Friday, November 17, 2006

Being Descartes

I just finished an excellent biography of Descartes by Desmond M. Clarke. I had been curiously ignorant of his life and personality despite being well familiar with his gigantic impact for philosophy and Western thought. So, it was most interesting reading - I had for example no idea how effectively he isolated himself both from ordinary human society and from his intellectual peers. On the whole Clarke's portrait is not very flattering: he was reclusive, secretive, quarrelsome man more gifted in making enemies than friends, always paranoidicallyfearful of seeming to be openly defying the Church. But then again, it was an age when you could get burned on the stake for denying the orthodox geocentric and thoroughly Aristotelian world view. Descartes emerged through such deep mists of scholastic thought and irrational religious and social ideas that it can be easily seen that the society around him was so violent, so paranoid, so mad that his own isolation, his own paranoia and caution can be understood.

He might have been a fearful, difficult man but his thinking was revolutionary and proudly free of nonsensical conformist schackles. We have now largely forgotten the arcane pre-Cartesian philosophy that once reigned over Christendom but his times were still dominated by it. In that sense there is a straight line from Descartes to Enlightenment and to our present Western mind. The post-modern attacks against many Cartesian crudities are understandable but one wonders where the aim really is. Probably not in any clumsy and unreal dichotomies of body and mind.

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