René Descartes


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René Descartes (1596-1650)

René Descartes is one of the most famous philosophers and mathematicians in the world. His work La géométrie for the first time explained the application of algebra to geometry from which we now have Cartesian or algebraic geometry.

Descartes was a Catholic and was educated at the Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou. He was with the Jesuits from the age of eight until the age of sixteen.

He is one of the few famous mathematicians whose health was poor while he was young and this may have brought about his interest in mathematics - being on his own and ill, mathematics offered him a world in which he could discover new and wonderful things. But he was more happy than most - because of his poor his health he was granted permission to remain in bed until 11 o'clock in the morning!

He had a very interesting life. Upon the completion of his university training, he travelled through Europe and in 1619 he joined the Bavarian army. From 1620 to 1628 Descartes travelled through Europe, spending time in Bohemia (now Czech Republic), Hungary, Germany, Holland and France. At the end of this period of travels he decided to settle down in Holland. He lived there for the next twenty years.

It is in Holland that Descartes wrote his first major treatise on physics, Le Monde, ou Traité de la Lumière. As he was finishing the work on his book, he heard about the persecution that Galileo suffered and decided not to publish. This book was published fully only after Descartes' death.

In fact, his most famous mathematical treatise, La Géométrie, was an appendix to his Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences . Other two appendices were La Dioptrique and Les Météores. The treatise was published at Leiden in 1637.

In 1641, Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy , which he intended for the philosopher and for the theologian. It consists of six meditations, Of the Things that we may doubt, Of the Nature of the Human Mind, Of God: that He exists, Of Truth and Error, Of the Essence of Material Things, Of the Existence of Material Things and of the Real Distinction between the Mind and the Body of Man. The most comprehensive of Descartes' works, Principia Philosophiae was published in Amsterdam in 1644. In four parts, The Principles of Human Knowledge, The Principles of Material Things, Of the Visible World and The Earth , it attempts to put the whole universe on a mathematical foundation reducing the study to one of mechanics.

In 1649 Queen Christina of Sweden asked Descartes to come and teach her mathematics in Stockholm. She was a hard working woman it seems; Descartes was required to start his lessons with her at 5am! Descartes still maintained a life long habit he acquired in childhood to get up at 11 o'clock; as he broke his habit, he broke his health too and died of pneumonia he managed to catch during one of these cold early morning lessons.


See some other famous mathematicians here, or even a page where some of them appear when they were kids.

Want to see the most famous work of Descartes? Click on the picture below.

Click on the picture below to see the full-sized portrait of the Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689)

Find more about Jesuit education here or about the history of their work in mathematics and science.


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