Descartes: Philosophical Pioneer Biography Brings to Light Intellectual Life in 17th-Century Europe

Article excerpt

. DESCARTES: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY

By Stephen Gaukroger

Clarendon Press

499 pp., $35

One day Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was eating lunch in a Paris bistro when the waiter asked, "Will there be anything else, m'sieu?" the story goes that Descartes replied, "I think not," and vanished!

Most students learn of Descartes only in that he said cogito ergo sum - "I think, therefore I am." This magisterial biography by Stephen Gaukroger, president of the Australian Society for the History of Philosophy, exhaustively explores the question of what it was Descartes was thinking about.

Gaukroger has immersed himself in Descartes' world. He has read the published and posthumous works, the letters, and anything else that might conceivably have a bearing on Descartes' life and work, including such obscure finds as the Ten Modes of Aenisdemus of Knossos and the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. His interest in Descartes began some 25 years ago. "It was with unbounded enthusiasm that I devoured the 'Discourse on Method,' sitting in the shade of a tree in the Borghese Gardens in Rome in the summer of 1970, just before I started studying philosophy at university."

The image of a garden flooded with sunlight might well describe this comprehensive intellectual biography, for it opens to the light of inquiry the dark and somewhat forbidding world of intellectual life in 17th-century Europe.

Descartes has been called the father of modern philosophy. In his publications, and in his extensive correspondence with the Minimite friar Marin Mersenne, he explored almost every issue of intellectual concern in his day. Father Mersenne was at the center of the "Republic of Letters," in communication with Descartes and Fermat in France, Galileo in Italy, and others.

At that time, the modern distinctions between science, philosophy, and theology hardly existed. The Latin-speaking, Jesuit-educated, European literati of the day formed an international community, bound by shared interests. Descartes' goal, at one point in his life, was the construction of a mathesis universalis, a universal natural philosophy that encompassed all these disciplines in a common framework.

In this great task, he does not seem to have been much impeded by modesty. He writes to Mersenne in 1632, for example, that he is "dissecting the heads of different animals in order to explain what imagination, memory etc., consist of." He also insisted that the English physician and physiologist William Harvey must be wrong in his theory that the heart was a pump, since there was no obvious source of power. Descartes insisted the heart must be like a furnace, in which the blood is warmed.

This account of physiology was a part of Descartes' larger belief that all natural forces could be explained in terms of working mechanical principles. "The universe, as Descartes represents it, consists of an indefinite number of contiguous vortices, each with a sun or a star in the center, and planets revolving around the center. …