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Descartes: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год

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      Descartes: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Descartes in just one hour.Descartes was the first modern philosopher. His scepticism led him to doubt all certainties, until finally he arrived at his famous maxim 'I think therefore I am'. He would also apply his rationalism with great effect in science and mathematics, conceiving a scheme for scientific method and inventing Cartesian co-ordinates in geometry.Descartes: Philosophy in an Hour a concise, expert account of Descartes’ life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Descartes’ work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Descartes in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u0b2e6b9d-7f34-5496-84d0-c96846230411)

Title page (#u8d4ca682-e3e8-53ad-99c4-f20d801ea145)

Introduction (#u1aa73d45-35c1-55e6-8c1e-d46dfff9c61e)

Descartes’s Life and Works (#u53588e2d-cf0b-5662-9394-803d383d7992)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Descartes’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Descartes’s Life (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Descartes’s Era (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#ulink_b13551e0-232c-53d6-9bba-7e4ade106501)

By the end of the sixteenth century, philosophy had stopped. It was Descartes who started it up again.

Philosophy had begun for the first time in the sixth century B.C. in ancient Greece. Two centuries later it entered a golden era with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Then, for nearly two thousand years, nothing happened. At least, nothing original happened.

Nonetheless several distinguished philosophers appeared during this period. The third-century Alexandrian Plotinus refined Plato’s philosophy, in the process creating Neoplatonism. St. Augustine of Hippo then refined Neoplatonism to the point where it was acceptable to Christian theology. The Islamic scholar Averroës refined parts of Aristotle’s philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas in turn rendered these acceptable to Christian theology. All four of these disparate figures advanced the course of philosophy, but not one of them produced an entirely new philosophy of his own. Their work was essentially exegesis, commentary, and elaboration of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In this way these two pagan philosophers (and their pagan philosophies) became pillars of the Christian church. This intellectual conjuring trick was the main foundation of Scholasticism, the name given to philosophical activity during the Middle Ages. Scholasticism was the philosophy of the church and prided itself on its lack of originality. New philosophical ideas resulted only in heresy, the Inquisition, and burning at the stake. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle gradually became buried beneath layers of religiously correct Christian commentary, and philosophy dried up.

By the mid-fifteenth century this moribund stage had been reached in almost all fields of intellectual endeavor. The church reigned supreme throughout the medieval world. But already the first cracks were beginning to appear in this vast edifice of intellectual certainty. Ironically the main source of these cracks was the same classical world that had produced Plato and Aristotle. Much learning that had been lost or forgotten during the Dark Ages now began coming to light, inspiring a renaissance (or rebirth) of human knowledge.

The Renaissance brought with it a new humanistic outlook. This was followed by the Reformation, which ended the hegemony of the church. Yet more than a hundred years after these developments had transformed Europe, philosophy remained stuck in the bog of Scholasticism. This came to an end only with the arrival of Descartes, who produced a philosophy fit for the new era. In no time this spread through Europe and even achieved the ultimate accolade of being named after its founder: Cartesianism.

Descartes’s Life and Works (#ulink_317797e5-1687-5c4a-8eff-8612128c389a)

Descartes never did a stroke of useful work in his life. At various times he described himself as a soldier, a mathematician, a thinker, and a gentleman. The last comes closest to describing his attitude toward life as well as his social status. His youthful inclination to a life of leisurely ease soon settled into a routine. He lived on his private income, rose at noon, and traveled when he felt like it. Such was his life – no dramas, no wives, no great public success (or failure). Yet Descartes was indisputably the most original philosopher to appear in the fifteen centuries following the death of Aristotle.

By the time Descartes arrived on the scene the Renaissance had brought a new humanistic outlook to Europe, and the Reformation had ended the hegemony of the Catholic church. Yet it remained for Descartes to launch the modern age of philosophy. From this period on, the primacy of the individual and the analysis of human consciousness became fundamental to philosophy, a focus that has only recently been superseded by the primacy of the dictionary and analysis of its contents.

René Descartes was born March 31, 1596, in the small town of La Haye, in the Creuse Valley thirty miles south of Tours, France. This spot has now been renamed Descartes, and if you visit it you can still see the house where he was born and the twelfth-century church of St. Georges where he was baptized.

René was the fourth child, and his mother was to die in childbirth the following year. His father Joachim was a judge in the High Court of Brittany. This met at Rennes, 140 miles away, which meant that Joachim was at home for less than half the year. He soon remarried, and René was brought up in the house of a grandmother. Here his main attachment was to his nurse, for whom he retained the fondest regard. He was to pay for her upkeep until the day she died.

