. DESCARTES: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY
By Stephen Gaukroger
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
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. …