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René Descartes - Philosophy and LearningRené Descartes - Philosophy and Learning


René Descartes (1596-1650)


French philosopher (pictured right) and mathematician who invented the graph.

The founder of the modern theory of knowledge (epistemology).


His most famous book is...

Meditations (1641).


What did he say about learning?

 René Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

1. “I think therefore I am”

In Latin “cogito ergo sum”, this famous statement is better translated as

‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’

(i.e. thinking is essential to life).

Thinking is the only thing you can be certain of, because your senses (hearing, sight etc.) may tell you that something is real or true when it isn’t.

For example, you may be dreaming or being misled (see point 2).

 René Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

2. Reason and analysis

To learn you must rely not on your imagination and senses but on your thinking i.e. reason and logical analysis (called rationalism).

“True knowledge must come from human reason alone”, he said. So:

  • start with the facts (possibly resulting from experiments)
  • draw logical conclusions that can’t be contradicted.

Your senses and experiences are unreliable, because you can never be certain about what you see (see point 1).

Descartes described the example of a honeycomb wax: hard when cold, liquid when hot, but still the same piece of wax.

 René Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

3. What can I know?

This is the most important question that comes from his work.

To be happy you must learn and increase your knowledge by

  • asking the right questions.
  • thinking logically (see point 2).


4. Question all your beliefsRené Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

This is often known as the Method of Cartesian Doubt (Cartesian means ‘from Descartes’).

Treat all your beliefs as false and reject any, if there is any doubt about their truth.

You should only believe something, if you are absolutely certain that it:

  • is true and
  • can’t be contradicted.

Only one false belief will badly affect the truth of your other beliefs like a rotten apple in a barrel of apples.

René Descartes - Philosophy and Learning 

5. Mind and body

The mind and body are separate (called dualism) and interact. So it is possible (as Descartes believed) that the mind can outlive the body.


a) the mind affects the body

(like positive attitudes help your health)


b) the body affects the mind

For example, exercise helps you to relax and concentrate better.


 René Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

6. Clearly explain something

Everything should be as simply explained as possible but not simpler (as Einstein (pictured below) later believed).


Key quotes on learning and wisdomRené Descartes - Philosophy and Learning

I think, therefore I am

Doubt is the origin of wisdom.


Key quotes on success

It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.

I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.


Key quote on communication

To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say.

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