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Descartes. The Life and Times of a Genius

by Anthony C. Grayling
Walker & Company, New York, 2006
368 pp. illus. Trade, $26.95
ISBN: 0-8027-1501- x.

Reviewed by Martha Patricia Niño M.
Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
Facultad de Artes Visuales


This work is a journey through the context of the life of Descartes in the middle of a world traditionally depicted as dominated by medieval beliefs in miracles and alchemy. His famous dictum "cogito ergo sum" remains as one of the most important quotations of Western thought. The book ranges from anecdotes about his life, academic statements, and Jesuit roots. Descartes’ personal life was troubled and described as lingering with eccentricity and isolation. The book describes his important contributions to the fields of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, geometry, meteorology, astronomy, and optics. All his studies happen in context in which beliefs in miracles, spontaneous generation, and phoenixes rising from ashes are encouraged. One of his main interests concerned how to shape lenses so that they will collect parallels rays of light in a single focus, thus overcoming the problems of distortion suffered by refracting telescopes and spy glasses. Nonetheless, the fundamental questions are questions of what is mind, and what is the relation of mind with the rest of nature?

This biography can serve as a point of departure for a countless number of both historical and contemporary analyses. One of Descartes’ great contributions is to introduce the benefit of doubt and lines of enquiry about reality since sensory information can be veritable but certainly our senses can deceive us and the thresholds of perception vary among individuals. This is a topic that becomes invigorated again by artist working with telematics, such as Ken Goldberg.

This is the same question that doesn’t lose its relevance even with presented with the Wachowski brothers’ cinematic choice of taking the red pill that allows you to end the story or take the blue pill and stay in wonderland. Reality and fiction, in this case, are so intertwined that they resemble the concept of the Gesamtdatenwerk explored by the German opera composer Richard Wagner that advocates the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, and sensory information in a total and life art work. Theoreticians and artists like Roy Ascott examine this topic in relation to our current cybernetic systems is more concerned with the term "noosphere" (from the Greek noos, or mind), a model of expanded global consciousness in ethical context. This will constitute the purported dawning of a new stage of human evolution. The book describes Descartes own Gesamtdatenwerk in a vertiginous context of conceptual and religious war such as the period of reformation and corpuscularianism, atomism, copernicism in the frame of the inquisition. Descartes managed to work despite having being considered a spy in the service of Jesuits. The book also gives details about the incident with the Cardinal Bellarmine that condemned Copernican theory and proscribed Galileo from holding these views or promoting them a situation that later caused trial and condemnation of house imprisonment for Galileo by the inquisition. Grayling views about the incident contrast with the episode described by Isabelle Stengers about the Galileo Affair in which the cardinal Bellarmine in fact do not proscribe Galileo to hold his theories as a scientific hypothesis but as undeniable truth she describes that Galileo in return creates a fuzz in which he proclaims himself as a victim, gains popularity, and sets the conditions of a modern science that vindicates itself with violence. This battle is perhaps one of the most contested chapters of history that serves as the foundation of modern science and independence of modern thought from the Church. In that way Grayling establish parallels between Galileo, which is considered the father of modern science, with Descartes considered the father of modern thought.

The text is recommended for those interested in a complete, descriptive, and rather thrilling biography that reads like a polemic detective adventure that describes his struggles with reason and faith and how he become one the greatest philosophers of our time in spite of his own personal wars and fears of madness. It is a biography but the level of description is similar to a novel. From Grayling perspective, writing about the life of whom is considered the father of modern thought centuries after his death presents inevitable ground for speculative research that he present no apologies for. Grayling considers biography as an act of healthy voyeurism with pedagogical value. In the last chapter he also compares Descartes’ endeavors with Nietzsche, Wittegenstein, Kant, and Locke.


SERRES. M (1995) History of Scientific Thought: Elements of History of Science. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.



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