The Educational Theory of René Descartes
Known as the “father of modern philosophy,” Frenchman Rene Descartes (1596-1650) spent his life immersed in the rigorous study of all things metaphysical and mathematical. Born into a moderately noble background, Descartes had the opportunity to attend the Jesuit school of La Fleche. Since he had mitochondria as a child, he was granted special permission to be excused from his morning duties and stay in bed.
For Descartes, these mornings were spent in deep reflection, pondering the basic truths of life and mathematics (Bell, 1937). It was during these morning reflections that Descartes began to question the validity of his studies at La Fleche. In particular, he questioned “the alleged demonstrations and the casuistical logic by which the good Jesuits sought to gain the assent of his reasoning faculties” (Bell, 1937, p. 37). Even as he became older, Descartes still engaged in these morning rituals, asserting that in order for him to make progress in mathematics, he should never be forced out of bed early.
At age 18, he decided to halt his formal education and serve in the army. As mentioned by Finkle (1898), “he enlisted as a volunteer, and the first and only pay that he accepted he kept as a curiosity through life” (p. 192).
During his many years of service, Descartes found the time to advance his intellectual curiosities. In the realm of mathematics, he is credited with founding what is known as analytic geometry. This renowned accomplishment was a direct result of his discovery of the coordinate plane, which today is called the Cartesian plane in his honor.
As a scientific philosopher, Descartes penned many influential documents outlining his method of using doubts to ascertain the truths of the universe. Two of the most noteworthy are Discourse on Methods (1637) and Le Monde, which was not published in its entirety until 1677. Le Monde focused on a physical composition of the universe that endorsed a Copernican view, and as Descartes was of the Roman Catholic faith, “finding its publication was likely to bring on him the hostility of the Church, and having no desire to pose as a martyr, he abandoned it” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).
The summation of Descartes’ Catholic background and formal Jesuit schooling, his experiences as a soldier, his affinity for mathematics and science, and his desire to question the basic supposed truths of the universe led to quite a unique vision of the world, both physical and metaphysical, which had implications for education.
Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?
Descartes uses the metaphor of a tree to discuss what knowledge is worth learning. He says that "the whole of philosophy is like a tree whose roots are metaphysics, whose trunk is physics, and whose branches, emerging from the trunk, are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to the three principal ones, namely, medicine, mechanics, and morality" (Ariew, 1992, p. 101). Descartes begins with metaphysics as his roots because he knows that it is the basis for all scientific and mathematical truths. The three principle sciences, or branches, of his tree of knowledge represent “applications of our knowledge to the external world, to the human body, and to the conduct of life” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).
Because metaphysics consists of answering the questions “What is out there and why?”, Descartes had another view point of knowledge and skills. He maintained that an individual had to want to learn the material in order to learn truly learn it. Descartes demonstrates this belief by proposing “that the learner is then his/her own teacher....education is not seen as a social process as a personal quest” (Bicknell, 2003, p. 29). In addition to what he included in his Methods of Discourse, Descartes also thought that individuals should doubt supposed truths. If one is able to discern whether a notion is genuine or not, then he/she can accurately learn what is important (at least to the person asking the questions).
Therefore, the goal of education with respect to the philosophy of Descartes would be for an individual not to accept what was heard or read without extensively questioning everything. Descartes does not propose that everyone wants to learn this way, but instead insists it is the “correct path” (Bicknell, 2003, p.33) that will help one to gain as much knowledge as possible. With this in mind, he puts more emphasis on the sciences than he does on the arts, stating that both the arts and learning for the sake of learning were pointless “unless something tangible could be extracted therefrom” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).
Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?
According to Descartes, knowledge is “conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by a stronger reason” (Newman, 2010). Utilizing the philosophical method of doubt, Descartes thought that the pursuit of knowledge entails the pursuit of convictions that reflected the “most perfect certainty” (Newman, 2010). The first and most significant “certainty” obtained through this process is the existence of the self; that is, “I think; therefore, I am” (Descartes). Descartes then claimed that the existence of God, as a perfect Creator, is evident since “only God could have caused the idea of God” within a thinking being (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 397).
