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Descartes: An Intellectual Biography.

Stephen Gaukroger's previous work on Rene Descartes inevitably leads one to expect nothing less in his new study than a highly suggestive, provocative, and reconstructive appraisal of the "father of modern philosophy." The reader of this first, and not likely to be surpassed, intellectual biography of Descartes will not be disappointed. A remarkably fine blend of the personal, intellectual and cultural formation of Descartes culminates in a reassessment of all aspects of his life and work. That reassessment is conducted with clarity and thoroughness and with an impressive precision of argument and insight. In every instance Gaukroger informs his arguments by a detailed analysis of the contents and import of each of Descartes's major works and review of all his extant correspondence.

In a comprehensive examination of every significant influence in Descartes's life, Gaukroger insightfully explores Descartes's exposure to and appropriation of his philosophical, theological and scientific heritage from Plato to Mersenne. The specific and sometimes surprising impact upon him of Beeckman, Mersenne, Regius, Voetius, and Balzac, and of such lesser known figures as Henri Reneri and Elizabeth of Bohemia, is exposed in telling detail. Even the Francini brothers' automated figures in the grottoes of the Royal Gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Lay are suggested as a possible influence on his theory of animals as similar to automata.

Distinguishing between an earlier and a later Descartes, Gaukroger contends that Descartes began as a natural philosopher and not as a metaphysician or epistemologist. He blames the biased use made of Descartes by Nicolas Malebranche for the continuing emphasis placed upon Descartes as an epistemologist - an interpretation that continues to be taught, having most recently been again reinforced by Alexander Koyre.

Descartes's work in natural philosophy was temporarily abandoned in 1633 after he learned of the condemnation of Galileo. It was subsequent to that condemnation that Descartes became especially interested in the question of the legitimation of knowledge. The first step in this process of legitimation was systematic doubt, whose function was not to establish firm knowledge, as commonly assumed, but to legitimate "a contentious natural philosophy" by first establishing the cogito. His scepticism, a direct response to the condemnation of Galileo, was no more than a means to an end, namely, the grounding of "the metaphysical credentials" of Copernicanism. Ultimately, only a firm metaphysical foundation of indubitable truths concerning mind and God could have effectively countered the threat to Copernicanism posed by the Inquisition. Hence, it is a metaphysical legitimation of natural philosophy by means of his methodic doubt and doctrine of clear and distinct ideas coupled with God's role in all of these that consumes Descartes's interest after 1633. The Meditations, therefore, are meant to provide the metaphysical grounds for demonstrating the compatibility with religious orthodoxy of the natural philosophy already established in Le Monde prior to 1633. When that "legitimatory apparatus" was abandoned by Rouhault and Regis in the case of the Principia, or simply ignored by others who concentrated exclusively on his theory of vortices, Descartes ended by being misinterpreted as a thoroughgoing mechanistic thinker on the one hand, or as an epistemologist on the other.

The volume includes a detailed chronological table, an extensive bibliography, helpful biographical sketches of the key players in Descartes's life, an index and numerous diagrams helpful in clarifying some scientific and mathematical concepts and applications. Without question, this intriguing and easy-to-read biography belongs in every collection of Cartesian studies. It is simply indispensable.

DOMINICK A. IORIO Rider University
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:Iorio, Dominick A.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:573
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