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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 465-468
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Cogito Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes, by Richard Watson; vii & 375 pp. Boston: David R. Godine, 2002, $35.00.
Scholarly in what it delivers, but delightful in how it delivers what it delivers, Cogito Ergo Sum is highly informative and fun to read. Touching on all the key places, players and events in the philosopher's life, Watson tells us (at least) everything we wanted to know about Descartes as he cuts through the myths that have been passed down to us about him. Cutting through the myths meant dissociating his biography ("the first biography of Descartes since 1920 that is based on substantial new research, and the only one ever written for general readers"; p. 23) from the two still-operative hagiographic traditions: the French Catholic apologetic tradition and the scientific apologetic tradition. The result is a skeptical biography, full of distrust toward tradition and authority, written very much in the spirit of methodical doubt practiced by its subject.
Descartes emerged from a powerful family tradition of law and medicine but mentions his childhood only six times. With good reason. He didn't like either his father or his brother and his mother died thirteen months after he was born. He was considered the family failure, not only wasting time in philosophy but squandering his share of the family fortune. He received an excellent eight-year education at the outstanding Jesuit school at La Flèche where he was immediately attracted to the certitude that mathematics offered him. He earned a law degree in Poitiers, spent time in the Army, though not in battle, and refused a judgeship.
It was Isaac Beeckman who radically influenced Descartes's future when he awakened him to the possibility of applying mathematics to the problems of natural science. Watson examines sympathetically Descartes's eventual revolt against this father figure. Watson humanizes Descartes greatly when he examines both his relationship with his daughter, Francina, who died of scarlatina at the age of five, and his relationship with the child's mother, Helena Jans. He also rehabilitates the reputation of Helena who has been traditionally maligned by biographers of the philosopher. Here, and elsewhere, he speaks out loudly and clearly against "the denizens of the Saint Descartes Protection Society" who purport that Descartes broke his celibacy just this once. "Actually," writes Watson, "I think Descartes was enough of a scientist that he would have repeated the experiment several times, if only to see if the experience was the same the second and a third time" (pp. 181; 182).
In 1628, totally unwilling to get involved in religious squabbles in France and desiring to live in "joyful anonymity," Descartes takes off for Friesland. This constituted a flight from family, social responsibility, and royalist Catholic totalitarian oppression. He moved around often to situate himself at universities where he wanted to do research and to avoid the plague. This great mathematical genius and father of modern philosophy wanted to replace [End Page 465] Aristotelian philosophy and science and thought correctly that it would be easier to get his ideas accepted here. He became friendly with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia who spoke five languages and astutely critiqued his metaphysics. Despite the myths, neither was in love with the other. She inspired him to write The Passions of the Soul, which, oddly enough, he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden. He did, however, dedicate his Principles to Elizabeth. Christina was a bookish intellectual who loved the theater. In 1649, even though he had exhibited a clear dislike of court life, he agreed to be her tutor. He died in Sweden in 1650 during one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Europe.
Why did he go to Sweden? He was broke and had little chance for a pension in France. In addition, while he knew the value of his work, he began to think his life might have been a failure. Perhaps he might really enjoy being a courtier after all. Certainly he feared that he would end...