[Descartes] ne croioit pas qu'on dut s'etonner si fort de voit que les Poetes, meme ceux qui ne font que niaiser, fussent pleins de sentences plus graves, plus sensees, & mieux exprimees que celles qui se trouvent dans les ecrits des Philosophes. Il attribuoit cette merveille a la divinite de l'Enthousiasme, & a la force de l'Imagination.
- Adrien Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), paraphrasing Descartes's Olympica manuscript of 1619-20(1)
Methode ist Umweg.
- Walter Benjamin, "Epistemo-Critical Prologue," The Origin of German Tragic Drama(2)
Jacques Derrida begins a recent reflection upon Descartes's Discours de la methode by remarking upon the metaphor of the path, way, or road contained within the etymology of the word "method": "methodos, metahodos, c'est-a-dire 'suivant la route,' suivant le chemin, en suivant le chemin, en chemin." Implicit in this metaphor, as also in any concept of method, he finds a certain historicity: "There can be no method without, necessarily, an advance [cheminement] . . ., or proceeding [demarche]; . . . without a flow [cours], a sequel, a sequence: so many things that also form the structure of any history."(3) If method and history (including the sense of history as narrative) thus meet and overlap in the metaphor of the road or way - hodos in Greek, and in Latin via, iter - so too, Derrida suggests, they share a certain iterability. History, though it may be the domain of the singular event, is only constituted as history through iteration and reiteration. Method on the other hand, which consists precisely of the rules of transposition that ensure iterability and repetition, annuls a certain historicity of the singular event.
The relation between history and method is thus, he proposes, a paradoxical one, and this paradox is displayed in an especially provoking form in the singular historical event constituted by Descartes's autobiographical discourse on method, a story told in a historically determined language that at the same time sets out to provide the foundations for a rational and universally valid system of precepts, maxims and laws. Derrida finds that the etymology of the word "discourse" compounds the paradox. Discurrere, meaning to run about, to make an excursion, and to digress, later also came to signify following an itinerary in speech. Discursivity is thus in effect itinerant speech, and the notion of a discourse on method acquires an element of redundancy through the traces in both its terms of the same hodos, cursus, path, or itinerary.(4)
After commenting on Parmenides' Poem of the hodos as an inaugural discourse of the path that resists incorporation either into a Platonic reflection on method or an Aristotelian system of rhetoric and on Heidegger's view of the Wegcharakter des Denkens as a second instance of a discursive itinerary that exceeds the delimitations of direction, rules, or method, Derrida concludes by remarking on the doubleness, the duplicity of methodos and its cognates in Greek (in some contexts the word means artifice, fraud, or perversion - voie detournee, meta hodos) and by observing how insistently roads and paths - "diverses voies," "le droit chemin" - recur in Descartes's Discourse on Method.(5)
Given Derrida's insistent blurring in this essay of method and history, of rationality and rhetorical sequentiality; given also his express dissatisfaction with Heidegger's attempts to ascribe to "the Cartesian moment" the origins of an "ideology of method",(6) it may seem surprising that he does not take this occasion to reinsert the Cartesian discourse on method into history, to recognize it as a redirection and extension of discursive itineraries that had perhaps been well-traveled by Descartes's immediate predecessors.
Rather than reproaching him for this omission, I would like here to explore a small stretch of this "road not taken." I will not be concerned with what is, for rhetoricians at least, the most familiar immediately pre-Cartesian "method," the dichotomizing dialectic of Peter Ramus and its anticipations in such earlier writers as Rudolf Agricola and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples.(7) Descartes was conspicuously not interested in static, spatial schemata of this kind, preferring instead to elaborate a method that, though aimed at the discovery of operative eternal truths, was itself conceived of in temporal terms, as a discursive path, a narrative. Nor do I intend to comment on Descartes's indebtedness to another more obviously scientific method, the metodo risolutivo and metodo compositivo developed by Galileo out of the analytic and synthetic logic of Giacomo Zabarella and the other Paduan Aristotelians.(8)
My own method in this essay, following the dictum of Walter Benjamin, will at times be deliberately digressive. However, my deviations from some of the standard paths of critical exegesis are undertaken with the aim of bringing to light certain continuities between Descartes's own narratives and earlier discursive paths. I want to argue that two of these, Renaissance hermetism and its near-opposite, Calvinist theology, are of large (and largely unrecognized) importance in Descartes's development of his own distinctive path.
Etienne Gilson's demonstration that Descartes's philosophical vocabulary is affiliated with the scholastic traditions of the via antiqua and the via moderna has not prevented more recent commentators from continuing to understand Descartes as the fons et origo of a specifically modern mode of philosophizing. My intention here is less to disrupt than to complicate this perception. I do not wish to challenge Descartes's originality, much less to suggest that he was passively "influenced" by two currents of sixteenth-century thought that, though both obsessively concerned with a recovery of origins, differ from one another in doctrinal terms as much as from his own project of returning to first principles. I am interested rather in considering the possibility that Descartes's originary rationalism may have been marked, in no merely superficial manner, by tendencies of a quite different order that were implicated in its primal gestures of constitution and exclusion.
