Is knowledge possible? If so, what can we know and how do we come to know it? What degree of certainty does our knowledge enjoy? In these two powerful works, Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher considered to be the father of modern philosophy, outlines his philosophical method and then counters the sceptics of his time by insisting that certain knowledge can be had. He goes on to address the nature and extent of human knowledge, the distinction between mind and body, the existence of God, and the existence of external objects.
RENE DESCARTES was born into a family of some means in the small French town of La Haye on March 31, 1596. With the death of his mother when Descartes was barely one year old, he was raised by grandparents until the age of ten when he entered the Jesuit school at La Fleche. At eighteen, Descartes enrolled in the University of Poitiers, where he earned a degree in law. Not long thereafter, while Descartes was serving in the military in the Netherlands he became acquainted with a mathematician and physicist by the name of Isaac Beeckman, who sparked his intellectual interest. A family legacy permitted Descartes to pursue these interests in relative comfort. From 1619 to 1628, Descartes lived in Paris, but spent a good bit of time traveling throughout Europe. It was during this time that he focused his attention on formulating a rational method that could free scientific think-ing and philosophical discourse from the rampant skepticism that threatened to drown discussion of important metaphysical and epistemological questions in a sea of uncertainty. Descartes developed a method that he believed could serve the needs of science and philosophy equally well. His efforts to realize this goal have earned him the title of the father of modern philosophy. In 1628, his travels ended, Descartes settled in the Netherlands, where he remained for the next twenty years. The last few months of his life were spent in Sweden, where he ventured in 1649 at the request of Queen Christina to instruct her in philosophy and to assist in the development of an institute for the advancement of science. While in Stockholm, Descartes came to the aid of the French ambassador, a friend who was suffering from pneumonia. Not long thereafter, Descartes contracted the disease and died on February 11, 1650. Rene Descartes's works include: The World (1633), Essais (1637), Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations Concerning Primary Philosophy (1644), Treatise on the Passions (1648), and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (published posthumously in 1701).