Lines of Thought: Discourse, Architectonics, and the Origin of Modern Philosophy

Lines of Thought: Discourse, Architectonics, and the Origin of Modern Philosophy

by Claudia Brodsky Lacour

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It is considerably easier to say that modern philosophy began with Descartes than it is to define the modernity and philosophy to which Descartes gave rise. In Lines of Thought, Claudia Brodsky Lacour describes the double origin of modern philosophy in Descartes’s Discours de la méthode and Géométrie, works whose interrelation, she argues, reveals the specific nature of the modern in his thought. Her study examines the roles of discourse and writing in Cartesian method and intuition, and the significance of graphic architectonic form in the genealogy of modern philosophy.
While Cartesianism has long served as a synonym for rationalism, the contents of Descartes’s method and cogito have remained infamously resistant to rational analysis. Similarly, although modern phenomenological analyses descend from Descartes’s notion of intuition, the “things” Cartesian intuitions represent bear no resemblance to phenomena. By returning to what Descartes calls the construction of his “foundation” in the Discours, Brodsky Lacour identifies the conceptual problems at the root of Descartes’s literary and aesthetic theory as well as epistemology. If, for Descartes, linear extension and “I” are the only “things” we can know exist, the Cartesian subject of thought, she shows, derives first from the intersection of discourse and drawing, representation and matter. The crux of that intersection, Brodsky Lacour concludes, is and must be the cogito, Descartes’s theoretical extension of thinking into material being. Describable in accordance with the Géométrie as a freely constructed line of thought, the cogito, she argues, extends historically to link philosophy with theories of discursive representation and graphic delineation after Descartes. In conclusion, Brodsky Lacour analyzes such a link in the writings of Claude Perrault, the architectural theorist whose reflections on beauty helped shape the seventeenth-century dispute between “the ancients and the moderns.”
Part of a growing body of literary and interdisciplinary considerations of philosophical texts, Lines of Thought will appeal to theorists and historians of literature, architecture, art, and philosophy, and those concerned with the origin and identity of the modern.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379225
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/22/1996
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 274 KB

About the Author

Claudia Brodsky Lacour is Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and Directeur de Programme at the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris.

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Lines of Thought

Discourse, Architectonics, and the Origin of Modern Philosophy

By Claudia Brodsky Lacour

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7922-5


Traité or Discours de la méthode

From the beginning, Descartes' Discours de la méthode presented a strange conjunction. To the perplexity of his friends and correspondents, Descartes kept a suite of projects in various stages of development from the public eye: the extensive methodological tract, Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Spirit), remained unfinished, reportedly finished treatises remained unpublished, and still others appeared to have been conceptually stillborn. Yet the long-awaited Discours found even its most eager readers unprepared. As the text was being readied for printing, Descartes defended to Mersenne the uncustomary title he had chosen for his first major published work. He responded, first, with cheerful equanimity to Mersenne's rather grim proposition to the effect that the world would benefit by his death: "Je n'ai su m'empêcher de rire, en lisant l'endroit où vous dites que j'oblige le monde à me tuer, afin qu'on puisse voir plus tôt mes écrits" (I couldn't help but laugh in reading where you state that I oblige the world to kill me so that one can see my writings earlier). This more consequential version of our onomastic "publish or perish"–perish, my friend, so that you may be published–only produced another serene evasion from the secretive Descartes. Descartes did, however, take direct exception to Mersenne's next observation, his criticism of Descartes' use of the word discours:

Mais je n'ai su bien entendre ce que vous objectez touchant le titre; car je ne mets pas Traité de la méthode, mais Discours de la méthode, ce qui est le même que Préface ou Avis touchant la méthode, pour montrer que je n'ai pas dessein de l'enseigner, mais seulement d'en parler. Car, comme on peut voir de ce que j'en dis, elle consiste plus en pratique qu'en théorie; et je nomme les Traités suivants des Essais de cette méthode, parce que je prétends que les choses qu'ils contiennent n'ont pu être trouvées sans elle, et qu'on peut connaître par eux ce qu'elle vaut: comme aussi j'ai inséré quelque chose de Métaphysique, de Physique et de Médecine dans le premier Discours, pour montrer qu'elle s'étend à toutes sortes de matières.

But I could not understand your objection regarding the title; for I am putting not Treatise on Method, but Discourse on Method, which is the same as Preface or View concerning Method, to show that it was not my design (dessein) to teach it but only to talk about it (d'en parley.) For, as one can see from what I say of it, it consists more of practice than of theory; and I name the treatises that follow "Experiments of this Method," because I claim that the things they contain could not have been found without it, and that one can know its worth through them: so, also, I put something of metaphysics, physics, and medicine in the first Discourse, to show that it extends to all kinds of subject matter.

