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The Educational Theory of René Descartes

Meridyth Masci
Scott Saks




Known as the “father of modern philosophy,” Frenchman Rene Descartes (1596-1650) spent his life immersed in the rigorous study of all things metaphysical and mathematical. Born into a moderately noble background, Descartes had the opportunity to attend the Jesuit school of La Fleche. Since he had mitochondria as a child, he was granted special permission to be excused from his morning duties and stay in bed.

For Descartes, these mornings were spent in deep reflection, pondering the basic truths of life and mathematics (Bell, 1937). It was during these morning reflections that Descartes began to question the validity of his studies at La Fleche. In particular, he questioned “the alleged demonstrations and the casuistical logic by which the good Jesuits sought to gain the assent of his reasoning faculties” (Bell, 1937, p. 37). Even as he became older, Descartes still engaged in these morning rituals, asserting that in order for him to make progress in mathematics, he should never be forced out of bed early.

At age 18, he decided to halt his formal education and serve in the army. As mentioned by Finkle (1898), “he enlisted as a volunteer, and the first and only pay that he accepted he kept as a curiosity through life” (p. 192).

During his many years of service, Descartes found the time to advance his intellectual curiosities. In the realm of mathematics, he is credited with founding what is known as analytic geometry. This renowned accomplishment was a direct result of his discovery of the coordinate plane, which today is called the Cartesian plane in his honor.

As a scientific philosopher, Descartes penned many influential documents outlining his method of using doubts to ascertain the truths of the universe. Two of the most noteworthy are Discourse on Methods (1637) and Le Monde, which was not published in its entirety until 1677. Le Monde focused on a physical composition of the universe that endorsed a Copernican view, and as Descartes was of the Roman Catholic faith, “finding its publication was likely to bring on him the hostility of the Church, and having no desire to pose as a martyr, he abandoned it” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).

The summation of Descartes’ Catholic background and formal Jesuit schooling, his experiences as a soldier, his affinity for mathematics and science, and his desire to question the basic supposed truths of the universe led to quite a unique vision of the world, both physical and metaphysical, which had implications for education.

Theory of Value

What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Descartes uses the metaphor of a tree to discuss what knowledge is worth learning. He says that "the  whole  of philosophy is  like  a  tree  whose  roots  are metaphysics,  whose  trunk  is physics, and whose branches, emerging from the trunk, are  all  the  other sciences,  which  may  be  reduced  to  the  three principal  ones,  namely, medicine, mechanics, and morality" (Ariew, 1992, p. 101). Descartes begins with metaphysics as his roots because he knows that it is the basis for all scientific and mathematical truths. The three principle sciences, or branches, of his tree of knowledge represent “applications of our knowledge to the external world, to the human body, and to the conduct of life” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).

Because metaphysics consists of answering the questions “What is out there and why?”, Descartes had another view point of knowledge and skills. He maintained that an individual had to want to learn the material in order to learn truly learn it. Descartes demonstrates this belief by proposing “that the learner is then his/her own teacher....education is not seen as a social process as a personal quest” (Bicknell, 2003, p. 29). In addition to what he included in his Methods of Discourse, Descartes also thought that individuals should doubt supposed truths. If one is able to discern whether a notion is genuine or not, then he/she can accurately learn what is important (at least to the person asking the questions).

Therefore, the goal of education with respect to the philosophy of Descartes would be for an individual not to accept what was heard or read without extensively questioning everything. Descartes does not propose that everyone wants to learn this way, but instead insists it is the “correct path” (Bicknell, 2003, p.33) that will help one to gain as much knowledge as possible. With this in mind, he puts more emphasis on the sciences than he does on the arts, stating that both the arts and learning for the sake of learning were pointless “unless something tangible could be extracted therefrom” (Finkle, 1898, p. 194).

Theory of Knowledge

What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

According to Descartes, knowledge is “conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by a stronger reason” (Newman, 2010).  Utilizing the philosophical method of doubt, Descartes thought that the pursuit of knowledge entails the pursuit of convictions that reflected the “most perfect certainty” (Newman, 2010). The first and most significant “certainty” obtained through this process is the existence of the self; that is, “I think; therefore, I am” (Descartes).  Descartes then claimed that the existence of God, as a perfect Creator, is evident since “only God could have caused the idea of God” within a thinking being (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 397).

