DESCARTES by Stephen Gaukroger


An Intellectual Biography
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 This academic analysis of Descartes's (15961650) mathematical and philosophical studies traces the development of his work more than the patterns of his life and times. With an emphasis on reason over passions and the body that Descartes would no doubt have approved, Gaukroger (president of the Australian Society for the History of Philosophy) approaches him through his childhood education by Jesuits and his early experiments as a mathematician and natural philosopher rather than as the Enlightenment's ``Father of Modern Philosophy.'' The expanding cultural context of 17th-century Europe and a classical education drew Descartes's analytic and inquiring mind into the new scientific possibilities that were being pioneered by Galileo and Francis Bacon, and Gaukroger shows how Descartes's first work in geometry informed his desire for ``clear and self-evident distinctions'' in his later philosophy, as well as how his experiments in hydrostatics, optics, and anatomy supplied him with his models for general physics and perceptive cognition. Although rigorous in reviewing Descartes's various treatises, particularly the Regulae and Le Monde, and studious in rescuing his reasoning from the Newtonian and Lockean hindsight of later commentators, Gaukroger skims over his life far less illuminatingly, whether his effective exile in the Netherlands and Sweden, his close if sometimes touchy friendships with other philosophers, or his repressed and reclusive personal life. Even crucial events receive summary treatment, such as his famous three dreams that inspired his career (Gaukroger hypothesizes these occurred during a nervous breakdown) and his reaction to the Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo, which Gaukroger suggests turned him from his Copernican natural philosophy to a skeptically driven epistemological one that he could justify in relation to Church doctrinebut which would help to inspire the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Gaukroger's book lives up to its subtitle: It does valuable research in analyzing Descartes's work over his shifting career and in its proper context, but it wholly eclipses the biographic element. (67 figures, 4 halftones)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-823994-7
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1995