Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Le Doeuff and Irigaray on Descartes

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Le Doeuff and Irigaray on Descartes

Article excerpt

Michele Le Doeuff, the French feminist theorist, reads Descartes' morality par provision as a permanent site of value-charged elements, impossible to excise through systematic doubt. Such elements, including what Le Doeuff calls the "philosophical imaginary," are in fact prior to and constitutive of reason itself. Consequently, the neutrality of reason, language, and subject in philosophy is illusory, expressive of masculine values that reject plurality or difference. Thus Descartes undermines his own project of securing certain grounds for science, grounds that are not already fertile with non-rational elements.

Luce Irigaray, another French feminist theorist, is equally critical of the Cartesian myth of philosophy as self-grounding rationality. But in Descartes' treatment of wonder she detects the potential for a radically different myth, one congenial to the feminine and to woman. Wonder celebrates sexual difference and in this way subverts the logic underlying the cogito. Sexual difference, then, and not the cogito, becomes the touchstone of philosophy in the future: as irreducible difference, it banishes the neutrality of language and subject at the same time it justifies the proliferation of discourse-types; and as embodiment, as lived experience, it rejects the split between body (change, history, existence) and mind (permanence, eternity, essence) in favor of reuniting them.

Descartes thus turns out to be essential not only for modernity but also for postmodernity. In the same way that re-enacting the moves of Cartesian doubt initiates philosophy into the spirit of Enlightenment rationality and freedom, and thus into what Le Doeuff calls "the game of theoretical domination,"' taking pleasure in the morality par provision and in Cartesian wonder opens up an entirely different world-which is our world today. Le Doeuff and Irigaray, in appropriating certain elements of Cartesian thought for feminism, reveal Descartes' importance to contemporary debates over difference.

In Part Three of Discourse on the Method, Descartes compares the thoroughgoing renovation of a house to the trilogy of ends constituting his epistemological project: clearing away his disordered and unreliable preconceptions, uncovering the indubitable status of the cogito, and then rebuilding knowledge in the form of universal science upon the foundation of the cogito. But as the renovation of a house is not merely an affair of bricks and plumbing, but upsets the entire human household, so the reconstruction of knowledge issues in non-theoretical consequences and upsets the knower's morale. Systematic doubt is alienating, first of all; it is primarily meditative or solitary, a division of self from everything else. And it is traumatizing: the smooth circuit of habit together with opinion is broken; one no longer manages the simplest of exchanges with confidence but rather with a sense of dread, of not knowing what's around the corner. Acknowledging this, Descartes advises:

before starting to rebuild your house, it is not

enough simply to pull it down, to make provision

for materials and architects (or else train yourself

in architecture), and to have carefully drawn up the

plans; you must also provide yourself with some

other place where you can live comfortably while

building is in progress. Likewise, lest I should re

main indecisive in my actions while reason

obliged me to be so in my judgments, and in order

to live as happily as I could during this time, I

formed for myself a provisional moral code con

sisting of just three or four maxims.2

Descartes suggests that if we plan to repeat the philosophical moves he lays down for us in Meditations on First Philosophy, then we'll need, when the going gets rough, access to "some other place" where we can live "comfortably" or "happily." Defined by his "three or four maxims," it is a place in which one resolves to conserve the political and religious traditions of one's upbringing; to practice one's convictions as if they were true; and, Stoic-like, to focus on improving oneself rather than the world. …

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