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History in Review

Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius

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Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius
By A. C. Grayling
Walker & Company, 2005, 301 pages
ISBN 10: 0-8027-1501-X
ISBN 13: 978-0-8027-1501-2

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 8, 2010

Grayling's history of the life, time and thinking of one of the world's most famous philosophers is informative, interesting and enlightening.

The French philosopher René Descartes (15961650) is called the "father of modern philosophy" because he "played a key role in helping to rescue enquiry about sublunary things [earthy matters] from the stifling and long-frozen grip of religious authority." He taught that people have a duty to think and that this duty can only be fulfilled if they discard the traditional religious notions and superstitions rampant among the masses.

Descartes' insistence on the acceptance of only verifiable concepts led him to develop his well-known idea that the basic provable reality is "I think, therefore I am." People, he said, can prove their existence, that they are alive, by the fact that they are thinking. This famous "proof" is widely recognized as clever, but it is also seen by many scholars to be over-rated, for it actually proves nothing: isn't it possible, they ask, that the person is not alive at all, but only dreaming that he is thinking?

This generally accepted portrayal of the philosopher that Descartes unfailingly adhered strictly to reason and avoided traditional views that could not be proven is untrue. Actually, despite his aversion to what he termed the "grip of religious authority," Descartes was unable to shake off the religious teachings of his youth and he remained a devout and observant Catholic all of his life, accepting improvable Roman Catholic beliefs and making them part of his philosophy.

After developing his idea that people should think, Descartes felt there was a problem, and in developing a solution to the problem he deviated markedly from his own rational methodology. He asked: couldn't people reason irresponsibly, without proper care, and do harm to themselves and society? As a result of these fears, he swerved 180 degrees in his thinking and argued in his later book Meditations that God is involved in human decisions and controls them, and His goodness guarantees that a person will always think correctly.

Curiously, despite his insistence on the acceptance of only provable ideas, Descartes also claimed that he could prove the existence of God. He made this statement because of his adherence to the Roman Catholic religion.

He put the traditional understandings of Roman Catholicism before everything, even teachings that were in no way related to religious practices. "This marked his commitment, to which he unwaveringly clung, never to stray from at least the appearance of orthodoxy."

But this was not all. Despite his insistence on not accepting as true an idea that is not verifiable, he firmly believed in the existence of a human soul that is totally distinct and separate from the body. This belief that a soul exists independent of the body was the second great legacy of Descartes to philosophy, after his problematical statement "I think, therefore I am." However, scientists who argue that thoughts, memories, and the like are connected to the body and cannot exist without the physical brain, consider this notion highly improbable. How, for example, can a person decide to walk two feet and then stop? How does the mental decision of the soul, which is separate from the body, cause his physical legs to move and then stop? Neither Descartes nor his followers were ever able to resolve this problem.

More significantly, we see here another example of the "father of modern philosophy," the man who "freed his generation from the slavery of misconceptions," failing again to follow his own "methods" and accept, instead, the improvable notion of Roman Catholicism.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.

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