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review 2017-03-06 15:48
A footnote to Descartes’s biography finds her voice
The Words in My Hand - Guinevere Glasfurd,Two Roads

Thanks to Net Galley and to John Murray Press Two Roads for offering me a free ARC of this novel that I voluntarily review.

This novel, that could be classed as historical fiction, tells the (at least in part imagined) story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid who was serving at a house where René Descartes stayed in Amsterdam, and who bore him a daughter. In the author’s note, at the end of the book, Glasfurd explains in detail the true facts known about Helena (she existed and indeed bore Descartes a girl, Francine, and she got married later and had a boy), shares her sources and her intention when writing the book.

The story, narrated in the first person from Helena’s point of view, is beautifully written. We get a clear sense of the historical period, of Holland at the time, especially what it would be like for a young girl of a poor family, who is sent to the capital as she needs to make a living for herself. She is presented as a curious girl, who’s taken an interest in reading and writing, practically teaching herself to do it, and how she ends up as a maid at a bookseller’s home. She’s fascinated by paper (a very expensive and luxurious commodity at the time), ink, by books and maps. She’s only ever traced the outline of the letters on her own hand (therefore the title: The Words in My Hand) but eventually, after experimenting on making her own ink using beetroot, she does learn to write using a quill and proper ink. She also teaches another servant girl how to write, broadening her horizons and giving her a better chance in life.

Coming into contact with Descartes, the Monsieur (as she calls him all through the book, because there is always a certain distance between them), revolutionises her world, not only because of the relationship with him (she’s very young at the time, and he’s many years her senior, so one wonders what that would be considered nowadays) but because of the way he examines and sees the world. The author uses their conversations and Helena’s curiosity, as ways to expose some of Descartes ideas, exemplifying them in lyrical and at the same time understandable ways. Swallows, eels’ hearts, the refraction of light, a flame, snowflakes, anything and everything catches Descartes attention and he feels the need to study it and explain it.

Helena is a complex character. She’s presented as a young woman living through difficult circumstances who tries to live her own life and make her way, rather than just depend on the generosity of a man she doesn’t fully understand (and who perhaps didn’t understand himself that well, either). But she’s not a modern heroine, doing things that would have been impossible during that historical period. Whilst she is shown as curious, skilled, and determined, she is hindered by gender and class (publishing books, even something as simple as an illustrated alphabet for children is not possible for a woman), and also by her personal feelings. She suffers for her mistakes and she lives a limited existence at times, being subject to insult and abuse (as she would have likely been given her circumstances). Despite all that, Glasfurd presents Helen as an artist, a woman who can describe, draw and appreciate things around her, who wants to ensure her daughter gets an education, and who loves Descartes (however difficult that might be at times).

I’ve read a few books recently that try to recover female figures that might have been the great women behind great men but have been ignored or obscured by official history. In some cases, the authors seem to be at pains to paint a negative picture of the man in question. This is not the case here. We only see Descartes through Helena’s eyes (also through some overheard comments and conversations he has with others and through some of his letters) and at times his actions are difficult to understand, but within his constraints he is portrayed as a man of contradictions but with a good heart, who cared for those around him but was, perhaps, more interested in his studies and science than in everyday matters and the life of those closest to him. He is weary of the consequences and risks of publicly exposing his relationship with Helena and his daughter but does not abandon them either. He is a man who struggles and cannot easily fit in the society of his time.

A beautifully observed and written book, about the love of science, writing, nature, and the human side of a historical figure that remains fascinating to this day. This fictionalisation provides a good introduction to some of Descartes ideas and is a great way of remembering another woman whose place in history has only been a footnote until now. A great read especially recommended to those who love historical fiction and who are intrigued by Descartes and XVII century Holland.

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text 2015-05-15 03:55
Philosophy & Political Theory Book Haul
Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy - René Descartes
On War - Carl von Clausewitz
The Leviathan - Thomas Hobbes
Rousseau's Political Writings: Discourse on Inequality, Discourse on Political Economy, On Social Contract (Norton Critical Editions) - Jean-Jacques Rousseau,Alan Ritter,Julia C. Bondanella
A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise - Baruch Spinoza,Francesco Cordasco,R. H. M. Elwes
On Liberty and Other Essays - John Stuart Mill,John Nicholas Gray
Two Treatises of Government - John Locke

In April and early this month, I started adding to my collection of philosophy and political theory (aka political science) books.  