Therefore, according to this rationale, to deliberately claim that God does not exist would be considered a falsehood, or a mistake in the logical thinking of an imperfect human being. Descartes further argues that the reality of the natural, external world is an undeniable truth since a perfect God would be incapable of such a profound deception to the thinking being (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003).

Aspects of the external world that can be supported, proven, and upheld by the principles of reasoning, rather than by pure perception, supply the basis for mathematical and scientific truths. In his Meditations, Descartes makes the following assertion:

“For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three together will always make the number five, and the square will never have more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so clear and so apparent can ever be suspected of any falsity or uncertainty” (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 411).

Thus, any statement that repudiates the natural laws of logical, mathematical reasoning, such as two plus three being equal to six, would be considered a mistake in logic. Since all thinking beings are not as perfect as God, in Descartes’ argument, they are capable of making errors in judgment and therefore the potential for falsities in perception (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003). Relying solely on the perception of the senses and not attempting to use scientific reasoning may lead to mistakes and not the “most perfect certainty” (Newman, 2010).

When a notion is assumed to be true without any objective, logical evidence, it may be considered a belief rather than a truth. For instance, Descartes himself was a devout Catholic and believed in the infallibility of the Pope. He also, however, was persuaded through scientific reasoning to agree with a Copernican view of the solar system, an outlook which had been dismissed by the Pope as false. Since there was no logical or scientific proof of infallibility, it was considered to be a belief, not a “conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by a stronger reason” (Newman, 2010). Descartes argued that faith was not an act of the intellect but an act of the will, and therefore would not be held to the same level of scientific scrutiny as physical worldly matters. In fact, according to Bell (1937), he “compared religion, indeed, to the nurse from whom he received it, and declared that he found it as comforting to lean upon one as on the other” (p. 42). Thus, Descartes’ own religious beliefs acted as his personal support system and although seemingly counterintuitive, he did not doubt the core of the Catholicism that he practiced; rather, he embraced it despite any contradiction to scientific matters.

Theory of Human Nature

What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Descartes makes the claim that “all animals are machines” (Watson, 2002). In this, he mentions that humans are also apart of this topic as well. The only thing that sets us aside from other animals is the reasoning capability of the human mind. In his Meditations, Descartes defines a “thinking being” as a “being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives” (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003, p. 411). In addition, Descartes adds that “the human self is the mind, not the body.” (Watson, 2002, p. 12).  Because one of Descartes’ main arguments is that we should question others and not accept what we hears as the truth, the mind helps individuals to question others, to learn and grow. The only area in which one should not question is when analyzing God’s existence. Descartes thought that “the metaphysical certainty that comes from knowing that our clear and distinct perceptions are the creation of a God who does not deceive” (Garber, 1988, p.234). Descartes also speaks of the “I” as if it is the mind and spiritual whereas the body is spatial and is subject to the material world (as are the animals).

A limitation of human potential would depend on the individual’s health.  Because of Descartes’ illness as a child, he asserted that “an individuals good or ill health arguably affects those around him or her more profoundly that does intellectual process” (Bicknell, 2003, p.29). Since Descartes argues that because our mind and the cogito are valuable, if one suffers from a serious illness or even death, he/she cannot function the same as a healthy person. In this case, there would be a set-back to the amount of information that the person could learn.  As hypothetical as it is, Descartes thought that “we could rid ourselves of ‘an infinity’ of mental and physical illness if we were to have sufficient knowledge of their cause and of the remedies provided by nature” (Bicknell, 2003, p. 29).

Human beings also differ from the animals in the possession of their will to act in matters of faith and religious belief. Descartes’ beliefs in religion could have caused him to be in trouble many times. The implications of the new sciences were widely believed to have unsettling implications for the conduct of moral and religious life (Smith, 2004).

Theory of Learning

What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?

