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Descartes: A Biography Hardcover – March 6, 2006
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"This is an excellent critical and contextual presentation of the development of Descartes's thought in its historical context."
Richard Watson, Washington University, Journal of the History of Philosophy
"...highly recommended for library and biography shelves." Wisconsin Bookwatch
Descartes' main contribution to the history of ideas was his effort to construct a philosophy that would be sympathetic to the new sciences that emerged in the seventeenth century. To a great extent he was the midwife to the Scientific Revolution and a significant contributor to its key concepts. This is the first biography in English that addresses the full range of Descartes' interest in theology, philosophy, and the sciences, and that traces his intellectual development through his entire career.
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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."
The other factor that truly shows Descartes' genius was his work on the distinction between what is perceived by the senses from what is causing those perceptions. This is not completely original with him. Galileo made a point of it first. We take this distinction for granted today but not then. In Scholastic philosophy the "heaviness" of a rock was a quality in the rock that made it act as it does. Another example used to ridicule the medieval idea was the feather that tickles the child does not have a "tickling quality" inherent in it. What Descartes does more than I ever realized is systematically show this point to be absurd in a way that laid the groundwork for future thinking about science. Descartes' mechanical model of nature, so often wrong we now know, was his way of making nature intelligible without attributing mysterious qualities to it. Clarke is excellent in discussing this point.
Descartes was, to put it mildly, combative. He was also a great dissembler, that is, a highly effective liar when it suited him. He moved constantly, was extremely defensive, had few friends, and was not what we would call in our modern lingo a "nice person." A good part of the last half of the book shows Descartes in verbal disputes with French and primarily Dutch critics. Descartes would humbly ask for objections in highly self-effacing language and then trash in very personal terms those that criticized him. He published objections and replies with the justification that this would clarify his ideas. It did do that but it seems clear from his letters that a major reason he did that was to have the last word on these people for whom he had little or no respect. His personal letters about these individuals are often vicious attacks on them. (Many of the objections predate modern ones, for example, why mental activity cannot be explained by the same natural working of the brain Descartes assumes elsewhere rather than by an isolated nonmaterial thing.)It is this part of the book that can get bogged down at times but Clarke has to include these discussions because that is what Descartes spent much of the last decade of his isolated life in the United Provinces (Netherlands) doing. In contrast to these often personal and semi-paranoid disputes is a great chapter on Descartes and Princess Elizabeth. His obsequiousness toward her at least in this case seemed to be matched by a genuine appreciation of Elizabeth's mind. Her objections are among the most astute given him. Clarke again does a fine job of spelling those out.
I also read Richard Watson's Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes and it contrasts well with this book. I highly recommend Watson's book if you do not want to delve into Descartes' works but want to follow the course of his travels and personal life. It is excellent for that and brought into focus for me many of the places where Descartes lived and worked. Clarke's book is much more an intellectual biography but it also covers (in less detail) all the personal elements of Descartes' life such as his daughter and relationship with his family. For anyone that wants to combine the personal elements with a concise yet thorough discussion of Descartes' work in the context of his life and times, I highly recommend this book.
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.
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.