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Descartes and the Labyrinth of the World

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In the Rules the young Descartes likens his method to the thread that guided Theseus. The simile is born of a confidence that he has seen through the art of the followers of Daedalus and this has given him a model of how to unriddle the labyrinth of the world. From the very beginning Descartes had an interest not only in optics, perspective, and painting, but in using his knowledge of them to duplicate some of the effects said to have been created by the thaumaturgic magicians. Anamorphoses and automata not only provided Descartes with examples of deceptive appearance, but also pointed the way to the solution of the riddle they posed. Yet it is precisely the attempt to take this exit from the labyrinth of the world that threatens to lead back into it, as the search for truth is threatened by the infinity of space. To claim absolute truth, the natural philosopher would have to show that the mechanical model he has proposed is the only one that could account for the phenomena in question. This, as Descartes himself is forced to recognize, he is unable to do. Are we back in the labyrinth? Instead of seeing in Descartes's method an Ariadne's thread, Father Bourdin likens that method to Icarus. Annoyed, Descartes ridicules the good Father. But Bourdin's too often empty rhetoric raises a serious question: is Descartes Theseus, Daedalus, or Icarus? At stake is our understanding of the world we live in.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 1998-10-01

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