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  • PanzerCartesianer:The Descartes of Martial Gueroult’s Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons
  • Tad M. Schmaltz (bio)

Martial Gueroult (1891–1976) Belonged to a remarkable generation of French scholars of early modern philosophy, in general, and of Descartes’s thought, in particular. This cohort includes such notable figures as Étienne Gilson (1884–1978), Jean Laporte (1a886–1948), Henri Gouhier (1898–1994), Ferdinand Alquié (1908–85), and Geneviève Rodis-Lewis (1918–2004). However, Gueroult was the only one of this group to publish a commentary devoted exclusively to Descartes’s Meditations, namely, his Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons;1 indeed, no other comparable French commentary has appeared since the time of its initial publication.2 In addition, among the very important works on Descartes that Gueroult’s French contemporaries produced during his lifetime, only his two-volume study of the Meditations has been translated into English.3

By the time of the publication of Descartes selon l’ordre, Gueroult had been named Gilson’s successor at the Collège de France, where he took up a special chair in “the history and technology of philosophical systems.” Gueroult was then already known for his studies of Malebranche (Étendue), Leibniz (Dynamique), Maimon (Philosophie transcendentale), and Fichte (Evolution). Nor did his scholarly efforts [End Page 1] wane; after the initial appearance of his commentary on the Meditations, Gueroult published studies of Berkeley on perception and God (Berkeley) and Descartes’s ontological argument (Nouvelles réflections), along with monumental commentaries on Malebranche and Spinoza’s Ethics that are still required reading for specialists: the 3-volume Malebranche, and the 2-volume Spinoza (Gueroult died before completing a projected third volume).4 Moreover, prior to the appearance of the English translation of Descartes selon l’ordre, several of Gueroult’s essays on different historical figures and topics had already been published in English.5

Nonetheless, Gueroult is best known among historians of modern philosophy for his commentary on the Meditations. The immediate impact of the publication of this text is indicated by Jean-Marie Beyssade’s recent observation that “in 1953, with Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons, Martial Gueroult made a sensational entrance into the arena.” Beyssade adds—in a way that supplies the title of my own set of reflections—that “with this PanzerCartesianer, if I dare say, this Cartesian in armor as Bismarck was the chancelier defer or Rommel the maréchal des blindés, everything changes.”6 Beyssade of course intends the label of ‘PanzerCartesianer’ to characterize Gueroult as commentator; I return to this point presently. However, I think this label also can be used to characterize the Descartes of Gueroult’s Descartes selon l’ordre. For Gueroult emphasizes, in the preface to the first volume of his study, that his Descartes is a “thinker of granite who knows no other anguish than that of truth—assuming that one can call anguish the inflexible will for truth and the complete certainty of its discovery.”7 These Panzer-type virtues of granite thought, inflexible will, and complete certainty are revealed in particular by Descartes’s unwavering adherence to the strict “order of reasons” found in his Meditations. According to Gueroult, this order requires the arrangement of truths in such a way that knowledge of those that precede are necessary conditions for knowledge of those that follow. In this way, Descartes’s system forms a whole in which “no single truth of the system can be correctly interpreted without reference to the place it occupies in the order.”8

Gueroult places particular emphasis on the fact that the Meditations follows an “analytic” rather than a “synthetic” order, where the former provides the “reason required for knowing” (ratio cognoscendi) and the latter the “reason required for being” (ratio essendi).9 According to Gueroult, Descartes insists that to be certain of [End Page 2] the truths that the Meditations reveals, we must follow the analytic order of this text. Thus, we must begin with the discovery of the cogito, which serves as something that is for us “the first principle.” This principle in turn serves as a necessary condition for our knowledge of the existence of God, “that is to say, the knowledge that...


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