Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WFJ Book Club #1: Descartes

Last night I finished reading a book I've been working on for about a week, entitled Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, by A.C. Grayling (a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London). The book is not particularly long, with the biographical narrative ending on page 236, and two additional appendices (both highly worth reading) adding another twenty six pages, plus a section of notes and an index. Partly this is due to what the author describes as a scarcity of information on how René Descartes spent some of his fifty four years on Earth, but I think it has a lot to do as well with the author's greater interest in Descartes' intellectual progress than in the ordinary minutiae that normally makes up the bulk of biographies.

As far as the "life" goes, Grayling gives a largely straightforward account with a twist; namely, he asserts the hypothesis that Descartes was employed for some time in his younger years as a spy and informant by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), and that this activity accounts for his relocation from France to the Dutch Republic after his brief participation in the Thirty Years' War (although France was a Catholic country, its government was opposed to the Habsburg powers of Spain and Austria, and thus supported the Protestant cause). If Descartes was indeed a Jesuit spy, then perhaps France was not a safe place for him.

Thankfully, the author does not make too much of the espionage angle, although I don't have any trouble believing it. Christopher Marlowe and other writers and intellectuals have historically been spies, and the theory does seem to fit Descartes' biography fairly well. Granted, there's no positive documentary evidence whatsoever, but Descartes did serve a Catholic army in some capacity for a while, and was a devout catholic and Jesuit-booster his whole life. Chalk it up as one of history's plausible maybes.

The rest of his life is either poorly documented (we know his daughter, Francine, died at the age of five, but we have no idea what happened to Francine's mother), or else a series of arguments, as Descartes was not afraid of butting heads with university professors who opposed his philosophical or scientific theories. Indeed, Descartes spends much of the second half of the book, beginning around the publication of his Discourse on the Method, ranging from indignant to positively petulant.

We also learn of Descartes' cruel treatment of animals in medical experiments; he once stuck his finger in the beating heart of a dying dog to prove that it was an automaton, lacking a soul. The author grounds this particular episode in Descartes' Catholicism and his desperation to remain orthodox by insisting on man's fundamental superiority to the rest of nature, but to put it mildly, Descartes rarely comes off as a wonderful human being.

The last few years of his life were spent trying to weasel his way into a government position. He finally got one from Queen Christina of Sweden, but the climate killed him in barely a year; c'est la vie, he might have said.

The book gives a very interesting description of the early 17th century. This was, after all, the time of Galileo, when intellectuals began to rebel against the Aristotelian / Ptolemaean system endorsed by the Church (Catholic and otherwise). It wasn't just a two-way battle; Grayling devotes quite a bit of time to the Order of the Rosy Cross and the Rosicrucian movement, which, as he points out, may or may not have been an actual movement. It was considered to be real at the time, however, and represented (like Descartes' philosophy) a rebellion against the traditional Aristotelian system, albeit in the direction of esoteric mysticism, rather than rationalism or empirical science.

Today we scoff at mystics and Aristotle alike, but in Descartes' day, ideas were bursting forth with such ferocity that it's often difficult to say who was, by our standards, a legitimate scientist (Newton famously spent more time on numerology and alchemy than on physics). It's fascinating to observe the birth of a whole world view amidst the swirling intellectual chaos, and enough to make you wonder whether the success of the Scientific Revolution was inevitable from the start. Descartes himself was, for a time, hesitant of publishing his work for fear of offending his Church.

Ultimately, of course, the rationalism of Descartes gave birth to the Enlightenment, and the Church (Catholic and, for the most part, otherwise) began the long, slow process of backing down from the systematic confrontation with science; if the Earth orbits the sun, so be it. Descartes would likely have been pleased; as Grayling relates, his lifelong ambition was that his philosophy should be taught in schools, specifically the kind of Jesuit institution in which he was educated. It is, although, as Grayling knowledgeably tells us, the system we have today is not exactly as Descartes envisioned it.

The book ends, as mentioned previously, with two appendices. The first is a short description and analysis of Descartes' philosophy, notably the assertion "I think, therefore I am," and the doctrine of mind/body dualism. Grayling doesn't spend much time with Descartes' mathematical or scientific advances, noting that Isaac Newton subsequently produced a far superior model (Grayling is probably more in his element with regards to Philosophy, anyway).

Much of the philosophy is discussed in the biography, but not as directly as in the appendix, where we are taught about both the brilliance and profundity of the man's thought, as well as the significance of the questions his philosophy raised. I came away from this appendix decidedly unconvinced of dualism; however, Grayling is correct in his conclusion that a satisfactory answer to the mind/body problem still lies beyond our understanding. Somewhere in the crackling electricity and gushing chemicals which characterize the activity in our brains is the secret of consciousness, and Descartes was, if nothing else, entirely credible in observing how very different the phenomenon of awareness and experience is from anything else in nature.

The second appendix is an observation of the recent popularity of biographies of philosophers, and an examination of the appeal of the genre. Grayling notes the common problems of such biographies: they tend to be either written by good biographers who do not understand the philosopher's ideas, or by competent philosophers who do not know how to write good biographies. In my opinion, Grayling has neither problem, although his book is more interesting as an intellectual history of the time than as a "biography" in the usual sense. He closes with a quick survey of the biographical treatments recently given to various philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Russel, Nietzsche and others, variously praising and critiquing, while offering his own instant interpretations. Oddly, this final installment was my favorite chapter of the book, though I by no means intend that as a slight against the rest.

On the whole I recommend the book, with an admittedly modest (but real) level of enthusiasm. My own preference is for biographies of creative people, and Descartes certainly qualifies as such. Its greatest value, however, is as a record of intellectual achievement in a particularly heroic time for such things. I didn't come away feeling like I'd really gotten to know René Descartes, which one could say is the primary goal of biography, but I did come to understand his thought better, and that is of course a benefit.


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