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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars an inspired study, 1 Sep 2010
This review is from: Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Paperback)
The book is a highly original and quite ingenious study of Descartes' thought that makes its own philosophical contributions.

However, I find it strange to see this recommended as an introduction, since its exposition of the arguments is really quite subtle. At times Williams engages in involved debates with other figures in the Descartes literature, and I doubt the beginner wants to read a critique of Hintikka's construal of the cogito argument. When I was reading Descartes as an undergraduate I found John Cottingham's excellent "The Rationalists" helpful as an entry level study.

Although Williams' style of writing is, as another reviewer pointed out, rambling the book is organised in a clear thematic way. It starts with Descartes' method of doubting all the beliefs he has inherited from tradition, then later chapters cover the arguments for God's existence, for the mind's independence from the body, and so on. The discussion is usually meandering and subtle, with Williams pondering questions like how appropriate picking bad apples out of a barrel is as a metaphor for methodological doubt.

The book is so rated by philosophers not for its learned readings, however, but for its own ideas. Without giving too much away the argument goes that a broadly Cartesian view of knowledge might be necessary for intellectual investigation to make sense at all. Williams puts it vividly at one point by saying that in Descartes we need the guarantee of what the world looks like to God as an anchor for our investigations.

Lastly, I should say that this is difficult reading, as you'd probably expect from a book concerned with such abstract and conceptual themes. Despite this, as a student I found it refreshing to see a commentator so clearly in love with the texts showing how resourceful and subtle they remain, when the thinker's reception is usually an impatient bashing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars outstanding as philosophy and as history of philosophy, 19 April 2011
C. W. Robbins (Spain) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Paperback)
It would almost be impertinent to point out how good a philosopher Williams was and how brilliantly executed is this book, the fruit of many years' teaching and discussion.

Williams does not dismiss Descartes's "project" or his various arguments out of hand. He makes the best case for them before identifying Descartes's errors and dismembering some of his amazingly sloppy arguments. He depends not on the arguments of other 20th century philosophers to make his points but on his own ingenious perceptions. At the time he was writing, it would have been easy to to write a book ending up with a scorecard "Wittgenstein 10: Descartes 0" but Williams does not need to draw on others in that way.

Williams puts his finger on Descartes's two main problems:
(a) Having doubted the existence of the perceived world (including other people!), Descartes cannot locate a secure argument to justify belief in the physical world; he becomes a prisoner of his consciousness.
(b) His conceptual analysis produced a mathematical matrix for the description of the physical world, including some laws of nature, but Descartes was never able to demonstrate that observed phenomena in nature actually obeyed his laws. He set out a cosmological programme for the new science but it was at such a high level of generality as to be inapplicable to his own observations.

Any serious undergraduate should tussle with the complexities of this excellent book.
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Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry
Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry by Bernard Williams (Paperback - 16 Mar 2005)
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