Haldane, Elizabeth Sanderson. 1905. Descartes. His Life and Times. London: J. Murray.
Reprint Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1992.
"Any Life of Descartes is, of course, mainly dependent upon his very considerable correspondence, principally written and framed with a view to future publication.
Of Descartes' Letters as MM. Adam and Tannery tell us, the first important edition is that of Clerselier, in three volumes, published at Paris by Charles Angot in 1657-67. Clerselier had at
his disposal Descartes' manuscripts, copies of many of his letters and notes, taken by him to Sweden and enumerated in a catalogue made just after his death. These had been given to Chanut, the
French ambassador in Sweden, and Descartes' great friend, who contemplated publishing them. This task, however, he handed over to Clerselier, his brother-in-law, and likewise the author's friend. The
packet was duly dispatched to France, which, after many delays, it reached in 1653. It travelled by Rouen, and was entrusted to a vessel which made its way to Paris by river. Unluckily, near Paris,
the boat was wrecked, and for three days the precious manuscripts remained submerged in water. Wonderful to relate, "by Divine permission," the papers were recovered some distance off, and were duly
hung up in various rooms to dry; but since this was done by unintelligent servants, much confusion resulted, as can easily be imagined. (*) In endeavouring to rearrange the manuscripts, the greatest
difficulty was experienced; and more especially was this so in reference to the Letters. The papers, all of which had not been used, were finally bequeathed by Clerselier, in 1684, to
Legrand, who assisted Baillet in writing his Life of Descartes. Baillet and Legrand set about their work of writing the Life with the greatest vigour. Legrand, not content with handing over
to Baillet Descartes' manuscripts and Clerselier's memoirs, made it his business, Baillet tells us, to go to see everyone in Paris from whom he might receive the slightest help.
He wrote to Brittany, Touraine, Languedoc, Holland, Sweden, and Germany, in order to interest his friends and relations in the project, and recovered certain communications from Regius of Utrecht,
and the greater part of those from Descartes to the Abbé Picot, to Clerselier, to Tobie d'André; as also some from Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Chanut, etc. Baillet also acknowledges the help
received from Descartes' nephews, M. de Kerleau and M. de Chavagne (both Descartes' brothers being dead), and also from his niece, M.lle Catherine Descartes. These provided family papers regarding
the philosopher's ancestry and private life, while the sons of Clerselier and Chanut supplied all that they could of what was useful in their fathers' manuscripts. M. le Vasseur, son of Seigneur
d'Etioles, the relative, friend, and host of Descartes while in Paris, supplied what material he could, as did many others whose names Baillet gratefully quotes in his Preface." ( Prefatory
note, pp. VIII-IX)
For a Life of Descartes, besides the Letters and the most interesting bit of autobiography in the " Method," the Life of Baillet is naturally the source from which all others have been
derived, and its value is largely due to its simplicity and accuracy. Baillet tells us that he aimed at saying what he had to say simply, telling just what his subject thought, saw, and did without
adornment, and this is exactly what he accomplished. He does not aspire to criticise, but tries to tell his tale with exactitude and fidelity, not indulging in over-much laudation nor concealing
faults where present. Baillet has no false estimation of his own powers. He regrets deeply that Chanut, who knew Descartes so well, and who was, in his eyes, so well fitted for the work, did not see
his way to undertake the writing of Descartes' life. Failing Chanut, Baillet would have liked Clerselier to undertake the task. Clerselier knew Descartes; he had the material and leisure necessary,
besides the ability, but he did not do more than collect and preserve his writings. The Queen of Sweden, seeing- that these two refused, endeavoured to procure the services of Père Poisson of the
Oratory, who had written on the " Method." Clerselier offered to assist him as far as material was concerned, but the plan fell through." (pp. X-XI)
"The only English life of Descartes of any importance is the excellent little book by Professor [John Pentland] Mahaffy, [ Descartes] published as one of Blackwood's Philosophical Classics in
1880. Norman Smith's Studies in Cartesianism, 1903, is an acute criticism of his philosophy; and there is, of course, besides, the well-known article on Cartesianism in the
Encyclopedia Britannica, by the Master of Balliol." (p. XI)
(*) Vie de M. Descartes par Adrien Baillet, 1691, vol. II., p. 428.
Shea, William R. 1991. The Magic of Numbers and Motion. The Scientific Career of René Descartes. Canton (MA): Science History Publications.
Contents: Preface IX-X; 1. The young man from Poitou 1; 2. The early physics 15; 3. The Mathematical Breakthrough 35; 4. The Quest for musical harmony 69; 5. Descartes and the Rosicrucian
enlightenment 93; 6. The Search for method and Rules for Direction 121; 7. The Optical triumph (1625-1628) 149; 8. Metaphysical Meditations 165; 9. Unweaving the rainbow 191; 10. The Action of Light
227; 11. Matter and motion in a new world 251; 12. The Laws and rules of motion 279; 13. Publish or perish 317; Conclusion 341;
Appendix: Chronology or Descartes’ life 351; Bibliography 355; index 365-371.