Unlike Le monde, ou le traité de la lumière, L'homme et un traité de la formation du foetus (also called the Traité de l'homme4), and the Traité de la mécanique, all published posthumously, or the unpublished Traité sur la divinité and Traité de métaphysique (which Descartes probably destroyed), the Discours does not explicate physical phenomena or metaphysical ideas; its given subject is rather a general mode of procedure, a "method." This "method" could not be the subject of a treatise because it makes the writing of treatises possible, defining the order and manner in which the scientific treatment of "all kinds of subject matters" must be carried out. Not an object of theoretical analysis but a matter of "practice," "method," according to Descartes, is more properly "talked about" than taught. For just this reason Mersenne faced bureaucratic obstacles in procuring the copyright privilege for the Discours in France: the department in charge of inspecting scientific treatises could not review the work, Mersenne reports, "because it consists of discourse" ("à cause que cela consiste en discours"), and would fall under the category of "works of eloquence, in verse and in prose" ("les pièces d'éloquence, tant en vers qu'en prose") over which other inspectors had mandate.

If Descartes remained steadfast in the face of the royal compartmentalization of genres, refusing to call the Discours a treatise (and publishing the Discours in Leiden), he also rejected the alternative notion of naming his work instead for the Essais described as putting the method into practice. In a letter contemporary with his response to Mersenne, he writes to Huygens:

vous jugiez le mot de Discours superflu en mon titre, et c'est l'un des sujets de remerciement que j'ai à vous faire. Mais je m'excuse sur ce que je n'ai pas eu dessein d'expliquer toute la Mèthode, mais seulement d'en dire quelque chose, et je n'aime pas à promettre plus que j'en donne. C'est pourquoi j'ai mis Discours de la Méthode, au lieu que j'ai mis simplement La Dioptrique et Les Météores, parce que j'ai tâché d'y comprendre tout ce qui faisait à mon sujet." you find the word Discourse superfluous in my title, and this is one of the things I wanted to thank you for. But I excuse myself in that I did not have the design to explain the whole Method, but only to say something about it and I don't like to promise more than I give. This is why I put Discourse on Method, instead of simply Optics and Meteorology, because I tried to include in it everything that pertained to my subject.

On the one hand, then, Descartes conceived of his Discours as a practical demonstration rather than a didactic treatise, while on the other he considered the practical Essais an inadequate stand-in for his "design." For although it was not Descartes' "design"–plan or intention–to "explain the whole Method," he did want to "say something about it." In accordance with that "design," as it is described in both letters, discours could neither be replaced and excluded by the formal, scientific sense of traité nor be subsumed under the names of particularly focused experiments.

Descartes' decision not to name his work a "treatise" has remained noteworthy to this day. Far less frequently noted, however, is the fact that the Discours is also not a "discours" sur "la méthode," a discursive work "on" or "concerning" the subject of method in conformity with an essayistic formula now most familiar to us from Rousseau, and whose precedents in the seventeenth century include works by Pascal, Corneille, and Bossuet. The general shift from "de" to "sur" in the entitling of "discours" may in fact have arisen partly in response to Descartes' lexical choice; there are some examples of Descartes' usage before the Discours, but almost none that succeed it. "Discours sur la méthode" would have conveyed Descartes' "design" of "talking about" method; the (untranslatable) difference in meaning conveyed by "Discours de la méthode" combines a definitive ("Traité de ...") with a discursive("Discours sur ...") sense of method, a methodical and practical approach to the "design" of "talking about" method itself.

