René Descartes

A French philosopher and mathematician whose ideas made early and significant contributions to the field of psychology.

René Descartes was born in France, near the small village of La Haye. From the age of ten, he attended the Jesuit College Royal Henry-Le_Grand at La Fleche, graduating in 1606. He then obtained baccalaureate and law degrees from the University of Poitiers, at the urging of his father. His mother had died when he was one year old.

Descartes was a lifelong student of world experiences and was particularly interested in mathematics, science, and philosophy. He undertook a course of military engineering studies after deciding he wanted to be a career military officer. Descartes briefly served as a soldier, just before the Thirty Years’ War (1618– 48), first joining the Protestant and then the Catholic forces. Returning to the study of science and philosophy after the war, he spent several more years in Paris before moving to Holland at the age of 32. There, Descartes wrote his most important works, Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations on First Philosophy (1642), and Principles of Philosophy (1644). Because his books engendered controversy among the Dutch Protestant clergy, Descartes, already wary after Galileo's condemnation by the Inquisition, published little for the remainder of his life, confining his thoughts and ideas largely to unpublished manuscripts and letters. His last published work was Passions of the Soul (1649). Descartes remained in Holland for most of his life, although he moved about frequently during his time there. In 1649, he left for Sweden at the invitation of Queen Christina and began to tutor her in philosophy. Just a few months after arriving in Sweden, Descartes died at the age of 53.

The philosophy Descartes is noted for focuses on human reason. He began with the premise that the only way to be sure of anything is to doubt everything. He is quoted as saying, “I resolved to reject as false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see if there afterwards remained anything that was entirely indubitable.” In so doing, Descartes arrived at the conclusion that he could be certain of his own act of doubting, a mental process. From the certainty expressed in the famous statement, “I think; therefore I am,” he built a philosophy that gave preeminence to the workings of the individual mind over both immediate sensory experience and garnered wisdom.

Descartes postulated a radical mind-body dualism for his time, claiming that the universe consists of two distinct substances: mind, the thinking substance or res cogitans, and matter, the physical substance or res extensa. He separated mental phenomena from the comprehensive mechanistic explanation he gave for the workings of matter and material objects, including the human body. He divided the body into ten physiological systems, which included such faculties as memory and imagination, along with the purely physiological functions of digestion, circulation, and respiration.

Descartes believed the primary site of interaction between mind and body to be the pineal gland, which he incorrectly thought was human specific. He purported that the will, an aspect of the mind, could move the pineal gland and cause the transmission of what he referred to as animal spirits, which produce mechanical changes in the body. He also thought changes in the body could be transmitted to the pineal gland and could exert an effect on the mind. His rationalistic ideas provided a basis for the Enlightenment and became the dominant system of philosophy until the work of David Hume (1711–76) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). While many of Descartes’ individual arguments have since been disproved, his overall view of the dualism between mind and body has had a powerful influence on succeeding generations of philosophers and psychologists.

See also David Hume ; Philosophical psychology ; Rational motivations.



Descartes, René, and John Martin Morris. Descartes Dictionary. New York: Philosophical Library, 1971. Descartes, René. Descartes Philosophical Writings. New York: Modern Library, 1958.

Descartes, René, and John Veitch. A Discourse on Method. New York: E.P. Dutton, 2013.

Kuczynski, John-Michael. Empiricism and the Foundations of Psychology. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2012.

Mele, Alfred R. Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wilson, Margaret Dauler. Descartes. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1978.

WEBSITES “The European Graduate School: René Descartes Biography.” (accessed September 17, 2015). “René Descartes (1596–1650): Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” (accessed September 17, 2015). (accessed September 17, 2015). “René Descartes: Philosopher and Mathematician.” (accessed September 17, 2015).