Born on March 31, 1596, René Descartes was born in La Haye, France (subsequently renamed for him, Descartes). Descartes lost his mother when he was thirteen, who died in childbirth. With his father Joachim, a lawyer, living in Châtteleraut, René spent his early years, together with his older sister Jeanne and his older brother Pierre with his grandmother, Jeanne Sain Brochard in La Haye. Shortly thereafter he relocated to the house of his great uncle, Michel Ferrand, a lawyer and Counselor of the King in Chätterlaut. Sometime in 1606 or 1607, Descartes took up studies at the Jesuit College of La Fleche, remaining there for some seven or eight years. His course of study was not untypical for the time: French, Greek and Latin, Ancient Poetry, Cicero and rhetoric, several years of philosophy (logic, morals, physics and metaphysics), followed by several years of mathematics.

About the education he received at the hands of the learned Jesuits, where he had distinguished himself as a most able student, Descartes remarked: “Languages are necessary for the understanding of ancient literature… the gracefulness of the fables stimulates the mind… the memorable deeds related in historical works elevate it and help to form one’s judgment if they are read with discretion… Eloquence has points of incomparable strength and beauty… poetry contains passages of entrancing sweetiness and delicacy; mathematics contains very subtle inventions… theology teaches how to attain heaven… philosophy enables one to talk plausibly on all subjects and win the admiration of people less learned than oneself… jurisprudence and medicine… bring honours and wealth to those who cultivate them.” So while much of his education was not worthless, he still felt a great disappointment in his studies. For he had been told that “he must study arts and letters so as to acquire a clear and assured knowledge of all that is useful for life.” He had done so, and yet despite, “being admitted to the ranks of the learned,” finds himself, “embarassed by doubts and errors” and face to face with the truth that “there was no such learning in the world as he had been led to hope.” He had hoped for clear and certain knowledge; so that he might judge and direct his life, in other words, science and wisdom. And yet he felted betrayed, cheated by his teachers, for with his studies he gained neither.

His family had intended for him to become a lawyer, after his father and many men in his family. And so he matriculated at Poitiers to pursue legal studies, graduating in 1616. But rather than practice law, or enter government service, he pursued the adventures of soldier, moving to Breda in 1618, in support of the Protestant Prince Maurice in his war against the Catholic regions of the Netherlands (now Belgium) under control of the Spanish. In Breda Descartes befriend the Dutch mathematician and natural philosopher, Isaac Beekman. Together they engaged in what they called “physico-mathematica,” or mathematical physics, addressing themselves to questions of falling bodies, hydostatics and mathematics. Beginning from the atoms of the ancient Atomists, they attributed not only size, shape and motion but also weight to these basic constituents of matter. In the course of their studies, Descartes discovered the fundamental insight that is the basis of analytic geometry, namely the technique for describing lines of all sort by means of mathematical equations involving ratios between lengths, or the rectilinear coordinate system of algebraic geometry, what since the nineteenth-century, has come to be known as the “Cartesian coordinates” in his honor.

In 1619 Descartes left Breda for the Catholic army of Maximilian I, then engaged in a struggle over the authority of Ferdinand V, the crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Descartes famously records several dreams that visited him on November 10, 1619 that he claims set him on his life’s mission: the reformation of all knowledge, beginning with philosophy, since all the sciences ultimately rest on its foundations. We know little about the next decade of Descartes’ life. He lived on and off in Paris, spent some time in Poitou to deal with some inherited properties and also made sojourns to Italy. His mind seems to have been devoted to mathematics at the time, and he managed to derive the sine law of refraction, which he would later publish in his Dioptrics. But his overwhelming attention was devoted to the formulation of his new method, the Rules. The aim and intention of the Rules was nothing less than the reformulation of the route to clear knowledge of everything human beings can know by generalizing the methods of mathematics as Descartes had come to understand them. His Rule 10 neatly encapsulates his program: “In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display order” (10: 403). By 1629 it seems Descartes had given up work on the only half completed Rules, and moved to the Dutch Netherlands, returning to his native France only intermittently, finally moving to Sweden in 1649. Famously – or infamously – while in the Netherlands, Descartes, like a man on the run, kept his addresses secret and changed address frequently and lived according to his motto, “to live well, live secretly.”

