Philosophy 167: Class 8 - Part 2 - Ren Descartes- Biography.

Smith, George E. (George Edwin), 1938-


  • Synopsis: A brief biography of Ren Descartes

    Opening line: "All right, this is a chronological table from what surely is the best biography, intellectual biography in English."

    Duration: 13:21 minutes.

    Segment: Class 8, Part 2.
This object is in collection Subject Genre Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
view transcript only

All right, this is a chronological table from what surely is the best biography, intellectual biography in English. Yeah, I have it open even at a spot that's useful to you. I have it marked, by Steve Gaukroger. I simply lifted the chronology out. There's just a few things I want to talk about in that chronology, but some of them are fairly interesting.
First of all if you look on the far left, he was brought up by his maternal grandmother, which makes one thing he has totally in parallel with Newton. Newton was also brought up from age roughly one, maybe three, to ten, by his maternal grandmother for a similar reason.
In Newton's case, his father died and his mother remarried, but moved away from a town Woolsthorpe. And in Descartes' case his mother died, and so he went off to Jeanne Sain who became an important person in his life. Second thing to notice up here, and she dies in 1610, when he's 14 years old.
Second thing to notice is he starts as a boarder at the Jesuit College in 1606. Ten year old, off he goes to boarding school. The boarding school runs all the way through college. So he was there for eight full years. If was Jesuit, La Flèche, but what's most interesting about it is that's where Mersenne also went.
So they had something very striking in common. They had essentially the same education eight years apart from the same people and the same environment with all the same restrictions. Mersenne chose to become a priest but not a Jesuit. He was a Minim. And Descartes did not take orders as they say.
The other thing, another thing that starts coming out here as you read this is we don't know as much about Descartes' life as we would like to know. Part of the reason for that is he tended to cloister himself off from intellectual circles and when he was working.
So evident as correspondence, particularly his correspondence with the Mersenne, there are a lot of mysteries about just where he was at times and what he was doing. He was a real loner in lots of different ways. The supposed Descartes dreamed that he had, this dream where this vision of a complete system, etc.
Gaukroger doesn't bother to mention that he replaces with quite possibly suffering a nervous breakdown. That may be the more realistic description of what happened before he romanticized it all. But at any rate, while joining an army in 1618, he runs into Isaac Beeckman, who working with Beeckman, it's unclear to this day how much it was Descartes and how much it was Beeckman.
They arrived at some of the same results Galileo had, particularly the law free fall independently of Galileo, cuz Galileo hadn't published. So that's the reason Beeckman's name is up there, and Descartes started really appreciating mathematics while working with Beeckman. The next column up here brings up the reguli.
Descartes decided somewhere around 1620 that he was going to write a series of rules for how the mind should work to arrive at truth, knowledge, etc. They were never published. They were never even really complete. It's his first work. It's largely written. They did get published after he died, partly one example is Leibniz found a copy of the manuscript in a bookstore, bought it, and I verified that it's in his final papers.
People saw to it they were published later through the first published work of Descartes. They're somewhat interesting, but not so much so. More important here, 1625, he moves into Paris, settles into Paris having visited Italy for some time. And that's the period when he most interacts, for about four or five years, with the intellectual climate in Paris.
And Mersenne is especially important here, because he publishes a book that I'll give in English, The Truth of the Sciences against the Skeptics, of Pyrrhonian Skepticism in 1625. Actually it was in response to two things. It was a diatribe against Pyrrhonian skepticism. It was equally a diatribe against Renaissance naturalism.
Essentially it was arguing for what we'll call in a few moments the mechanical philosophy of imposing restrictions on theorizing, that's essentially ones of reducing things to mechanical contact. And by doing that, you could meet both the complaints of the skeptics and the claims about powers and mysterious powers from the Renaissance naturalists.
So, it's in the context of the publication of that book which attracted a great deal of attention as Mersenne's first significant work that Descartes is around him, talking to him, etc. And going into this climate of how do we secure knowledge in the sciences, in a way that's different from both, well different from Renaissance naturalism and escapes the complaints of skepticism.
Next thing I have down here is on the next page, important. In the early 1630s, he writes a pair of works. I'll pass them both, well, I'll pass one of them around. I didn't bring the other one. One's called The World, or, A Theory, A Treatise on Light, and the other is called A Treatise on Man.