Descartes spent a solitary childhood, accentuated by his sickly nature, and he quickly learned to do without company. From his early years he is known to have been introspective and reserved: a wan-faced child with thick curly black hair and large shadow-ringed eyes, wandering through the orchard in his black coat and knee breeches, a black wide-brimmed hat on his head and a long woolen scarf wound round his neck.

At the age of ten he was sent as a boarder to the Jesuit College that had recently opened in La Flèche. This school was intended for the education of the local gentry, who before this had often dispensed with such matters in favor of hunting, hawking, and halfhearted home homiletics. The rector of the college was a friend of the Descartes family, so the frail young René was given a room of his own and allowed to get up when he pleased. As with most who are permitted such a privilege, this meant that Descartes rose around noon, a habit he strictly adhered to for the rest of his life. While the other pupils were being browbeaten by vicious and conceited Jesuits versed in the intricacies of Scholasticism, the intelligent young Descartes was thus able to absorb his learning in a more relaxed atmosphere, rising in time for luncheon followed by the riding, fencing, and flute-playing lessons that occupied the afternoon. By the time he came to leave, it was apparent that Descartes had learned far more than anyone else in the school, and his health appears to have completely recovered (apart from a lingering hypochondria, which he carefully nursed throughout his remarkably healthy life).

Yet despite carrying off all the prizes, Descartes retained a deep ambivalence toward his education. It seemed to him to be largely rubbish: rehashed Aristotle encrusted with centuries of interpretations; the stifling theology of Aquinas which had answers for everything but answered nothing; a morass of metaphysics. Nothing he learned appeared to have any certainty whatsoever, apart from mathematics. And in a life devoid of the certainties of home, family, and meaningful social contact, Descartes craved certainty in the only realm in which he felt at home: the intellect. He left school disappointed. Like Socrates before him, he was convinced he knew nothing. Even mathematics was only capable of providing impersonal certainty. The only other certainty he knew was God.

When Descartes left La Flèche at eighteen, his father sent him to study law at the University of Poitiers. Joachim Descartes intended René to take up a respected position in the legal profession, just as his elder brother had done. In those days such positions were filled largely by nepotism, a system that succeeded in producing approximately the same percentage of ludicrous and inadequate judges as today. But after spending two years studying the law, Descartes decided he had had enough of it. By this time he had come into possession of a number of small rural properties inherited from his mother. These gave him a modest income, enough to live as he pleased. So he decided to set off for Paris ‘to pursue his thoughts’. Judge Joachim was not pleased – the Descarteses were gentlemen and weren’t expected to spend their time thinking. But there was nothing he could do about it: his son was now a free man.

After two years Descartes tired of his well-heeled bachelor existence in Paris. Despite devoting himself to a wide range of studies and composing a number of rather dilettantish treatises, he was becoming more and more involved in the social life of the capital, which he found utterly tedious. He withdrew to a quiet address in the Faubourg St. Germain, where no one went visiting, and lived in seclusion while pursuing his thoughts in peace.

This was to be Descartes’s favored way of life throughout the rest of his years. Yet after settling down for a few months, he suddenly bolted. He seems to have been driven by two finely balanced obsessions: solitude and travel. Never having felt close to his fellow men, he had no wish to live in their company. And never having had a real home, he felt no desire to create one for himself. He was forever restless and solitary.

This makes Descartes’s next move seem all the more extraordinary: he decided to join the army. In 1618 he went to Holland and signed on as an unpaid officer in the army of the Prince of Orange. The prince’s Protestant army was preparing to defend the United Provinces of the Netherlands against the Catholic Spanish, who sought to retake their former colony. What the Dutch made of this aloof Catholic gentleman with no military experience, who professed to have done a bit of fencing and riding at school, is difficult to judge. At the time Descartes spoke no Dutch and stuck resolutely to his routine of rising at noon. Perhaps they just didn’t notice him as he sat in his tent composing a treatise on music or some such. (Nowadays he would presumably be accused of being a spy; but in those days the military appear to have correctly gauged the importance of spies and were willing to sign on any recruits, regardless of nationality, allegiance, or even willingness to participate in military routine).

We do know that Descartes found himself bored by life in the army; in his view there was ‘too much idleness and dissipation’. Does this mean there were officers who arose even later than he did?

