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Reviewed by:
  • Descartes
  • Gwen Bradford (bio)
André Gombay . Descartes. Blackwell. 2007. x, 152. $31.99

Similar to the other books in the Blackwell Great Minds Series, this one is intended to make Descartes interesting and accessible, even to someone who hasn't so much as read a page of his work. I'd say that Gombay's book not only succeeds in these intentions, but totally surpasses them. Gombay makes Descartes not only accessible and interesting, but gripping and amusing. If National Geographic were to produce a documentary version of Descartes' Meditations, this would be it: Gombay does for the Meditations what Morgan Freeman did for penguins.

Or, perhaps more aptly, it's as if we're on a superb audio tour of the Louvre, complete with a stop at the Mona Lisa, which Gombay perceptively compares to its philosophical counterpart, Descartes' cogito. Descartes' most famous line, 'I think therefore I am,' is, indeed, as Gombay puts it, 'the philosophical Mona Lisa': perhaps the most iconic phrase from all of Western philosophy. The book is indeed a guided tour of Descartes' most famous work, the Meditations, each chapter corresponding to one of the six Meditations.

But the themes of Gombay's chapters tend to take slightly different approaches from what we might expect in an introductory book. The first [End Page 393] of Descartes' Meditations begins with radical skepticism:Descartes calls into doubt virtually every belief and aspect of experience. Gombay, in his corresponding chapter, expands the issue of distrust beyond the senses, taking a personal approach. The issue for Gombay isn't just a matter of questioning the reliability of our senses, but a matter of trust. Gombay's discussion is normatively charged, and he takes advantage of the theme of distrust also to incorporate Descartes' discussion on jealousy from his last work, The Passions of the Soul, and invokes Othello.

This discussion is evidence of a theme of the book, and in Gombay's work in general: to ameliorate the conception of Descartes as hyper-rational intellectualist (in the derogatory sense). This conception of Descartes has been publicized by Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, and is reinforced, Gombay suggests, by pop-culture spoofing of the cogito (as in 'I shop therefore I am') - a statement of a personally defining characteristic, as opposed to a piece of a philosophical argument concluding that one knows that one exists.

Gombay's work exposes the human and more well-rounded side of Descartes. This is the Descartes who thought that the emotions were significant and worthy of philosophical and scientific exploration, and that 'all the good and evil of this life depend on them alone' (The Passions of the Soul).

The normative infusion becomes especially evident in Gombay's chapter on the Fourth Meditation, which Gombay entitles 'Deception and Rights.' In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes takes on the task of establishing that God is not, in fact, deceiving us, and that our senses as a result are ultimately as reliable as they seem to be. Gombay takes up Descartes' discussion from an unorthodox angle, drawing from a contemporary of Descartes, Hugo Grotius, who was perhaps the first philosopher to bring rights to the forefront of philosophical inquiry. Grotius characterizes the wrongness of deception and lying in terms of a right not to be deceived.

Why exactly is this foray into Grotius important? It's unclear, but Gombay thinks it's significant enough to give the chapter on the Fourth Meditation the title 'Deception and Rights.' Gombay suggests that the issue of rights is the 'pedestal' of Descartes' reply to Mersenne's objections regarding benevolent deceit: we have no rights against God, goes Gombay's interpretation, so benevolent deceit is no deceit at all. If we do not have any rights against God, then it's possible that God is benevolently presenting the world to us other than how it really is - in other words, the benevolent deception possibility stands. Ultimately, to show that the world is indeed as it seems, Descartes simply makes unrelated arguments against God being a deceiver. Since, as Gombay admits, it's unclear that Descartes was familiar with Grotius's work, it's unclear why the discussion of...


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