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Descartes: An Intellectual Biography.

Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995

J.R. Milton Department of Philosophy King's College London

The possibilities for any biography are determined by the source material available. Every case is unique, but there is a broad distinction between those thinkers whose personal papers have survived, for example Locke, Leibniz, and Newton, and those whose papers have largely or wholly disappeared. Descartes is unfortunately in this latter category. Stray items do continue to surface from time to time, but Stephen Gaukroger, working mostly in Australia, has quite understandably left this field of research to others: his biography is based entirely on printed sources.

From the perspective of evidence, Descartes's life falls into two parts. In 1629 he settled in Holland where he remained (apart from brief trips back to France) until his fatal move to Sweden in 1649. All the works he published were written during this latter period, apart perhaps from parts of the Geometrie and the Dioptrique; in addition his separation from his associates in France, notably Mersenne, brought into existence a correspondence of quite exceptional value. Before 1629 we have much less: one substantial though unfinished work of uncertain date, the Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii: Chanut's inventory of the little notebook (now lost) in which Descartes recorded his earliest enquiries, together with the extracts and paraphrases made by Leibniz and Baillet; some entries in the journal of the Dutch physicist Isaac Beeckman, mostly dating from 1618 and 1619; a handful of letters; and finally a few legal documents and entries in administrative records. Even when supplemented by the autobiographical material in the Discourse on Method, it is not a lot.

Gaukroger devotes nearly half the biography to this first part of Descartes's life. The first two chapters cover his childhood and education, and since the number of facts actually known about either is extremely small, most of the space has to be used for background material and scene-setting. Material for this is always available, and in the absence of anything else one can always fall back on current events and academic regulations: the one furnishes a picturesque description of Henri IV's funeral ceremonies, the other a very detailed account of the system of lectiones, repetitiones, disputationes sabbatinae, and disputationes menstruae provided in the Jesuit college at La Fleche. None of this throws much light on either Descartes's personality or his intellectual development.

Descartes's intellectual biography proper begins with his chance encounter in Breda with Isaac Beeckman. Beeckman had developed a version of the mechanical philosophy, and there is no doubt that Descartes owed a considerable and wholly unacknowledged debt to him. Gaukroger's account of their association is admirably clear, and should be of value to philosophers unfamiliar with this part of Descartes's life. The same is true of his account of the famous dreams of November 1619; my only criticism here is that the nature of the sources is not always made clear: writings familiar to few outside ranks of Cartesian scholars - for example, the Olympica - are cited without introduction or explanation.

During the early 1620s even a bare outline of Decartes's life is difficult to construct - for the year 1621 not a single fact appears to be known, and not much more is available for the visit to Italy in 1623-5. From 1625 to 1628 Descartes was in Paris, and it is clear that an important part of his work on optics was done at about this time. Gaukroger's account of this is unfortunately marred by some worrying mistakes. One occurs on p. 144, where there is a diagram supposedly showing light being refracted in a triangular prism. That something is seriously wrong should immediately be apparent from the fact that the incident ray enters the prism at one of its vertices, and that an isosceles triangle has one base angle equated with the angle of incidence, and the other with the angle of refraction. Many other features of the diagram remain wholly unexplained, and what is going on only becomes clear if one consults the (acknowledged) source of Gaukroger's account, W.R. Shea's earlier biography of Descartes, The Magic of Numbers and Motion. Shea's own treatment is flawed by one gross mathematical error, which Gaukroger does not correct, but it does at least enable one to see that the triangle which Gaukroger identifies with the prism is not the prism at all, and is indeed not even of the same shape as the prism (unlike the prism it is not a right-angled triangle). One has, however, to go right back to the Dioptrique Discourse X in order to understand fully what is happening. Here the original of Gaukroger's diagram can be found, and it is apparent that in having it redrawn Gaukroger has distorted it almost beyond recognition: unequal lines are represented as equal, acute angles as right angles (and conversely). This goes beyond mere carelessness.

