Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

Synopsis

Ren¿ Descartes (1596-1650) is the father of modern philosophy, and one of the greatest of all thinkers. This is the first intellectual biography of Descartes in English; it offers a fundamental reassessment of all aspects of his life and work. Stephen Gaukroger, a leading authority on Descartes, traces his intellectual development from childhood, showing the connections between his intellectual and personal life and placing these in the cultural context of seventeenth century Europe. Descartes' early work in mathematics and science produced ground breaking theories, methods, and tools still in use today. This book gives the first full account of how this work informed and influenced the later philosophical studies for which, above all, Descartes is renowned. Not only were philosophy and science intertwined in Descartes' life; so were philosophy and religion. The Church of Rome found Galileo guilty of heresy in 1633; two decades earlier, Copernicus' theories about the universe had been denounced as blasphemous. To avoid such accusations, Descartes clothed his views about the relation between God and humanity, and about the nature of the universe, in a philosophical garb acceptable to the Church. His most famous project was the exploration of the foundations of human knowledge, starting from the proof of one's own existence offered in the formula Cogito ergo sum, `I am thinking therefore I exist'. Stephen Gaukroger argues that this was not intended as an exercise in philosophical scepticism, but rather to provide Descartes' scientific theories, influenced as they were by Copernicus and Galileo, with metaphysical legitimation. This book offers for the first time a full understanding of how Descartes developed his revolutionary ideas. It will be welcomed by all readers interested in the origins of modern thought.

Excerpt

Every great philosophy has so far been the self-confession of its originator, a kind of unintentional, unconscious memoires. (Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse)

I have a vivid and happy memory of my first reading of Descartes, for 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. But I cannot honestly say that my enthusiasm was fuelled by my subsequent undergraduate courses on Descartes, which simply followed the trade winds, in an obsessive but completely decontextualized way, through the tired old questions of the cogito and the foundations for knowledge. So it was that my interest in the early seventeenth century came to be stimulated by Galileo rather than Descartes, and it was to Galileo that I devoted my main attention while a research student at Cambridge in the mid-1970s. While there, however, Gerd Buchdahl and John Schuster revealed to me a different Descartes, a more authentic and vastly more engaging one, whom I only began to explore properly ten years later. It is this Descartes who is the subject of this book, and I warn readers--if 'warn' is the right word, as some may breathe a sigh of relief--that it is not the Descartes from whom philosophers have made such a good living for decades that they will find here. But I have not simply set out to write the history of science or cultural history. Descartes is, after all, the figure who stands at the beginning of modern philosophy, just as Plato stands at the beginning of ancient philosophy. While I shall argue that his philosophical achievements are much more intimately linked to his interest in what subsequently have been considered 'scientific' questions than is commonly realized, my aim is not thereby to take Descartes out of the realm of philosophy, but rather to throw light on how he did philosophy.

It is with some trepidation that I pursued this goal through the genre of intellectual biography, even though my own early interest in philosophy had been fired by Simone de Beauvoir's incomparable intellectual autobiography. People read intellectual biographies with different expectations, from the naïve attempt to understand, at a distance as it were, how a 'great mind' works, to attempts to model one's own . . .

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