Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

An Exemplary Life: The Case of Rene Descartes

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

An Exemplary Life: The Case of Rene Descartes

Article excerpt

I

IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT Rene Descartes is the founder of modern philosophy. (1) There is far less consensus on the question of what his modernity means. The majority of Descartes's readers have focused on the cogito, the "I think" that is the fons et origo of all knowledge. The method of doubt and the famous rules of evidence have played a crucial role in the formation of a distinctively modern search for foundations of truth. (2) Political theorists have frequently treated Descartes as the harbinger of a new age, but there is widespread disagreement over precisely what this means. Tocqueville regarded the Cartesian method as ideally suited to the new democratic age. "The philosophical method established by Descartes," he wrote, "is not only French but democratic, which explains why it was so easily accepted in all of Europe, whose face it has contributed so much to changing." (3) For Michael Oakeshott, Descartes, along with Bacon, created a new aggressive form of rationalism summarized in his expression "the sovereignty of technique." (4) For Sheldon Wolin, Descartes inaugurated a new form of "methodism" in the study of politics that became the forerunner of modern behavioral social science. (5) More recently, feminist theorists have chastised Cartesian epistemology with its mind-body distinction for contributing to the myth of the "Man of Reason." (6)

Even more prominently, Descartes has become the universal whipping boy for postmodernists who regard his thought as being at the core of two distinctively modern pathologies: subjectivity and aggressiveness. The Cartesian paradigm of the solitary thinker, it is alleged, was said to make the monadic subject the sole basis for truth. Likewise, it was the very rootlessness of the Cartesian subject, unmoored from the restraining bonds of tradition, custom, and history, that has authorized a domineering and controlling posture toward nature and the environment. According to no less an authority than Martin Heidegger, Cartesianism carries the seed of totalitarianism characterized by the techniques of mastering nature and the full-scale domination of society. He has become a virtual poster child for every evil from genetic engineering to environmental devastation. (7)

It is not just that the postmodern reading of Descartes borders on caricature (of course it does). Rather, the caricature depends on a specific misreading of Descartes as a thinker concerned with purely metaphysical and epistemological problems (what can I know?) at the expense of moral and ethical ones (what should I do?). A close reading of the Discourse on Method shows that the book is not about the creation of some anonymous epistemological subject called ego cogitans but is the autobiography of one real, historical individual, Rene Descartes. (8) The Discourse was published in 1637, when Descartes was 41 years of age. Here he tells the story of his background and education at the Jesuit college of La Fleche ("one of the most famous schools in Europe"); his disillusionment with his teachers and the books of ancient and modern philosophy on which he had been brought up; his discovery of his famous rules of method during a daylong confinement in a stove-heated room after having been called by the war then raging in Germany (the Thirty Years War); his elucidation of a "provisional moral code" by which to conduct himself during this period of intellectual experimentation; and his continued wanderings that led him finally to settle in Holland ("amidst this great mass of busy people who are more concerned with their own affairs than curious about those of others"). (9)

The Discourse was not published as a stand-alone text but as an introduction to three essays on physical subjects including his treatise on optics. It has become common to view the work as a response to the crisis of skepticism provoked by the rehabilitation of ancient Pyrrhonism. Descartes was but the best known of the figures who were attached to the group around Marin Mersenne that included not only Gassendi but Hobbes. …

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