I'll explain why they were done together. Le Monde, The World, or A Treatise on Light, would have been Descartes' Principia. He had it essentially finished. He hadn't shown it to anybody when he found out Galileo was being put on trial. Descartes was just as much a serious Catholic as Galileo was, but Descartes had this dream that he was gonna convince the Catholics to abandon Scholasticism in favor of his new alternative to it.
And so the last thing he wanted to do was to turn the church off him. So he suppressed La Monde. It was published I think in the 1660s so it did finally come out after he died. The problem was it was flagrantly Copernican. Now, so is The Principia flagrantly Copernican but he, as you will see, starting at the end tonight, but particularly next week, he thought he had a way around the problem with the church.
By redefining what motion is in such a way that the Earth isn't really moving even though it's going around the Sun. Okay, that's a nice trick of course. And it's that trick that's one of the reasons Newton held him in such total contempt. He wasn't alone in holding him in a lot of contempt.
But it's an important work, and I'll be referring to it repeatedly. Then in 1637 he publishes, it's actually his first publication, a discourse on method, accompanying which are three long essays, one on optics, one on geometry, and one on meteorology. And it's a huge work, it was successfully published in Leiden, and made him very prominent and also made him rather quite happy for a period of time.
The remark that Gaukroger puts at the bottom here, this is one of the happier periods in his life. He had a child, by the way, from a woman in Amsterdam. It's not like Galileo. Galileo had a mistress, a live-in person, well, you would almost call her a common-law wife in Padua and three children.
This was a maid where he was staying gave birth to a child, Francine, but he did seem, Gaukroger has it more lightly than other people did. He did seem to get reasonably attached to her though she died at age five, and that's not one of the happiest moments in his life.
The Meditations came out in 1641, then a new edition in 1642. It is not the Meditations as you know it. The book came out in this edition, it's 383 pages long. That's the second edition. It had what you read, what you call the Meditations, six meditations followed by a series of objections by Mersenne, collected them from his friends.
Arnauld has a series of objections, Gassendi a series of objections, Hobbes a series of objections. Two priests have a series of objections. And Descartes replies to those. And on my count, there's at least as much good philosophy in the objections and replies as there is in the Meditations themselves.
So I'll pass this around, we now thanks to Steve Gaukroger, well actually this is Cottingham, I'm sorry. We now have an edition that's halfway reasonable, the whole thing. In fact, before I go on, I can't resist entertaining you with a thought. Some of you don't know Dan Dennett that well but surely you know his writings enough that you'll be able to appreciate this.
A few years ago, Dan and I decided to do a course together in which we read the entire corpus of Descartes, not the letters but the entire corpus of Descartes. And for the first two-thirds of it, I'm defending Descartes. And Dan is just furious at the thought that this clown is a philosopher.
I'm particularly defending what he has to say about mine, which Dan you can easily picture is not gonna like. Then we get to the Principia. And Dan turns into this extremely strong defense of speculative philosophy, and I'm of course attacking it vehemently. And the course just flipped. Descartes goes from a hero to one and a bad guy to the other.
We just flip when we get to speculative philosophy, actually speculative science. And those who know Dennett's work, know he has no reluctance to engage speculative science.
And thinks the world of it. At any rate, the Meditations, we read the whole of the Meditations in that. It was the only time I've ever taught the whole of the Meditations.
The Meditations, by the way, came out in Latin, the discourse came out in French. Meditations came out in Latin and was translated into the French. So did the Principia come out in Latin. And the other thing he was working on at the end of his life that I guess was finished was the Passions of the Soul.
He had hoped that religious orders would be very happy with his philosophy in effect substituted in all their schools for Aristotle's. He was very disappointed when they tracked, the church, and that's not the Roman Catholic church. But church in Holland turned against him. He ends up in 1649 being persuaded by through correspondents to go to Sweden or Denmark, Sweden by Queen Christina, and he always had a fairly delicate physiognomy.
So he caught pneumonia there, died at a quite young age, died at age 54 or 53. I don't remember the dates of birth and death. But he lived only from 1596 to 1650. That's his wife. There's not a huge amount of publication, there are a lot of letters.
There's now a rather good edition of his works put out, I think in the 1970s, in fact I know the 1970s by, and again, I'll butcher the pronunciation Adam and Tannery. That's available in French paperbacks. There's just a huge literature on Descartes among philosophers. One of the beautiful things about Descartes from the philosopher's point of view is nobody teaches his Principia.
And I assume it's because they couldn't be able to get any student to take him seriously as a philosopher after they read what he says about science. It's unfortunate in some ways. Because the Principia was the most widely read thing he published in his lifetime and had quite a bit of influence.