The materials I use for introductory courses on René Descartes


René Descartes (1596-1650) is the father of modern Western philosophy; for this reason, an understanding of his central ideas is essential for further study of philosophy. He is often alleged to have been obsessed with certainty. The unique emphasis he places on first-person awareness and subjectivity has been said to generate a distorted picture of the human mind, a picture which underestimates the role played by imagination, desire and affectivity. And his conception of rationality has been claimed to prioritise scientific understanding and technological domination of nature. Finally, he embraces a form of dualism widely held to be untenable. The course examined how much of this standard assessment is true.

These notes were used as the basis of a second semester six-week first year course on the philosophy of Descartes. The course sought to introduce participants to the reading of major philosophical texts through an examination of Descartes’ Meditationes de primā philosophiā (Meditations on First Philosophy) of 1641. This text is available in many translations but the translation used in the course was the Penguin Classic translation by Desmond Clarke.