Descartes’ Flies


There are a healthy number of legends about René Descartes. Some of them may be true. I know the one I like is the story that this superlative mathematician, philosopher, and theologian (fields not so sharply differentiated in his time as they are today; for that matter, fields still not perfectly sharply differentiated) was so insistent on sleeping late and sufficiently ingenious in forming arguments that while a student at the Jesuit Collè Royal Henry-Le-Grand he convinced his schoolmasters to let him sleep until 11 am. Supposedly he kept to this rather civilized rising hour until he last months of his life, when he needed to tutor Queen Christina of Sweden in the earliest hours of the winter morning.

I suppose this may be true; it’s certainly repeated often enough, and comes to mind often when I do have to wake to the alarm clock. I haven’t studied Descartes’ biography well enough to know whether to believe it, although as it makes for a charming and humanizing touch probably the whole idea is bunk and we’re fools to believe it. I’m comfortable being a little foolish. (I’ve read just the one book which might be described as even loosely biographic of Descartes — Russell Shorto’s Descartes’ Bones — and so, though I have no particular reason to doubt Shorto’s research and no question with his narrative style, suppose I am marginally worse-informed than if I were completely ignorant. It takes a cluster of books on a subject to know it.)

Place the name “Descartes” into the conversation and a few things pop immediately into mind. Those things are mostly “I think, therefore I am”, and some attempts to compose a joke about being “before the horse”. Running up sometime after that is something called “Cartesian coordinates”, which are about the most famous kind of coordinates and the easiest way to get into the problem of describing just where something is in two- or three-dimensional space.

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