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  • Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius
  • Wilfred Niels Arnold
Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius by A.C. Grayling. Walker & Co., New York, NY, U.S.A., 2006. 320 pp. Trade. ISBN: 0-8027-1501-X.

In the spirit of full disclosure it should be mentioned that our first family cat was named "Explorador," which was shortened to "X." We felt it unfair to saddle the next arrival with the doubt of "Y" so we called him "Descartes." [X and Y coordinates are used to define a point in a plane by two numbers. The Cartesian system was introduced by René Descartes in 1637, within part two of his Discourse on Method.]

René Descartes was born at La Haye en Touraine (France) on 31 March 1596. His mother died of tuberculosis the next year, but his father Joachim (a judge) was able to arrange an otherwise comfortable and nurturing environment for René with relatives. He received formal education at the Jesuit College Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche, followed by the University of Poitiers, where he earned a Baccalauréat and Licence in Law by 1616. Two years later the young man entered the civil service of Maurice of Nassau, United Provinces (now part of The Netherlands), which were in and out of Spanish domination for decades. Between 1619 and 1625, Descartes traveled Europe, all the while observing, absorbing and analyzing the "great book of the world," as he called it.

In a wonderful body of work in physics, mathematics and philosophy, Descartes adroitly separated all of these from divine matters and thus avoided conflicts, for the most part, with the powers of the day. In 1628, however, he fell out of favor in France and betook a self-imposed exile for a dozen years to the lowlands, where he frequently changed addresses. During his lifetime, the polymath received much scholarly acclaim and international recognition, which have only increased with time. He died prematurely in 1650, at Stockholm, while providing intellectual stimulation for Queen Christina. His mortal remains have been moved three times and presently repose in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (the oldest church in Paris). His birthplace in the Loire Valley was renamed La Haye-Descartes in 1802 and shortened to Descartes in 1967.

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Grayling has written a readable and entertaining book. He goes to some pains to distinguish his "life and times" approach from previous biographies, but admits from the start that there are still great gaps in documentation of vital aspects. Attempts to build plausible hypotheses, not least of which is the possibility that René Descartes was a Jesuit spy-at-large, are engaging but sometimes tiresome and, in the end, disappointing for lack of data. An example of Grayling's method:

Evidence suggests either that [Descartes] was-as hypothesized-an agent, most probably for the Jesuits, investigating or keeping an eye on actual or alleged Rosicrucians, or that he was indeed one of them (or for a time wished to be).... First is the testimony of Descartes' notebook, the Olympica, known to Baillet and Leibniz but since lost [p. 81].

Here and elsewhere, Grayling's linked provisos and reservations are certainly required (although he almost begs for credit by his own admissions) but inevitably lead to a disappearance in value for his message. By analogy, a synthetic chemist may be delighted with reactions that each have 80% yield, but he also realizes that after just three successive steps, the yield of the desired final product is 51%. So it is with three successive and connected suppositions (each with a "good" probability of 0.8)-when strung together (i.e. 0.8 × 0.8 × 0.8 = 0.512) the conclusion is about as good as that of a coin-toss (0.5). In a different vein, but also relevant here, the late Bill Ober joked that the plural of anecdote is data.

Those who find this volume as a first encounter with Descartes will discover much of interest and particularly enjoy the sections on his patrons, correspondents and critics; his only (and illegitimate) child; and the period in Sweden. However, rather...


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