One afternoon, while strolling through the streets of Breda, Descartes noticed a poster being stuck up on a wall. In the manner of the time it outlined an unsolved mathematical problem and challenged all comers to solve it. Descartes didn’t quite understand the instructions (they were, after all, in Dutch). He turned to the Dutch gentleman standing beside him and asked if he could kindly translate. The Dutchman was unimpressed by this ignorant young French officer. He replied that he would translate the poster only if the Frenchman were willing to try to solve the problem and bring him his solution. The following afternoon the young French officer arrived at the Dutchman’s house, where to the Dutchman’s surprise he found that the officer had not only solved the problem but had done so in exceptionally brilliant fashion.

According to Descartes’s first biographer, Baillet, this was how Descartes met Isaac Beeckman, the renowned Dutch philosopher and mathematician. The two were to remain close friends, corresponding regularly for the next two decades (with a few brief interruptions when they disagreed). ‘I was asleep until you wakened me’, Descartes was to write to Beeckman. It was he who revived Descartes’s interest in mathematics and philosophy, which had lain dormant since he had left La Flèche.

After a year or so in the Dutch army, Descartes set off on a summer tour of Germany and the Baltic. He then decided to try another spell of army life and journeyed to the small town of Neuburg in southern Germany, where the army of Maximilian Duke of Bavaria was camped in its winter quarters on the upper reaches of the Danube. Army life here appears to have been as strenuous as ever for Descartes, who describes how he took up residence in fine warm quarters, persisted in his habit of sleeping ten hours a night and rising at noon, and spent his waking hours ‘communing with my own thoughts’.

The political situation in Europe was now becoming serious, though it’s difficult to deduce this from Descartes’s attitude. The Bavarians had gone to war against Frederick V, the elector palatinate and Protestant king of Bohemia. The entire continent was rapidly sliding into the long and disastrous conflict that came to be known as the Thirty Years War. This war, with its ever-changing fortunes affecting countries from Sweden to Italy, was to continue until virtually the end of Descartes’s life, leaving large areas of Europe, especially in Germany, devastated and deserted. Yet the effect of this war on Descartes, even when he was in the army, appears to have been minimal. Still, one can’t help suspecting that this persistent background of political uncertainty, together with Descartes’s own psychological uncertainties, somehow contributed to the deep internal need for certainty that was to characterize his entire philosophy.

Meanwhile the Bavarian winter set in, and soon the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even. Descartes found it so cold he claims that he took to living in a stove – a subject of much debate. Some claim that Descartes really meant a well-heated room, others that he meant something more like a sauna. But Descartes uses the French word poêle, which unquestionably means a stove.

One day while sitting in his stove, Descartes had a vision. It’s not clear precisely what he saw under these rather steamed-up circumstances, but it seems that this vision contained a mathematical picture of the world. This convinced Descartes that the workings of the entire universe could be discovered by the application of some universal mathematical science. That night when Descartes went to sleep he had three vivid dreams. In the first he found himself struggling against an overpowering wind, trying to make his way down the street toward the church at his old college in La Flèche. At one point he turns to greet someone, and the wind flings him against the church wall. Then, from the middle of the courtyard, someone calls to him that a friend of his has a melon which he wants to give him.

In the next dream Descartes is overcome with terror and hears ‘a noise like a crack of lightning’, after which the darkness of his room is filled with a myriad of sparks. The last dream is less clear: in the course of this he sees a dictionary and a book of poetry on his desk. This is followed by a number of the usual inconsequential and highly symbolic happenings that never fail to delight the dreamer and bore his listener. Descartes then decides (in his dream) to interpret these happenings. This might have given us a deep insight into Descartes’s understanding of himself, but unfortunately his biographer Baillet becomes rather garbled at this point.

The events of that winter day and the following night (November 11, 1619) were to have a profound and lasting effect upon Descartes. He believed that this vision and the ensuing dreams had revealed to him his God-given vocation. They were to give him a much-needed confidence in his calling as well as in the correctness of its findings that was not always backed by argument. But for this experience, the brilliant dilettante might never have realized his vocation. It is ironic that Descartes, the great rationalist, should have found his inspiration in a mystical vision and highly irrational dreams. This element in Descartes’s thinking is often overlooked in French lycées, where the great Gallic hero and hypnophile is held up as a rationalist exemplar.

Descartes’s dreams have attracted a wide variety of explanations. According to the Dutch philosopher and astronomer Huygens, who was later to correspond with Descartes, these dreams were the result of Descartes’s brain becoming overheated while he was in the stove. Others have suggested indigestion, overwork, lack of sleep, a mystical crisis, or the fact that he might recently have joined the Rosicrucians. The melon, whose offstage existence is alluded to in the first dream, apparently caused much mirth to eighteenth-century readers of Descartes’s biography. But with the advent of psychoanalysis, this melon became a much more serious matter.
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