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Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to her court in 1649 to organize a new scientific academy and tutor her in his ideas about love. She was interested in and stimulated Descartes to publish the “Passions of the Soul”, a work based on his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth.

He was a guest at the house of Pierre Chanut, living on Västerlånggatan, less than 500 meters from Tre Kronor in Stockholm. There, Chanut and Descartes made observations with a Torricellian barometer, a tube with mercury. Challenging Blaise Pascal, Descartes took the first set of barometric readings in Stockholm to see if atmospheric pressure could be used in forecasting the weather.


Descartes apparently started giving lessons to Queen Christina after her birthday, three times a week, at 5 a.m, in her cold and draughty castle. Soon it became clear they did not like each other; she did not like his mechanical philosophy, he did not appreciate her interest in Ancient Greek. By 15 January 1650, Descartes had seen Christina only four or five times. On 1 February he caught a cold which quickly turned into a serious respiratory infection, and he died on 11 February. The cause of death was pneumonia according to Chanut, but peripneumonia according to the doctor Van Wullen who was not allowed to bleed him. (The winter seems to have been mild, except for the second half of January) which was harsh as described by Descartes himself. “This remark was probably intended to be as much Descartes’ take on the intellectual climate as it was about the weather.”

In 1996 E. Pies, a German scholar, published a book questioning this account, based on a letter by Johann van Wullen, who had been sent by Christina to treat him, something Descartes refused, and more arguments against its veracity have been raised since. Descartes might have been assassinated as he asked for an emetic: wine mixed with tobacco.

As a Catholic in a Protestant nation, he was interred in a graveyard used mainly for orphans in Adolf Fredriks kyrka in Stockholm. His manuscripts came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, Chanut’s brother-in-law, and “a devout Catholic who has begun the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding and publishing his letters selectively.” In 1663, the Pope placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books. In 1666 his remains were taken to France and buried in the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. In 1671 Louis XIV prohibited all the lectures in Cartesianism. Although the National Convention in 1792 had planned to transfer his remains to the Panthéon, he was reburied in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1819, missing a finger and the skull.

Luc Paquin



In 1620 Descartes left the army. He visited Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, then visited various countries before returning to France, and during the next few years spent time in Paris. It was there that he composed his first essay on method: Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). He arrived in La Haye in 1623, selling all of his property to invest in bonds, which provided a comfortable income for the rest of his life. Descartes was present at the siege of La Rochelle by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627. In the fall of the same year, in the residence of the papal nuncio Guidi di Bagno, where he came with Mersenne and many other scholars to listen to a lecture given by the alchemist Monsieur de Chandoux on the principles of a supposed new philosophy. Cardinal Bérulle urged him to write an exposition of his own new philosophy.


Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in 1628. In April 1629 he joined the University of Franeker, studying under Metius, living either with a Catholic family, or renting the Sjaerdemaslot, where he invited in vain a French cook and an optician. The next year, under the name “Poitevin”, he enrolled at the Leiden University to study mathematics with Jacob Golius, who confronted him with Pappus’s hexagon theorem, and astronomy with Martin Hortensius. In October 1630 he had a falling-out with Beeckman, whom he accused of plagiarizing some of his ideas. In Amsterdam, he had a relationship with a servant girl, Helena Jans van der Strom, with whom he had a daughter, Francine, who was born in 1635 in Deventer, at which time Descartes taught at the Utrecht University. Unlike many moralists of the time, Descartes was not devoid of passions but rather defended them; he wept upon her death in 1640. “Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.” Russell Shorto postulated that the experience of fatherhood and losing a child formed a turning point in Descartes’ work, changing its focus from medicine to a quest for universal answers.

Despite frequent moves he wrote all his major work during his 20+ years in the Netherlands, where he managed to revolutionize mathematics and philosophy. In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church, and Descartes abandoned plans to publish Treatise on the World, his work of the previous four years. Nevertheless, in 1637 he published part of this work in three essays: Les Météores (The Meteors), La Dioptrique (Dioptrics) and La Géométrie (Geometry), preceded by an introduction, his famous Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method), also meant for women. In it Descartes lays out four rules of thought, meant to ensure that our knowledge rests upon a firm foundation.

