The Magazine

A Natural Philosopher

Isolation was muse, and handicap, for René Descartes.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Descartes is usually identified as the father of philosophical dualism, the creator of the dilemma posed by the gap between mind and matter. His pen pal, the young Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, pressed him to explain how pure thought, being immaterial, could will the movement of a limb or a muscle. He parried her question, probably because he had no good answer. He did posit a theory of "animal spirits" flowing through long bodily tubes and connecting mind and matter. (This, of course, was the sort of tautology of which Molière, his near contemporary, made comic sport.)

In Descartes, one has the impression of a brilliant speculator groping in predawn dimness. In his self-imposed isolation he lacked the reinforcement that Newton would find, a generation later, at Cambridge and in the Royal Society, where generous contemporaries would ratify his genius. But Descartes's theory of inertia and his vortex theory of planetary motion were ingenious. Newton saw Descartes as his most important precursor and took great pains in the Principia to disconfirm the vortices. It was a tribute of sorts, albeit negative. It would seem that the empiricism of Protestant England offered a more congenial climate for experimental science than the theology-ridden Continent.

Dr. Clarke's is the sort of biography we rightly call magisterial, and it is hard to imagine that anyone will ever know as much as he does about this reclusive prodigy, whose name and most famous assertion ("I think, therefore I am") are better known than his actual accomplishments.

But the book has the defect of its virtues. Dr. Clarke, having absorbed so much personal detail, can't resist using it exhaustively, occasionally clouding shape, proportion, and significance. Still, if you want to know all that is now knowable about one of the great figures of the Western tradition, it's all here. And I do mean all.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.