Scott McLemee reviews
a book about a painting of Descartes.
At the start of a course of lectures on Aristotle in the 1920s, Martin Heidegger made a terse remark about the relevance of biography to the philosopher’s task when considering the work of a predecessor. “Regarding the personality of a philosopher,” he said, “our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died."
The rest is gossip – interesting, perhaps, but a diversion of no serious import. Heidegger’s statement expresses the attitude in its purest and most severe form, with a hint of disdain for the public outside the auditorium. Such was the default attitude for the German mandarin professor of the day. (Heidegger gave the lecture far too early for us to assume any taint of rationalization by someone who joined the Nazis in 1933 and held a membership card for a dozen years.)
What would he have made of Steven Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes? It is, in effect, the biography of a painting. It does not grapple with René Descartes’s role in the history of Being. It tells us how we know what the philosopher looked like. One imagines Heidegger holding the book up to show his students, then throwing it out the window.