Rene Descartes
Researched and written by:  John Stanbro
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work.

Childhood/Family Life-
    Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in the small French town La Haye.  His father was a wealthy lawyer who dedicated much of his time to his work which was mostly in the town of Brittany, 150 miles away from La Haye.  Descartes’ mother died shortly after his birth.  Because his mother was dead, and his father worked so far away, Descartes was raised in his younger years largely by his grandmother.  Though Descartes’ family was slightly different from the “typical” childhood family, his childhood was generally happy, with deep roots in education.  He was raised Catholic, and he remained a devout Catholic his whole life.  His health was never good, he was a sickly child often prone to illnesses and overall physical weakness.  But his mind was strong.  (Burnham, 2001), (Schultz, 2000).
    Descartes’ father was also a very educated man who realized his son’s intelligence at a young age.  Descartes was especially talented, and naturally gifted in math.  At 8 years old, Descartes was sent to study at the Jesuit college in La Fleche.  Here Descartes studied such subjects as biology and philosophy.  He studied Aristotle in particular, and later on in his life this was a large factor to him becoming a strict rationalist.  Because of his poor health, Descartes was allowed to lay in bed until 12noon.  Descartes used his time resting in bed to think, and much of his best thinking was accomplished at this time.  

Adult Life-
    After Descartes’ time at the Jesuit college in La Fleche, he went on to receive a law degree from Poitier.  The 21 year old Descartes now decided to travel Europe as a gentleman-volunteer in the armies of Bavaria, Holland, and Hungary.  In 1619 Descartes began to study natural phenomenon, this was greatly influenced by the Dutch scientist Beeckman.  He conducted many experiments during this time including how to figure out why his hair turned gray, as well as testing wheelchair maneuverability.  
    Descartes, while a devote Catholic, still had a few vices.  Some of his interests other than philosophy and mathematics included dancing, and gambling.  Because of his natural mathematical abilities, he was a very successful gambler.  He never married, but he did have a 3 year relationship with a Dutch woman.  Descartes’ relationship with the Dutch woman did result in him having a daughter.  Descartes became very attached to his daughter whom he deeply loved.  But, at only 5 years old his daughter died and Descartes was devastated.  
After his daughter’s death, Descartes moved back and forth between many places across Europe, he would constantly change his address to try to be alone.  He lived a solitary life keeping contact with only a few close friends.  It is estimated that he bought over 26 houses in the countryside of Holland, all of which were funded by his inheritance.  All the while he continued writing about philosophy and mathematics.  
Even though Descartes had wanted his privacy and solitude very badly, he continued to become more and more famous due to his writings.  He became so popular that Queen Christina of Sweden requested that he teach her in philosophy.  Because Descartes had a great deal of respect for royalty, he accepted her offer and left for Sweden in 1649.  Queen Christina asked that Descartes instruct her daily at 5am, and they studied in a cold library.  The sickly Descartes was not physically capable of keeping up with her demands and after only 4 months he contracted pneumonia and died on February 11, 1650.  
   Descartes body was originally buried in Sweden, but his friends wanted his remains to go to his homeland of France.  Before his body was returned to France, his head was chopped off in order for the body to fit into the coffin.  The remains of his head were passed around by Swedish collectors for several years before returning to France.  Also, the Swedish ambassador to France chopped off Descartes’ right index finger as a token of which to remember him.  All this was an ironically fitting ending for the man who argued that the mind and body were separate.  

Professional Accomplishments-
    Descartes’ impact on psychology started with his work in various fields such as physiology and anatomy.  Descartes saw the human condition as a competition between the body and soul.  This helped lead to the idea of mechanism, the idea that the body is essentially mechanical in nature.  This was due largely in part to his viewing the body in terms of physics, as well as the then popular mechanistic spirit which included automata.  Descartes saw the human body as he saw mechanical figures, they had muscles and tendons.  He observed that many human movements were not the direct result of a conscious action, but rather these movements were the result of undulatio reflexa, or a reflexive action.  This theory helped set the course for later psychology movements such as behavioral stimulus-response psychology.  Descartes’ ideas also supported the notion of the predictability of human nature.  Descartes also believed that the brain was the point of the mind’s function.  
    Descartes developed the idea of derived ideas, and innate ideas, in his doctrine of ideas.  For Descartes, derived ideas are ideas come from sensory experiences, whereas innate ideas develop from the mind.  These ideas later helped influence the Gestalt school of psychology.  Overall, his accomplishments in psychology helped influence mechanism, and had a significant future impact on such psychologists as John Locke, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Wilhelm Wundt.

       Schultz, D. Schultz, S. (2000), A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt, Inc. Troy, MO. Page 33-39.
       Burnham, D. Fieser, J. (2001), Rene Descartes, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
       Serendip, Y. (1994-2002), Rene Descartes,



If you want more information about this web site, please send an email to Dr. Megan E. Bradley