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Descartes: An Intellectual Biography [Paperback]

Stephen Gaukroger
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 May 1997
René Descartes's insights into the nature of knowledge and the mind have inspired awe and debate through the centuries. But while philosophers have sought to understand the ramifications of his theories, they have paid much less attention to how, exactly, he arrived at his ideas. What twists and turns of his intellect brought him to his epochal conclusions? How did his personal ambitions and the social conditions of his era shape his thought? These questions and more are masterfully answered in Stephen Gaukroger's Descartes, a fascinating look at this most influential of all Renaissance thinkers. In his quest to retrace Descartes's development as a scientist and philosopher, Gaukroger leaves no stone unturned. From the great man's first book on music theory (Compendium Musicae) to his masterworks Discours, Essais, Meditationes, and Principia, from his study of mathematics while attending a Jesuit college at age ten, through his dying days in the service of Christina, Queen of Sweden, Descartes brims with penetrating and often surprising insights into the philosopher's life and work. We discover, for example, that he wasn't as concerned with developing an all-encompassing theory of knowledge as he was with establishing a natural philosophy that supported the teachings of Copernicus, a man whose work he deeply admired. We also learn that Descartes was willing to alter his publicly stated views to accommodate church doctrine-especially after witnessing Galileo's condemnation in 1633. We observe how his personal triumphs and failures-from his rumored nervous breakdown in 1614, to his joy at the popular reception of Discours and Essais, to his protracted and very public dispute with the implacable professor Voetius-affected his intellectual development. Along the way, Gaukroger details how Descartes's theories of metaphysics, mechanics, cognition, and cosmology have been both championed and distorted by philosophers of

Product details

  • Paperback: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Clarendon Press; New Ed edition (1 May 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198237243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198237242
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 3.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,511,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Any future biographer of Descartes will have to contend with this study for the richness of its scientific analysis and the tremendous wealth of references presented in the notes..." -- Desmond J. Fitzgerald, The Thomist

'Gaukroger writes well and his important book will certainly excite all students of 17th-century' -- The Times

'Gaukroger's book fills the philosophical and historical vacuum which has grown around Descartes, and is a good source to consult for those who wish to better understand why his methodology became so influential.' -- The American Rationalist

'Stephen Gaukroger is an experienced and erudite writer on Descartes. He has a complete mastery of the recent literature, and is at home equally in metaphysics, epistemology and natural philosophy. He offers reasoned argument against many conventional criticisms of Descartes...' -- Nature

'will remain indispensable for all those interested in the history of Cartesian thought and its continuing impact on our philosophical culture.' -- Times Literary Supplement

About the Author

Stephen Gaukroger is Fellow the Australian Academy of Humanities and President of the Australian Society for the History of Philosophy.

