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Dalia Judovitz AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL DISCOURSE AND CRITICAL PRAXIS IN DESCARTES Death only crushes those who, too well known by others, die unknown to themselves. Seneca, Thyeste I Descartes cites Seneca's remark about self-knowledge in an Album amicorum, dedicated to Corneille de Montigny de Blaizes (November , 1644), and later repeats it in a letter to Chanut (November, 1646).' Taken along with Descartes's devise, bene vivit, bene qui latuit ("He lives well who lives hidden"—to Marsenne, April, 1634), these pronouncements might seem to undermine any effort to describe an autobiographical project in Descartes. Similar remarks in the Preambles reiterate the desire for dissimulation and anonymity, whose emblem becomes the masked philosopher (larvatus pro deo).2 However, Descartes's overt claims for anonymity are belied by the personal style of his writings, which insist on presenting the first person "I" as the medium or even ground for the exploration of all questions of knowledge. Rather than opting for a traditional account of his method, Descartes offers in the Discourse on Method an autobiographical account.3 The modern reader is faced with the problem of explaining Descartes's avowal to remain anonymous, which seems at cross purposes with modern notions of autobiography , conceived as an account of the subject in historical terms, and by his even more basic gesture of having posited his own thinking ego cogito as the basis for not only a universal method, but all philosophical thought which seeks to achieve absolute certainty. Descartes frames his use of the first person by his rejection of the philosophical tradition of skepticism and doubt and links his own use of the "I" to certitude, thereby delimiting the meaning and content of the "I" to search for certitude. It is this certainty of the existence of the "I" which dominates its particular content as historical consciousness. 91 92Philosophy and Literature The subject "I," by linking thinking and being (I think, therefore I am), places itself at the basis of all philosophical representation, or more precisely, philosophy conceived as "assured" or "certain" representation . The Cartesian subject thus advances its own conditions of selfdefinition as the very conditions of possibility for all philosophical thought. This implies, in fact, the foundation of a theory of knowledge with no essential knowledge of the very subject that constitutes it, since the association of thinking and being represented through the "I" offers no particular insight into the nature of this subject. Rather, we are faced with the problem of understanding the definition of the subject "I" and that which it determines as its "content" inherent in positing valid philosophical representations. Consequently, in examining the question of autobiography in Descartes, we will have to reconsider its meaning by reference to not only its production in a particular historical context, but more importantly come to terms with the general problem of the relation of the birth of the "modern" subject, or even "subjectivity " as it involves the more fundamental problem of representation. This involves elaborating a notion of autobiography which in modern terms seems to entertain a contradictory posture. Since the autobiographical purpose of the Discourse on Method presents itself as a didactic function, its exemplarity serves at once as a vehicle for the documentation of the emergence of the universal subject of knowledge and also represents that "typical" subject in unique and enigmatic terms. Such a conception of the "autobiographical," though contradictory to our current definitions of autobiography, forces us to reconsider it in new terms by framing autobiography with the larger question of the relation of the Cartesian cogito and the theory of representation that it presupposes . Only then can we truly begin to elucidate its impersonal meaning . Already in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind Descartes establishes a link between the problem of the foundation of the subject and the nature of representation, as related to the skeptical tradition and the question of doubt. In the fourth place we point out that the union of these things one with another is either necessary or contingent. It is necessary when one is so implied in the concept (représentation) of another in a confused sort of way that we cannot conceive (représenter) either distinctly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 91-107
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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