Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Steven Nadler's "The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter"

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. His books include Rembrandt's Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award; The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil, and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes, and reported the following:
The book is a study of Descartes, but (I admit) a rather eccentric one. It takes as its starting (and ending) point a portrait of Descartes painted by a great Dutch master and uses questions about the biographical and historical context of this painting as a frame for looking into Descartes's life and thought. The "philosopher" of the title is, of course, Descartes; the painter is Frans Hals, arguably the greatest portrait painter of his time; and the "priest" is Augustijn Bloemaert, a friend of Descartes's living in Haarlem who reportedly wanted a keepsake by which to remember the philosopher when the latter left for Sweden in 1649. The book looks at Descartes's life in seventeenth-century Holland and the political and religious turmoil of those decades (ca. 1620s to 1650); it also offers, for the general reader, an accessible overview of Descartes's philosophical and scientific ideas. This book thus brings together philosophy, art history, and religious and political history to create what I hope is a rich portrait of the "father of modern philosophy" and his times.

What the reader will find on p. 99 is Descartes at the beginning of his philosophical project of trying to determine if and how true knowledge is possible. At this point, he is considering, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, what he really knows for certain, and therefore is seeing how far he can take skepticism before he hits upon an indubitable certainty -- which he will, with "I am, I exist" (or, "I think, therefore I am").
Learn more about the book and author at Steven Nadler's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Best of All Possible Worlds.

The Page 99 Test: A Book Forged in Hell.

Writers Read: Steven Nadler.

--Marshal Zeringue