“A small, intimate portrait” illustrating the biography of René Descartes and his ideas.
Nadler (Philosophy/Univ. of Wisconsin; A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, 2011, etc.) believes that Descartes “belongs as much to the intellectual culture of the Dutch Golden Age as he does to the grand history of Western philosophy whose development he so strongly influenced.” Feeling politically constrained in France, Descartes moved to Holland to work, but his philosophy aroused controversy and opposition in Dutch universities as well. Nadler situates the French philosopher's life in its Dutch context and frames the narrative with an investigation into a few portraits of Descartes. One was supposedly painted by Frans Hals and is in Copenhagen. The author demonstrates that there may be a possibility that one of Descartes’ friends commissioned the portrait from Hals as a memento prior to the philosopher's 1649 departure on a visit to the queen of Sweden. This would have been from the period he lived in the village where he wrote the Discourse on Method and Principles of Philosophy. The friend was the Catholic priest Augustijn Alsten Blomart, who lived in the city of Haarlem, just south of Descartes' country-village home. Blomart, as Nadler shows, was well-integrated into contemporary Dutch literary, artistic, scientific and political circles. Hals also lived and worked in Haarlem. Nadler discusses the extant portraits of the philosopher, as well as their provenance and what is known of the context in which they were produced. He also provides a chronological summary of Descartes’ philosophical works in relation to their Dutch context.
A generalist brings together three fields—philosophy, religion and art—often kept separate.