Desmond Clark's Descartes: A Biography provides a healthy antidote to the lack of due recognition to Rene Descartes' wide-ranging knowledge. In one book Clarke covers such topics as epistemology of perception (115-117), laws of nature (119), instrumentalism (145-146), proof versus explanation (166), Okhamite sympathies (167), shifting proofs (167-168), skepticism (189-191), the immortality of the soul (191) innate ideas (209, 330-331, 390-391), the history of the cogito ergo sum (209-210), arguments for God's existence (211), philosophy of mind (258), substance dualism (210-211, 245-247, 255-258), psychotherapy (263-267), compatibilism (269-271), divine potency (292, 325, 325), planetary motion (294), moral and absolute certainties (295), Eucharist (298-301), Cartesian explanation (293, 323), animal intelligence (333-334), love (339), infinity of God (340-341), boundlessness of the universe (343), God being a deceiver (345, 368), incorporeality of supernatural powers (385-386), research on animal conditioning that predates Pavlov's (391), determinism (394-396), and Cartesian Stoicism (395-396). In so doing, Clarke shows the breadth of Descartes' ken.
But this book also, in a very readable way, weaves together these topics with their social settings, so as to give a proper context to understand when and why Descartes took on these topics. Consider, for example, Descartes' belief that the planets whirl around in a vortex around the Sun, which he describes in the Principles of Philosophy. Descartes added that each planet is at rest with respect to the immediately contiguous matter that moves in the same vortex as itself (294). By making this move, Descartes wanted to eschew the charge that he violated Rome's restriction in 1616 of teaching in favor of heliocentricity, for he, in an earlier section of the same book, argued that a body is said to be in motion when it is transferred from being close to the bodies in its immediate vicinity to being in the vicinity of other bodies (294).
No review would be complete without a criticism, and I have one. This book gives little attention to the Cartesian coordinate system, which provided a link between Euclidean geometry and algebra.
© 2009 Charles Barclay
Charles Barclay is a graduate student in Philosophy at Western Michigan University.