Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Quand Meme Je Dormirais": Philosophy and Secondary Revision in Descartes

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Quand Meme Je Dormirais": Philosophy and Secondary Revision in Descartes

Article excerpt

"Ya-t-il rien de tout cela qui ne soit aussi viritable qu'il est certain que je suis, et que j'existe, quand mime je dormirais toujours, et que celui qui m'a donnel l'etre se servirait de toutes ses forces pour m'abuser?"(IX: 22)(1) In this passage from the Second Meditation, the Cogito is separated by a comma from a dream. The proposition which enunciates and founds all certainty in Descartes is affirmable even if the Philosopher is asleep and dreaming forever. Within the fiction of an interminable dream state presided over by an Evil Genius, the Cogito subsists in grammatical and syntaxical integrity as the one unassailable truth necessary to establish Descartes' philosophy.

It has been said that Descartes was largely responsible for the devaluation of dreams which occurred during the Classical Age, and this passage would seem to warrant that view since the certainty of the Cogito is opposed to the confusion of the dream. But the recurrent dream tests and the constant juxtaposition of dreaming to the truth which occur throughout Descartes' writings suggest that the dreamwork performs some essential function in Cartesian discourse. The oneiric state is always a moment of epistemological confusion and authorial insecurity, but also the occasion of the most decisive breakthroughs of reason. Why reason always emerges in the wake of a dream and what rhetorical moves or secondary revisions are necessary to separate philosophy from dreaming is the subject of this study. The undecidability of dreaming versus wakefulness is a topos which runs throughout Descartes' work; from the earliest writings on dreams (Olympica) to the final work (Le Traite des passions de l'ame), the formulas for posing the question echo one another: "La dessus, doutant s'il revait ou s'il meditait ..." (Olympica (1619) X: 184); "Toutes les mimes pensees que nous avons etant eveilles, nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous dormons" (Discours (1637) VI: 32); "...car soit que je veille ou que je dorme," (Meditations (1641) IX: 16); "...mais encore qu'on soit endormi et qu'on reve" (Traiti (1649) XI 349). The impossibility of deciding whether one is dreaming or awake is a question which haunts the texts of Descartes' baroque predecessors, and, in some sense, the texts alluded to above are responding to and attempting to settle a period-specific philosophical quandary.(3) But the relation of dreams to philosophy also had great personal significance for Descartes; he had a dream of authorship at the age of twenty-three, an event which he considered to be "le plus important de sa vie" (X: 186).

Olympica

In Part Two of the Discourse on Method, Descartes mentions a decisive moment in his intellectual development, several days in November 1619 when, at the age of twenty-three, he locked himself away in a small room heated by a wood stove, meditating intensely about a new philosophical system: "Je demeurais tout le jour enferme dans un poele ou j'avais tout loisir de m'entretenir de mes pensees" (VI: 11). His fundamental intuition, the one that served as a basis for all of his later thought, was that the mathematical mode of demonstration could be extended to all branches of knowledge. It would be a "science admirable," a uniform method capable of producing rigorous truth in all domains of science and assuring the commensurability of all knowledge. In the Discourse, Descartes also says that at this moment he had come to the conclusion that the new method had to be the work of a single author who, like the master architect, the absolute monarch, or the monotheistic God, is alone capable of conceiving and executing an integral masterpiece. Descartes' biographer, Adrien Baillet, says that enthusiasm for this ambitious project caused the philosopher's brain to "catch fire." The young mercenary soldier who was about to change the history of philosophy had prepared his mind for this discovery by systematically rejecting all of his former beliefs. …

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