Rethinking Descartes

Think Again – What Did Descartes Really Know? by Anthony Gottlieb (New Yorker 20 Nov 2006) is one of those essays that the New Yorker occasionally publishes under the guise of a book review. The two books ostensibly being reviewed, Desmond Clarke’s “Descartes: A Biography” and A.C. Graylilng’s “Descartes: The Life And Times Of A Genius,” are not named before Gottlieb has completed a full, three-column page of exposition and, with a bit of reformatting of the article, could accurately be characterized as references rather than the alleged focus of the piece.1 Not that I’m complaining.

In any case, the description of Descartes’s personality and life is intriguing. For example,


It isn’t easy to see Descartes’s work the way he saw it—the relationship between science and philosophy has changed too much for that. Despite his current reputation, the man himself seems to have been less interested in metaphysics than in applying algebra to geometry and delving into the innards of cows. He turned to philosophy relatively late in life, and out of fear that the Catholic Church would condemn his science. He would have been surprised at how he is remembered. Most of all, he would have been aghast at the way in which “I think, therefore I am” has been ripped from its context, inflated into a one-sentence summary of his ideas, and turned into something absurd.

As for the “I think, therefore I am” bumper-sticker summarization of Descartes’s philosophy, it seems to have been little more than a throwaway line, published in his “Discourse,” which itself was “merely as a preface to a collection of treatises on optics, meteorology, and geometry.”

In his “Discourse on Method,” which is presented as an intellectual autobiography, Descartes recounts how he aimed to rebuild human knowledge on the firmest foundation. As a first step, to purge himself of error, he tried to cast doubt on as much as possible of what he thought he knew. So he pretended for the sake of argument, as he later put it in his “Meditations on First Philosophy” (1641), that “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.” Since he could not, at this stage of his inquiries, rule out the existence of such a demon, Descartes reasoned that it was possible to doubt all the evidence of his senses. What he thought he saw, heard, and felt might be a dream somehow procured by the evil deceiver. But then, he says, he realized that there was at least one thing that he could not be wrong about; namely, the proposition that he himself existed. The very act of doubting, of wondering where he might have gone astray, showed that he did exist.

This is an entertaining, instructive read.

Note: Originally posted Dec 9, 2006 at, a predecessor of


  1. This use of a book review as an excuse for publishing the pseudo-reviewer’s own views, by the way, is hardly unique to the New Yorker. Heck, The New York Review of Books (which admits to being, in its self-depiction, “The premier literary-intellectual magazine in English language”) fully consists of such articles, the content of each comprises the writer’s own discourses on some subject connected, often by a perilously tenuous and tangential association, with the book being reviewed (90%) and diatribes commending the book’s author as a genius (i.e., being in agreement with the writer of the review) or condemning the book’s author as a fool or a charlatan (i.e., being in disagreement with the writer of the review) (10%) []

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