Editor’s Note: The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of René Descartes by Andrew Pessin is now available here.
The famous philosopher René Descartes was (possibly) murdered. Here are five of his most controversial works.
1. Meditations on First Philosophy
This very short work attempts to provide foundations for all knowledge (Descartes was not known for modesty). It is also the source of the famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” The only problem is that Descartes never says precisely this. Worse, the argument expressed by that quote was originally made by St. Augustine, thirteen centuries earlier.
2. Replies to Objections to the Meditations
The Meditations were published along with “objections” written by the leading thinkers of the day, as well as Descartes’s replies to those objections. The Objections and Replies ended up being far longer than the original text, proving once again that, in philosophy, concision is a vice.
3. The Principles of Philosophy
Descartes hoped to get into the textbook business, by writing an “introductory text” for adoption by the Catholic universities of his day. This might have worked, too, had it not been for the fact that much of what he was teaching was thought to contradict Catholic philosophy—leading to accusations that he was an atheist and a heretic.
4. The World
In this book Descartes attempted to explain quite literally everything there was to explain. (See previous note about modesty.) One thing he explained was how the Earth moved around the Sun, and not the other way around. When it was explained to him that the Church had just punished Galileo for teaching the very same thing, Descartes quickly pulled his book from the publisher.
5. Passions of the Soul
Descartes was famous for being a “rationalist,” one who stresses the significance of reason. In this book, though, he reflected on the nature of emotions—by attempting to explain them in terms of the physical body. Ever the cheerful one, for example, he described laughter as occurring when “blood comes from the right-side cavity of the heart through the arterial vein and suddenly and repeatedly inflates the lungs, forcing the air in them to rush out through the windpipe, where it makes an inarticulate, explosive sound.”