Descartes was, if anything, reacting against Renaissance modes of speculation (in this sense he belongs to what has been called the "anti-Renaissance"). However, he was also reusing them, though very selectively. His path remains by this analysis original; but it seems to have begun in a characteristically Renaissance manner with a return ad fontes - in one case to Hermetic sources that owed their prestige to the belief that they antedated the Greek philosophers and were as ancient as any of the Hebrew scriptures, and in another to theological writings that in their analytical and exegetical rigor were professedly a return to the uncorrupted teachings of the early Church.
Where better to begin than with the first appearance in Descartes's writings of the path, the hodos or iter that so interests Jacques Derrida? The text in question, a mere jotting preserved in the notes that Leibniz made in 1676 from Descartes's manuscript remains, could hardly be simpler: "Somnium 1619 nov., in quo carmen 7 cujus initium: Quod vitae sectabor iter?... Auson[ius]" ("The dream of November 1619, and in it the seventh poem of Ausonius which begins: 'What path in life shall I follow?'").(9)
Though simple, this jotting is of enormous import, for according to Descartes's first biographer, Adrien Baillet, the dream (or rather dreams) referred to here coincided with what Descartes himself in his Discourse on Method said was the first enunciation of his philosophical method, and hence the starting point of his path as an independent thinker. But this brief text is at the same time elusive. Henri Gouhier took it to represent an inaugural moment the moment at which, having woken from his dreams, the young Descartes began the process of retrospectively reconstructing them as a legitimation of his philosophical project.(10) However, it seems no less probable that these words are Leibniz's rather than Descartes's, that they amount to a reading note rather than a transcription from that "petit registre en parchemin" that was found among Descartes's papers after his death and at some time in the eighteenth century was lost or destroyed. But whatever the authorship of this text, another sentence of Leibniz's this time definitely in his own words confirms Baillet's view of the importance of the dream or dreams: "Descartes for a long time devoted himself to studies at the Jesuit college of La Fleche, and as a young man formed the plan of emending philosophy after some dreams, and long meditation on that passage of Ausonius: 'What path in life shall I follow?'"(11) Moreover, Descartes's own account of this episode is preserved, though in distorted form, in Baillet's paraphrase of his lost Olympica manuscript.
In what sense, then, is it significant that the question remembered in these brief annotations "Quod vitae sectabor iter?" and remembered, it would seem, as a metonymy for the whole of Descartes's annunciatory experience of the night of 10-11 November 1619 came to him not as part of a methodical sequence of thought, but in a dream-revelation, one that he received (to cite his own words quoted by Baillet) "cum plenus forem Enthousiasmo" in a state of divine exaltation, inspiration, or possession?(12) And what should we make of the fact that the choice of paths presented itself, at the moment that Descartes then and subsequently understood as the inauguration of his own hodos and his own method, in the form of a citation from the poet Ausonius and thus as something already iterated and reiterated?
Let us consider these dreams. Adrien Baillet's Vie de Monsieur DesCartes (1691), which paraphrases extensively from the manuscripts to which the biographer had access, reveals that Descartes's philosophizing in his famous "poele" in the winter of 1619 was, initially at least, a different process from that orderly sequence of thoughts recounted in the Discourse on Method. This process appears to have culminated in three dreams on the night of 10 November 1619, in the course of which Descartes was crippled by ghosts, whirled about by a sudden wind, pushed by an evil spirit this same wind toward (of all places) a church, advised that an unnamed person wished to give him a melon, frightened by thunder, and finally engaged by another unknown person in conversation over a dictionary, which signified "nothing other than all the sciences brought together," and an anthology of Latin verse, by which Descartes understood "Philosophy and Wisdom joined together."(13)
For what it may be worth, we have Descartes's word that his meditations in 1619 were bound up with an exercise of deliberate doubt. In part two of the Discourse he says of this aspect of his meditations in the "poele" that "as regards all the opinions which up to this time I had embraced, I thought I could not do better than endeavour once and for all to sweep them completely away, so that they might later on be replaced, either by others which were better, or by the same, when I had made them conform to the uniformity of a rational scheme."(14) If Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes can be trusted, this was a painful experience: "He had no less to suffer than if it had been a matter of stripping away his very self." And according to Baillet, this self-imposed torment, this attempt to represent his mind to himself "entirely naked," led directly to the night of dreams. Descartes's efforts "threw his mind into violent agitation.... He tired it to such a degree that his brain became overheated, and he fell into a kind of enthusiasm that so worked upon his already exhausted mind that he prepared it to receive the impressions of dreams and visions."(15) The dreams thus seem not to have been an accidental by-product of this process, but rather its desired consummation. Indeed, Baillet attributes to Descartes's Olympica manuscript the statements "that the genius that excited in him the enthusiasm by which he had felt his brain heated for some days had predicted these dreams to him before he went to bed, and that the human mind had no part in them."(16)
What path can be traced in these dreams? In the first of them, Descartes was terrified by the apparition of "quelques fantomes," and thinking he was walking in the streets, he felt himself to be struck by such a weakness on his right side that he could not maintain himself upright and had to "lean to his left side in order to be able to get to the place where he wanted to go." Ashamed of this posture, he tried to straighten himself, but a sudden swirling gust of wind spun him around three or four times on his left foot. Hardly able to stand, he noticed a school in front of him one is reminded of the Jesuit college of La Fleche where he was educated and entered it "to find a refuge, and a remedy for his disorder"; he hoped to reach the school church and to pray there.(17)
The structure of the dream seems clear up to this point. It is the right side of Descartes's body image that is struck with weakness. If one can apply to the imagery of this dream some of the conventional associations of "left" and "right," then the phantoms, the sinister wind, and the weakness of Descartes's right side would together represent opposition, both internal and "demonic," to his conscious project of ridding himself of his former opinions, of stripping his mind naked. The most conspicuous clothing of the mind (to fill out the Neoplatonic metaphor) is the body; one might say that through the humiliating terrors of this dream the demonic body is fighting back. And in so doing it deflects the dreamer from his initial path, meta hodos: almost from the first moment of his dream, then, he is following a "voie detournee."
