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Levi Richardson
Levi Richardson

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

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.

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

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.

Finally then, we come away from the study of Descartes' life with a deeper insight into the problem of progress in the sciences. Descartes was just plain wrong about a lot of things, including his theories of physiology and planetary motion. Gaukroger's work explicitly focuses on "the relations of Descartes' intellectual pursuits and the intellectual and cultural environment in which they were pursued."

If we can understand something of how Descartes' ideas were shaped by the intellectual culture of his century, and how they have in turn contributed to our own, then we have learned something about ourselves.

This article pursues the origin and mutation of a fantastic story concerning an automaton in the shape of a young girl that was supposedly built by René Descartes. In recent decades it has been retold and reimagined so many times that the tale has become an iconic narrative in the context of the reassessment of Descartes's significance in intellectual history. But a close reading of the original story, found in a 1699 work entitled Mélanges d'histoire et de littérature by Vigneul-Marville, reveals an overtly stated agenda of saving the philosopher's moral reputation, which makes most recent interpretations of the story problematic. The vast majority of modern retellings demonstrate no awareness of the content or the significance of the first tale even as it has been used to shed light on Descartes, Cartesian ideas, and early modern thought in general.

It is during this year (1619) that Descartes was stationed at Ulm and had three dreams that inspired him to seek a new method for scientific inquiry and to envisage a unified science. Soon afterwards, in 1620, he began looking for this new method, starting but never completing several works on method, including drafts of the first eleven rules of Rules for the Direction of the Mind. Descartes worked on and off on it for years until it was finally abandoned for good in 1628. During this time, he also worked on other, more scientifically oriented projects such as optics. In the course of these inquiries, it is possible that he discovered the law of refraction as early as 1626. It is also during this time that Descartes had regular contact with Father Marin Mersenne, who was to become his long time friend and contact with the intellectual community during his 20 years in the Netherlands.

The second fundamental point of difference Descartes had with the Scholastics was his denial of the thesis that all knowledge must come from sensation. The Scholastics were devoted to the Aristotelian tenet that everyone is born with a clean slate, and that all material for intellectual understanding must be provided through sensation. Descartes, however, argued that since the senses sometimes deceive, they cannot be a reliable source for knowledge. Furthermore, the truth of propositions based on sensation is naturally probabilistic and the propositions, therefore, are doubtful premises when used in arguments. Descartes was deeply dissatisfied with such uncertain knowledge. He then replaced the uncertain premises derived from sensation with the absolute certainty of the clear and distinct ideas perceived by the mind alone, as will be explained below. 041b061a72


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