Henricus Reneri (1593-1639): Descartes’ Quartermaster in Aristotelian Territory

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD thesis


This study provides an overview of the life and work of the seventeenth-century Utrecht professor of philosophy Henricus Reneri, with special focus on his close relationship with René Descartes.Reneri met Descartes during the winter of 1628/29. At that time he worked as a tutor in Amsterdam. Thirteen years earlier, he had fled the Prince-Bishopric of Liège as a Calvinist convert and had come to Leiden, where he enrolled in theology. After he broke off his studies he found work tutoring children of patrician families. But Reneri had higher ambitions. He wanted to teach philosophy, which he had studied at Leuven University before his conversion. In his free time Reneri carried out experiments and constructed instruments for the investigation of nature, such as the thermometer. Discontented with traditional philosophy, he participated in the search for a method to advance science. At that stage he met Descartes. In Descartes Reneri immediately recognized a genius who would change the face of philosophy. They became best friends, and when Reneri was appointed as professor of philosophy at the Deventer Illustre Gymnasium in 1631, followed by an appointment at the Utrecht Illustrious School (which became a university in 1636) three years later, Descartes followed him to both towns.Already from the founding of the Utrecht Illustrious School in 1634, Reneri tried out Cartesian explanations in his classes. The result was a reformed Aristotelianism, which combined Aristotle’s physics with elements from that of Descartes and from other corpuscular theories into an eclectic mix of his own. Initially Reneri was reluctant to openly promote Descartes’ philosophy, but the publication of the Discours de la méthode in 1637 made him more confident. In 1638, he publicly taught the Discours and supervised the defence of fully Cartesian theses. Moreover, Reneri encouraged Descartes to write and publish. Furthermore, Reneri played an important role in the formation of Descartes’ network in the Republic and introduced his friends to Descartes’ philosophy. These findings not only fill a lacuna in the scholarship on the early Descartes, but also shed new light on the earliest philosophical instruction at Utrecht University.Reneri was an educational reformer. He taught Aristotelian physics, but in order to make philosophy useful and popular again he wanted to make observation and experiment part of natural philosophy teaching. For this purpose, he devised a programme inspired by the empirical and inductive method of Francis Bacon, in which students were to actively participate. With this plan he was ahead of his time. In addition, Reneri was working on a method of logic in the Ramist tradition aiming at the organization of knowledge. His plans, however, were hardly noticed by the Aristotelians working in academia. Accordingly, his international scholarly network mainly consisted of non-academics.Reneri’s course of life also shows the importance of networks and the possibility of social ascent in the Republic. By building up a network of influential connections, he climbed up from a poor refugee to a professor who married into the Utrecht regent patriciate
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Verbeek, Theo, Promotor, External person
Award date12 Nov 2013
Place of PublicationUtrecht
Print ISBNs978-94-6103-036-8
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2013


  • Henricus Reneri
  • philosophy
  • René Descartes
  • Cartesianism
  • corpuscularianism
  • scientific method
  • experiments
  • networks
  • Ramism
  • university history


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