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Descartes' Metaphysical Physics.

Garber, Daniel. Descartes' Metaphysical Physics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. xiv + 389 pp. Cloth, $60.00; paper, $23.95--Garber easily achieves his stated goal of providing "a book that pulls together various aspects of Descartes' metaphysical approach to the world of body and presents them in a systematic and coherent way, a kind of handbook of Cartesian physics" (p. 3). Such a work has indeed long been needed. The result, however, is more than just a handbook, for Garber's careful attention to historical context sheds considerable light on Descartes' mechanism.

As befits a work on mechanism, the book's central topics are matter or body) and motion. Garber begins, however, with a useful intellectual biography of Descartes. Perhaps most interestingly, Garber stresses the importance of Descartes' early (1618) encounter with Isaac Beeckman. Beeckman, Garber suggests, stimulated Descartes' early thoughts on the conservation of motion, the corpuscularian nature of matter, and the connection between mathematics and physics.

In the second chapter, Garber discusses the general nature of Descartes' philosophical project. Here, Garber defends the controversial claim that Descartes' early views on method, as expressed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind and the Discourse on the Method, were more or less abandoned in his later work. Instead, Garber highlights the role of Descartes' conception of a hierarchy of knowledge, ordered according to subject matter, in shaping his mature thought. Garber's project, then, is to show how Descartes' physics "grows from and is nourished by its metaphysical roots" (p. 63).

Chapters 3-5 focus on Descartes' metaphysics of body. Garber analyzes Descartes' geometrical conception of body and his arguments for that conception, fleshing out the account by examining the various ways in which Descartes sought to distinguish his own view from scholastic hylomorphism and from atomism. Garber concludes that Descartes' attempts to discredit scholasticism are ineffective against a certain type of scholasticism with a somewhat Leibnizian flavor. Descartes' denial of the void is illuminated by an examination of the Cartesian response to Pascal's attempts to produce an experimental proof of the vacuum. The important theological dimensions of seventeenth-century debates on the nature of space are brought out through a discussion of Descartes' correspondence with the Cambridge Platonist Henry More.

The topic of motion is first broached in chapter 6. Garber argues that Descartes' attempts to define motion are shaped by his concern to make the distinction between motion and rest a nonarbitrary one. Descartes' laws of impact require that there be such a distinction, for they dictate that the outcome of a collision depends upon which body is at rest. Descartes also appears to require an account of motion which allows motion to individuate particular bodies; here Garber suggests that Leibniz was right in maintaining that motion alone cannot do the job. Chapters 7-8 provide a thorough analysis of Descartes' laws of motion, with due attention to the evolution of his views and to historical context.

The book concludes with an examination of God's crucial role in the Cartesian system. The laws of motion, in Descartes' view, flow from God's activity. Garber argues that Descartes' God is not a cinematographer, causing motion by recreating the world in different configurations. Rather, God causes motion in some more direct way, "by way of an impulse that moves matter in a way that we can comprehend only through immediate experience" (p. 277). This interpretation, Garber suggests, helps to explain Descartes' derivations of the conservation laws, as well as his apparent willingness to grant causal powers to minds. It appears, however, to raise questions about the status of the "divine shove" which God is said to conserve.

With this book, Garber ensures that future work on Descartes (and on modem philosophy generally) will be informed by a much clearer picture of the complex interplay between Descartes' physics and metaphysics.
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Author:Downing, Lisa
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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