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. 

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.

As a piece of storytelling, Nadler’s book is flat, but as an introduction to Descartes’ philosophy, it is excellent. Nadler follows recent scholars such as Desmond Clarke in emphasizing Descartes’ role as a philosopher of the scientific revolution. This helps explain why Descartes was so keen to establish the position for which he would be later ridiculed—that mind and body are distinct substances. Dualism was a weapon against obscurantism. Descartes wanted to cut away, in Nadler’s words, the “spiritual or mind-like elements (such as the immaterial forms and qualities of the Aristotelians)” that were commonly associated with the physical realm. Descartes replaced this spiritual understanding of matter with something simpler. As Nadler explains: “The exhaustive and exclusive division of mind and body—everything is either mental or physical—provides a metaphysical foundation for his new mechanistic picture of the world. Whatever takes place in the physical world is to be explained by material principles alone.” Out with the mysterious “accidental forms” and “occult qualities” of medieval philosophy; in with matter, motion and impact.

Author Steven Nadler
Author Steven Nadler

Courtesy of Jane Bernstein

Nadler dedicates one of the book’s best chapters to Descartes’ masterpiece, the Meditations, a member of that elite philosophical club that, like Plato’s dialogues or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, also qualifies as great literature. Written in the first person, the six short meditations are constructed almost like a diary in which, over the course of six days, the narrator goes from doubting the certainty of even his most basic beliefs to, by the end, developing a deeper understanding of the nature of reality. (This story—loss of faith, introspection, subsequent reconnection with first principles—deliberately echoed classic works of devotional literature such as Augustine’s Confessions). The Meditations unfolds late at night, with Descartes sketching a picture of himself “sitting by the fireside, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on.” He sets a familiar scene, one into which any reader could imagine himself.

In the first meditation he resolves to discard all his beliefs that can be subjected to even the slightest doubt. His aim is to discover an irrefutable truth upon which he can build the foundations of his new philosophy. Having thrown out his most basic beliefs (the testimony of his senses, the belief that he is not dreaming) and even those that seem harder to doubt (that all triangles are three-sided, that 2 plus 2 equals 4), Descartes despairs that there is nothing he can truly know for sure. It is “as if I had fallen suddenly into a deep whirlpool, that I can neither put my foot on the bottom nor swim to the surface.”

At the start of Meditation 2, however, Descartes arrives at a statement that he believes cannot be doubted. Even if all his other beliefs are completely false it must nevertheless be true that if he is able to think anything at all (that is, even think things which are false), then he must exist. In Nadler’s helpful formulation: “One cannot possibly doubt one’s own existence, no matter how hard one tries. In fact, the harder one tries, the more convinced one will be that one exists.” This is the idea behind Descartes’ bumper-sticker statement, cogito ergo sum. (In the Meditations it’s more carefully formulated as “ ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”)

From this seemingly self-contained proposition, Descartes manages to spin out a series of arguments which take him from knowing nothing at all (in Meditation 1) to, by the end of Meditation 6, knowing a number of rather contentious things: the nature of mind (thinking) and body (extension in space), the distinctness of mind and body, the existence of God, and the method by which one can establish certain knowledge from mere belief (to do with what Descartes calls “clear and distinct” perception).

Set aside, for now, whether Descartes’ arguments are convincing or not. Philosophical contemporaries such as Thomas Hobbes and Antonie Arnauld responded to the Meditations with what appeared then, as now, like fatal objections. Consider instead the form of the Meditations. It is written in the first person, but it is not an account of a week in which Descartes actually sat down and worked out his philosophy. His use of the first person has almost nothing to do with autobiography or self-revelation and everything to do with argument and persuasion. By constructing the Meditations around a protagonist whose character or biography is never revealed, Descartes invites the reader to become the “I”, the meditator. And this is one key to the importance of Descartes, and the Meditations in particular. The first letter in the Cartesian alphabet is I.

In his epic intellectual history, The Sources of the Self, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies Descartes as “a founder of modern individualism, because his theory throws the individual thinker back on his own responsibility, requires him to build an order of thought for himself, in the first person singular.” As Descartes writes in his preface to the reader, “I would not encourage anyone to read these pages unless they are willing and able to meditate with me seriously …” By daring us to think for ourselves, Descartes became one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and, in turn, one of the architects of our everyday assumptions and habits of thought, even today. (To take one tiny example, when Nate Silver writes, in the introduction to The Signal and the Noise, “My preference is for topics where you can check out the results for yourself rather than having to take my word for it.”— he is thinking in a way that echoes Taylor’s insight about Descartes.)

It is a shame, then, that though Nadler’s explanation of Descartes’ ideas is vivid, his portrait of Descartes as an individual human being is uninspired. Philosophy, even more than most academic disciplines in the humanities, always runs the risk of getting stuck in arid conversations with itself. If the subject is to reach out beyond the faculty corridors, it certainly needs more explainers of Nadler’s caliber. But, to really make an impact on a wider audience, we need philosophers who can spin a story too.

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The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes by Steven Nadler. Princeton University Press.

David Wolf is books editor of Prospect magazine. You can find him at @davidedgarwolf.