Rene Descartes is one of the constitutional influencers featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) is often credited with being the “Father of Modern Philosophy.” He introduced personal experience as an approach to philosophy and metaphysical dualism or the idea that the universe is composed of both mind and matter.
Descartes Disbelieved in Authoritarianism
Influenced by Machiavelli (our 2nd installment), Descartes believed that all individuals possess the “natural light of reason,” the belief that each individual has the capacity for the discovery of truth, supporting the supremacy of individual conscience. This belief was instrumental in the development of democracy in the United States as it influenced John Locke who had a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson.
Descartes is most famous for his phrase Cogito, Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am) a rejection of the entrenched philosophy of Aristotle which claimed truth was acquired through the senses. He argued that people were regularly deceived by their senses meaning everything, in theory, based off senses could be doubted. What can’t be doubted is the existence of your own mind as doubting indicates thinking which in turn indicates existing. Self-evident truths, as opposed to the senses, must be the foundation of philosophical investigation. After Descartes, systems of thought were built with confidence of proximity to absolute truth.
The World Is Rational and Comprehensible
The belief in a rational and comprehensible world results in a pervasive optimism regarding the progress of science. The universe is thought to conform to scientific laws. Through understanding of these laws, nature can be subjected to the control of man. Government itself can be defined as direction and control exercised over the actions of the members, citizens, or inhabitants of communities, societies, and states.
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