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René Descartes (1596–1650)

Widely regarded as the ‘father of modern philosophy’, Descartes was a key figure in the Scientific Revolution who made signal contributions to the development of mathematics and whose works laid the metaphysical foundations for modern scientific method and philosophical rationalism. Born in France, Descartes was a soldier in the Thirty Years’ War. He spent the majority of his philosophical career in the Dutch Republic, and died in Stockholm shortly after arriving there at the invitation to serve as Queen Christina of Sweden’s court philosopher. In addition to establishing the Cartesian coordinate system, thus uniting algebra and geometry and making possible the development of calculus and analytical geometry, Descartes set the terms of philosophical debate for centuries to come by placing the problem of subjectivity at the centre of philosophical thought. In his most famous works, the Discourse on Method (1637) and the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes elaborated the contours of his deductive method grounded in the certainty of first principles, a mode of thought which would be opposed to the ‘inductive’ procedures of empiricism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Descartes’ most famous formulation - cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’) - established the certainty of subjective existence on the experience of doubt itself, thus putting paid to the sceptical critiques of philosophy which had shaken medieval Scholasticism. The conservative nature of Descartes’ politics - grounded in a reason which tends to affirm the status quo - are criticized by François Regnault in volume six. Nonetheless, Lacan’s reconfiguration of ‘the Cartesian subject’, emphasizing the moment of uncertainty in the constitution of subjectivity, was of crucial importance to the development of post-war French thought, and to the specific concerns of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques Lacan, ‘La Science et la vérité’, CpA 1.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
François Regnault, ‘La pensée du prince (Descartes et Machiavel)’, CpA 6.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Descartes et Elisabeth, ‘Quatre lettres sur Machiavel’, CpA 6.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols., eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: Vrin, 1983.
  • The Philosophical Works of Descartes, 3 vols., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.