Articles and Features

Rene Descartes

Birthday March 31, 1596

Week of March 29, 1998

Being a math major, I try to avoid waxing philosophical about important math people, so Rene Descartes should be off limits (I'm sure you are sighing with relief to know that I refrained from becoming poetic about Simon Laplace a few months ago). I could talk in reams about this mathematician, but few of you would enjoy a discourse about his work in solid analytic geometry or his solution of quartic equations. He is a person whose life appeals to the creative and the analytical alike. His legacy is claimed by both philosophers and mathematicians with fervor. Additionally, Descartes had the fortune of happy fame to utter one of the most quoted quotes, "Cogito, ergo sum."

March 31, 1596, Rene Descartes was born near Tours, France. Because of ill health, he developed a habit of lying in bed until late in the morning when he was fairly young. This time spent meditating was considered by Descartes as his most productive time of the day. In 1612, he moved to Paris, where he studied mathematics, but his most prolific stay was the twenty-year sojourn in Holland, where he wrote many of his famous works. Here is a selection from the world's mathematician and philosopher.

Introduction and quote compilation by Laura S. Moncur, Staff Writer.

"Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
"Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power."
"It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."
"It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived."
"The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
"I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error."
"The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
"The long concatenations of simple and easy reasoning which geometricians use in achieving their most difficult demonstrations gave me occasion to imagine that all matters which may enter the human mind were interrelated in the same fashion."
"One cannot conceive anything so strange and so implausible that it has not already been said by one philosopher or another."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
"Perfect numbers like perfect men are very rare."
"I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery."
La Geometrie
"I think, therefore I am."
Le Discours de la Methode, 1637
Featured Books
The following books and tapes are available through
  • Descartes' Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain Paperback by Antonio R. Damasio - Turned on by philosophy? Check out this book that debates Descartes' belief that the mind and body are separate entities. Read the reviews of this book on
  • The Mathematical Experience Hardcover by Philip J. Davis, Reuben Hersh - Turned on by mathematics? This book reviews the history and beauty of a mathematical world, including contributions of Descartes. It was the winner of the 1983 American Book Award.
  • Discourse on Method and the Meditations Paperback by Rene Descartes - The two most quoted works by Descartes are available in this one book for a mere $5.56. Curl up by the fire, question your own existence, and read them for yourself.
  • Descartes : An Intellectual Biography Hardcover by Stephen Gaukroger - If you can't get enough of the mathematician, here is a biography that goes into Descartes' life in detail. Learn about the development of the man who rocked the philosophical and mathematical world.
For more information about Rene Descartes, try these links:
  • Furman University Mathematical Quotations - There are tons of quotes from Rene Descartes and other mathematicians here. Organized alphabetically by author's last name.
  • Rene Descartes - Background and links regarding Descartes, his life and works. There is a much more detailed biography than I provided and links to his texts, plus a picture of the man.
  • Le Discours de la Methode - Many of the quotations above are from this work. Read it in its entirety here on the web.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650) - A biography from 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia©, with HTML formatting and minor modifications by Christopher Furlong. There are links to Descartes' works and other Descartes sites.
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