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Descartes: A Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Desmond M. Clarke. Descartes: A Biography. New York-Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 507. $40.00.

This is an excellent critical and contextual presentation of the development of Descartes's thought in its historical context. No recent biographer has done as well in providing names, dates, and outlines of the ideas and positions of thinkers contemporary with Descartes who influenced, criticized, and annoyed him.

The persona that emerges from this study is that of an irascible, belligerent egotist of colossal proportions: a man who never admitted a mistake, who sometimes was almost clinically paranoid, who picked fights well beyond reasonable cause and need, who trashed two of the intellectual giants of his day (Fermat and Gassendi), who tried to take credit for the [End Page 159] conception of Pascal's experiment concerning the weight of the atmosphere (in fact, lots of people had thought of it), and who mounted vicious personal attacks on two of his closest friends—on Beeckman, whom Descartes thanked effusively early in their acquaintance for setting him on the correct course in life, and on Regius, whom Descartes realized was as influential as anyone could be in promoting and popularizing Cartesian philosophy. Beeckman's sin was in being proud of having had Descartes as an informal student when Descartes was young. Regius's sin was recognizing the crucial flaw in Descartes's metaphysics—the causal incompatibility of mind and matter—and trying to set it right. Descartes could accept neither Beeckman's pride nor Regius's correction.

In fact, Descartes comes across as what today would be called a nasty piece of work. In the course of his disputes and battles (as, e.g., in what he himself refers to as his war with the Jesuits), Descartes lied, willfully mistook his opponents' positions, nastily defamed them personally, and involved others (such as Mersenne in the dispute with Voetius) in elaborate schemes to deceive and entrap his critics. This is not to say that some of them (e.g., Voetius) were not nasty in their own right. It is just to note that Descartes himself was not a gentilhomme in the classic seventeenth-century sense that he himself elsewhere recommends. Clarke knows that in his presentation of the man, Descartes comes out as less than charming, but given his decision to present Descartes almost solely as Gassendi did, as "O Mind," i.e., in the context of the background and development of his works, the result is inevitable.

Virtually all books in the Cambridge biographies of philosophers are, and are meant to be, life and works biographies. Because they are written by philosophers who are generally more concerned with, and know more about, the works than the life, the human being who is the philosopher almost always gets less than complete coverage. Clarke probably does as well as anyone can given these constraints.

Besides Descartes's comments in the Discours, his correspondence, and reports of some of his contemporaries, the major source of—and major stumbling block to—the story of Descartes's life is Adrien Baillet's La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (Paris, 1691). What to believe of this biographer of saints? Clarke is rightfully cautious. I was pleased to see him remark about Baillet's detailed presentation of the famous dreams that it "is impossible to know whether Descartes actually had some significant dreams while billeted at Neuburg" (58). (I think the evidence points to Descartes being in Ulm, but never mind.) As befits tradition, Clarke goes on to analyze the dreams anyway. About the nonsense that Descartes had a private room and was allowed to sleep late at La Flèche, Clarke says that he "seems to have been excused from the early rise by the college rector, Father Charlet, who was a distant relative of his" (25). First, there is the small number of such rooms, their cost, and the bottom-level noble status of the Descartes family; but as Clarke well knows, with regard to the severity of Jesuit education, if Charlet had noticed at all, his response would most probably have been to make his distant relative shape up. On the other hand, Clarke...