This book reconstructs key aspects of the early career of Descartes from 1618 to 1633; that is, up through the point of his composing his first system of natural philosophy, Le Monde, in 1629-33. It focuses upon the overlapping and intertwined development of Descartes’ projects in physico-mathematics, analytical mathematics, universal method, and, finally, systematic corpuscular-mechanical natural philosophy. The concern is not simply with the conceptual and technical aspects of these projects; but, with Descartes’ agendas within them and his construction and presentation of his intellectual identity in relation to them.
Descartes’ technical projects, agendas and senses of identity shifted over time, entangled and displayed great successes and deep failures, as he morphed from a mathematically competent, Jesuit trained graduate in neo-Scholastic Aristotelianism to aspiring prophet of a systematised corpuscular-mechanism, passing through stages of being a committed physico-mathematicus, advocate of a putative ‘universal mathematics’, and projector of a grand methodological dream. In all three dimensions—projects, agendas and identity concerns—the young Descartes struggled and contended, with himself and with real or virtual peers and competitors, hence the title ‘Descartes-Agonistes’.
Ranging from alchemy to necromancy, "books of secrets" offered medieval readers an affordable and accessible collection of knowledge about the natural world. Allison Kavey's study traces the cultural relevance of these books and also charts their influence on the people who read them. Citing the importance of printers in choosing the books' contents, she points out how these books legitimized manipulating nature, thereby expanding cultural categories, such as masculinity, femininity, gentleman, lady, and midwife, to include the willful command of the natural world.