Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reflections on René Descartes

You stink, therefore I don't give a darn.

Rene Descartes is generally considered to be one of the greatest minds of his day and the father of the scientific method of inquiry.

Of Descartes, wrote;

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century but in history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “father of modern philosophy”... he rejected the final causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment.

On a much more personal level, the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews review of Desmond Clark's 2006 book; "Descartes: A Biography" makes some very candid observations about the father of modern scientific thinking, adding credibility by stating that the book is notable for its exhaustive detail, drawing helpfully upon Descartes' voluminous and revealing correspondence to reconstruct as best as possible Descartes' movements and mindsets throughout his almost 54 years of life... Clarke provides for the reader to better understand Descartes as a person and as an intellectual. 

NDPR points to three related themes which "edge repeatedly to the forefront throughout the book;"
  • Descartes' seemingly endless travels and his eventual isolation in voluntary exile;
  • Descartes' own largely unflattering character;
  • The ubiquitous and sometimes menacing presence of others exercising an influence over Descartes' life and work, especially his scientific work.

What follows are some edited extracts from the review;

Beeckman, one of Descartes earliest close friends, remarked, on one occasion, that Descartes saw travel as a replacement for study in schools and through books, of which he read few.

His aversion to the ideas of others extended to his avoidance of learned people

In fact, as he matured, he tended to avoid all contact with people, and his adult life was lived primarily in isolation.

Clarke's characterizes Descartes as lonely, paranoid, and generally unpleasant: "He had become [by 1638] a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner, who worried incessantly about his place in history and the priority he claimed for various discoveries."

Clark writes of Descartes' "sensitivity to criticism and the certainty that he claimed, prematurely, for his own view", stating further that Descartes "fought with almost everyone he encountered while constantly announcing that all he wanted was 'the security and tranquility' required to complete his intellectual projects".

Among Descartes other flaws Clark lists; lack of modesty, paranoia and suspicion, reluctance to concede intellectual points, a tendency to bear grudges, duplicity, and manipulative treatment of people, even of supportive friends.

Descartes seems to have been in almost constant battle with one or another critic or erstwhile friend, while describing himself as 'docile' and reluctant to speak in his own defense.

Perhaps the least attractive of his many failings was Descartes' duplicity. "He sends pairs of letters to Queen Christina and to Chanut presenting sharply divergent attitudes toward the Queen's invitation to Sweden. 'These parallel letters… ', writes Clarke, "show Descartes at his dissembling best."

I close this post with three questions;

  • How does this seemingly self taught, argumentative, arrogant and self serving critic of everyone and everything but himself end up becoming the father of modern philosophical thought and scientific inquiry?
  • How can one be a fan of Descartes methods now termed :scientific" without simultaneously harboring similar traits, or at least sympathies, within one's self? 
  • Is the Cartesian mindset a necessary precursor for being a competent designer, scientist or engineer? 

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