The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century

By Keefer, Michael H. | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century


Keefer, Michael H., Renaissance Quarterly


[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.

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