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Descartes's Rhetoric: Roads, Foundations, and Difficulties in the Method

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 36, Number 1, 2003
pp. 22-38 | 10.1353/par.2003.0012

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 36.1 (2003) 22-38



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Descartes's Rhetoric:
Roads, Foundations, and Difficulties in the Method

Jeanette Bicknell


Descartes's Discours de la méthode is an extremely rich text for anyone interested in the rhetorical and literary aspects of philosophical works, as well as for those interested in the history of scientific discourse. 1 Commentators have tended to stress the inclusive and possibly emancipatory aspects of the text: Descartes's use of the vernacular and inclusion of autobiographical elements. 2 Without denying the democratic potential of the Discours, I will argue that close attention to its rhetorical and literary features reveals an unacknowledged tension in Descartes's thought between the individual and the social or communal aspects of method. This tension seems to have been overlooked by commentators.

Briefly, the tension I have identified is manifest in the conflicting metaphors Descartes uses to characterize scientific and epistemological progress. The best known and most studied of these metaphors are from architecture and town-planning. Less attention has been paid to the metaphor of the road or path (chemin) in the Discours. Descartes sees cognitive and scientific progress as ultimately the work of a solitary individual. We can call this the "heroic" or "great individual" view of scientific progress. This is clear in his architectural metaphors. Yet recurrent metaphors characterizing cognitive progress as a road point to a more social or communal view of science as the work of many hands (or feet). Roads are social entities par excellence. They pre-exist those who travel them and are available to all who want to travel them. Although roads may be planned and built according to specifications, they may arise simply from the aggregated actions of individuals. I suggest that this tension between two fundamentally different characterizations and conceptions of cognitive progress indicates a deep division in Descartes's thought, unresolved in the Discours.

What is at issue, philosophically, in my analysis of Descartes's rhetoric? First and most generally is the problem of bringing together all the [End Page 22] elements of a philosophical text, especially a text with the seminal importance of the Discours. What status and significance should we give to those elements of a text that do not seem to be directly part of the arguments? These elements include the author's self-presentation and indications as to the implied audience, as well as figurative language and illustrative and explicatory metaphors. I shall show how these elements repay close attention, and that it is fruitful to test them for consistency with the text's explicit claims and arguments.

More specifically, my interpretation has implications for Descartes's program. Descartes's work is generally taken to be the basis of strict traditional autonomism and reductionist individualism. One critique of such individualism is that methods, not to mention the languages in which they are expressed, are social rather than private. A close examination of Descartes's own language supports this critique, as his rhetoric can be seen to undercut his avowed position in the text. It is open to debate whether or not Descartes was aware of the tension between his autonomism and individualism on one hand, and his hopes for cognitive and scientific progress founded upon method on the other. Thus, it is entirely possible that the quintessentially modern philosopher of the self had excessive expectations of that self, not to mention an incoherent picture of it.

Finally, the implications of my analysis reach beyond Descartes's text to broader conceptual issues. The tension I have identified in the Discours is not limited to Descartes's work, but it points to underlying difficulties in trying to think through the problems he discusses. While methods are social, an individualistic element may be ineliminable. But the social is not just the aggregation of asocial selves. The self, its education and development, and its ability to participate in a method, must all be social. Another issue is the nature of scientific and epistemological progress, and the relationship between their individual and more communal aspects. And whatever their relationship, we...



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