A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher


Heavenly spheres A new portrait of a famous philosopher

The Philosopher's verdict: thin gruel, under fine portraits
The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter
By Steven Nadler
Publisher: Princeton University Press (2013)
£19.95 256 pages
ISBN-10: 0691157308

The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter is an elegant, sleek looking book, beautifully produced by Princeton University Press for Steven Nadler, author of a well-received intellectual history of Spinoza. What is on offer here is an entire book based on one rather small idea - about Descartes being misunderstood, as per the conventional image of him which is taken from a famous painting in the Louvre.

Indeed, that Descartes is often misinterpreted is not a position many scholars would dispute, and despite going into much careful circumstantial detail to support the case, the book is something of a sheep in wolf's clothing: a plodding and jobsworthy text presented as a subversive intellectual adventure. I suspect it will not be read very much, even if it finds a place on the display shelf in many departmental libraries. The whole exercise seems rather self-indulgent, an impression not entirely dispelled by the foreword,  wherein the author thanks those who provided grants to him to research his theme, to explore in great detail things that at the end of the day, seem to be trivia. He even remarks cosily on how the publisher owes him the next dinner....!

Nonetheless, and at the very least, if you want to know about
pictures of Descartes, this is the place to look. The colour plates in themselves are a justification for having the book to hand, (let alone the many black and white images including one of Descartes in a baseball cap) even if, the text never manages to create quite the detective story that made books like Wittgenstein's Poker or even Rousseau's Dog (both by John Eidenow and David Edmonds)  both readable and insightful.

Nadler offers optimistically just this, writing:

The true story behind Frans Hals' 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' small painting can provide entrée to the life and mind of the ambitious thinker it so effectively portrays..

The book's project is to say whether Frans Hals, the celebrated Dutch portrait artist behind 'The Laughing Cavalier', and many other iconic images, painted Descartes, perhaps in Haarlem province, on the eve of his ill-fated final trip to tutor the Queen of Sweden. Certainly, a few lines later on, (accompanied by a picture of Descartes wearing a cycling cap,) Nadler adds:

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.

That then is Nadler's project. But the portrait here is indeed better described as 'small' than it is by the word 'intimate'. Yes, we are shown that Descartes often complains - in the manner of the great philosophe he always sought to present himself as - that people, not least his 'friends and neighbours', constantly interrupt him, but  Nadler does not seem to know about (or if he does, he is not telling us)  the various controversies that might have made for a more interesting character study. Not here, the ridiculous Renatus Des Cartes, aptly summed up by Jonathan Rée, as a great pretender, let alone the rather sad, touching Descartes who supposedly carried a model of his lost and lamented daughter, Francine with him. (Descartes' personal life, and his affair with a servant woman, gets just a passing two or three line mention here.)

Instead it is a faithful paraphrase of Descartes' view of himself that we are given.

My reason for choosing to live elsewhere [in Holland rather than France] was that I had so many friends and relatives who I could not fail to entertain, and that I would have had little time and leisure available to pursue studies which I enjoy and which, according to many people, will contribute to the common good of the human race.

So uncritical is Steven Nadler that he readily takes Descartes' account of his own motives as unvarnished truth. He readily accepts, for instance, that Descartes' choice of an obscure house in an obscure Dutch province was because it was the 'ideal setting for a natural philosopher who was more intent on serious scientific work than on seeking a reputation and honors conferred by polite society'.

Of Amsterdam itself, Descartes writes:

Where else in the rest of the world could... all the commodities of life and all the curiosities that might be wished for be so easily found as here? In what other country might one enjoy so complete a liberty, or sleep with less disquiet, since there are armies on the march explicitly to safeguard us; or where else are poisons, betrayals, and calumnies less known, and can there still be found the remaining innocence of our ancestors.

Nadler notes that between 1600 and 1640 some one and half million, yes, million, new paintings came on the market in the Dutch province of Haarlem alone. There are at least five of Descartes, of which the earliest known image is an engraving by Frans van Schooten the Younger in 1644, which depicts an hirsute (hairy) Descartes looking very much like a Dutch aristocrat.

Descartes explains, in the Principles of Philosophy, that philosophy is 'like a tree' with metaphysics being the roots, physics being the main trunk, and 'all the other sciences' being the branches. These he adds can be reduced to just three: medicine, mechanics and morals.

Morals is a branch of physics? Truly the Cartesian philosophy seems to be,  as his accusers regularly said, reducing the world to a machine. In fact, the account of Descartes' brush with, if not exactly 'the law', but certainly the elders of the Utrecht city council, is an interesting aside in this respect. As Nadler says (twice) one of the strongest accusations against him was that his arguments for the existence of God were so weak that they must really have been sneaky ways of causing people to doubt the existence of God!

There is a long explanation of Descartes' idea that the existence of God necessarily implies the thought that God exists, and hence that God not actually existing is a logical contradiction. However, this argument is not original to Descartes, rather a variation on the old Ontological argument of Catholic orthodoxy (usually associated with Saint Anselm) and in a popular work like this, the reader might helpfully have been advised as such. Similarly, Nadler explains Descartes' cogito - I think therefore I am - could equally well be expressed  as 'if I am deceived, I am' - but without noting for the reader (as early on he promised he would explain Descartes to), that this was the formulation that Descartes would have been taught as a student in his Jesuit college in France.

At least, the critique is made that if Descartes  seeks to deduce the laws of nature necessarily from certain properties of God, then it would appear that God is indeed trapped within some kind of overarching logical framework, unable to do what He pleases anymore.

At the end of this painstaking survey of portrait-painting in seventeenth century Dutch Haarlem, we appear to have little to show in terms of insights into Descartes - either as a man or as a philosopher. Steven Nadler offers only this: that Descartes was 'a philosopher who believed that through his divinely guaranteed rational faculty he was able to discover nature's deepest secrets... and who derived, a priori, and simply from consideration of God's essence, the laws of nature themselves.'

Never mind what The Philosopher says -
Take me to the bookshop!
Reviewed by Martin Cohen