Bookforum | Apr/May 2006

In his two philosophical masterpieces—the Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method, 1637) and Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy, 1642)—René Descartes affected an autobiographical mode. He aimed to "delineate my life as in a picture" and urged the reader to treat his text as a personal story—even a kind of fable—of a man who, though educated in one of "the most celebrated schools of Europe," found himself beset with doubts and uncertainties from which he managed to extricate himself. Initially, the self-portrait strikingly anticipates that of Goethe's Faust, who, having mastered philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and even theology, sees himself, at the end of his studies, as "a poor fool . . . no wiser than I was before." Descartes's Narrator, realizing that he must seek within, then describes his meditative itinerary, which leads to the discovery of the "true method by which to arrive at the knowledge of whatever lay within the compass of my powers."

How close to Descartes as a person is this philosophical fable's Narrator? The philosophy itself is not a fable—or at least it has to be judged by the same criteria to which any philosophical claim is subject. I am speaking rather of the portrait that Descartes paints of himself as a seeker of truths beyond rational doubt. He certainly portrays himself as a man who has learned to conduct his life wisely. Both Discourse and Meditations are full of enough wisdom to generate what Richard Watson, in his sympathetic biography, Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes (2002), calls the "Saint Descartes Protection Society." Descartes, according to Watson, was far from a saint. He is even less so in Desmond Clarke's engrossing biography:

As a pattern in his personal and professional life . . . Descartes had a penchant for misunderstanding those who disagreed with him, attributing motives to their alleged mistakes that were less than complimentary, and then adopting the moralistic posture of someone who had been deeply wronged despite the virtues he claimed always to have exercised when attempting to resolve disagreements.

Intellectual quarrels in the seventeenth century were waspish and insulting, something like British book reviewing today, but Descartes seemed to have been protected by an opaque shield of amour propre from the moral self-awareness one might have expected from so introspective a personality. By the time one has finished Clarke's long, massively documented study, there is little question that what the author describes as Descartes's "less appealing personal characteristics"—he was often hypocritical as well as aggressive, obsequious, stonewalling, and at times treacherous—must be counted as truth. Someone as wise as Descartes's Narrator would hardly have been as vain as Descartes must have been, to have set off for Sweden in the dead of winter to serve as philosophical tutor to the young and willful Queen Christina!

Clarke's book joins the swelling stream of recent philosophical biographies, though it refrains from the fashionable effort of finding in a philosopher's character the psychological source of his ideas—repressed homosexuality in the case of Nietzsche, not-so-repressed sadomasochism in the case of Foucault, an innate susceptibility to Nazi ideology in the metaphysics of Heidegger. In truth, Clarke has relatively little interest in the philosophy that made Descartes famous: "‘I think, therefore I am' . . . was not an original insight on his part, and it had a relatively minor role in his work." For Clarke, "he is best characterized as a philosopher of the Scientific Revolution." He was certainly part of the Scientific Revolution, but his contribution to it plays but an oblique role in the philosophy set forth in his masterpieces, where he has a theory of the soul and of mental contents, and two arguments, both scholastic, for the existence of God. Contrary to Clarke, Cogito ergo sum was a foundation stone in that philosophical system: It exemplifies the kind of idea a rational person knows cannot be false. It led to the thesis that the self is an ens cogitans—a "thinking being"—that, as logically independent of the body, makes the immortality of the soul a rationally entertainable belief as well as an article of faith. It is what made Descartes what it is commonplace to call the founder of modern philosophy. And he cagily developed a criterion of certainty that made it legitimate to doubt scientific truth.

What is the relationship between the Narrator's philosophy and the work on which Clarke's claim is based? That work was Descartes's book on physics—Le Monde—which was at best a matter of hearsay when he was alive, since he prudently refused to publish it. Completed by 1634, the book appeared posthumously, in 1664. Descartes's reasons for suppressing the book may help explain why he wrote his philosophy, which suggests to the reader that his famous search for bedrock truths was undertaken before he concerned himself with the physics he refused to publish. That search was allegedly undertaken in 1619, when, as a soldier, he was snowbound in Germany.

What Clarke designates Descartes's "intellectual odyssey" was not the ascent to certainty narrated in the Discourse and Meditations. It was, rather, defined by two events—the publication by Copernicus in 1543 of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and the Catholic Counter-Reformation as shaped by the Council of Trent (1545–63). "The Scientific Revolution" is just the Copernican revolution, and unquestionably Descartes's endorsement of it in Le Monde determined the course of his life and of his thought. The outcome of Trent meant that he had to find some way of distancing himself from Copernicanism.

A main problem for science in the seventeenth century was how the Copernican claim that the sun stands still while the earth rotates around it could be reconciled with the biblical account in Joshua 10:12, where Joshua commands the sun to stand still until the battle of Gibeon is won. How, if the sun does not move, could it have stood still? If the Bible is false on this point, what basis have we for accepting anything in it as true? If it can be questioned, on what can the Church's authority rest? It was Galileo's Copernicanism that got him into hot water. Tommaso Campanella underwent torture and imprisonment because of his Copernican beliefs. Descartes was certainly a Copernican, and he believed that his system of physics, set forth in Le Monde, demonstrated its truth. But when he learned of Galileo's and Campanella's ordeals, he suppressed his book.

The errors and mistakes someone concerned with scientific truth could make in those days were not matters of mere academic interest. What Dewey famously called the "Quest for Certainty" was undertaken in the fear of flame and rope in the inquisitorial dungeon, and eternal torment in the afterlife if one was, as Descartes appears to have been, in fact a devout believer in the Church's power. That is the connection between Descartes's Narrator and himself. The author of Le Monde believed that the universe is indefinitely large, with many suns, each the center of a vortex of rotating matter. If Copernicanism is false, Le Monde is false, and four years of labor are down the drain. Three years later, in Discourse IV, the Narrator sets out a theory of belief according to which one should not fully assent to anything that is not clearly and distinctly understood to be true—like one's own existence. Obviously, he had not "clearly and distinctly" understood his own theory of vortices:

Some people whom I respect, and whose authority over my actions can hardly be less than that of my own reason over my thoughts, had censured a physical theory which had been published a little earlier by someone else. . . . This made me fear that I might have been mistaken about one of my own views, despite the great care I had always taken not to accept any new beliefs unless I had very certain demonstrations of them, and not to write anything about them that could be detrimental to anyone.

Detrimental, one might say, the way fire is detrimental to flesh. Clarke calls this "false modesty." I see it differently. The Narrator has arrived at a philosophy, which puts the actions of the "philosopher of the Scientific Revolution" in the best of lights: wise, cautious, prudent, and mindful of human fallibility. One wonders whether the masterpieces do set forth a fable, as the Narrator pretends. What if he invented the episode as a creative device for getting himself off the hook of heresy? We have only his word that he undertook those meditations in 1619.

This deeply researched biography puts into dramatic light and shadow the dialogue between a vain, combative, stubborn, brilliant thinker and a philosophical Narrator that generates a system whereby Descartes can, despite these traits of character, find a way through a scary period of history without losing his life or compromising his immortal soul. Out of it emerges the philosopher not of physics but of fallibility. Meanwhile, it is Descartes's wrestling with the relation between the thinking self and the spatially extended body to which it is attached, as discussed in the great Sixth Meditation, that brings us to the limit of understanding the embodied mind even today. The philosopher of the Scientific Revolution is of interest mainly to the historian of science.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University.