René Descartes

Rene Descartes Picture

Early Life

René Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician born on 31st March 1596 in La Haye en Touraine, now known as Descartes, France. At 8, he started going to ‘Jesuit College Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Fleche. After his graduation in 1616, he started his further studies at the University of Poitieres earning a Bachelor degree in Law in accordance to his father’s wishes who wanted him to become a lawyer. Descartes showed exceptional mathematical aptitude from an early age. His mathematical skills were pretty honed by the time he reached university where he found the solution to a difficult mathematical problem that even the Principal could not solve.

After his return from the Dutch Republic, Descartes spent most of his time in Paris and travelling throughout Europe. It was during this time that he composed his earliest works, his essay called ‘Regulae ad Directionem Ingenni’ translated as ‘Rules for the Direction of the Mind’. He went back to Dutch Republic where he stayed for a year studying mathematics at the University of Franeker and then Leiden University. Even though he continued to move throughout the Netherlands, he somehow managed to produce his most influential works in this time period.


Descartes published many essays including ‘The Meteors’, ‘Dioptrics’, ‘Geometry’ and the most famous ‘Discourse on the Method’. In 1641, he published ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ followed by ‘Principles of Philosophy’ in 1644. Descartes was known as the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’ and most of today’s philosophy is based on his works. His works are studied as part of the course in all university philosophy departments. The ‘Cartesian Coordinate’ system is named after none other than René Descartes, in which algebraic equations can be expressed as geometrical shapes in a 2-D coordinate system. His works allowed us to build a bridge between algebra and geometry and thus he is called ‘Father of Analytical geometry’. His work in analytical geometry proved to be very significant in the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis.

Descartes was a major influence on the modern philosophy and it is only due to his efforts that he was able to rout skepticism. The previous mathematicians such as Euclid and Archimedes who, no doubt were brilliant actuaries, clearly did not present the results in the method by which they were conceived. Descartes on the other hand believed that only the correct methodology could lead to scientific and mathematical development.

Descartes invented the method of representing the unknown numbers in equations as x, y, z and the known numbers as a, b and c. He was the pioneer of the standard notation in exponents that is the use of the superscripts. His work was the foundation for other mathematicians such as Newton and Leibniz. The ‘Descartes Rules of Signs’ is used even today to define the number of positive and negative roots of a polynomial. He was also the founder of the Descartes Law more commonly known today as Snell’s Law.


Descartes is famous for his philosophical statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ which translates to English as ‘I think, therefore I am’. René Descartes died at the age of 53 on 11th February 1650.

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