"My goal has been to follow Descartes in his journey, and to provide a comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive, survey of his scientific career from his student days at the Jesuit College of La
Flèche to his departure for Sweden where he had been summoned by Queen Christina. I have tried to follow Descartes’ injunction to be clear (but not clear at all costs), and I am sanguine enough to
hope that the reader will be sufficiently stimulated and intrigued by what he finds in this book to turn to Descartes’ own works. I have kept my discussion of mathematics in Chapter Three as simple
as possible, but anyone who wishes to skip this section at first reading has not only my sympathy, but the assurance that the gist is summarized in a few pages at the end. A chronology of the main
events of Descartes’ life will be found in the Appendix.
My work could not have been undertaken without the pioneering efforts of Gaston Milhaud ( Descartes Savant, 1921), Paul Mouy ( Le Développement de la Physique Cartésienne, 1934), and
J. F. Scott, ( The Scientific Work of René Descartes, 1952)." (pp. IX-X).
"We have seen how Descartes called upon God to vouchsafe the reliability of our knowledge of the external world. Likewise he appealed to the simplicity and immutability of God’s action to justify his
laws of nature. The Second Law, for instance, “only depends on God conserving each thing by his continuous action, hence at the very instant that he conserves it. It so happens that among motions,
only straight motion is entirely simple and such that its nature is comprised in an instant.” (25) I believe that it is in passages such as these that we gain our best insight into Descartes’ deeply
entrenched belief in the basic unity of science, metaphysics, and natural theology. Whatever change is brought about in the world, it is caused by mechanical action, but this does not make it less
marvelous. God implants simple and self-evident notions of matter and motion in the human mind at the very instant that he creates it. Likewise God produces and sustains the motion of bodies at each
and every instant that they are moving. Without these God-given notions, we would be unable to perceive motion, and without God’s direct intervention, there would be no motion to be perceived. The
magic of numbers and motion is rooted in the transcendental rationality of the Ultimate Mind." (p. 349)
(25) The World, Chap. 7, p. 45.
Gaukroger, Stephen. 1995. Descartes. An Intellectual Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Contents: Chronological Table XIV; Introduction 1; 1. 'A Learned and Eloquent Piety' 15; 2. An Education in Propriety, 1606-1618 38; 3. The Apprenticeship with Beeckman, 1618-1619 68; 4. The Search
for Method , 1619-1625 104; 5. The Paris Years, 1625-1628 135; 6. A New Beginning, 1629-1630 187; 7. A New System of the World 1630-1633 226; 8. The Years of Consolidation , 1634-1640 293; 9. The
Defence of Natural Philosophy , 1640-1644 354; 10. Melancholia and the Passions, 1643-1650 384; Notes 418; Biographical Sketches 471; Select Bibliography 481; Index 489-499.
"I have a vivid and happy memory of my first reading of Descartes, for it was with unbounded enthusiasm that I devoured the Discourse on Method, sitting in the shade of a tree in the Borghese Gardens
in Rome in the summer of 1970, just before I started studying philosophy at university. But I cannot honestly say that my enthusiasm was fuelled by my subsequent undergraduate courses on Descartes,
which simply followed the trade winds, in an obsessive but completely de-contextualized way, through the tired old questions of the cogito and the foundations for knowledge. So it was that my
interest in the early seventeenth century came to be stimulated by Galileo rather than Descartes, and it was to Galileo that I devoted my main attention while a research student at Cambridge in the
mid-1970s. While there, however, Gerd Buchdahl and John Schuster revealed to me a different Descartes, a more authentic and vastly more engaging one, whom I only began to explore properly ten years
later. It is this Descartes who is the subject of this book, and I warn readers—if ‘warn’ is the right word, as some may breathe a sigh of relief—that it is not the Descartes from whom philosophers
have made such a good living for decades that they will find here. But I have not simply set out to write the history of science or cultural history. Descartes is, after all, the figure who stands at
the beginning of modern philosophy, just as Plato stands at the beginning of ancient philosophy. While I shall argue that his philosophical achievements are much more intimately linked to his
interest in what subsequently have been considered ‘scientific’ questions than is commonly realized, my aim is not thereby to take Descartes out of the realm of philosophy, but rather to throw light
on how he did philosophy.
