Rene Descartes' Math Contributions Lesson for Kids: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Joanna Durham-Barnes
This lesson provides a biography of the life and accomplishments of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), known as the father of modern philosophy and analytic geometry. He promoted rational, evidence-based reasoning in the sciences, math, and philosophy.

Who Was René Descartes?

Have you ever heard of the expression ''jack of all trades?'' That expression refers to people who know a lot about many different types of things. René Descartes was like that. He was a philosopher, academic, mathematician, and scientist.

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

Early Life

Descartes was born in La Haye en Touraine, France on March 31, 1596. His mother died when he was very young, so he and his brothers were sent to live with his grandmother. His father believed that a good education was important, so Descartes was sent off to boarding school at a young age.

Descartes was a good student and eventually earned a law degree at the University of Poitiers in 1616 at about 20 years of age. During this time, he began to develop a sense that it was important to use our ability to reason (or think) to discover truth. He believed reasoning should be based on evidence. Descartes is the philosopher who said, ''I think, therefore I am.''

Accomplishments & Discoveries

Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy, a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, and a pioneer of modern mathematics.

Many people also call him the father of analytic geometry, which connects the fields of algebra and geometry. This is because Descartes discovered that you can plot any two-dimensional point on a mathematical plane. A mathematical plane is made up of an x and y axis. You may have seen this before in math class. This plane is called the Cartesian plane, named for the Latin form of Descartes's last name.

An example of Cartesian coordinates on a Cartesian plane
Cartesian plane, Rene Descartes, Cartesian coordinates

Descartes was also the first mathematician to assign the letters from the early alphabet (like a, b, c) to represent data and later alphabet letters (like x, y, z) to represent variables. If you haven't started doing math with letters yet, you probably will soon. You can thank Descartes for that!

In 1619, Descartes developed four rules for deductive reasoning (or rational, scientific thinking). He used rules based on mathematical principles but applied them to all of the sciences.

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