In the Netherlands, Descartes worked on an explanation for a set of parhelia, or “false suns” that appeared near Rome in the summer of 1629, and metaphysical speculations on the first principles of everything that there is, specifically on the existence and nature of God and the soul. It was by means of the later that Descartes claims he was able “to discover the foundation of physics” (I: 144), that he set down in a short Latin treatise, that scholars think was an early version of the Meditations, which according to a letter to his friend Mersenne, “contained all the principles of my physics.” For it was while puzzling over the parhelia, that Descartes first thought to write the Meditations, writing to Mersenne, that rather than simply explain the parhelia, he would “rather compose a treatise in which I explain all the phenomena of nature, that is to say, the whole of physics.” That work would eventually see the light of day as The World, originally conceived to have three parts: one on light, or the visible in material nature; another on man, a treaise on physiology, and finally, a treatise. While we possess the Treatise on Light and the Treatise of Man, there is no evidence that the third was ever written. Indeed, Descartes, fearing the fate of Galileo, suppressed even these first two works. Since the first two, simply by themselves, lay out a comprehensive materialist view of the universe as consisting of bare matter possessin only length, breadth and depth and divided into particles with size and shape, either at rest or in motion, which behave according to laws of motion.” The visible universe is one single physical system and all its operations, from the movement of the heavens, to the falling of rocks, to the growth of organic bodies, is explainable by means of the mechanics of moved matter in its various shapes and structures that move according to three laws of motion. While he suppressed his World, Descartes did release a more limited version of his philosophy, the Discourse and essays. The Discourse presents itself as an intellectual autobiography of sorts, with Descartes explaining his own path of doubt. In addition, it shared some of the conclusions of his daring metaphysical speculations, such as the famous mind-body dualism. The profound skepticism of his later Meditations, however is not present, nor did it try to establish, it merely presented as an hypothesis, that the essence of matter is extension. Instead he argued that the hypothesis be judged by its fruit, which he contained in the appended essays, the Dioptrics and Meteorology. In these two essay Descartes presented a corpuscular foundation for his physics, over and against the atoms-in-the-void thesis of ancient Atomists, and affirmed that all bodies are one type of infinitely divisible matter. Descartes went so far as to claim that he could explain these “substantial forms” and “real qualities” without recourse to what others “imagine to be in bodies”, but rather strictly through understanding matter in motion. In this way he took aim at the dominant Scholastic view, descended from Aristotle, that all natural bodies are a composite of “prime matter” and “substantial form.”   While in the World and Meteorology Descartes avoided an outright denial of substantial forms and real qualities, it is clear that he intended to deny them (1:324; 2:200; 3:420, 500, 648). Ever sensitive the prudent and secretive Descartes dare not directly attack the scholastic Aristotelian position (3:298), since it was the accepted and enforced position of most Catholic and Protestant theologians of his day. The publication of the Discourse in 1637 was met with a volley of learned letters challenging most of its doctrines, to which he responded in a kind, with a scintillating correspondence for years after.

In 1635, Descartes fathered a daughter Francine, with his housekeeper, Helena Jans. They lived together until Francine’s untimely death in September 1640. Descartes subsequently contributed a dowry for Helena’s marriage in 1644.

In November 1639, Descartes writes to Merseens that he was “working on a discourse in which I try to clarify what I have hitherto written on metaphysics.” He announced here his plan to put the Meditations before “the twenty or thirty most learned theologians” before publishing it. He and Mersenne will collect seven sets of objections and publish them with the work and his replies. And so we possess the objections of the Jesuit Pierre Bourdain, Mersenne, the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Gassendi and the theologian Antoine Arnauld. The Meditations, meant to encapsulate Descartes’ physics” has no section entitled, “physics,” or “principles of physics.” Rather the work deals with physics throught by treating the nature of matter, the activity of God, the nature of mind, the mind-body union and relationship, and the ontology of sensuous qualities. Rather it presents primarily Descartes’ metaphysics .

With his metaphysics published, Descartes dreamed up an enterprise to teach and popularize his entire physics in the schools, even those of the Jesuits, like his own La Fleche. There remained a problem. He did not speak Latin, the lingua franca of the schools of his day. So he sought to have a Latin translation of his physics, the Principles, published. This part of his scheme did not see fruition. However, his physics would eventually be taught in the non-Catholic lands of the Netherlands and England. While his works were place on the Church’s Index in 1663.

In 1644 he published the Principles in Latin, a French translation would appear in 1647. The Principles are in four parts: the first concerns metaphysics, the second the principles of physics, matter theories and the laws of motion which follow from part one; the third part concerns astronomy; and the fourth, the formation of the earth, the properties of non-organic matter, and the operation of the senses concluding with some methodological issues. In the preface to the French translation, Descartes added a famous letter with an image of the relations of the various parts of philosophy in the form of a tree of learning:

“Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences”

Despite his best efforst to avoid theological controversy or the enmity of ecclesiastical authorities, Descartes was eventually drawn into theological controversy with Calvinist theologians in the Netherlands. Henry le Roy, or Regius, a professor of medicine in Utrecht, taught Descartes’ system of natural philosophy. Already by 1640, the theological authority, Gisbert Voetius, a theologian at Utrecht, expressed his profound dissaproval. Controversy ensued, at first between Regius and Voetius, with Descartes merely advising the latter. But Voetius, who held the powerful position of rector of the University, convinced the faculty senate to condemn Descartes’ philosophy in 1642. To this end, he published two works with the help of colleagues (in 1642 and 1643 respectively) devoted to a full scale attack on Descartes’ philosophy. In 1643 Descartes himself responded with a Letter to Voetius. The controversy raged throughout the 1640s. Eventually Descartes and Regius would part company over the human mind, earning the critique of Descartes’ Comments on a Certain Broadsheet (1648). The 1640’s also saw Descartes hard at work on his physiological system, with a new copy of his Treatise on man, and a new work, Description of the Human body. It was in this period that he took up his famous correspondence with Princess Elisabeth in response to her reading questions of the Meditations. Finally, he penned the Passions of the Soul, an extensive account of behavioral physiology, as well as a theory of the passions and emotions.

In 1649, at the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes joined her court. There he composed the Statutes of the Swedish Royal Academy. On the very day he delivered them to her personally, he became gravely ill, never to recover. Descartes died on February 11, 1650.