Therefore, according to this rationale, to deliberately claim that God does not exist would be considered a falsehood, or a mistake in the logical thinking of an imperfect human being. Descartes further argues that the reality of the natural, external world is an undeniable truth since a perfect God would be incapable of such a profound deception to the thinking being (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003).
Aspects of the external world that can be supported, proven, and upheld by the principles of reasoning, rather than by pure perception, supply the basis for mathematical and scientific truths. In his Meditations, Descartes makes the following assertion:
“For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three together will always make the number five, and the square will never have more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so clear and so apparent can ever be suspected of any falsity or uncertainty” (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 411).
Thus, any statement that repudiates the natural laws of logical, mathematical reasoning, such as two plus three being equal to six, would be considered a mistake in logic. Since all thinking beings are not as perfect as God, in Descartes’ argument, they are capable of making errors in judgment and therefore the potential for falsities in perception (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003). Relying solely on the perception of the senses and not attempting to use scientific reasoning may lead to mistakes and not the “most perfect certainty” (Newman, 2010).
When a notion is assumed to be true without any objective, logical evidence, it may be considered a belief rather than a truth. For instance, Descartes himself was a devout Catholic and believed in the infallibility of the Pope. He also, however, was persuaded through scientific reasoning to agree with a Copernican view of the solar system, an outlook which had been dismissed by the Pope as false. Since there was no logical or scientific proof of infallibility, it was considered to be a belief, not a “conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by a stronger reason” (Newman, 2010). Descartes argued that faith was not an act of the intellect but an act of the will, and therefore would not be held to the same level of scientific scrutiny as physical worldly matters. In fact, according to Bell (1937), he “compared religion, indeed, to the nurse from whom he received it, and declared that he found it as comforting to lean upon one as on the other” (p. 42). Thus, Descartes’ own religious beliefs acted as his personal support system and although seemingly counterintuitive, he did not doubt the core of the Catholicism that he practiced; rather, he embraced it despite any contradiction to scientific matters.
Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?
Descartes makes the claim that “all animals are machines” (Watson, 2002). In this, he mentions that humans are also apart of this topic as well. The only thing that sets us aside from other animals is the reasoning capability of the human mind. In his Meditations, Descartes defines a “thinking being” as a “being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives” (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 411). In addition, Descartes adds that “the human self is the mind, not the body.” (Watson, 2002, p. 12). Because one of Descartes’ main arguments is that we should question others and not accept what we hears as the truth, the mind helps individuals to question others, to learn and grow. The only area in which one should not question is when analyzing God’s existence. Descartes thought that “the metaphysical certainty that comes from knowing that our clear and distinct perceptions are the creation of a God who does not deceive” (Garber, 1988, p.234). Descartes also speaks of the “I” as if it is the mind and spiritual whereas the body is spatial and is subject to the material world (as are the animals).
A limitation of human potential would depend on the individual’s health. Because of Descartes’ illness as a child, he asserted that “an individuals good or ill health arguably affects those around him or her more profoundly that does intellectual process” (Bicknell, 2003, p.29). Since Descartes argues that because our mind and the cogito are valuable, if one suffers from a serious illness or even death, he/she cannot function the same as a healthy person. In this case, there would be a set-back to the amount of information that the person could learn. As hypothetical as it is, Descartes thought that “we could rid ourselves of ‘an infinity’ of mental and physical illness if we were to have sufficient knowledge of their cause and of the remedies provided by nature” (Bicknell, 2003, p. 29).
Human beings also differ from the animals in the possession of their will to act in matters of faith and religious belief. Descartes’ beliefs in religion could have caused him to be in trouble many times. The implications of the new sciences were widely believed to have unsettling implications for the conduct of moral and religious life (Smith, 2004).
Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?
For Descartes, learning is a personal quest comprised of external worldly experiences and internal ponderings. While Descartes te