It’s a familiar fact of academic life that you can go to hear a talk with great expectations of something arresting from someone who you have read with admiration, and then be bored or even irritated by a banal recycling of half-baked ideas. Equally, you can dutifully turn out to a unpromising-seeming seminar, apparently remote from your interests, feeling for some reason that you really ought to be there — and you find yourself riveted and enthused.
So three cheers for Piers Bursill-Hall, who was talking at the clumsily named CUSPOMMS last Friday. “Descartes’s Earlier Epistemology in Natural Philosophy” wasn’t exactly a title to set me alight. In the event, his talk was wonderfully entertaining but also a highly illuminating lightening tour through ancient and Renaissance takes on the problem of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in its application to the material world, and Descartes’s attempt to resolve the problem without committing himself to the theologically dangerous idea of mathematics as a direct route to reading the mind of God. Enthusiasm is always engaging, and Piers has it in spades. (You can get a glimpse of his style here.)