Stephen Gaukroger


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Descartes Summary

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In his biography, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (1995), Stephen Gaukroger focuses on famed philosopher René Descartes’s philosophical development rather than his personal life, resulting in an account of his career more than of his life.

In the introduction, Gaukroger recounts a famous and almost certainly false story about Descartes traveling with a lifelike female doll, pointing out that the story was likely invented to discredit Cartesian thought in the nineteenth century. He notes previous attempts to chronicle the development of Descartes’s ideas and intellectual views, arguing that a biography that focuses on these ideas and their evolution will be more revealing.

Gaukroger mentions the one instance when Descartes referenced his childhood in his voluminous correspondence. In a letter sent to Princess Elizabeth concerning an illness she was suffering, Descartes noted that doctors had warned him he would die young from a lung ailment he inherited from his mother. His ability to see the positive outcomes allowed him to remain healthy. Gaukroger observes that Descartes seems to deliberately get details wrong when he writes about his mother and his own birth, speculating on the possible reasons for this. He points out that we know very little about Descartes’s early life, summarizing what is known to be true. Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, and his mother passed away a little more than a year later. His relationship with his father was sporadic and distant due to his father’s work, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. In 1601, he left for school, a sickly boy, and spent the next few years gaining a background in science that would later serve him well in his philosophical and scientific endeavors.

After school, Descartes joined the army in the Netherlands and met Isaac Beeckman, who influenced Descartes greatly. Seeking to unite mathematics with physics, Beekman saw Descartes’s obvious skill in math as a singular asset; he became something of a teacher and mentor to Descartes. There is a hint that Descartes saw Beekman as a father figure as well.

Descartes served in Maximilian I’s army in Ulm, continuing to refine his intellectual pursuits. His main work during this period involved a general theory of method, culminating in his treatise, Discourse on the Method, which contains his most famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes experienced a series of dreams or visions, which Gaukroger speculates may have been the result of a nervous breakdown. Inspired by these visions, Descartes worked on a variety of concepts in geometry and cognition that served as the foundation of his later work.

Descartes moved back to Paris in 1625, quickly becoming part of a thriving intellectual community. While working with Mydorge in the field of optics, Descartes discovered and codified the law of refraction, writing the first of his essays on cognition and thought, Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). Gaukroger notes that Descartes preferred to use algebra to solve problems, as opposed to geometry, speculating that what drove him in his work on cognition was not skepticism or spiritualism but a desire to identify the relationship between mechanism and clarity.

Descartes returned to The Netherlands in 1628 for unknown reasons. While there, he avoided becoming beholden to wealthy patrons as was the usual practice for intellectuals at the time. During this time, Descartes worked on optics, music, and metaphysics concerning whether God exists and the nature of the soul. Descartes began work on meteorology, which slowly became an effort to explain physics comprehensively. He began a dispute with Beeckman regarding who could own ideas, a dispute that consumed much of his time and, thus, impacted his work.

During his time in The Netherlands, Descartes produced his greatest work, Le Monde (The World), which defined his concept of Mechanical Philosophy and his belief that all physical things in the universe were composed of small “corpuscles” of matter (very much like our modern concept of atoms). Hearing about Galileo’s heresy trial, Descartes delayed publication of his work, using language that the church would not find objectionable. He also produced L’Homme (The Man), exploring the nature of thought and existence, touching on the difference between human and animal cognition, and whether animals have souls.

Gaukroger explores the reaction to Descartes’s work, which though undoubtedly brilliant, was disturbing to many who believed in a heliocentric world created by a rational god. Descartes published Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy) in 1641, a tremendous effort to identify that of which we can be absolutely certain.     It is one of the most influential texts in philosophy ever composed.

Descartes’s later years are discussed, drawing from the surprisingly large number of letters written between him and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. Descartes worked industriously during the last decade of his life, but did not finish any great new works. He began teaching Queen Christina of Sweden in a cold and drafty castle; they did not like each other, and despite infrequent visits, Descartes died of pneumonia in February 1650.