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First Sentence
Since the eighteenth century, there has been in circulation a curious story about Descartes. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile 8 Dec 2004
This book is clearly meant for the specialist and serious student of Descartes. It is by no means light reading, although the unexpectedly light and pleasant style Gaukroger possesses does make for a much more enjoyable experience for what could have been a profoudnly boring and tiresome work. I must admit to having skipped the sections on Descartes' physics as they make little sense to me, but the parts on metaphysics are often illuminatory, sometimes obfuscatory, however. Nevertheless this IS a worthwhile read for anyone with a serious interest in Descartes and does provide some (although not as many) useful insights into his work. I would have appreciated, for example, a section on Descartes' time spent in La Fleche, but we're not treated to one. I'm not sure whether this is due to lack of biographical information or omission on the part of the author, intentional or otherwise. Still, an entertaining read, recommended.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Historical raisons d�être of Descartes� intellectual pursuit 18 Aug 2001
By Albrecht Heeffer - Published on
Gaukroger ends his introduction with the words: "An intellectual biography forces one to think in very specific terms, hopefully yielding a kind of understanding which historians of philosophy of science have missed". This point of view marks one of the strengths as well as one of the weaknesses of this work on Descartes.
This intellectual biography offers a detailed exposition on the intellectual development and evolution of thought of René Descartes. The book strictly follows the chronology of events in Descartes' intellectual life and starts with his early childhood and education at La Flèche. This chapter excels in providing insight in 17th-century Jesuit education systems and the influence they had on Descartes' methodology and fields of study. Chapter 3 focuses on Descartes' apprenticeship with Isaac Beeckman in Holland and the decisive influence the latter's corpuscalarian thinking had on the natural philosophy of Descartes. Starting from this corpuscalar theory, Descartes developed an arithmetical account of consonance in music and alternative explanations for the kinematics of falling bodies and the problems of hydrostatics. During this period, Descartes discovered the proportional compass (mesolabe), which led him to the ambitious idea of a general theory of mathematics. In chapter 4 Gaukroger puts forward the interesting thesis that Descartes' search for a general theory of "method" was partly influenced by the contact he had with the Rosicrucians in Germany and he was to share in something like the generality and the delusions of grandeur of their vision of a universal language, generating all truths from basic premises. Later, on returning to France, Descartes had to defend himself against charges of being a Rosicrucian, which was considered to be a political threat. During these libertine Paris years, covered in chapter 5, Descartes pursued his interests in natural philosophy and mathematics in close contact with Mersenne, Mydorge and others. During these three years Descartes discovered the law of refraction in optics, lays the foundation of analytic geometry by the arithmetization of geometrical problems and develops a theory of perceptual cognition. In 1629 Descartes moved to Holland and stayed there for almost 20 years. During these years, discussed in chapters 6 to 8, Descartes worked on several publications: Le Monde, his most important work on natural philosophy, L'Homme, an exposition of a mechanist physiology, Geometry, a first account of analytic geometry, and Discourse of Method, a metaphysical foundation of his thinking, which established him as the best known philosopher of the 17th century. Gaukroger meticulously traces origins and dates of the respective chapters in these books and points them to specific periods of Descartes' intellectual life. Descartes' attempts to systematisation, his later publications and the critics these evoked, are discussed in the final chapters.
Gaukroger establishes a rationale for Descartes' intellectual pursuits both in terms of his motivations and in terms of the specific cultural context in which these motivations bear fruit and thus fulfils his goals for writing this intellectual biography. The book will appeal to students of philosophy and history of science that are already familiar with Descartes. A close reading of this book will guard them from the homogenization from thought in previous writing on Descartes and offer them a better understanding of the genesis of and significant changes in his doctrines. However, this biography fails in both precisely identifying many of the mathematical problems studied by Descartes, and in placing them within their correct historical context. A particular example is Descartes' solution for the problem of a depressed quartic equation, cited in every textbook on the history of mathematics. Gaukroger fails to provide an appreciation of the problem, to discuss previous solutions given by Viète and 16th-century Italian mathematicians and to explain Descartes' solution. Offering a better understanding of Descartes' study fields may indeed not have been Gaukroger's ambition but I am convinced that many readers will be missing this aspect in a scholarly biography of one of the most inspiring natural philosophers of the 17th century.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great exposition of Descartes 7 Nov 2000
By James S. - Published on
Anyone interested in the ideas of Rene Descartes would be mad to miss this book. As the title suggests, emphasis is placed on the development of his ideas, placing them in context and giving a clear exposition of the concepts involved, with only as much personal background as is interesting and necessary to this end. Gaukroger is justly regarded as one of the world's leading Descartes scholars. And I'm sure he is very kind to dogs.
4 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written book; have remarks though. 26 Aug 1997
By A Customer - Published on
It was Descartes whose analysis that dogs don't have feelings led to the justification of all manner of cruelty towards animals. For anyone planning to read this book, also expand your horizons and read "The Intelligence of Dogs" by Stanley Coren, psychologist and dog trainer
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