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on 1 March 2009
I bought this book based on its claim to be a biography of the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Unfortunately it seems the author and I have rather different views on the meaning of the word `biography'. I had always understood it to mean a book describing the subject's life, history, achievements, personality, perhaps even attempting some sort of psychological portrait of his character. Grayling on the other hand, seems to have understood it to mean a potted history of the various events going on politically at the time in which the subject lived. If you're interested in a very short history of the beginnings of the 30 years war, the successions of various kings and queens of that era, on who the pope was before he became pope, and in the short biographies of ten - fifteen other people, then this is the book for you. If you're interested in the life of Rene Descartes, then stay away.
My biggest complaints are: 1 - the passages (sometimes 5-6 pages) in which Descartes is not mentioned at all 2 - the author's bizarre dismissal of almost any contemporary source (esp. anything actually written by Descartes himself) as being misleading 3 - the over use of the phrase `of course' and most of all 4 - the lack of soul in the book. I imagine this book to have come about because a publisher somewhere saw a Descartes' biography shaped gap in the market and commissioned the first `expert' they could find to write one. There is no love for the subject in this work. There is no fun, no joy in the everyday details of a life that make good biographies so enjoyable.
Descartes, the man, is but a ghost in this book. Haunting the fringes but never being clearly seen.
To be avoided.
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on 6 November 2007
This is a highly readable account of the life of Descartes, presenting him with all his faults - and they were big ones. He was a vain man, willing to claim that his method would enable him to attain to knowledge of all things (even when, inconveniently, he had taken ideas from other people). He viciously attacked those, even old friends, who dared to question his achievements, but he made an exception for princesses, before whom he went down on all fours in servile homage. Most unpleasant of all, he did painful experiments on animals; if they squealed, he claimed this was just the creaking of the machinery, since he had persuaded himself that they had no souls. The most contentious aspect of the book is its theory that he was a Jesuit spy. He certainly was terrified of the Jesuits, but he does not seem to have had the guts for a dangerous life of espionage. His opting for military engineering was in the Renaissance tradition; both Leonardo and Galileo sold their services to armies. One last point: Grayling starts his book by ridiculing Jan Baptiste van Helmont, held up as an example of medieval thinking for his belief in spontaneous generation. But Van Helmont rebelled against Jesuit teaching in the way that Descartes failed to, and in consequence he ended up, like Galileo, under house arrest. He was a great experimental scientist, who discovered the existence of gases and gave them their name.
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on 29 January 2006
Rather than the usual philosophical re-hash of Descartes philosophy, the author pens out a biography of Descartes life and times with a twist. Portraying Descartes in a balanced way, he proposes contraversially that Rene was for a part of his life involved in espionage for the Jesuits.
As an overall mark out of 5, its gets them all and is recommended as a great read.
I raised an eyebrow on several occassions during this book, however the well written and compelling manner in which it is written, keeps you going right until the end.
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on 16 June 2011
Everything A C Grayling writes is exceptionally intelligent and unusually well informed. Unfortunately, his literature is so broad-ranging - from self-help books and newspaper book reviews to biographies and treatises on philosophical logic - that you may not always get what you expect. Golden nuggets of information on the Reformation tension in Descartes's world - such as the Rosicrucian movement or the Dutch political contest between Arminianism and Calvinism - are the real treasures in this book, which also leaves you with a strong sense of the man's importance in promoting an inductive, empirical approach to human understanding, rather than a deductive, religiously revealed/rational one. It doesn't, however, leave you with much of a feel for the man. I think this is as much as you can expect about somebody who died so long ago, and whose legacy is far more significant than his personality, but be warned. Is it philosophy's role to inspire or to argue? My hunch is that the 20th century tendency to over-emphasise argument has killed the subject's appeal for most of us. So a book like this, written by someone who is earnestly trying to to make logic more accessible and more emotionally meaningful in our lives, really does deserve a charitable reception. If everyone, even hopeless romantics, would personally benefit from a little knowledge about Cartesianism, then this is a very easy way of getting hold of some.
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on 24 March 2012
Grayling has a very readable style. The great merit of the book is to place Descartes into a very revealing context ,although the sensational suggestion about spying etc. turns out to have little significance and is quietly dropped half way.
The associations with Rosicrucianism are very interesting although one wonders why Comenius is not mentioned, who did actually meet Descartes in Holland.The way Grayling characterizes the contexts though is graphic.
The weakest part is the discussion of Descarte's Dualism.When discussing how the soul affects the body ,Grayling sounds just like Galileo or Descartes himself hedging and writing in a style that pays mealy mouthed obeisance to the "Church" of today; ie mathematical science and neuro-science.We get statements like 'Now thanks to neuro-science we know that the brain creates thought '...that sort of thing.
One wants to say "Descartes realised that THINKING cannot EVER be 'explained' as a process in the brain because in order to try to explain thinking you have to THINK.He became aware of this,that THINKING IS NOT DEPENDANT ON THE BRAIN FOR ITS EXISTENCE ONLY FOR ITS EXPRESSION.A reflection needs a mirror to be seen but the content of a reflection is not MADE by the mirror.
Otherwise chemicals and nerves would be explaining themselves in our brains. Philosophers above all should make it their task to point this out ,but of course the scientific establishment would not be pleased and then they would not be asked to write books or appear on the BBC.
So although Grayling does not understand this any more than he does Rosicrucianism ,it is a good read with interesting details.
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on 14 September 2006
For someone who is relatively new to philosophers and their thoughts I found A.C.Graylings book an excellent introduction to a man whose seminal works set important landmarks in philosophy. I was intrigued by his theory that Descartes may have been a spy for the Jesuits and whilst some may have found this leap of faith (in more ways than one)a little difficult to accept, for me it had more than a ring of plausibility. As a noted philosopher himself the author has, in my opinion, produced not only a cracking good read,but some insightful thoughts on one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy. It left me wanting more.
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on 22 June 2013
What we didn't know about Descartes will be found in this book. I guess that it is a pity he had such a short life
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on 22 October 2006
This book is a cracking read. It provides an excellent generalist background briefing on the political, religious and intellectual events that shaped Descartes life.
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on 28 October 2007
I found this book rather boring, especially the first half. I ended up skipping pages as the tedious account of wars and intrigue during Descartes' times went on...and on...and on. I was left with the impression that the author had managed to find out very little about Descartes' personality and had mainly trawled through previous biographies and written the book with the intention of questioning and disagreeing with these. I also found the second appendix very odd. It seems ironic that the author should write about what makes a good biography while clearly failing to produce one.
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