Philosophy René Descartes
Justin Skirry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0031


There is no doubt that Descartes is one of the most influential and perhaps one of the most misunderstood philosophers of the modern era. In many ways, Descartes can be seen as kicking off the great era of philosophical system building at the beginning of the 17th century and continuing until David Hume destroyed these systems in one blow in the late 18th century. As the builder of a philosophical system, Descartes’s works cover just about everything under (and above) the sun, from metaphysics to physics to theology to cosmology to physiology, and, with each area intersecting with the others, raise their own set of problems and questions. An article of this sort cannot hope to cover such a range of intersecting issues that arise in Descartes’s system, since an issue in one aspect of the theory often ripples out to other, far-reaching, aspects. Accordingly, this article attempts to provide a mix of introductory essays and detailed analyses of the major issues in Descartes’s system so as to guide the reader toward a clear and even-handed understanding of this giant of Western thought.

General Overviews

This category has been divided into two subsections. The first, General Philosophy, contains overviews explaining features of Descartes’s entire philosophy, without a focus on any particular work. Interestingly enough, there are not many of these. Most overviews focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the Meditations on First Philosophy, and not without some justification, given its status as Descartes’s central philosophical work. Accordingly, the overviews of the Meditations can serve as overviews of his general philosophy, but with the caution that some philosophical theories and issues discussed in other works, such as emotions, morals, mathematics, physics, and a detailed account of animal and human physiology, will not be covered.

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