It is with some trepidation that I pursued this goal through the genre of intellectual biography, even though my own early interest in philosophy had been fired by Simone de Beauvoir’s incomparable
intellectual autobiography. People read intellectual biographies with different expectations, from the naïve attempt to understand, at a distance as it were, how a ‘great mind’ works, to attempts to
model one’s own thought and career on that of someone one admires. Perhaps the most famous example of modelling is Thomas Mann, who evidently tried to mirror in his own intellectual development the
stages in Goethe’s intellectual development, although I think there are very many less explicit cases, and that biography generally has played an important role in ‘self-fashioning’ since the
nineteenth century. This makes it a rather delicate genre, both from the point of the view of the reader and from that of the writer. Self-fashioning is part of the rationale behind reading, and
perhaps behind writing, intellectual biographies, but any self-fashioning will have to be very indirect in the present case. While the thesis of Jacques Le Goff, that modernity did not begin and the
Middle Ages did not effectively cease until the French and Industrial Revolutions, is stronger than anything I would wish to argue in this book, I have no doubt that the culture in which Descartes
lived and worked is much more remote from our own than is commonly recognized. This has consequences for biography, because a biography explores the emotional life of its subject, and the more
removed from our own culture our subject is, the deeper the problems about how we are to succeed in this exploration. I have tried to be more responsive than my predecessors to the difficulties that
these issues raise, with the result that there is much greater concentration on the culture in which Descartes worked than one finds in earlier biographies. But I am also very conscious of the
problems of over-contextualization, and I have tried to make sure that neither the subject of my biography, nor his contribution, slips out of focus." ( Preface, pp. VII-VII)
Watson, Richard. 2002. Cogito, Ergo Sum. The Life of René Descartes. Boston: Godin.
"There are two main traditions of Descartes biography. In his La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), Adrien Baillet started the French Catholic apologetic tradition, the goal of which is to
establish that Descartes’s life is worthy of the Great Metaphysician. It has been continued most recently by Geneviève Rodis-Lewis in her Descartes: His Life and Thought (1998). Baillet was
recommended by the fact that he was undertaking a seventeen-volume Lives of the Saints. He demurred that he knew little about Descartes, but then he threw himself into the task with the zeal
of a full-fledged member of the Saint Descartes Protection Society. The founder of this society (this joke probably goes back at least to Descartes’s death in Stockholm in 1650) was the French
ambassador to Sweden, Hector-Pierre Chanut, who refused to allow Descartes’s remains to be buried in a Lutheran cemetery. Descartes’s reputation was then managed for many years by Chanut’s
brother-in-law, Claude Clerselier.
Clerselier edited Descartes's letters, deleting passages that conflict with church doctrine and adding passages of his own composition where they were most needed to illustrate the faith proper to a
pious Catholic philosopher. This can be checked, however, only against a few letters of which there are independent copies, for none of the original manuscripts, papers, notes, and letters that
Clerselier and Baillet had are extant today. They were given to Jean-Baptist Legrand, and after he died, to his mother in 1706. Despite many searches, that is the last we ever hear of them.
The second main line of Descartes biography has most recently been continued by Stephen Gaukroger in his Descartes: An Intellectual biography (1995). In this tradition, the stress is on the
analysis of Descartes’s works to show him as the Great Scientist who founded not only Modern Philosophy but also Modern Science.
The present work belongs to neither the religious nor the scientific apologetic tradition. Given how much paper has been lost since the seventeenth century, I cannot look at original sources for much
of the story I tell, but must depend on editors and chroniclers such as Clerselier and Baillet, who are not fully trustworthy. The result is a skeptical biography, as full of doubt about tradition
and authority as was Descartes himself.
Here. then, is the life of René Descartes. It is the first biography of Descartes since 1920 that is based on substantial new research, and the only one ever written for general readers. It is the
story of the man, not of the monument." (pp. 22-23)
Clarke, Desmond M. 2006. Descartes. A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Contents: Preface and Acknowledgments VII; Note on Texts and References IX; Descartes Family Tree X; Introduction 1; 1. A Lawyer’s Education 6; 2. In Search of a Career (1616-1622) 37; 3. Magic,
Mathematics, and Mechanics: Paris, 1622-1628 67; 4. A Fabulous World (1629-1633) 97; 5. The Scientific Essays and the Discourse on Method (1633-1637) 126; 6. Retreat and Defence
(1637-1639) 156; 7. Metaphysics in a Hornet’s Nest (1639-1642) 184; 8. The French Liar’s Monkey and the Utrecht Crisis 218; 9. Descartes and Princess Elizabeth 248; 10. The Principles of
Philosophy (1644) 276; 11. The Quarrel and Final Rift with Regius 307; 12. Once More into Battle: The Leiden Theologians (1647) 337; 13. Thoughts of Retirement 366; 14. Death in Sweden 394;
Appendix 1: Descartes’ Principal Works 419; Appendix 2: Places Where Descartes Lived 421; Notes 425; Bibliography 489; Index 503-507.
