S. V. Keeling. Descartes. Ernest Benn. 1934. 282pp.


A great philosophy must first and chiefly be sought in the philosopher’s writings, not in those of another. So of all things I hope least that this book may prove a safe substitute for a first-hand study of Descartes’s own works. What seemed to me my proper business was not merely to assemble into one connected story doctrines that Descartes elaborated piecemeal in various contexts, but rather to interpret those doctrines through conceptions and in language more readily understood to-day, and to notice the position certain of his special problems assume in contemporary thought. To present Cartesianism as a philosophy in parts defensible and constructively important as well as in parts indefensible but important in its very errors naturally impelled me to emphasise its internal connexions, and to pay more attention to the dependencies, actual or assumed, between its parts. No attempt has been made to elucidate the antecedent forms of its central and characteristic conceptions or to reinstate Cartesianism in the philosophical milieu in which it developed. This has been the special and magnificent contribution of that prince among Cartesian scholars, Professor Etienne Gilson of the Sorbonne. How often I have depended on the results of his fine scholarship will be evident from the frequency of my references to his writings; how great is the debt I owe to them no one can realise more fully than myself.

My aim in the opening chapter is to create an impression of the cast of mind it was that produced one of the most influential philosophies of modern Europe, and only in a secondary way to chronicle the incidents of Descartes’s private life. In Part II attention is confined to positive exegesis, and (except in Ch. VI) I refrain from critical commentary in the belief that what is essential in Cartesianism will stand out more forcibly if the continuity of my presentation is kept unbroken. In Part III my principal object is to suggest the character of Descartes’s immediate influence by connecting the theories of the chief Cartesians as directly as possible with the theme of substance and causality in Cartesianism. Had more space been available I should have gladly entered fully into the contributions of these unduly neglected thinkers. And in the last two chapters, while attempting a general estimate, I felt free to correct certain unfounded objections often preferred against Descartes, to advance certain criticisms that I consider justified, and to indicate broadly what I take to be the chief claims Cartesianism makes on the interest of philosophical students for all time. An elaborate discussion of the points raised in these last chapters and a full defence of my criticisms there would have been out of place. These I intend to present in a volume of Cartesian studies now in preparation.