Philosophy:Tree of knowledge

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Short description: Metaphor used in philosophical analogies

The tree of knowledge or tree of philosophy is a metaphor presented by the French philosopher René Descartes in the preface to the French translation of his work Principles of Philosophy to describe the relations among the different parts of philosophy in the shape of a tree. He describes knowledge as a tree. The tree's roots are metaphysics, its trunk is physics, and its branches are all other sciences the principal of which are medicine, mechanics and morals.[1][2] This image is often assumed to show Descartes' break with the past and with the categorization of knowledge of the schools.[3]


Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to emphasize the use of reason to develop the natural sciences.[4] For him, philosophy was a thinking system that embodied all knowledge, as he related in a letter to a French translator:[5]

Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principals, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics. By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.


  1. Hatfield, Gary (2018). "René Descartes". Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  2. Skirry, Justin. "Descartes, Rene". 
  3. Ariew, Roger (1 July 1992). "Descartes and the tree of knowledge" (in en). Synthese 92 (1): 101–116. doi:10.1007/BF00413744. ISSN 1573-0964. 
  4. Grosholz, Emily (1991). Cartesian method and the problem of reduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-824250-5. "But contemporary debate has tended to...understand [Cartesian method] merely as the 'method of doubt'...I want to define Descartes' method in broader trace its impact on the domains of mathematics and physics as well as metaphysics." 
  5. Descartes, René. "Letter of the Author to the French Translator of the Principles of Philosophy serving for a preface". 

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