The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter by Stephen Nadler: Descartes goes Dutch

An admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, but one which gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.

The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter
Stephen Nadler
Princeton University Press, 254pp, £19.95

In 1616, a young French nobleman named René Descartes, deeply dissatisfied with the methods offered to him by his teachers, determined to abandon further academic study. Although he had proved himself a brilliant student, he would now seek truth not in books but in the world and in himself.

His first steps into the world were as a soldier serving in the modern bureaucratic armies of the Thirty Years War. On the night of 10 November 1619, while stationed outside Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes climbed into a large stove to keep himself warm. The experience of that night is perhaps best understood as a mystical experience in which he was granted a vision of certainty. This vision was, paradoxically, a method of doubt. By doubting all the evidence of his senses, the only certainty that remained was the reality of his thinking self. And it was on the basis of this reality that he would elaborate a method with which to investigate all of knowledge.

Descartes continued his search for truth; he took a long trip to Italy, before he made the decision that, his method perfected, he would settle down to work through the entire range of human inquiry, from mathematics to biology. He chose not to live in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe, as he thought his time would have been devoured by friends and relatives. Instead, he went to the Low Countries, where he could pursue his research uninterrupted by social intrusion.

Steven Nadler’s new book examines Descartes’s life in the Netherlands by tracing the history of the portrait of Descartes by Frans Hals. The painting has become our received image of the philosopher, decorating the frontispiece of countless editions of his work. The method of Nadler’s book is new historicist: attention to a fragment of the historical record – in this case, a painting – reveals a web of connections that freshly illuminate a period and an author. Nadler paints a compelling picture of Descartes’s life in the village of Egmond, northern Holland, and makes it clear that Descartes’s life was not as isolated as he represented it. He had a small circle of friends who met in the nearby town of Haarlem – educated men alive to the most modern intellectual debates. At the centre of Nadler’s story is Descartes’s closest friend in this period, the priest Augustijn Bloemaert. It is he who commissions Hals’s portrait when Descartes is to leave the Netherlands for the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, where he later dies of cold.

Nadler’s book contains fascinating information but the parts never become a whole. The exposition of Descartes’s philosophy is competent but unconnected either to the general history of the multi-faith Netherlands or to the explosion of portraiture of which Hals’s painting is one example.

Descartes’s epiphany in his stove is one of the founding moments of modern western subjectivity but it poses a host of problems that Nadler never considers. The emphasis on the individual self might seem to align Descartes more closely with Protestant than Catholic thought but as the record seems to attest – and Nadler would appear to confirm – Descartes remained a faithful son of the Roman Church. The Netherlands in the 17th century was characterised by complicated relations between Catholics and Protestants, having a dominant Calvinist faith but a tolerated Catholic Church. Nadler sketches these relations well but doesn’t interrogate Descartes’s beliefs. Even more strangely, he does not investigate the conflict between portraiture’s embodiment of a self and the completely disembodied Cartesian self.

The oddness of Descartes’s philosophy is perhaps best brought out by contrasting it with another experience of enlightenment. When, 2,000 years earlier, the young Nepalese prince Siddhartha, better known as the Buddha, used the shade of a Bodhi tree, as Descartes used the heat of his oven, to reflect on the ultimate nature of knowledge and existence, one of the first certainties to dissolve was the self, which for Descartes remained immune from all doubt.

Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision. Reading it one has the sensation of reading preparatory notes for a book yet to be written.

A portrait of Descartes, after Hals's lost painting. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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