Descartes (1596-1650) is generally considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the modern Western world. He has been called ¡¥the founder of modern philosophy¡¦ as he was the first man of any influence in philosophy to be interested and affected by physics and astronomy, as well as refusing to accept views of his predecessors, preferring to work out everything for himself. He was the first man to attempt this since Aristotle, and there is ¡¥a freshness about his work that is not to be found in any eminent previous philosopher since Plato.¡¦ Tarnas says: ¡¥To begin by doubting everything was the necessary first step, for he wished to sweep away all the past presumptions now confusing human knowledge and to isolate only those truths he himself could directly experience as indubitable.¡¦ This questioning and sceptical nature meant that Descartes was able to make breakthroughs in philosophy not available to earlier philosophers who had accepted other people¡¦s views as true.
Descartes was slow to start his work on philosophy, and in fact did not publish any works until he was forty-one. His last published work came out only twelve years after the first, and yet in these twelve years Descartes managed to make an enormous contribution to philosophy as well as to other fields such as physics, mathematics and meteorology. He is best known for his ¡¥cogito¡¦, the famous phrase: ¡¥Cogito, ergo sum¡¦, or ¡¥I am thinking, therefore I am.¡¦ This small piece of philosophy is the basis for the whole of Descartes¡¦ metaphysics, and is called his first philosophy.
One of Descartes¡¦ most famous works was his ¡¥Meditations¡¦, which he began work on in 1639 while living in Holland. Sorell tries to describe this time of his life, saying: ¡¥Accounts of this period of his life sometimes picture him as a near recluse, living with a few servants away from society, wholly occupied with experimental and theoretical work in the sciences, occasionally dabbling in philosophy.¡¦ Descartes expresses a lot of his views about the mind and body in his ¡¥Meditations¡¦, and ¡¥purports to be giving a theory of the soul, not a theory of the mental capacities and ideas that put us in touch with the essence of matter.¡¦
In the ¡¥Meditations¡¦, Descartes aimed to reject any preconceptions he already had, and start piecing together things that were true by considering them deeply. Today, we call this method ¡¥Cartesian doubt¡¦, as it is based on the fact that Descartes doubts everything and aims to prove or disprove preconceived ideas. In the first meditation, Descartes simply throws out all of his ideas, anything that he has been brought up to believe or has grown to think. On the subject of body, he says ¡¥I shall consider myself as not having eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing all these things.¡¦ . He does not think that we can be certain of our bodies here, as we have no proof that they exist. As he has to doubt everything, even the fact that we have a body may be a subject of dispute and he has decided to reject it for now. In the second meditation, far more attention is paid to the mind and body discussion, and it is closer to the forefront of his thought. In this meditation, he convinces himself that he, in fact, does exist and that he can be sure of this because ¡¥if I convinced myself of something then I certainly exist.¡¦ However, by coming to the conclusion that he exists, he realises that he has to be wary of giving this ¡¥I¡¦ attributes which he is not yet sure of. He says: ¡¥So I must be on my guard against carelessly taking something else to be this ¡¥I¡¦, and so making a mistake in the very item of knowledge that is the most certain and evident of all.¡¦ He goes on to define what he means by the term ¡¥body¡¦, as he has now rejected its existence and feels a need to examine...