Descartes

by André Gombay
Blackwell, 2007; 168 pages.

Rating: U D

U = Undergraduate - Generally, a book of this type will provide more detail and be more challenging than a beginner's guide. So, it will either assume some previous knowledge, or else treat the subject in a way that will be useful for more in-depth study. As such, it will be most suitable for those who have aleady read an introductory text, are fairly familiar with the general nature of the subject, and are looking to develop their understanding further. D = Detailed study at degree level. Books of this type are generally quite hard, and - because of their level of detail and depth of argument - are not suitable for beginners or as introductions to the subject. However, they may still be useful for those who have become familiar with the topic in question, and wish to delve deeper (perhaps in search of advanced criticism or clarification of difficult points).

André Gombay’s Descartes forms part of the ‘Blackwell Great Minds’ series, which includes books on other key thinkers such as Kant, Aristotle, Darwin, etc., and (I quote) aims to provide readers with “a strong sense of the fundamental views of the great western philosophers and captures the relevance of these philosophers to the way we think and live today.” [1] From this, you might expect a standard sort of introduction to the man and his ideas, and indeed a brief perusal of the text will reveal that it covers the main things necessary to such a treatment: Chapter 1 deals with Descartes’s life and writings, Chapters 2 – 7 deal with a Meditation each, and Chapter 8 provides an overview and summary of conclusions. Furthermore, whilst the main focus of the text is the Meditations, Gombay uses this as a basis to branch out into discussion of other writings with which the average reader will be less familiar. At first sight, then, the text would appear to take a fairly standard format.

Descartes, from the front matter of the book.

However, on beginning to read, you realise that there is really nothing else that is standard about this book. To begin with, the tone is fresh and interesting, and Gombay’s method is to avoid the well-trodden paths of explanation, and to look for novel ways of introducing and reinterpreting Descartes’s thought. For instance, Descartes’s method of doubt is illustrated by the story of the boy who cried “wolf!”: the senses are believed at first, but once we know that they can deceive us, we should not continue to trust them. Gombay then imagines that in the town where the boy lives, there is a town clock which has a mechanical fault (and so is sometimes unreliable). He then points out that when talking of being deceived, Descartes is not always clear as to whether this deception involves ‘clocks’ (physical things, and the senses) or ‘lying boys’ (testimony or wilful deception – whether by man or deity) – perhaps he means both? The author then adds his own anecdote: even when doubt involves people, there is a difference between ‘untrustworthiness’ and ‘deception’; a friend may be unreliable, but not intentionally mean to mislead. The consequence of this discussion is that the reader’s notion of what is potentially involved in doubting is expanded and enriched, and we get a deeper understanding of the real issues behind Descartes’s arguments.

The above example is fairly typical of Gombay’s style. His obviously deep familiarity with Descartes’s life and work allow him to select less well-known details and to use these to provide a fresh perspective on familiar concepts. Along the way, we learn some interesting facts: as a result of a childhood infatuation with a young girl, Descartes for a long time harboured a ‘thing’ for cross-eyed women; he had a lifelong interest in music, and one of his first serious pieces of writing was a treatise on musical theory; the sort of Jesuit education that Descartes would have received was among the first to introduce grades for students (and thereby, a possible influence on Descartes’s need to ‘grade’ different sorts of idea, and knowledge itself). However, such things are not presented merely as interesting asides, or titillating gossip about a well-known figure, but are rather woven into a more sensitive and holistic picture of the real man behind the historical persona. This approach is in fact a general theme of the book: Descartes is not the hard-line scientific experimenter who thought that animals had no souls (and it was therefore fine to mistreat them); [2] nor is he the dry academic who had no room in his life for emotion: the truth is both more complex and more interesting.

Gombay, p.ix.

Part of Gombay’s intention is therefore to dispel the myths that have built up around Descartes, and this he does very effectively – in fact, it is this re-humanisation of his subject, and his general undermining of the prevalent caricature of Cartesian philosophy, which makes the book so refreshing. Therefore, it is not just in relation to the man that Gombay’s approach is enlightening, but most importantly to his well-known philosophical doctrines – or rather, to the common perception of what these doctrines are. On the one hand, the author is not shy in pointing out the commonly highlighted inconsistencies and ambiguities in Cartesian thought – the problem of interaction, the Cartesian circle, the dubious conclusions of the Cogito, and so on; but on the other, he frequently provides a fresh take on what Descartes is thought to have said, and comes up with some surprising conclusions. For instance, Gombay argues that a full reading of Descartes’s later writings and letters show that he considered mind and body to be two aspects of the same thing. Furthermore, the picture of Descartes as a cold intellect with little regard for emotion or feeling is dispelled, he argues, if we consider his often ignored final work, The Passions Of The Soul (wherein he likens the assent of the will to true ideas to finding true love). What we are left with, then, is both a justification of why Descartes remains such an interesting figure, and a compelling reason to study him more closely.

It is these, and numerous other points, which make Gombay’s book a very fine read. The portrait of Descartes’s philosophy is subtle and insightful, and it will give even those with many years’ familiarity with his work a reason to pause and reassess. However, this said, it is these very merits which make the book generally unsuitable for those coming to Descartes for the first time. Whilst Gombay writes extremely clearly and is at pains to make his text lively and entertaining, his attention to detail, and the complex and subtle analysis of Descartes’s texts and ideas, mean that the book is best suited to those who already know Descartes’s work fairly well, and are looking for a way to engage with the material at a deeper level – for which, it is ideal, and highly recommended.

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