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Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius

by A.C. Grayling
Walker & Co., New York, 2006
320 pp. Trade, $ 26.95
ISBN 0-8027-1501-X.

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center


In the spirit of full disclosure it should be mentioned that our first family cat was named "Explorador" which was shortened to "X." We felt it unfair to saddle the next arrival with the doubt of "Y" so we called him "Descartes." [X and Y coordinates are used to define a point in a plane by two numbers. The Cartesian system was introduced by René Descartes in 1637, within part two of his Discourse on Method.]

René Descartes was born at La Haye en Touraine (France) on March 31, 1596. His mother died of tuberculosis the next year, but his father Joachim (a judge) was able to arrange an otherwise comfortable and nurturing environment for René with relatives. He received formal education at the Jesuit College Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche, followed by the University of Poitiers, where he earned a Baccalauréat and Licence in Law by 1616. Two years later the young man entered the civil service of Maurice of Nassau, United Provinces (now part of The Netherlands), which were in and out of Spanish domination for decades. Between 1619 and 1625, Descartes traveled over Europe, all the while observing, absorbing, and analyzing the "great book of the world," as he called it.

In a wonderful body of work in physics, mathematics, and philosophy Descartes adroitly separated all of these from divine matters and, thus, avoided conflicts, for the most part, with the powers of the day. But in 1628 he fell out of favor in France and betook a self-imposed exile for a dozen years to the Low Lands where he frequently changed addresses. During his lifetime the polymath received much scholarly acclaim and international recognition, which have only increased with time. He died prematurely in 1650, at Stockholm, while providing intellectual stimulation for Queen Christina. His mortal remains have been moved three times and presently repose in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (the oldest church in Paris). His birthplace in the Loire Valley was renamed La Haye-Descartes in 1802 and shortened to Descartes in 1967.

Grayling has written a readable and entertaining book. He goes to some pains to distinguish his "life and times" approach from previous biographies, but admits from the start that there are still great gaps in documentation of vital aspects. Attempts to build plausible hypotheses, not least of which the possibility that René Descartes was a Jesuit spy-at-large, are engaging but sometimes tiresome and, in the end, disappointing for lack of data. As an example of Grayling’s method (p. 81) "evidence suggests either that [Descartes] was – as hypothesized – an agent, most probably for the Jesuits, investigating or keeping an eye on actual or alleged Rosicrucians, or that he was indeed one of them (or for a time wished to be). . . . First is the testimony of Descartes’ notebook, the Olympica, known to Baillet and Leibniz but since lost." Here and elsewhere, Grayling’s linked provisos and reservations are certainly required (although he almost begs for credit by his own admissions) but inevitably lead to a disappearance in value for his message. By analogy, a synthetic chemist may be delighted with reactions that each have 80% yield but he also realizes that after just three successive steps, the yield of the desired final product is 51%. And so it is with three successive and connected suppositions (each with a ‘good’ probability of 0.8) – when strung together (i.e. 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 0.512) the conclusion is about as good as that of a coin-toss (0.5). In a different vein, but also relevant here, the late Bill Ober joked that the plural of anecdote is data.

Those who find this volume as a first encounter with Descartes will discover much of interest and particularly enjoy the sections on his patrons, correspondents, and critics; his only (and illegitimate) child; and the period in Sweden. However, rather than embracing Grayling’s Jesuit-spy-at-large working hypothesis, I believe that many readers will join me in wondering whether Descartes secrecy, his paradoxical religious commitments, and the early reluctance to put everything in print, were mainly driven by a fear of another Galileo affair. The author admits to only offering hints on the science, has written for a general audience, and will not attract a great deal of applause from Descartes aficionados.

The assembled notes for each chapter start on page 263 and include some items that might better have appeared as footnotes. For example (with reference to the year 1629 and the continuing Thirty Years War) note 1 for chapter 6 begins, "Descartes played no further part in the war in the way hypothesized here – that is, as an intelligence operative; I [Grayling] make this claim because, continuing with reliance on circumstantial evidence as before, I see neither cause nor opportunity for him to do so, but on the contrary so much concentration on his scientific and philosophical work . . . that it becomes quite implausible to think that he was continuing intelligence work, for the Jesuits or anyone else, in his new circumstances. . . ." and ends a full page later, " Still: from this point on in his [Descartes’] story the hypothesis plays no further role."

The front image on the dust jacket is described as "Portrait, presumed to be René Descartes," oil on canvas, by Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). That selection says something about either the author’s or the jacket designer’s pluck in offering something new. [We note that the accomplished Bourdon also painted a portrait of Queen Christina of Sweden, but it is not reproduced in this book.] Overall, this hardback is handsome, printed on good quality paper, and includes an interesting selection of 38 illustrations on 8 pages ganged after page 144 of the text. The volume is rounded out with a "select bibliography" of 4 compilations of Descartes’ works and 70 biographical and general references. There are 11 pages of index, with name and subject combined. One appendix contains a note on Descartes’ philosophy, and a second is a short discourse on biographies of philosophers with a justification by Grayling for his personal approach.

Anthony C. Grayling is a Professor at Birbeck College, University of London. He has written several books; the Library of Congress online catalog lists 18 items of biography and philosophy ranging from "Wittgenstein" (1988) to "Among the dead cities: the history and moral legacy of WWII bombing of civilians in Germany and Japan" (2006).



Updated 1st January 2007

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