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Rookie Term Independent

By | May 2013
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Descartes and Rationalism
René Descartes, 1596-1650 (Latin Renatus Cartesius, hence the term Cartesian)

Descartes’ Project Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo and Kepler. He was born about 50 years after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Thus he lived right at the beginning of the scientific revolution, as the medieval world view was beginning to collapse. Descartes was a mathematician and physicist, as well as a philosopher. He was the first to offer a system of mechanics that applied both to terrestrial and heavenly bodies. His system was based on a set of laws governing the motions of particles, including various types of collisions. These laws, though unsuccessful, were a precursor of Newton’s laws of motion, and Huygens’ solution to the collision problem. Descartes had the disturbing experience of finding out that everything he learned at school was wrong. From 1604-1612 he was educated at a Jesuit school, where he learned the standard medieval, scholastic, Aristotelian philosophy. In 1619 he had some disturbing dreams, and embarked on his life’s work of rebuilding the whole universe, since the Aristotelian universe was doomed. (Descartes didn’t suffer from lack of ambition!) The problem for Descartes was that he couldn’t merely tinker with the medieval picture, fixing it up here and there, because it was fundamentally wrong. It was rotten to its very foundations. The only way to proceed was to tear it down completely, and start building again from scratch. For an analogy, suppose your computer has been attacked by a virus, so that many important system files have been corrupted. You don’t know which files have been corrupted, so you can’t really trust any of them. The only thing to do is to erase the hard drive completely and re-install everything. How did Descartes “erase his hard drive”? He used what is known as his method of doubt. He tried, as far as was possible, to empty his mind of all beliefs, to suspend judgment about...

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