‘The sciences found in books … do not come as close to the truth as the simple reasoning that a person with common sense can perform’
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Church’s authority in intellectual life was absolute. Scientific experiments were viewed with suspicion and knowledge was derived primarily from written authorities, notably the Bible and certain classical and medieval authors. By the end of the century, this status quo had been largely overthrown, and the new scientific age had arrived. Central to this revolution was a lawyer and soldier turned philosopher, René Descartes, who, with his remarkable gift for independent thought, restored human reason to the primacy it had enjoyed in antiquity.
How do we know that what we think is true is actually true? Can we prove that God exists? What is the relation of our mind to our body, and what is the difference between a dream and the world we experience with our senses? The questions that Descartes raised continue to resonate. Even more important than his ideas, however, was his method. Descartes wished to apply the same logic and precision that he found in mathematics to other disciplines. The result was an attempt to establish a new way of thinking, based on inductive reasoning.
This edition unites Descartes’s landmark texts with a selection of other writings. Part autobiography, part science, part philosophy, the Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations (1641) contain his most famous ideas, including the ‘dreaming argument’, his assertion ‘I think therefore I am’ and his proof of the existence of God. Descartes feared for his life after Galileo had been condemned by the Roman Inquisition, so both these works were published anonymously. After living in the Netherlands for over 20 years, Descartes finally ended his days as the tutor of Christina, Queen of Sweden. Written in a clear and engaging style, his works remain among the most important contributions to the history of thought. In his introduction, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey explains how ‘Descartes makes us think – new thoughts, uncomfortable thoughts.’ Shout’s illustrations provide a witty interpretation of Descartes’s ideas.