By: Arjun Verma
René Descartes came into a world where the Church was the primary authority on both political and ethical matters in Europe - it was unquestionable. However, Descartes flipped this on its head by refusing to accept anything uncritically.
He believed that determining truths required abandoning all prior assumptions and solely begin with undoubtable truth.
After much deliberation about coming to find a truth that met this threshold, Descartes proclaimed one of the most important and famous phrases in philosophical history: “Cogito, ergo sum.” Translated, this means that the simple act of thinking meant that one could not doubt their own existence because if you doubt you must exist to doubt.
From this initial premise, Descartes also theorized a core tenet of his philosophy called mind-body dualism. This was the belief that the mind was of a separate type of substance than the rest of the world and that they could interact to influence one another.
These ideas revolutionized philosophy and initiated the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment where others followed in Descartes’s tracks of justifying their beliefs in terms of reason and logic, which garnered Descartes the title of the “Father of Modern Philosophy.”
Why is this relevant today?
Descartes' constant questioning of assumptions may seem too impractical for our lives today. However, it can prove to be extremely useful in our approach to new information.
One of the most pressing issues that has come with the rapid advent of widely accessible information has been the spread of fake news and the inability of many people to discern what type of information is legitimate. That's where Descartes's process of methodological skepticism comes into play. By using logic and reason, we can rationally determine whether something is likely to be true.
However, one should be careful to not be as extreme with the type of information that they exclude, as that can be counterproductive and exclude information that is in fact true.
This method can also be helpful in thinking about your most fundamental assumptions. In a world that's as politically polarized as it is, sometimes, it's worth reflecting on which of our assumptions might be flawed despite how long we may have cherished them. Only by outlining common ground between people with ideological differences can we attempt to rectify the problem of intense polarization.
Many of Descartes' philosophical ideas have stood the test of centuries of philosophical inquiry. Maybe it's time that the rest of society learn from him to alleviate some of our most pressing political problems.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.