Evader of wives and hemlock

February 2, 1996

Our Descartes," wrote Voltaire, mixing poison with praise, "born to unearth the errors of antiquity, and to substitute his ownI ." His erudite biographer, Stephen Gaukroger, gives original grounds for rejecting Voltaire's estimate. Gaukroger comes to a study of Descartes via his interest in Galileo and the origins of modern European science. He sees the standard view of Descartes the metaphysician, taught in philosophy undergraduate classes, as false and misleading.

This need not be entirely the fault of Descartes' modern readers. Descartes' motto was bene vixit, bene qui latuit ("he lives well who is well hidden"). Using this paradoxically revealing slogan, Gaukroger argues that Descartes' philosophical effort was not motivated by any autonomous interest in the theory of knowledge. Rather it was intended to be read as a coded metaphysical defence of his scientific doctrines. The need for secrecy arose after the 1633 condemnation of Galileo's Copernicanism by the Inquisition. Gaukroger distinguishes between the early Descartes, interested primarily in mathematics and "natural philosophy", and the later Descartes, increasingly eager to supply the metaphysical credentials for his physical enterprise in the face of mounting ecclesiastical hostility to all empirical science.

Gaukroger establishes that Descartes transformed metaphysics (the abstract concern with the nature of mind and matter) into epistemology (a theory of knowledge) - and all because his scientific project required it. Cartesian epistemology, then, notwithstanding the standard view, was not motivated by a purely philosophical desire to answer the sceptic's hyperbolic doubts. Actually, in his quasi-Buddhist meditations, Descartes was exercised by the problem of the character, not possibility, of knowledge. And if, for example, the existence of God was required to silence the sceptic and establish science, then so be it. Besides, Catholic orthodoxy would like it better that way too.

Cartesian philosophy, then, was in the service of Cartesian science. Gaukroger implies that Descartes' concern with scepticism was practical and sincere, not merely academic and professional. If so, we have the disturbing conclusion that Cartesian philosophy was founded on the political need to mislead obscurantists, not on the nobler Socratic desire to establish truth.

Gaukroger's book supports the view that Descartes was a pragmatist. Certainly, he would not have drunk the hemlock for the cause of science. There is conclusive evidence of judicious self-censorship. And his radicalism never extended to politics. Indeed, while maintaining his intellectual independence, Descartes tried to secure the protective patronage of the aristocracy.

Gaukroger notes Descartes' intellectual debts to others but leaves the impression that 17th-century European thought as a whole had nothing to learn from anybody. For example, he mentions the 12th-century Arab thinker Ibn Rushd (Averro s), but says nothing about the possible influence of his views. What did he think of this fellow sufferer in a sister faith? The creative genius of civilisations cannot be explained by reference to external influence alone but the specific cultural form this genius assumes can nonetheless be shaped decisively by factors external to it.

Gaukroger uses Descartes' extensive correspondence to sketch a touching portrait of the philosopher's personal life. The premature death of his illegitimate daughter was "the greatest sorrow he had ever experienced" in the words of his first French biographer. Descartes' relationships with women were platonic but intellectually stimulating. He developed his theory of the passions while corresponding with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. Like virtually all great philosophers, he wisely abjured the institution of marriage, but he was no stranger to sorrows from other sources. And unlike most French intellectuals, Descartes' sadness was not merely a fashionable one.

Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher, International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Descartes: An Intellectual Biography

Author - Stephen Gaukroger
ISBN - 019 823994 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 519

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments