Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A Biography

by Desmond M. Clarke

Although René Descartes' (1596-1650) is best remembered today for writing "I think, therefore, I am," his unique contribution to the history of ideas was his effort to construct a philosophy that would be sympathetic to the new sciences that emerged in the seventeenth century. In four major publications, he fashioned a philosophical system that accommodated


Although René Descartes' (1596-1650) is best remembered today for writing "I think, therefore, I am," his unique contribution to the history of ideas was his effort to construct a philosophy that would be sympathetic to the new sciences that emerged in the seventeenth century. In four major publications, he fashioned a philosophical system that accommodated the needs of these new sciences, thereby earning the unrelenting hostility of both Catholic and Calvinist theologians, who relied on the scholastic philosophy that Descartes hoped to replace. His contemporaries claimed that his proofs of God's existence, in the Meditations, were so unsuccessful that he must have been a cryptic atheist, and that his discussion of skepticism served merely to fan the flames of libertinism. Although Descartes died in Stockholm in obscurity, he soon became one of the most famous philosophers of the seventeenth century, a status that he continues to enjoy today. This English-language biography addresses the complete range of Descartes' interests in theology, philosophy, and the sciences, and traces his intellectual development throughout his entire career. Desmond M. Clarke is Professor of Philosophy at University College Cork, Ireland, where he previously served as Dean of Arts and Vice-President. He is author of a number of books on Descartes and the seventeenth century, including Descartes' Philosophy of Science (1982), Occult Powers & Hypotheses (1989) and Descartes' Theory of Mind (1993). He has translated two selections of Descartes' writings and has also translated La Forge's Treatise on the Human Mind (1997) and Poulain de la Barre's The Equality of the Sexes.

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Cambridge University Press
0521823013 - Descartes - A Biography - by Desmond M. Clarke


DESCARTES died in Sweden in 1650, a few weeks before his fifty-fourth birthday. He had spent most of his adult life in relative seclusion in what is now the Netherlands, while the Thirty Years' War waxed and waned around him. By 1667, when some French Cartesians arranged for the return of his remains to Paris, they had begun to publicize his works, to develop a characteristically Cartesian philosophy, and to be identified by critics as a 'sect'. These early supporters included many philosophers who, apart from Nicolas Malebranche, are probably remembered today only as marginal figures in the history of Western thought. The name of Descartes, however, remains readily recognizable. He has entered the canon of Western philosophy so securely that that there is no longer any dispute about his significance.

Why was he important? Hardly for the phrase by which he is popularly remembered today, both by students of philosophy and by other readers: 'I think, therefore I am'. This was not an original insight on his part, and it had a relatively minor role in his work. During the past century, Descartes has often been read as a metaphysician or, perhaps as frequently, as a philosopher who took seriously the arguments of sceptics. Alternatively, he is classified as a philosopher of subjectivity, as someone who outlined an internal map of the human mind and defended the irreducibility of conscious experiences. Finally, there are those, especially feminist critics, who think of Descartes as having exaggerated the significance and capacity of reason at the expense of the emotional life. For them, Descartes was a mere 'rationalist'.

Descartes' life reveals a much more complex and interesting character than any of these labels suggests. As an intellectual in the early seventeenth century, he might have directed his energies toward political philosophy (as Hobbes did), to theological disputes (as Pascal did), or to the renewal of humanistic and classical learning for which Erasmus had earlier provided an outstanding model. Alternatively, he might have channeled his genius exclusively into mathematics (as his contemporaries Fermat and Roberval did); had he done so, he would surely have exceeded by far the novelty and ambition of their achievements. Although all these interests featured to some extent in his life, Descartes' primary focus was elsewhere. He is best characterized as a philosopher of the Scientific Revolution.

Two major events that helped define his intellectual odyssey occurred in the sixteenth century, one of them in Poland and the other in Trent, at the southern limits of the Holy Roman Empire. In Poland, Nicholas Copernicus published The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres as he lay dying in 1543. Although it appeared with an unauthorized Preface by Andreas Osiander that seriously misled readers about the author's intentions, this book moved the Earth from its traditional place at the centre of the universe and relocated it as a relatively small planet circulating about the Sun. However, Osiander invited readers to minimize the significance of Copernicus' work by describing it merely as an 'hypothesis'. He compounded the mistake by reminding readers that 'hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough.'

Osiander's cue reflected a tradition of instrumentalism that had been applied to astronomy since the time of Ptolemy. On this reading, astronomers do not try to describe or explain the real world. They merely construct mathematical devices for predicting regular changes in the apparent positions of the planets and for calculating, for example, when eclipses occur. This nonrealist reading of Copernicus was supported to some extent by the fact that he offered no physical explanation of why the Earth moves around the Sun. He assumed that the planets rotated on invisible but mechanically effective concentric spheres.

However, it was clear from other features of his book that Copernicus was doing much more than constructing a mathematical model. One sign of his realist intentions was his speculation about the dimensions of the universe, and about the infinitesimally small particles of matter from which visible bodies are composed. Although he stopped short of claiming that the universe extends to infinity, he acknowledged the change of scale required in the traditional picture of the 'world'.

This reasoning certainly makes it quite clear that the heavens are immense by comparison with the earth and present the aspect of an infinite magnitude, while on the testimony of the senses the earth is related to the heavens as a point to a body, and a finite to an infinite magnitude....For that proof establishes no conclusion other than the heavens' unlimited size in relation to the earth. Yet how far this immensity extends is not at all clear. At the opposite extreme are the very tiny indivisible bodies called 'atoms'. Being imperceptible, they do not immediately constitute a visible body when they are taken two or a few at a time. But they can be multiplied to such an extent that in the end there are enough of them to combine in a perceptible magnitude.

With these tentative steps, Copernicus introduced a genuine revolution in astronomy. Although he was a respected canon of his diocese at Cracow, he also raised a fundamental question about the role of biblical and other religious texts as sources of scientific knowledge.

Kepler was among the first to recognize the significance of the new theory. He concluded, in his New Astronomy (1609), that 'only Copernicus' opinion concerning the world (with a few small changes) is true, [and] that the other two views [those of Ptolemy and Brahe] are false.' This unequivocal language, unmitigated by Osiander's qualification, made explicit the apparent conflict between the new astronomy and the Bible, which, on a literal reading, implied that the Sun moved around the Earth. Kepler addressed the problem directly. 'Now the Holy Scriptures, too, when treating of common things (concerning which it is not their purpose to instruct humanity) speak with humans in the human manner, in order to be understood by them. They make use of what is generally acknowledged, in order to weave in other things that are more lofty and divine.' In other words, the Bible was never intended to teach astronomy. Instead, it spoke to people in a language that they understood. In the process, the Bible assumed the same views about the universe as its original readers. Kepler wrote this as a Lutheran, under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, at Prague. The same issue arose in the Catholic world, and was addressed by Galileo in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina (1615):

I question the truth of the statement that the Church commands us to hold as matters of faith all physical conclusions bearing the stamp of harmonious interpretation by all the Fathers. I think this may be an arbitrary simplification of various Council decrees by certain people to support their own opinion....the Bible...was not written to teach us astronomy.

This challenge from the new astronomy to a literal reading of the Bible coincided with a wider European discussion about the authority of the Bible even as a source of religious faith. While the reformed churches, in general, encouraged Christians to read the Bible as the revealed word of God, Catholic bishops claimed to have exclusive, collective authority to interpret the Bible, and, in doing so, they relied on tradition and the teaching of the early fathers of the church. This appeal to tradition and authority was defended by the Council of Trent (1545-63) in uncompromising terms.

Furthermore, to control petulant spirits, the Council decrees that, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the establishment of Christian doctrine, no one, relying on their own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to their own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church (to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and meaning) has held and does hold, or contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers, even if such interpretations are never to be published. Those who do otherwise shall be identified by the ordinaries [i.e., bishops or religious superiors] and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law.

This set the stage for an inevitable confrontation between proponents of the new astronomy and the Vatican that resulted notoriously in Galileo's condemnation and subsequent house arrest in Florence. Those who defended Galileo publicly - and there were only two who did so - were also condemned by the church. Paolo Antonio Forcarini wrote his famous Letter in 1615, and it was promptly condemned by the Congregation of the Index the following year. Tommaso Campanella was tortured by the Inquisition and spent almost thirty years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement, before escaping to France in 1634.

Descartes inherited from Copernicus and Galileo the intellectual conflicts involved in attempting to develop the new astronomy and, at the same time, to remain within the Catholic Church. He avoided church censure of his astronomy for almost two decades by dissimulation, self-censorship, and astuteness. However, his ambiguous support for Copernicus was merely a symptom of a much more radical problem that could not be camouflaged as easily. Descartes challenged the fundamental philosophy in terms of which both Catholic and Reformed theologians had expressed their teaching of Christian dogmas for centuries. That could not be marginalized, as a technical question in astronomy that only experts might be expected to understand. It went to the heart of the matter and eventually earned Descartes a delayed but almost inevitable listing in the Index of Forbidden Books in 1663.

Apart from the merits or otherwise of scholastic philosophy, Descartes was dispositionally querulous, a combative defender of his own ideas, and an unsympathetic critic of other people's theories. He fought consistently with mathematicians, philosophers, theologians, and anyone else who failed to acknowledge the significance or originality of his work. In fact, the dominant pattern of his life was combat, or, in his own words, an unrelenting intellectual 'war'.

This 'war' resulted in part from Descartes' sensitivity to criticism and the certainty that he claimed, prematurely, for his own views. However, the underlying reason for the extensive rows that distracted him for more than two decades was a conflict of cultures between a desiccated, obsolete scholasticism and the emerging philosophy of the Scientific Revolution. Descartes' major contribution to the history of ideas was made in articulating that conflict. He addressed many of the inherent weaknesses of traditional philosophy and championed a new way of thinking that implied the redundancy of earlier theories. In particular, he claimed that natural phenomena are explained ultimately by small particles of matter and their properties, rather than by the philosophical entities that his critics assumed.

The conceptual tension between the new ideal of scientific explanation proposed by Descartes and the moribund philosophy of the schools is much clearer in retrospect than it appeared during the early decades of the seventeenth century. This is especially obvious when Descartes falls back on many of the key concepts of traditional philosophy, such as the concept of a substance, even in the process of arguing for its replacement. He thus emerges from this revolutionary period as a reluctant participant in the Galileo controversy, as a very discreet critic of Catholic theology, and, especially, as a philosophical innovator who continued to exploit many of the scholastic concepts that his own work rendered problematic. He was a Frenchman who lived most of his adult life outside his native land. He was a recluse who kept in touch with intellectual developments all over Europe, mostly by correspondence with Mersenne. He lived alone, read few books, did his own scientific research, and fought with almost everyone he encountered while constantly announcing that all he wanted was 'the security and tranquility' required to complete his intellectual project. His less appealing personal characteristics did not prevent him from becoming the most original French thinker of the seventeenth century, and one of the most famous contributors to the history of Western philosophy.


A Lawyer's Education

I have been nourished by books since I was a child. (Discourse on Method, vi. 4)

BREAD and wine, and the seasonal changes that affect their production, were among the most familiar features of life in the Loire valley, in central France, in the sixteenth century. The appearance of the 'plague', although an infrequent event, was much more prominent in public consciousness. None of these realities was well understood. The range of grapes cultivated in this region was very extensive, and the wines produced were equally diverse. Growing grapes and producing wine relied on traditional techniques that had been passed on for generations. Those involved in viticulture could easily recognize a good season, with the right combination of spring rain and intense heat in midsummer, and they succeeded admirably without a scientific oenology. Likewise, the production of bread and other familiar foods did not presuppose biochemistry and any of its cognate sciences.

The plague, however, was a different story. In one province alone, in 1631, it killed 40,000 people. No one understood what it was, how it arrived in a town, or why it eventually abated, although they noticed that it tended to vary in intensity with the seasons, being worst in summer. They also knew that it was likely to cause a very large number of painful deaths and that the best defence was to flee, preferably before the plague arrived in a town. Here was a natural phenomenon, then, that urgently required an explanation, with a view to providing a cure.

Bread and wine, of course, were not simply familiar foodstuffs that exemplified established French culinary traditions. They were also central to the Christian liturgical tradition that originated with the last supper of Christ. Their role in the Eucharistic service was one of the most contentious issues among different Christian churches and it was best left to the theologians of each church, who expounded at length the meaning of the words attributed to Christ in the gospel account of the last supper: 'This is my body', 'This is my blood'.

While it may have been possible for aspiring philosophers in the early 1600s to avoid any mention of bread and wine or their liturgical uses, it was almost impossible to avoid all controversy. Cautious philosophers repeated the well-worn formulas of their own local churches, especially if they coincided with the official views of the kingdom in which they lived. Those who challenged the received theological wisdom of the church or kingdom often paid a heavy price. Giulio Cesare Vanini, a wandering priest-scholar, was accused of atheism and other crimes in Toulouse in 1618. Having been imprisoned for six months, he was condemned to have his tongue cut out by the public executioner, and then to be strangled and burned at the stake. The immediate and very public implementation of the parlement's judgment was meant to discourage others from similar obstinacy.

Vanini was not unique. There were many examples of the barbaric penalties that were applied to those who expressed dissident views in the early seventeenth century. Giordano Bruno's public burning was even more notorious, while Tommaso Campanella, who avoided execution, spent the best part of twenty-five years in jail for similar offences, during some of which he was tortured. However, Galileo is probably the most famous example of ecclesiastical punishment in the early 1600s; his case will be discussed in more detail. The extraordinary penalties often imposed on those who expressed heterodox views might have been enough to persuade any sensible scholar to remain within the boundaries of what was locally tolerated. In the Loire valley, however, it was not as easy to do this.

Although most of the king's subjects were Roman Catholic, a significant minority was Huguenot. This made is difficult for philosophers to avoid theological controversy, either with one's own church or with those of another denomination, unless they observed a selective silence about contentious issues. However, any genuine attempt to understand a phenomenon such as the plague encouraged adventurous minds to question the traditional learning of the schools that had failed so signally to provide satisfactory explanations of natural phenomena. At the same time, every inquiring mind of the period, whether described as a natural philosopher, theologian, or astronomer, was acutely conscious of the penumbra of theological controversy within which they had to work, and of the potentially lethal penalties that awaited those who strayed beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy that were locally enforced. This kind of censorship was not limited to any particular church or kingdom. Nonetheless, it was enforced more widely and more barbarously by the Catholic Church in all the kingdoms that fell within its ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The penchant of the Catholic Church for condemning novel ideas was firmly and widely established when, on 20 November 1663, it forbade its members to read certain books by Descartes until they were corrected. By this date, Descartes had been dead for thirteen years. The threat of such an unwelcome intervention from afar had been a constant source of concern for the French philosopher during the last seventeen years of his life, during which he tried as best he could to avoid this almost inevitable fate. However, when Rome eventually spoke, after his death, the effect was the opposite of what it hoped to achieve. As in the more famous case of Galileo, the church's condemnation provided a seal of recognition for the originality and pervasive influence of a style of philosophy that had by then acquired its own distinctive name as 'Cartesianism'. It was hardly worthwhile, even for an extremely censorious and interventionist church, to focus on the writings of someone whose ideas were likely to fade into a well-deserved oblivion. The problem with Cartesianism, even as early as 1663, was that it had become so widely known throughout Europe and so avidly adopted as a replacement for scholastic philosophy that it could no longer be ignored.

Here, then, was someone who presented himself as a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church, and who succeeded throughout his life in at least avoiding public condemnation by his own church. In developing his ideas, he encountered more controversy that one might have expected, despite the extremely private and almost isolationist manner in which he lived his life. This life began in the comforting embrace of the Loire valley, and seemed destined by family expectations and education to lead to a secure, uncontentious career as a lawyer in the king's service. Instead, it culminated in the development of a new philosophy that eventually exceeded the most ambitious hopes of its author and, in the process, won the distinction of a censure from the Holy Office.

'Born in Touraine'

Catherine Descartes, the youngest daughter of Descartes' brother Pierre, constructed a rather poetic and fanciful summary of Descartes' origins some years after his death, which was intended to link her famous uncle with her own family in Brittany. She claimed that he had been 'conceived among the Bretons, and born in Touraine.' In fact, Descartes' connection with Brittany was very much a retrospective recovery by his family, which had removed from Touraine to the former duchy of Brittany after his birth.

René Descartes was born on 31 March 1596, the third surviving child of Joachim Descartes and Jeanne Brochard. He was born into a bourgeois legal family that had begun to consolidate its social position by service to the French crown. The circumstances of his birth and early childhood seem to have made a deep and lasting impression on René. Within fourteen months of his birth, the young Descartes was effectively an orphan, due to his mother's death and his father's lengthy absences from home.

The Descartes family was originally from the Poitou region of France, where many of its members had held royal appointments as tax collectors or members of provincial parlements, and where the philosopher's parents had established their impressive home on the Grand'rue in central Châtellerault. However, Joachim Descartes had been appointed to a post as counsellor in the parlement of Brittany in 1585 and had taken up his post in February 1586. Given its somewhat marginal status, the Brittany parlement met each year for only one three-month session, which was extended in 1600 to six months. Thus Descartes' father spent part of the year at home in Châtellerault and the remainder at Rennes, 260 kilometres away. Jeanne Brochard's confinement coincided with her husband's annual absence in Brittany. Accordingly, she went to stay with her own mother, Jeanne Sain, at the small town of La Haye, about 20 kilometres from her home. Descartes' grandmother Sain had been widowed since 1586, and she provided a welcome haven for her grandson's delivery. Fourteen months after René's birth, on 16 May 1597, Descartes' mother died, three days after the birth of her fifth child (who also died at birth). She left behind a family of three young children: Pierre (age six), Jeanne (age four), and René (age one).

Descartes was evidently confused or not accurately informed by his family about the details of his mother's death, because he wrote to Princess Elizabeth almost fifty years later that his mother had died a few days after his own birth. 'My mother died a few days after my birth from a disease of the lung caused by distress. I inherited from her a dry cough and a pale complexion which stayed with me until I was more than twenty, so that all the doctors who saw me up to that time condemned me to die young' (iv. 220-21). Immediately after his birth, baby René was entrusted to a nurse for breast-feeding, a practice that was customary at the time and was probably also required by his mother's relatively weak health. Thus, in his earliest years, the dominant people in his life were all women: his rather fragile mother, his maternal grandmother Sain, and his nurse. Descartes speculated much later in his career about the time at which first impressions are made on the mind of a young child, and he suggested that they begin when the child is still in the womb. This claim may have been more a reflection on his earliest memories than the result of reliable medical research. His subsequent cool relationship with his father, Joachim, contributed to a retrospectively rosy picture of his infancy, marked for life by the influence of his mother and protected in the intimate family circle of his grandmother and nurse. Descartes never forgot his nurse and, even when dying, asked that she be included in his will.

Descartes was baptized into the Catholic Church on 3 April 1596, at the nearby church of St. George in La Haye. His father was still absent in Rennes, and his mother was presumably recovering from his delivery three days earlier; besides, it was not customary at the time for mothers to attend their children's baptism. The family was represented instead by three godparents, Jeanne Sain, Michel Ferrand, and René Brochard (who gave his Christian name to the young philosopher), as recorded in the baptismal entry:

The same day was baptized René, the son of the nobleman Joachim Descartes, counsellor to the King in his parlement of Brittany and of Damoiselle Jeanne Brochard; his godparents were the noble Michel Ferrand, the King's counsellor and lieutenant general of Châtellerault, the noble René Brochard, the King's counsellor and judge magistrate at Poitiers, and Jeanne Proust, wife of Mr Sain, the King's controller of taxes for Châtellerault.

These godparents reflected very accurately the family's status and the expectations for the newly baptized infant. Anyone interested in predicting his future would have said that he was destined to become a Catholic lawyer in the service of the crown.

French society in the late sixteenth century was clearly and rather inflexibly stratified into three classes or estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the rest of the population. Evidently the vast majority of the population belonged to the so-called third estate, and the opportunities for social promotion between estates were very limited. However, there was significantly more flexibility for upward mobility within the third estate, in which there was also an established hierarchy, in descending order, from (1) university graduates in law, medicine, theology, or the arts, to (2) lawyers, (3) tax-collectors, (4) lower justice officials, (5) merchants, (6) shopkeepers, and on through skilled craftsmen to the unemployed. Even a hundred years after Descartes' birth, most of the French population were illiterate; as many as 86 percent of brides and 71 percent of grooms could not even sign their names on their marriage certificates. Thus, for most people, the only hope of upward social mobility was by advancement within the third estate, for example, from being a mere merchant or tradesman to being a bourgeois gentleman. And the best way of realizing such ambitions was by acquiring an education and then purchasing or inheriting an administrative or legal position within a mushrooming royal civil service.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Desmond Clarke is Professor of Philosophy at University College Cork. He received a DLitt from the National University of Ireland, was Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, and has been elected to the Royal Irish Academy. He is the author of a number of books on Descartes and the seventeenth century, most recently Descartes' Theory of Mind (2005).

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