The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

Descartes continued to publish works concerning both mathematics and philosophy for the rest of his life. In 1641 he published a metaphysics work, Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), written in Latin and thus addressed to the learned. It was followed, in 1644, by Principia Philosophiæ (Principles of Philosophy), a kind of synthesis of the Meditations and the Discourse. In 1643, Cartesian philosophy was condemned at the University of Utrecht, and Descartes began (through Alfonso Polloti, an Italian general in Dutch service) a long correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, devoted mainly to moral and psychological subjects. Connected with this correspondence, in 1649 he published Les Passions de l’âme (Passions of the Soul), that he dedicated to the Princess. In 1647, he was awarded a pension by the Louis XIV, though it was never paid.

A French translation of Principia Philosophiæ, prepared by Abbot Claude Picot, was published in 1647. This edition Descartes dedicated to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. In the preface Descartes praised true philosophy as a means to attain wisdom. He identifies four ordinary sources to reach wisdom, and finally says that there is a fifth, better and more secure, consisting in the search for first causes.

Luc Paquin


Early Life

Descartes was born in La Haye en Touraine (now Descartes), Indre-et-Loire, France, on March 31, 1596. When he was one year old, his mother Jeanne Brochard died after trying to give birth to another child that also died. His father Joachim was a member of the Parlement of Brittany at Rennes. René lived with his grandmother and with his great-uncle. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots. In 1607, late because of his fragile health, he entered the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche where he was introduced to mathematics and physics, including Galileo’s work. After graduation in 1614, he studied two years at the University of Poitiers, earning a Baccalauréat and Licence in law, in accordance with his father’s wishes that he should become a lawyer. From there he moved to Paris.

In his book, Discourse On The Method, he says “I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it.”

Given his ambition to become a professional military officer, in 1618, Descartes joined the Dutch States Army in Breda under the command of Maurice of Nassau, and undertook a formal study of military engineering, as established by Simon Stevin. Descartes therefore received much encouragement in Breda to advance his knowledge of mathematics. In this way he became acquainted with Isaac Beeckman, principal of a Dordrecht school, for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650). Together they worked on free fall, catenary, conic section and Fluid statics. Both believed that it was necessary to create a method that thoroughly linked mathematics and physics. While in the service of the Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, Descartes visited the labs of Tycho Brahe in Prague and Johannes Kepler in Regensburg.


According to Adrien Baillet, on the night of 10-11 November 1619 (St. Martin’s Day), while stationed in Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes shut himself in a room with an “oven” (probably a Kachelofen or masonry heater) to escape the cold. While within, he had three visions and believed that a divine spirit revealed to him a new philosophy. Upon exiting he had formulated analytical geometry and the idea of applying the mathematical method to philosophy. He concluded from these visions that the pursuit of science would prove to be, for him, the pursuit of true wisdom and a central part of his life’s work. Descartes also saw very clearly that all truths were linked with one another, so that finding a fundamental truth and proceeding with logic would open the way to all science. This basic truth, Descartes found quite soon: his famous “I think therefore I am”.

Luc Paquin

René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who spent most of his life in the Dutch Republic.

He has been dubbed the father of modern philosophy, and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day. In particular, his Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments. Descartes’s influence in mathematics is equally apparent; the Cartesian coordinate system – allowing reference to a point in space as a set of numbers, and allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two- or three-dimensional coordinate system (and conversely, shapes to be described as equations) – was named after him. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the scientific revolution and has been described as an example of genius.

Descartes refused to accept the authority of previous philosophers, and refused to trust his own senses. He frequently set his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Passions of the Soul, a treatise on the early modern version of what are now commonly called emotions, Descartes goes so far as to assert that he will write on this topic “as if no one had written on these matters before”. Many elements of his philosophy have precedents in late Aristotelianism, the revived Stoicism of the 16th century, or in earlier philosophers like Augustine. In his natural philosophy, he differs from the schools on two major points: First, he rejects the splitting of corporeal substance into matter and form; second, he rejects any appeal to final ends – divine or natural – in explaining natural phenomena. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation.

Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes were all well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well.

His best known philosophical statement is “Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637 – written in French but with inclusion of “Cogito ergo sum”) and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 – written in Latin).

Luc Paquin