"Descartes died in Sweden in 1650, a few weeks before his fifty-fourth birthday. He had spent most of his adult life in relative seclusion in what is now the Netherlands, while the Thirty Years’ War
waxed and waned around him. By 1667, when some French Cartesians arranged for the return of his remains to Paris, they had begun to publicize his works, to develop a characteristically Cartesian
philosophy, and to be identified by critics as a ‘sect’. These early supporters included many philosophers who, apart from Nicolas Malebranche, are probably remembered today only as marginal figures
in the history of Western thought. The name of Descartes, however, remains readily recognizable. He has entered the canon of Western philosophy so securely that that there is no longer any dispute
about his significance.
Why was he important? Hardly for the phrase by which he is popularly remembered today, both by students of philosophy and by other readers: ‘ I think, therefore I am’. This was not an
original insight on his part, and it had a relatively minor role in his work. During the past century, Descartes has often been read as a metaphysician or, perhaps as frequently, as a philosopher who
took seriously the arguments of sceptics. Alternatively, he is classified as a philosopher of subjectivity, as someone who outlined an internal map of the human mind and defended the irreducibility
of conscious experiences. Finally, there are those, especially feminist critics, who think of Descartes as having exaggerated the significance and capacity of reason at the expense of the emotional
life. For them, Descartes was a mere ‘rationalist’.
Descartes’ life reveals a much more complex and interesting character than any of these labels suggests. As an intellectual in the early seventeenth century, he might have directed his energies
toward political philosophy (as Hobbes did), to theological disputes (as Pascal did), or to the renewal of humanistic and classical learning for which Erasmus had earlier provided an outstanding
model. Alternatively, he might have channeled his genius exclusively into mathematics (as his contemporaries Fermat and Roberval did); had he done so, he would surely have exceeded by far the novelty
and ambition of their achievements. Although all these interests featured to some extent in his life, Descartes’ primary focus was elsewhere. He is best characterized as a philosopher of the
Scientific Revolution." (pp. 1-2)
Nadler, Steven. 2013. The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Contents: Illustrations IX; Acknowledgments XIII; 1. Prologue: A Tale of Two Paintings 1; 2. The Philosopher [René Descartes] 8; 3. The Priest [Augustijn Alsten Bloemaert, (1585-1659)] 36; 4. The
Painter [Frans Hals, (1580-1666)] 55; 5. "Once in a Lifetime" 87; 6. A New Philosophy 111; 7. God in Haarlem 143; 8. The Portrait 174; Notes 199; Bibliography 219; Index 227-230.
"Exploring such art historical and biographical questions about a painting [*] might seem an odd way to frame a book about a philosopher. But Hals’s image of Descartes, now the image of Descartes
(primarily by way of the Louvre copy), has become quite familiar. Indeed, it has become too familiar. While Descartes’s famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” has been transformed by overuse,
parody, and misunderstanding into a kind of all purpose slogan easily adapted for a variety of occasions, philosophical and otherwise, Hals’s depiction of the philosopher has been devalued almost to
the point of anonymity by seemingly endless reproduction and caricature in a wide variety of media: innumerable book covers, works of fine and decorative art, commercial and editorial illustrations,
even lowbrow entertainment.
One of the goals of this book is to restore to Hals’s portrait of Descartes some of its originality and luster by reconstructing the biographical and historical contexts of its production. At the
same time, such a project is a prime opportunity for presenting Descartes and his philosophy to a broad audience. The true story behind Hals’s painting, as familiar as that image has become, can well
serve as the scaffolding for an accessible study of Descartes himself. Just as “I think, therefore I am” represents only the starting point of a grand philosophical project that became the dominant
intellectual paradigm of the seventeenth century, Hals’s small painting can provide entrée to the life and mind of the ambitious thinker it so effectively portrays.
This is not a biography in the conventional sense. Most of Descartes’s life, including much that happened during the decade on which this book is focused, lies outside the scope of its story. Nor is
this book intended to be another detailed analytic study of Descartes’s philosophy. There are many scholarly monographs exploring Descartes’s work in epistemology, metaphysics, natural philosophy,
and mathematics; there are also a number of fine general introductions to his thought, as well as several recent biographies. As valuable as such academic studies are, I would rather take my lead
from Hals. The Haarlem artist has given us a small, intimate portrait of a great thinker. I want to do the same: a presentation of Descartes and his ideas in the form of a small, intimate portrait, a
rendering of those years that culminated in some groundbreaking philosophical doctrines and a modest but intriguing work of art.
Descartes belongs as much to the intellectual culture of the Dutch Golden Age as he does to the grand history of Western philosophy whose development he so strongly influenced. It thus seems
perfectly appropriate, if a bit unorthodox, to use a seventeenth-century Dutch painting as a portal into his world." (pp. 6-7)
[*] The portrait of Descartes made by Frans Hals in 1649.