Why Does Descartes Still Matter?

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 9:40 AM

I Think I Am, I Think I Am

A new biography explains why Descartes still matters.

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Illustration by Jess Fink

Philosophers, if they stick around long enough, are likely to stand accused of many sins. The most influential—Plato, Aristotle, Locke and co.—naturally attract a crowd of enemies picking through their works for errors or condemning their impact on western thought. These days, René Descartes, the 17th-century French thinker who is often tagged as the founder of modern philosophy, is a favorite punching bag.

It’s a sign of his range that Descartes has made such a wide variety of enemies. Psychologists, feminists, biologists, animal rights activists, and Al Gore have all lined up to denounce him. In philosophy, Descartes’ famous theory of mind-body dualism had been limping for centuries before Gilbert Ryle finally put it out of its misery in 1950. Ryle coined the fatal phrase “the ghost in the machine” to describe Descartes’ idea of the immaterial mind mysteriously operating within the body, directing our actions.

There have been more recent blows too. The neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his 1994 best-seller Descartes’ Error, attacked Descartes’ separation of reason and emotion. In the history of animal rights, Descartes is cast as a lead villain for his claim that animals were no more than sophisticated machines, incapable of feeling pain. (“I opened the chest of a live rabbit and removed the ribs to expose the heart and the trunk of the aorta,” he merrily wrote to a friend in 1638.) As for the environment: The Cartesian approach to the human story allows us to believe that we are separate from the earth,” wrote Al Gore in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, “entitled to view it as nothing more than an inanimate collection of resources that we can exploit how we like.” Some Marxist thinkers have even traced the alienation of the worker under capitalism to the influence of Descartes. Unloved, his arguments served up to undergraduates as target practice, Descartes has fallen on hard times. 

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In his slim new book The Philosopher, The Priest, and The Painter, Steven Nadler does not specifically set out to rescue Descartes from ridicule. But by situating him firmly in his time and place, he makes clear what made Descartes the intellectual superstar of his day—“the greatest philosopher in a century full of great philosophers,” in Nadler’s words.

Born in 1596 in the village of La Haye (which has since been renamed after its famous son), Descartes went on to attend, from age 10, one of the top Jesuit colleges in France. There he received the finest education in Aristotelian philosophy and, in Nadler’s words, “scientifically antiquated but religiously acceptable theories of the cosmos.” It was this orthodoxy Descartes would later overturn. While he is remembered today as the philosopher who said, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes’ work extended much further. He was a brilliant mathematician and he wrote extensively on biology, optics, and cosmology. In science, his grand project was to replace the abstractions of Aristotelianism with a mechanistic picture of the universe that could be explained solely in terms of matter, motion, and impact. In philosophy his quest was for a point of absolute certainty, the solid foundation upon which he could build a new system of thought. The cliché about Descartes is that he asked the right questions (What can we know for sure, and by what method can we find it out?) but gave the wrong answers. That might not sound like much, but when they were first published Descartes’ ideas landed like an explosion. Today we’re still feeling the ripples.

Nadler’s account of Descartes’ life begins with a painting. The most famous image of Descartes has historically been attributed to the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals—but there is no record of their meeting, and by and large Hals stuck to painting his patrons, who were not thinkers but wealthy businessmen. Is the portrait really by Hals? And if so, is it really a portrait of Descartes? And if it is, who brought the thinker and the philosopher together? Nadler seeks out the answers by reconstructing Descartes’ life in the Netherlands, where he wrote and published many of his major works. “Descartes belongs as much to the intellectual culture of the Dutch Golden Age as he does to the grand history of Western philosophy,” Nadler tells us. Look deep into the painting, he says, and you will see the philosopher’s mind.

It’s an original, intriguing set-up. In the age of Wikipedia, the traditional cradle-to-grave biography seems less and less appealing, and writers are twisting the genre into new and interesting shapes. However, in the case of The Philosopher, The Priest, and the Painter, it is a twist too far.

One problem is the portrait itself. The most memorable images of philosophers not only reflect their personality but end up helping to shape the way that they are remembered by history. It’s hard to doubt that David Hume was the genial guy his French admirers called le bon David when his image is fixed as the half-amused, roly-poly fellow of this portrait. Because of their power, portraits can be useful tools in intellectual PR campaigns. To combat the prevailing image of Schopenhauer as a misanthropic gloom-monger, Bryan Magee deliberately chose a sexier, Romantic picture of the philosopher for the cover of his biography.

In Descartes’ case the go-to portrait doesn’t tell us much about its subject. It is iconic but bland. From here, Nadler’s problems multiply. In investigating the story of the picture, he must tell at least three further stories—that of Descartes (the philosopher), Hals (the painter) and Augustijn Alsten Bloemaert (the priest who commissioned the painting). What’s more, Nadler aims to explain the whole of Descartes’ philosophy and science, and give the reader a sense of life during the Dutch Golden Age—all in the space of a 200-page book. It’s not surprising that after introducing the priest and the painter as major protagonists, Nadler is forced to abandon them until their brief cameos at the end.

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