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René Descartes (1596–1650). Discourse on Method.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

RENÉ DESCARTES was born at La Haye in Touraine, March 31, 1596. He came of a landed family with possessions in Brittany as well as in the south. His education was begun at the Jesuit College of La Flèche, continued at Paris, and completed by travel in various countries; and his studies were varied by several years of military service. After he began to devote himself to philosophy, he lived chiefly in Holland; but the last five months of his life were spent in Stockholm, at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, where he died on February 11, 1650.

While still young, Descartes had become profoundly dissatisfied with the scholastic philosophy, which still survived in the teaching of the Jesuits from whom he received his early training; and adopting a skeptical attitude he set out on his travels determined “to gain knowledge only from himself and the great book of the world, from nature and the observation of man.” It was in Germany, as he tells us, that there came to him the idea which proved the starting point of his whole system of thought, the idea, “I think, therefore I exist,” which called a halt to the philosophical doubt with which he had resolved to regard everything that could conceivably be doubted. On this basis he built up a philosophy which is usually regarded as the foundation of modern thought. Not that the system of Descartes is accepted to-day; but the sweeping away of presupposition of all kinds, and the “method” which he proposed for the discovery of truth, have made possible the whole modern philosophic development. It was in the “Discourse” here printed, originally published in 1637, that this method was first presented to the world.

Descartes was distinguished in physics and mathematics as well as in philosophy; and his “Geometry” revolutionized the study of that science.