The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, and the Cultivation of Virtue (review)
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Reviewed by
Matthew L. Jones. The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, and the Cultivation of Virtue. Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. xxvii + 384. Cloth, $65.

It can be fairly said that the Fall of Adam is not much on the minds of scientists nowadays. But apparently it was in the days of the scientific revolution. Jones reads Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz as all discovering in the new science different implications for our ruined natural state. For these thinkers (and many before them), the Fall meant losing epistemic privileges and moral attunement. Losing Eden meant losing our place in the universe. And the promise of the new science, some hoped, was that we could gain a better perspective of our place and adjust our expectations accordingly: “mathematics and natural philosophy offered both empirical evidence for humanity’s capacities and, if correctly tuned, remedies for its faults” (11). But the remedies these philosophers advocated differed in significant ways.

For Descartes, the remedy was to secure the right method. Indeed, Jones reads the Geometry as meant (at least in part) as an Ignatius Loyola-like set of exercises for disciplining the human mind. Rather than memorizing scholastic definitions and snapping them together like pieces in a puzzle, Descartes advocated problem-solving mechanisms in which the interdependence of the parts of the problem could be readily comprehended in a single vision. His new moveable compass, for example, gives the user a direct apprehension of just how the change of an angle forces changes in any proportionate triangle. One just sees how things have to work. The same attitude led Descartes to prize rhetorical arts over traditional demonstrations in his philosophical works, as his aim was not just to establish conclusions but make those conclusions evident and memorable to the reader. Overall, Descartes’s pragmatic strategy was to allow the new mathematics and science to chart the most hopeful course in the human pursuit of knowledge, knowing full well that there existed ranges of truths we might never understand clearly and distinctly. Such is the price of having fallen, Descartes might say, and we should content ourselves with what lies within our grasp.

Pascal, a better mathematician, saw more value in those things lying beyond our grasp. He believed we have no genuine understanding of the mathematics of infinity, for example, and yet we find ourselves suspended within it in time and space. At most, when it comes to interesting regions of mathematics, we can link up one phenomenon with another through the judicious uses of notation and formulae. But we must admit to ourselves that we really do not understand why these contraptions work. The chief end of philosophy, according [End Page 321] to Jones’s Pascal, is the recognition of our own cosmic ineptitude, which ought to send any sensible philosopher to his knees before the God of Abraham.

Leibniz found Pascal’s terror puzzling. The inscrutable intricacies of the physical and mathematical universes are testaments to God’s consummate perfection as creator, and beckon us toward refining and advancing our skills. Jones devotes a great deal of attention to lesser-known Leibnizian fancies—his quadrature of the circle, his treatise entitled “Funny Thought,” and his mathematics of optics—in order to bring out Leibniz’s active concern, both theoretical and practical, to gain a broad vision of our epistemic situation and encourage us to get busy filling in the blanks of his synoptic research agenda. This is precisely the context in which to place Leibniz’s “universal characteristic”: it was to be the common language of a lasting encyclopedia of philosophical knowledge. Where Descartes rested content with the human limits he found, and Pascal surveyed them in terror, Leibniz saw work to be done and a moral advancement to secure: “Serious reflection upon the cosmos—a beautiful, just, ornate creation—should impel everyone to strive to make the small place of human beings ever more beautiful, just, and ornate” (266).

Surely Jones would be the first to admit that his book describes only the smallest portion of our small place. The story could be extended further into the eighteenth century, or backward into the...