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  • Cartesian Reflections: Essays on Descartes's Philosophy
  • Michael Moriarty
Cartesian Reflections: Essays on Descartes's Philosophy. By John Cottingham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xii + 332 pp. Hb £40.00.

John Cottingham is the doyen of English-language Descartes scholars: his distinguished achievement as exegete, translator, and editor is familiar to anyone at all conversant with Descartes. Apart from an introductory chapter, this volume is a collection of previously published essays, dating from 1978 to 2007, all of which display Cottingham's profound scholarship, his philosophical acumen, and his willingness to challenge standard perceptions. The examination in chapter 2 of the logic of Descartes's causal proof of God is an especially penetrating example of historically-informed conceptual analysis. Well worth reading separately, the chapters, moreover, add up to a compelling plea for a fairer and more rounded picture of Descartes. Perhaps the book's main target is the reduction of his philosophy to a crude dualism. The supposed 'transparency' and 'privacy' of the Cartesian mind are exploded: as Cottingham argues, Cartesian ideas are 'more like publicly accessible concepts than private psychological items' (p. 116), and Descartes presents our emotional life as largely opaque to consciousness. The chapter on animals demonstrates that, although Descartes denied them thought, he was not, unlike some of his followers, committed to the view that the cry of an injured animal was on a par with the creaking of a rusty machine: on the contrary, he states that animals feel passions like fear, hope, or joy. This is not to say that he could find a satisfactory place for these passions in his theory; but a recurrent, and very fruitful, aspect of Cottingham's book is the suggestion that Descartes's thinking frequently goes beyond his 'official' positions, and that we should focus on precisely those aspects of his thought that seem difficult to fit into the 'official' view. Rightly, Cottingham contends that in certain respects Descartes's position is less dualist than 'trialist': alongside thought and extension, Descartes places a third primary notion, that of the soul and body as united. Some of the richest chapters investigate this domain of body-soul union, the dimensions of experience that we access purely as embodied creatures: sensation, imagination, the [End Page 83] passions. (Some readers will recognize a convergence here with the work of Geneviéve Rodis-Lewis on l'anthropologie cartésienne, which Cottingham cites with approval.) The final section deals with ethical and religious perspectives; here Cottingham makes a strong case for moving beyond the traditional Anglo-American image of Descartes as primarily an epistemologist and the more recent tendency to privilege his scientific agenda, and for recognizing instead the seriousness of Descartes's theological and ethical commitments. A final chapter on 'Plato's Sun and Descartes's Stove' gives an admirably balanced account both of those elements in Descartes's philosophy that preserve ancient and medieval metaphysical and ethical preoccupations (from Plato, Augustine, or Bonaventure) and of those that represent a break with this legacy and that have encouraged so many to identify him as a founder of modernity. In short, this is an admirable volume, most profitable, perhaps, not for the beginner in the field, but for the more experienced reader.

Michael Moriarty
Queen Mary University of London


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