Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes

Cogito, Ergo Sum by Richard WatsonRichard Watson
David R. Godine ($35)

by Brian Charles Clark

René Descartes' life and times have been gone over with a fine tooth comb. Within a few decades of his death, in 1650, the first biography appeared: La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691). A steady stream of biographies have appeared since then—though none, as Richard Watson points out in his amusing, contentious, and contemplative new biography, have offered much in the way of new information. Rather, biographers have tended to tender theories about how or why Descartes did thus or such, and especially as to why Descartes was (or still is) a Great Man.

Watson takes a different tack: he writes as a skeptic, placing the Great Man theories in doubt. As well they should be, of course: Descartes did contribute to the formation of modern science and analytical philosophy, but got things off on the wrong foot with his silly notion of a mind and a body the twain of which shall never meet.

Descartes' great contribution was instead the very skeptical method that Watson now turns on his previous biographers, especially those of the "Saint Descartes Protection Society," as he calls many of them with tongue in cheek. Remarkably, there are still those who would claim that, for instance, Descartes died a good Catholic, or that he never stole an idea from a friend, or that the three famous dreams that led to the invention of his analytical geometry really did all happen the way his hagiographers say it did.

Descartes, Watson persuasively argues, was a Catholic in name only. If you had Descartes' ideas and were writing the things he did at the time he did, you'd wear that badge too. Galileo was being censored and held under house arrest by the Church during Descartes' lifetime; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600; and Sir Walter Raleigh had his head chopped off for atheism. Good reason to walk the walk and talk the talk, at least when the powers that be were paying attention. This is precisely why, Watson argues, that Descartes lived most of his life in relatively liberal Holland, avoiding the contretemps of the Counter-reformation in his native France.

As for "borrowing" ideas, Descartes seems to have cribbed most of his first treatise (on music and musical tunings) from his mentor Isaac Beeckman. At least, explains Watson, that accounts for the row between the two men that lasted for years. And the famous dreams in which he "saw" the outline of analytical geometry? It reeks of myth-making to Watson, but as he fairly acknowledges people do, and not infrequently, solve major problems in their dreams.

One strength of Watson's biography is his willingness to doubt. Again, this is the gift of Descartes, and we can only wish that such doubt be cast upon his dualism. The other main strength of this book, and what makes it a reader's pleasure, is Watson's travelogue. Over the course of many years and sabbaticals, Watson and his wife literally followed in Descartes' footsteps, visiting the many small towns in Holland where Descartes once lived. This makes for a peculiar and fascinating sort of biography: of Descartes, about whom everything is already known that can be, but also of Watson, the philosopher on the trail of the father of modern philosophy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003