For Descartes, learning is a personal quest comprised of external worldly experiences and internal ponderings. While Descartes tends to focus on the latter in his philosophical writings, the sporadic manner in which he changed geographic location and sought several missions on various battlefields throughout Europe suggests that he did indeed value the practical wisdom obtained through real-life experience. In fact, the reason that Descartes ultimately decided to leave behind his formal Jesuit education and pursue active duty as a soldier was because he felt that “the ‘humanities’ he was mastering were comparatively barren of human significance and certainly not the sort of learning to enable human beings to control their environment and direct their own destiny” (Bell, 1937, p. 37). From this perspective, the learning that takes place in an academic setting alone will not be enough for an individual to survive and prosper in the world.

Even while immersed in the daily happenings of a soldier, Descartes managed to set aside time to engage in deep solitary reflection. To him, all scientific truths could be learned through the application of a form of questioning synonymous with the scientific method (Bell, 1937). This method of inquiry has several phases and begins with doubting a supposed assertion and reducing it into smaller, more basic questions. Once the most basic question has been determined, Descartes suggests relying on the intuition of the mind (not the senses) to provide an insight into this matter supported by pure mathematical or scientific reasoning. Then, one by one, the basic questions can be answered and re-constructed into the initial assertion, which can now be considered knowledge since its internal structure has been solidified by objective analysis (Garber, 1988). It should be noted that this process does not pertain to matters to faith, as Descartes considered religious beliefs to be acts of the will and not the intellect.

Theory of Transmission Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

According to Descartes, each individual is responsible for questioning the supposed truths of the universe (Baird & Kaufmann, 2003). Therefore, each person is ultimately his/her own teacher. However, in order to oversee the validity of the questioning method being used in scientific matters, Descartes may appropriate the presence or advice of an individual who is considered to be an expert in his/her field of study to act as a “mediator.” The interactions with this mediator, or mentor, would most likely be informal, similar to the meetings that a faculty advisor has with his/her students who are completing dissertations.

Since Descartes claimed to have learned more from his late mornings of independent reflection than from the formal, Jesuit-run classrooms of La Fleche, he would most likely favor a student-centered schooling environment similar to the progressive education fostered by John Dewey, where each student engages in real-life activities and learns to approach each scenario as a scientist would. Class times would be flexible, with students setting their own schedules, and class activities would be characterized by discovery learning with students utilizing a scientifically methodical approach to questioning basic truths of the physical world. Therefore, hands-on experiments and informal academic forums where ideas, or truths, could be objectively analyzed and then openly discussed, would be championed over teacher-centered methods such as lecture and formal note-taking.

In terms of curriculum, Descartes would emphasize mathematical and scientific fields of study over a purely liberal arts education. Given his analogy of knowledge as a tree (as mentioned previously), Descartes would specifically focus on metaphysics, physics, medicine, mathematics, and morality (Finkle, 1898).  The study of arts or languages no longer spoken such as Greek or Latin may be omitted due to lack of practical use.

As a solider, Descartes also esteemed the educational value of worldly experience and may have also considered including either some military training or travel abroad regime into his curriculum. After all, in his opinion, individuals need more than an extensive academic background in order to obtain the necessary life skills to “direct their own destiny” (Bell, 1937, p. 37).


What is Society? What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Throughout his Discourse on Methods, Descartes addresses his readers at the individual level, leading to the assumption that he adheres to and individualistic or “atomistic” view of society (Bicknell, 2003, p. 28).  As mentioned previously, Descartes emphasizes the importance of gaining knowledge through questioning supposed truths, and “this enlightenment of cogito is individual and personal” (Bicknell, 2003, p. 29).   Thus, society should be composed of persons on individual quests to examine the metaphysical world and arrive at the truths of the physical universe.

From his writings, it can also be assumed that Descartes thought that people were classified into two types. There were those to whom “God has bestowed more of his favors" (Smith, 2004, p. 581) and those “who are content to follow existing opinion and practice as the only reliable guide” (Smith, 2004, p. 581).  Due to his individualistic thinking, Descartes most likely saw himself as one of the more intellectually gifted persons and therefore his own guide. Because of his background at the Jesuit school of La Fleche, Descartes also had ties to the Roman Catholic Church. So, although he was his own guide throughout life, he wished remain in good standing with the institution and its teachings and even delayed the publication of some of his writings so that he would not anger the Church, thus acknowledging the prominent role of religion in society.

