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Descartes: A Biography Hardcover – March 6, 2006
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In addition, the book is quite well-written; a worthy addition to the Cambridge U. Press series of Philosophical Biographies. (Previous subjects include Spinoza, Hobbes, Hegel, Kant and Kierkegaard.) While demonstrating his mastery of his subject, Clarke does an excellent job of explaining Descartes' philosophy and intellectual interests without boring his readers, a trick more scholarly authors should learn.
The book opened up for me two critical points about Descartes that I was not aware of. First, Clarke insists many times that we must put ourselves into the historical time in which Descartes lived. It was a time when there was no distinction between what we call today "science" and areas like astrology, magic and alchemy. I knew that in my head for many years but the way I learned about Descartes in college isolated his project from that historical fact far too much. This book puts you into Descartes' environment in a way that makes that fact about "knowledge" much more real. One of Descartes' central goals was to isolate what was clear and distinct in science from the magic and superstition that passed for knowledge. (It is just very hard today to see magic and science as interchangeable but that was a fact of life in 1630.) This makes much more sense of some of Descartes' language which can strike modern readers as peculiar or dated. Though he got many of the facts wrong in his Meteors, Geometry, and Dioptrics, his method, which precedes those works as a preface and is so often taught in philosophy courses today as an isolated work, was an intellectual breakthrough in distinguishing what can be called "science.Read more ›
It is not Clarke's fault, but one comes away from this biography thinking that Descartes was not a nice person. He comes across as manipulative, argumentative, paranoid, and given to obfuscation when cornered. He ends up with few friends, and one can see why. The most interesting personal part of the story is his correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who keeps asking him very insightful questions that Descartes continually dodges. It would make a good play.....
The book is more detail as to this life and the authors interpretation of his thoughts than of Descartes writings.