Another strange diagram appears on p. 165, supposedly showing the formation of an optical image in the eye. Two parallel rays from the top and bottom of the object are refracted at the front surface of the eye, cross a short distance behind its geometrical centre, at a point referred to by Gaukroger as the focus, and then diverge again to produce an inverted image on the retina. Gaukroger adds that if the retina were a mirror the rays would return along their previous paths, though this would only be true if their incidence were normal, which would only be the case if the rays passed through the centre of the eyeball, contrary to his earlier description. The drawbacks of this account are not hard to discover: it presumes that the object is smaller than the diameter of the pupil, and has the disconcerting consequence that the size of the retinal 'image' would be independent of the distance between the object and the eye. The diagram appears to have been drawn by someone with only a limited grasp of geometrical optics, and is in painful contrast with the beautifully drawn (and scientifically quite correct) diagrams showing the formulation of the retinal image in the Dioptrique, Discourse V.

The only extended piece of philosophical writing to have survived from these early years is the Regulae. Gaukroger accepts J.P. Weber's account of its composition as having occurred in two main stages, the first in 1618-20 and the second in 1626-8. Initially this reconstruction is presented with caution, but it soon loses its hypothetical character. Rule 8, we are told, 'is in fact a complicated pastiche of texts' (p. 115); it may indeed be one, but the 'in fact' implies a status for the claim that it cannot possess: all we have is an intricate concatenation of hypotheses elicited from a close reading of the text, and entirely unsupported by any collateral manuscript evidence.

The Regulae are strikingly different from Descartes's mature work, and his decision to leave them unfinished requires explanation. One answer, championed by Richard Popkin, is that Descartes underwent a sceptical crisis in the late 1620s, and needed to begin everything again on a new foundation. Gaukroger rejects this, mainly on the grounds that he can find no evidence that Descartes was interested in scepticism before the mid-1630s. 'His interest in scepticism was relatively late, and took shape in the context of providing a metaphysical legitimation of his natural philosophy, a task which he never even contemplated before the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, and which was a direct response to that condemnation' (p. 11). The familiar argument from doubt through the cogito to God and thence to dualism, first made public in Part IV of the Discourse, post-dates not merely the Regulae - as most commentators would agree - but also Le Monde as well.

Gaukroger's evidence for this claim does not strike me as very strong. The account of perception in Chapter 1 of Le Monde is surely complementary to his later work rather than representing an alternative (and later abandoned) approach, and the fact that our first independent evidence of any concern with scepticism on Descartes's part (a record of a conversation with John Dury) dates from 1634-5 in no way shows that his interest had only recently been acquired. The main themes of the Meditations certainly pre-date Le Monde: we know from letters to 1629 and 1630 (both cited by Gaukroger) that the 'little treatise' on which Descartes was then working aimed to prove the existence of God and the separability of the soul and the body. These are not topics discussed in the Regulae, and the fact that Descartes had abandoned this work around this time and begun writing on the central issues of his mature metaphysics suggests that his thought had taken a radically new direction; if this is correct then an engagement of some kind with the problems of scepticism remains the most likely explanation.

Once the Discourse was published, the progress of Descartes's thought becomes easier to follow, and Gaukroger's pace quickens: the last thirteen years of his life are covered in less than a hundred pages. There is less need for imaginative reconstruction here, and hence less room for either controversy or novelty. Gaukroger provides clear accounts of the publication of the Meditations and the Principia Philosophiae, the disputes with Voet and with Regius, and the friendship with Princess Elizabeth. The final months in Stockholm are described briefly, but perhaps there isn't much to be said. Descartes's end hardly counts as tragic, but a feeling of waste is difficult to suppress.

A useful collection of supplementary material is provided: a chronological table, in which matters of established fact are not always clearly separated from conjectures, a series of valuable biographical sketches, a bibliography, and a good index. As far as I can judge, the level of accuracy is high, one glaring exception being an index entry for 'Dio Chrysostomus, John', a composite figure assembled out of the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom and the Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom, who lived three centuries later.
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Author:Milton, J. R.
Publication:The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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