Having decided to enter the church, the dreaming Descartes would seem, rather curiously, to have begun to find reasons for not doing so. Realizing that he had passed a man whom he knew without saluting him, he attempted to turn back but was violently rebuffed by the wind. At the same time, though, he noticed another person who called him politely by name and informed him that a certain gentleman had something to give him the famous melon. As a group of other people formed around him, Descartes, still hunched over, observed that they stood upright and firm on their feet, and also that the wind was greatly diminished in force. At this point he awoke - without having entered the church, one may remark.
The path marked out by this first dream is a paradoxical one. Descartes at its beginning had a goal, "the place where he wanted to go"; but crippled by the ghosts and spun about by the wind, he directed his steps instead to a church as a place of refuge, only to find that the wind which had previously obstructed him was now pushing him in that direction while at the same time blowing against the church ("le vent . . . souffloit contre l'Eglise"). What seems really to have frightened Descartes - Baillet's wording is unfortunately imprecise at this point(18) - was not so much his own disability, or the humiliation of being spun around like a top, as the discovery that the wind that had attacked him was furthering his decision to seek refuge in a church. His own pious will was suddenly revealed to be in accord with the demonic force oppressing him. One could hardly ask for a clearer dream image of psychic overdetermination. The issue raised is that of autonomy or free will: if Descartes wills what the wind wills, then what is his will - or, more precisely, whose is it? The young Descartes has no answer to this question. As he wrote in what Henri Gouhier believes to have been part of the Olympica manuscript, "God made three marvels: things from nothing, free will, and the Man-God."(19)
Descartes's own interpretations of this first dream only heighten the sense of paradox. On waking, "he felt a real pain, which made him fear that this might have been the work of some evil genius who wished to seduce him.... He prayed to God asking to be guarded from the evil effect of his dream." But the process of interpretation that continued after he awoke from his third and last dream complicated this identification of the power at work in the first one. According to Baillet's paraphrase, "The wind that pushed him toward the college church when his right side was weakened was none other than the evil genius that was trying to throw him by force into a place where he was planning to go voluntarily." In the margin Baillet quotes Descartes's own words: "A malo Spiritu ad Templum propellebar." He continues: "This is why God did not permit him to advance further and let himself be carried, even into a holy place, by a spirit whom He had not sent although Descartes was convinced that it had been the Spirit of God who had made him take his first steps towards this church."(20)
The dreamer's behavior is thus in retrospect doubly overdetermined, first by the demonic forces represented in the dream and then simultaneously by the God whom his interpretation inscribes in it as the initial prompter and final preventer of his movement towards the church, and thus as the unseen author of what had seemed to be Descartes's own actions. One is left with a disturbing overlap between the (presumably good) genius who excited Descartes's state of enthusiasm and predicted his dreams to him, the evil spirit or evil genius who in the first of those dreams attempted to push him into a church, and the God whom his interpretation summoned up to dispose of this paradox.
Baillet tells us that after dreaming his first dream, Descartes meditated for some two hours. He then fell asleep again, but was awakened at once by a sound like a clap of thunder, "and opening his eyes, he saw many sparks of fire scattered about the room." This second dream, which he initially found as terrifying as the first, he later understood to be "the signal of the Spirit of Truth that descended on him to possess him"; the terror it inspired was "the remorse of his conscience over the sins he might have committed in the course of his life till then."(21)
The third dream, while lacking the narrative shape of the first, condenses its vivid imagery into a textual metonymy and supplements this with what is quite clearly a response to the project of Descartes's waking mind. In this dream, which he took to signify his future, Descartes found two books upon his table, a dictionary and an anthology of Latin poetry. It was in the latter of these that he found the poem of Ausonius beginning with the words "Quod vitae sectabor iter?" that he appears later to have remembered as a metonymy for the whole dream experience. Before he awoke, Descartes understood the dictionary to mean "nothing other than all the sciences brought together," while the anthology "indicated in particular, and in a distinct manner, Philosophy and Wisdom joined together"; upon waking, …