In terms of education, however, Descartes thought that the scientific method should be used for each person to affirm the supposed truths of the universe. Therefore, he would most likely assert that education is most effective on an internal, individual level and not run primarily by religious institutions that do not encourage students to question or challenge basic beliefs. After all, religion is a matter of the will and, according to Descartes, should not be held to the same rational skepticism as all scientific matters.

Descartes asserts that education, particularly the study of mathematics and science, occurs most successfully at the individual level as well. He states that “just as one can plan and build one’s own house, one can plan and administer one’s education(Bicknell, 2003, p.31). In addition, he says that “science, like architecture and town planning, is best accomplished by an individual” (Bicknell, 2003, p.31).  However, neither science nor architecture can work alone, leading to the acknowledgement of the contributions other individuals in some foundational aspect. With this concept in mind, Descartes did not put a lot of emphasis on the uninitiated (non scientists) because they were unable to teach anything new to the scientists that would have made them better thinkers (Bicknell, 2003).  


Theory of Opportunity

Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Education can be defined as the deliberate act of teaching a new concept or skill to an individual (Clabaugh & Rozycki, 2010). For Descartes, this form of human interaction seems vital so that each individual may develop the foundational skills that are necessary to engage in a scientifically methodical frame of thinking. Since Descartes thought that every thinking being should question supposed truths to arrive at his/her own conclusions in determining what is certain, he would most likely be in favor of teaching all individuals not only for the advancement of scientific ideas but more importantly for the survival of the individual person so that he/she may pursue his/her ultimate destiny (Bell, 1937).  

Interestingly, one can also assume that Descartes was supportive of educating women (well, at least women of noble stature) through his personal encounters. He corresponded heavily with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia about his Meditations and provided tutoring for Queen Christine of Sweden at her beckoning (Bell, 1937). Although Descartes seemed to respect the intellectual capabilities of these female counterparts, he did not enjoy the rigidity of schedule that he endured while tutoring the queen, as it reminded him of his time at La Fleche and hindered his own intellectual pursuits (Bell, 1937).

Schooling can be defined as a formal means of education that takes place in actual schools (Clabaugh & Rozycki, 2010).  As mentioned previously, Descartes claimed that his own formal schooling provided him with very little substance other than a foundation of mathematics (Bell, 1937).  This evidence leads one to assume that Descartes much more valued education on an informal level, and only insomuch that it allowed him to survive, be independent, and have enough background knowledge to engage in deep, meaningful solitary study.

Whether it had been on the battlefields of Europe or through his many correspondences with intellectual contemporaries, Descartes acquired new skills that allowed him to thrive in the external world and to arrive at his own judgments and conclusions about the certainty of scientific matters.  In essence, given such a strong individualistic view of society, Descartes would not deem schooling necessary for any individual if means of informal learning, either deliberate through education or accidental through socialization, could provide the adequate background skills for individuals to survive the physical elements of the world and to engage in a level of thinking to arrive at one’s own conclusions about intellectual matters.


Theory of Consensus

Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

For Descartes, he thought that people would disagree or not come to a conclusion on a “question” because individuals would seek advice from other people. Descartes compares the “hero-scientist” to an architect. Since one scientist himself could not do all the work, the hero-scientist would be main scientist doing most of the work with the communal effort of other scientists. The architect like the hero-scientist is left to do the “heavy work” (Bicknell, 2003, p.36). If individuals depend too much on other people, they may not come up with the answer to the question in which they are researching.

Achieving consensus could be viewed by Descartes as limiting the information that one is trying to obtain. Descartes believed in filtering out useless information, or information that did not contain the truth.  “Not just what I can know but what I should know” (Smith, 2004, p.574) is an example of what Descartes predicated when identifying how to filter knowledge worth knowing. In addition to filtering all of the unnecessary information, Descartes argued that “learning that does not result in certainty is not worth having” (Smith, 2004, p.579).



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