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W. T. Jones SOMNIO ERGO SUM: DESCARTES'S THREE DREAMS What is remarkable about Descartes's dreams is not that he dreamed (for even philosophers presumably dream), but that he wrote down a description of his dreams and of his interpretation of them and then kept this record for more than thirty years, until his death.* What is remarkable, in a word, is that this thinker, who prided himself on his rationalism and who has come to represent, at least to philosophers, the very spirit of rationalism, should have taken his dreams so seriously. Philosophers—perhaps because the dreams conflict with their view of Descartes, perhaps because they conflict with their view of themselves and their discipline—have tended to play down the dreams or to ignore them altogether. Thus, though Bernard Williams, the author of a recent volume on Descartes, refers to the dreams as "a significant event," he proceeds in a footnote to undercut the adjective by quoting Christiaan Huygens, apparently with approval, to the effect that the dreams show "a great weakness [in Descartes] , and I think that it will seem much the same to Catholics who have freed themselves from bigotry." If we try to free ourselves from what seems to be a standing philosophical prejudice against dreams and dreaming, what can Descartes's dreams tell us about his theories? That is the topic of this article. But first a caveat concerning my position on the interpretation of dreams generally. The interpreter of a dream, like the interpreter of other cultural products, has to try to steer a course between the Scylla of overinterpretation (reading into the dream something that is not expressed in it) and the Charybdis of underinterpretation (missing something that is actually expressed in the dream). My own bias leads me to fear overinterpretation more than underinterpretation; I had ?Descartes's original Latin record of the dreams no longer survives. A new English translation by my colleague, John F. Benton, of a late seventeenth-century paraphrase of a portion of Descartes's text appears as an appendix to this article. 145 146Philosophy and Literature rather go aground on Charybdis than be shipwrecked on the Scylla of the Freudians and the Jungians.2 I am skeptical of interpretations of Descartes's dreams that are not supported by nondream materials—on the assumption that any dynamic element expressed in the dreams that is not also expressed in nondream materials is unlikely to be of much importance for understanding Descartes's thought. Therefore, instead of beginning with the dreams and then looking here and there in nondream materials for supporting evidence, I shall begin with nondream materials and only later turn to the dreams. In a word, I shall try to read back both from nondream material and from dream material to dynamic elements which may be present in, and shaping, both. My hope is that the uncovering of these elements will result in a better understanding of nondream and dream material alike. I Accordingly, I shall begin with a brief account of some of the themes of two of Descartes's best known philosophical writings, The Discourse on Method (1637) and the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). The Discourse is particularly relevant to our inquiry because it "covers" the period in which the dreams occur, but in a very different medium from that of the Olympica and at a later date. The Discourse was in fact a discreet, as it were sanitized, version of the whole long voyage of discovery in which the dreams were but one, if nonetheless a critical, episode. Descartes tells us he had been educated "at one of the most celebrated schools in Europe" and had not beenjudged by his instructors "inferior" to his fellow students. Yet, on completing his course of study, he found himself "embarrassed with so many doubts and errors" that the only result of his efforts to instruct himself had been the "increasing discovery" of his own ignorance. Having gone through all the sciences of his time—languages, literature, rhetoric, theology, philosophy—without learning anything of consequence, he had then turned to travel, to seeing courts and armies, hoping thereby to discover the answers he sought "in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 145-162
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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