISBN 3-7873-0265-4 .
  • Conversation with Burman. Latin-German, transl. and ed. v. Hans W. Arndt. Meiner, Hamburg 1982, ISBN 3-7873-0501-7 .
  • The passions of the soul. French-German, transl. and ed. v. Klaus Hammacher. Meiner, Hamburg 1996, ISBN 3-7873-1308-7 .
  • Les Météores / The Meteors . Facsimile of the first edition 1637. Ed., Transl., Incorporated. and come by Claus Zittel, Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-465-03451-1 .
  • About man (1632) and description of the human body (1648). Translated, introduced and commented on by Karl Eduard Rothschuh , Heidelberg 1969.


Philosophy bibliography : René Descartes - Additional references on the topic

  • Gregor Betz: Descartes' "Meditations on the Basics of Philosophy". A systematic commentary. Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-15-018828-6 .
  • Harold John Cook: The young Descartes - nobility, rumor, and war. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2018, ISBN 978-0-226-46296-7 .
  • AC Crombie et al. : Descartes, René du Perron . In: Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography . tape 4 : Richard Dedekind - Firmicus Maternus . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1971, p. 51-65 .
  • Theodor Ebert : The enigmatic death of René Descartes. Alibri, Aschaffenburg 2009.
  • Karl Jaspers : Descartes and Philosophy. De Gruyter, Berlin 1937 (1956, 4th unchanged edition, 1966 ff.) - see also Three Essays: Leonardo - Descartes - Max Weber. Harcourt, Brace And World, New York 1964.
  • Andreas Kemmerling : Ideas of the self. Studies on Descartes' philosophy. 2nd Edition. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 978-3-465-03412-4 .
  • Maxim Leroy: Descartes; le philosophe au masque. 2 volumes. Editions Rieder, Paris 1929.
  • Sascha Müller: René Descartes' Philosophy of Freedom (= Munich Philosophical Contributions. Volume 21). Herbert Utz Verlag, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-8316-0694-8 .
  • Dominik Perler : René Descartes. Beck, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-406-41942-9 .
  • Hans Poser : René Descartes. An introduction. Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-018286-7 .
  • Peter Prechtl: Descartes for an introduction. 2. unchang. Edition. Junius, Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-88506-926-1 .
  • Wolfgang Röd : The genesis of Cartesian rationalism. Beck, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-406-39342-X .
  • Rainer Schäfer: Doubt and Being. The origin of modern self-awareness in Descartes' cogito. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2006, ISBN 3-8260-3202-0 .
  • Christiane Schildknecht : Philosophical masks. Studies on the literary form of philosophy in Plato, Descartes, Wolff and Lichtenberg. Stuttgart, Metzler 1990, ISBN 978-3-476-00717-9 .
  • Uwe Schultz : Descartes. Biography. European Publishing House, Hamburg 2001, ISBN 3-434-50506-7 .
  • Rainer Specht: René Descartes. With personal testimonials and picture documents. 10th edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, June 2006, ISBN 3-499-50117-1 , p. 191 (mainly deals with the biography and the time background, less the work) .
  • Bernard Williams : Descartes: The Purpose of Purely Philosophical Inquiry. Beltz Athenaeum, Weinheim 1996, ISBN 3-89547-103-8 .
  • Claus Zittel: Theatrum philosophicum. Descartes and the role of aesthetic forms in philosophy . Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-05-004050-9 .

Web links

Texts by Descartes

Commons : René Descartes  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Renatus Cartesius  - Sources and full texts (Latin)
Wikisource: René Descartes  - Sources and full texts (French)
Wikisource: René Descartes  - Sources and full texts

Information about Descartes

Individual evidence

  1. See the IX. (last) section of Book II by Isaac Newton: The Mathematical Principles of Physics. trans. and ed. by Volkmar Schüller. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1999, ISBN 3-11-016105-2 , pp. 375-376 (a modern translation).
  2. Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, Descartes , Ithaca 1998, p. 8. The general biographical information in the "Life" section of this article is largely based on Gert Pinkernell: names, titles and dates of French literature .
  3. René Descartes: One night in Ulm - 400 years of Cartesian dreams. An event of the University of Ulm on November 10, 2019 Descartes - University of Ulm. Retrieved November 11, 2019 .
  4. See also Sigmund Freud : Letter to Maxime Leroy. About a dream of Descartes (1929). In: Sigmund Freud, About dreams and interpretations of dreams. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1971 (1980), ISBN 3-596-26073-6 , pp. 113-116 and 124 f. And on this: Maxime Leroy: Descartes; le philosophe au masque. 2 volumes. Editions Rieder, Paris 1929, Volume 1, p. 89 f.
  5. Theodor Ebert: The enigmatic death of René Descartes. Alibri, Aschaffenburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-86569-048-7 - Anders Eike Pies , who had already advocated a murder theory in 1996 (The Descartes murder case), Ebert included all the documents still available on Descartes' death in his investigation.
  6. The mathematician Thomas Sonar agreed with the thesis (Thomas Sonar: 3000 Years of Analysis. Springer, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-642-17203-8 , p. 245).
  7. Tom Sorell: Descartes , Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 1999, p. 125.
  8. René Descartes: Philosophical writings in one volume. Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1996 (Latin and German text parallel) 2. Meditation, paragraph 3.
  9. Wolfgang Röd: History of Philosophy. Vol. 7, The Philosophy of Modern Times 1. From Francis Bacon to Spinoza. CH Beck, Munich, 1999 ISBN 3-406-42743-X , p. 81 f
  10. Wolfgang Röd: Descartes: the genesis of Cartesian rationalism. CH Beck, Munich 1995 ISBN 3-406-39342-X
  11. See e.g. BC Boyer, A History of Mathematics, New York 1968.
  12. René Descartes in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature of the IAU (WGPSN) / USGS
  13. René Descartes at the IAU Minor Planet Center (English)
  14. René Descartes: The principles of philosophy, translated by Artur Buchenau . 7th edition. Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1965.
  15. Galilei, Galileo: Dialogue on the two main world systems, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican . BG Teubner, Leipzig 1891, p. 197–198 ( [accessed August 17, 2016]).
  16. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA III, 190 .
  17. The roots of modern science and profanity. (Lecture) Abendland Verlag, Wuppertal 1948, reprinted again. in: From language to reason. Philosophy and Science in Modern Profanity. Bibliogr. Institut, Mannheim 1975, ISBN 3-411-01495-4 (pp. 9–27; quotation p. 23; see also Der Aufbruch der Vernunft in Descartes - autobiographical and historical. In: Arch Gesch Philos. 1961: 43, 70 ff .; ud T. Der Aufbruch der neue Wissenschaft. Descartes' Descartes-Legende. revised. In: Utopie, Eschatologie, Geschichtsteleologie. Critical studies on the origin and futuristic thinking of the modern age. BI, Mannheim 1969, pp. 73-88).
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on September 2, 2005 .