Rene Descartes

--Discourse on Method

--Meditations on First Philosophy


Carl Von Clausewitz

--On War


Thomas Hobbes

--The Leviathan


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

--Discourse on Inequality

--Discourse on Political Economy

--On Social Contract


Benedict de Spinoza

--A Theologico-Political Treatise

--A Political Treatise


John Stuart Mill

--On Liberty


--Considerations on Representative Government

--The Subjection of Women


John Locke

--Two Treatises of Government


I already have Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, The Federalist by Hamilton, Madison, & Jay, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels; however I am open to suggestions that anyone has to add to my collection.

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review 2015-04-13 00:00
Discourse on Method and Related Writings
Discourse on Method and Related Writings - René Descartes,Desmond M. Clarke Acknowledgements
Note on References to Descartes
Further Reading

Note on the Text and Translation
--Discourse on the Method for Guiding One's Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences

--Selected Correspondence, 1636-9

Note on the Text
--The World, or a Treatise on Light and the Other Principal Objects of the Senses (Chapters 1-7)

Note on the Text
--Rules for Guiding One's Intelligence in Searching for the Truth

Text Notes
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review 2015-02-20 00:00
Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings
Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings - René Descartes,Desmond M. Clarke The Penguin Descartes
Note to Corrected Edition
Note on References to Descartes
Introduction & Notes
Further Reading

Meditations on First Philosophy
Note on the Text and Translation
--Letter of Dedication to the Sorbonne
--Preface to the Reader
--Summary of the Following Six Meditations
--Objections and Replies (Selections)

The Principles of Philosophy
Note on the Text
--Letter to Princess Elizabeth
--Part One: The Principles of Human Knowledge

Note on the Text
--Descartes' Correspondence: Selections, 1643-9

Note on the Text
--Comments on a Certain Manifesto


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review 2014-11-07 00:00
The Philosophy Of Rene Descartes
The Philosophy Of Rene Descartes - Leo C... The Philosophy Of Rene Descartes - Leo C. Daley I can't say I understood 100% of this book: it's not an introductory book and it needs some fundamental concepts to be known. After introduction and a short biography, three chapters are about three of most important books of René Descartes: [b:Discourse on Method|159418|Discourse on Method|René Descartes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1405624619s/159418.jpg|17612730], [b:Meditations on First Philosophy|30658|Meditations on First Philosophy|René Descartes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1405624521s/30658.jpg|6299110] and [b:Principles of Philosophy|1165783|Elementary Principles of Philosophy (New World Paperbacks)|Georges Politzer|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1238027316s/1165783.jpg|1153468]. Each chapter consists of a summary of the book and then the author's explanation. The last chapter is some Q&A about Descartes' philosophy and also its relation and impression on philosophers who came after him.

The first thing about René Descartes philosophy is that he's a skeptic and rationalist who doubts about everything and the existence of himself first. He rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

Perhaps one of his most famous quotes which I think everybody heard of it, is: Cogito ergo sum or I think therefore I am. What we might learn from this sentence by a deductive reasoning is:

1. I think;
2. Whoever who thinks, exists;
3. so I exist.

The problem here is the word "therefore" which leads us to this conclusion, which is not a rational reasoning: for proving that one exists one considers an "I" which exists first! What truly René Descartes means by this sentence is in fact: I think; I exist; my thinking depends on my existence.

Although he is a skeptic, surprisingly he doesn't doubt about existence of God! He prefers to not to have any doubt and just prove it (remember: he lives in the century of Galileo Galilei!). And in proving, he says: I can imagine a perfect God, the concept of perfection needs existence, if something doesn't exist we cannot call it "perfect"—so God exists!

Doesn't it sound like just playing with words and how can we imagine a perfect God in our limited minds?!!
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