Descartes: the “cogito ergo sum” and the human being at the center of everything

Descartes (La Haye en Touraine, March 31, 1596 – Stockholm, February 11, 1650), or René Descartes, is remembered as one of the founders of modern philosophical thought, a thought dominated by the centrality of the reason of the human being. In fact, Descartes began to unhinge the cornerstones of medieval thought that sees man at the service of a greater good, therefore, all the reflections were centered on the divine figure who created everything, including human beings. In this sense, the human being himself represents a collateral motive for investigation to everything else, a “remnant” identified with God.

Descartes is also remembered for having set himself against the traditional knowledge that was taught in schools, a knowledge that left little room for human reason, fundamental instead for the thought of Descartes himself. We will see how human reason really makes sense to everything that exists in the world. The philosophical research that is in fact practiced by the philosopher Descartes is a type of research that, taking mathematics as a model, starts from the human being and the contents of his thought to solve problems such as: the existence of God, the immortality of soul and problems related to human knowledge. Already from the approach that sees mathematics at the center of research, we understand how innovative the type of Cartesian philosophy is. With the philosopher Descartes, whom many define with a disproportionate ego, we have a more scientific approach and this method of proceeding represents a real break with the past.

To fully understand the personality of the “modern” philosopher, it is good to briefly mention his life and his studies which represent the basis for subsequent personal philosophical research. As a boy he studied with the Jesuits, graduating in law in 1616. Later he enlisted in the army reaching Germany where the Thirty Years War broke out. The winter of 1619 spent him in great solitude from which his personal philosophical research began. In fact, from this solitude came the subsequent decision to abandon military life, starting to make trips that put him in contact with numerous other realities, especially literals and scientific circles.

It was in the Netherlands that his philosophy was “officially” born, since there was a greater tolerance for innovative scientific and philosophical theories, such as the Cartesian ones, which see an immeasurable trust in human reason, a trust that in the previous period had been darkened. In 1637 he published in Leiden his first work, anonymously, The discourse on the method, which serves as a preface to three other scientific essays: Dioptric, Meteor and Geometry. The discourse on the method. The discourse on the method, despite presenting many contradictions and aporias, represents one of the most important works of Descartes, as well as his thought which was predominant for a long time. This thought is the so-called modern mechanism, or the consideration of the world, as well as of man, as a great machine. These considerations are some of the many theories that decree the departure of Descartes’ philosophy from what was taught in schools. It is above all in the unfinished treatise on the World that the philosopher proposes his hypothesis on the structure of the physical world, reconnecting everything to a mechanistic explanation.

Another important essay by Descartes are the Meditations on philosophy before, published in 1641 and containing the metaphysical path that according to the philosopher begins with the exercise of radical doubt, the one that questions all acquired knowledge. In particular, the essay begins with the questioning of what our senses communicate to us. Briefly: our senses deceive us to such an extent that we don’t even know if we are awake or dreaming.

This is followed by another subtle consideration: what if we were not deceived by our senses, but by an evil genius who makes us believe that 2 + 2 is 4? Here is the junction. While we doubt, one thing is certain: we are doubting and this is equivalent to saying that we are the fathers of a thought, that of being deceived. In this sense, even if we were deceived, we would still exist, since: cogito, ergo sum. From this awareness, Descartes constructs, or rather “reconstructs” knowledge. The guarantee of thought offers a further guarantee: that of the existence of the world. To this he adds the fact that there is first the soul, the thinking substance and then the body, the extended substance. The theory known as Cartesian dualism is also contained here. These two substances are separate, but there is a place where they relate and join: the pineal gland, located in the center of the brain.

Many later philosophers took up Descartes, both to support him and to criticize him, and this makes us understand how Cartesian thought represents not only a watershed for two great eras, the medieval and modern, but also how his thought is particularly innovative and how, despite the weaknesses of his theory are not few, much of his philosophy inspired the next one, so much so that even today he is one of the most studied philosophers.

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