Therefore I am

Richard Watson's new biography of René Descartes – inventor of analytic geometry and the man who "laid the foundation for the dominance of reason in science and human affairs" – is idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, highly personal, wildly opinionated, and generously informative. It offers as accessible and lively a discussion of Cartesian mind-body dualism as you are likely to find outside a classroom.

A professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, Watson has been on Descartes's trail for more than 50 years. He hiked through French fields to locate the ditch where Descartes is rumored to have been born in 1596; took up residence on the zeedijk in the Netherlands, where Descartes spent roughly a third of his 53 years; traversed a treacherous Alpine pass to follow the philosopher's route into Italy; visited Stockholm in bleak winter to see what it might have been like when his hero caught a fatal chill there in 1650; and held what was purported to be the great man's unusually small skull.

Watson relates his sometimes sensational and always colorful stories with the well-practiced élan of a teacher adept at keeping a roomful of distracted undergraduates rapt. His penchant for '60s language – "blew Descartes away. What neat stuff!" – and quirky, chatty commentary might irk some readers, but his combination of expertise and enthusiasm is winning. This biography is as fun and stimulating as it is unusual.

Yet as Watson points out, it is no hagiography. Never would he be accused of joining what he derisively refers to as the Saint Descartes Protection Society. Watson's intention is "a skeptical biography, as full of doubt about tradition and authority as was Descartes himself. It is the story of the man, not the monument." And, aside from a detailed explanation of Descartes's famous insight, "I think, therefore I am," "a statement nobody can doubt who thinks it" – it's not a technical analysis of his philosophy.

What we get is a portrait of a brilliant mathematician, a genius whose "Discourse on Method" and "Meditations on First Phi- losophy" have been continuously in print for more than 360 years and have changed the way we think about ourselves and the world. Yet Descartes's family of lawyers, judges, and doctors regarded him as a ne'er-do-well who lived off family money.

We learn that Descartes was only 5 foot 1 inch, wore a wig, slept in the nude, never married, and practiced vivisection on animals, which he considered soulless machines and therefore unworthy of sentiment. Descartes zealously protected the silence and solitude that enabled him to think in peace, yet was so restless and leery of the plague that he lived in at least 18 domiciles in 21 years.

"The man could not sit still," Watson marvels repeatedly, no doubt exhausted from dogging his path. He paints Descartes warts and all, "a proud, excitable, egotistic little man ... acid in his wit ... dogmatic about his own views."

Watson attempts to account for each of Descartes's nearly 54 years, the mature period of which "exactly corresponds with the Thirty Years' War." He is repeatedly stymied, however, by missing documents or dubious accounts. He attacks many of the stories promulgated in Adrien Baillet's 1691 biography, and is not shy about taking speculative leaps based on educated hunches. The result is a book filled with detailed disputations and opinions – both Descartes's and Watson's.

Did Descartes actually have the three famous dreams about which course in life he should pursue, or are they Baillet's fabrication? Watson distrusts them "almost totally, because I do not trust Baillet at all." Why did Descartes dedicate his books not once, but twice, to Protestant women when he was trying to gain favor with Jesuit priests? "The more I spell it out, the less I understand Descartes's behavior in the matter," Watson confides. Was Descartes's out-of-wedlock daughter, Francine, really conceived on his one slip from chastity, at 38? Watson comments, "Yes! I picture Helena as the prettiest, rosiest-cheeked, blondest, and bounciest Dutch maiden that ever milked a cow.... What this biographer wants is for Descartes, Helena, and Francine to have had a jolly time." This biographer clearly has, and readers will too.

• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York City.

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