The Magic of Numbers and Motion: The Scientific Career of René Descartes

William R. Shea. The Magic of Numbers and Motion: The Scientific Career of Rene Descartes. Watson. 1993. 416pp.


After his untimely death in Stockholm on 11 February 1650, Descartes’ private papers were handed over to the French ambassador, Pierre Chanut, who shipped them to his brother-in-law, Claude Clerselier, in France.  The cargo reached Rouen safely and was loaded on a boat that went up the Seine.  On the outskirts of Paris, the boat sank, and the chest containing Descartes’ manuscripts spent three days and three nights on the waters before Clerselier was able to rescue them.  With the aid of his servants (who knew little and cared less about Cartesian natural philosophy), he spread out the sheets in various rooms to dry. Over the next seventeen years, Clerselier was to patiently order the faded pages and publish three volumes of Descartes’ correspondence as well as his Treatise on Man, The World, and the Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus.

Clerselier is usually thought to have been reasonable successful in his reconstruction of Descartes’ dismembered papers, but I cannot help seeing in his labors a symbol of the difficulty of fitting together the various parts of Descartes’ varied activity as a philosopher, mathematician, theologian, and natural scientist.  There is always the danger that the fit may be more apparent than real.  Descartes himself tried to hide the seams in a garment of knowledge that he would have liked us to believe to be all of one piece.