Suggesting a "traité" but describing a "discours," the equivocal "de" of Descartes' Discours de la méthode brings discourse together with method, but even its discursive and methodological components are difficult to characterize. "Method," understood to refer solely to the four cursory rules of procedure offered in Part Two, would exclude not only the overtly autobiographical discourse of Parts One and Two but also the "three or four maxims" for conducting one's life stipulated in Part Three, the narration of the cogito and argument for the existence of God in Part Four, the laws of nature and description of the human body based on the unpublished Le monde and L'homme in Part Five, and the apology for not publishing that double treatise and introduction of the Dioptrique and Météores in Part Six. Even–or especially–if they are so isolated from the rest of the Discours, the four rules are generally recognized to summarize or simplify the more fully explicated, if unfinished, Regulae. "Short and unimpressive" when considered in isolation, the rules comprise a method that would hardly justify the "discourse" devoted to it. Furthermore, Descartes situates the procedural rules within the discursive context of his autobiographical narrative, suggesting that he developed them to correct the defects of the individual methods he was taught at La Flèche. If such contextualization defeats the notion of isolating method from discursivity in a discourse "on" method, perhaps Descartes' Discours de la méthode is more literally, if unusually, a discourse belonging to or inhering in method and a method originating in discourse, not in the sense of etiology but rather of articulation: the discourse of the method. What then would be discours, and what, méthode? First published in Amsterdam, 1701. Letter to Pierre Mersenne, 27 February 1637, in Descartes, Correspondence, 8 vols., ed. Charles Adam and Gérard Milhaud (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1936-63), 1:328 (hereafter referred to as AM). Descartes continues: "À quoi je n'ai autre chose à répondre, sinon qu'ils [mes écrits] sont déjà en lieu et en état que ceux qui m'auraient tué, ne les pourraient jamais avoir, et que, si je ne meurs fort à loisir et fort satisfait des hommes qui vivent, ils ne se verront assurément de plus de cent ans après ma mort" (To this I have nothing else to say except that they [my writings] are already in such a place and condition that those who would have killed me could never have them, and that, if I do not die at my own leisure and happy with the men who live, they will surely not see them for more than a hundred years after my death) (ibid., 328).AM, 1:328-29. In an earlier letter to Mersenne (March 1636) Descartes described the work he planned as consisting of "four treatises" bearing the "general" title Le Projet d'une Science universelle, qui puisse élever notre nature à son plus haut degré de perfection. Plus, la Dioptrique, les Météores, et la Géométrie, où les plus curieuses matières que l'auteur ait pu choisir, pour rendre preuve de la Science universelle qu'il propose, sont expliquées en telle sorte, que ceux mêmes qui no'nt point étudieé les peuvent entendre (The Project of a universal Science, which can elevate our nature to its highest degree of perfection. In addition, the Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry, in which the most curious subject matters that the author could choose to render proof of the universal science which he proposes are explained in such a way as to make them understandable even to those who have not studied) (ibid., p. 301).This appellation is adopted by Alquié in Descartes, Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Ferdinand Alquié, 3 vols. (Paris: Gamier, 1963), 1:377 [hereafter referred to as OP]. On the publication history of the treatises, see 1:3078. Originally included in a letter to Huygens (5 October 1637)and published as "Explication des machines et engins," it was renamed "Traité ..." in the standard edition, Descartes, Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adams and Paul Tannery, 12 vols. (Paris: Léopold Cerf, 1897-1913) [hereafter referred to as AT].6. Paris, 1664, 1664, and 1668, respectively. Based on references in the Correspondence, both these writings have been dated 1629; see Edwin M. Curley, "Cohérence ou incohérence du Discours," in Le discours et sa méthode, ed. Nicolas Grimaldi and Jean-Luc Marion (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1987), p. 43n, and Sylvie Romanowski, L'illusion chez Descartes (Paris: Klinck-sieck, 1974), p. 114. Cf. Hugo Friedrich, Descartes und der französische Geist (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1937), pp. 9, 15: "What interested Descartes–and this is the most universal meaning of the Discours–was not the content of new knowledge in the natural sciences, but, in a more fundamental way, the possibility of knowledge"; "the famous four rules ... are not new contents of knowledge, but principles which should lead to the acquisition of knowledge." Mersenne to Descartes, 15 February 1837, AM 1:323. On Mersenne's difficulties, see Pierre Costabel, "Les Essais de la Méthode et la réforme mathématique," in Grimaldi and Marion, Le discours et sa méthode, p. 215. Letter to Huygens, 25 February 1637, AM, 1:327 (my emphasis). On the vanity of such a design, given the power of discourse to work independently of authorial intentions, see Romanowski, L'illusion, pp. 136-37: "But 'only' to talk about it is precisely the inaccessible and impossible enterprise, for the discursive word is the least innocent act possible, once it is set in motion.... The victorious discourse is always self-referential, and the Discours de la méthode does not escape this fact." "Discours" is the first item of commentary in Étienne Gilson's authoritative annotated edition of the Discours de la méthode (Paris: Vrin, 1925), p. 79 [cited hereafter as Gilson, Discours]. Friedrich distinguishes discours from its customary German translation, Abhandlung, as well as from the scientific traité, noting that "Descartes chose the least conspicuous and least binding expression available in the linguistic usage of his time to designate his work" Descartes und der französische Geist, p. 12). In Descartes (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), John Cottingham explains Descartes' choice of "the label 'discourse' rather than 'treatise'" as primarily stylistic: "Even a cursory inspection of the work reveals that the Discourse is an intensely individual work which is indeed quite unlike a conventional scholarly or philosophical treatise" (p. 13); cf. the equation of the Discours with literary fiction in Jonathan Rée's Philosophical Tales (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 10: the Discours is not a "methodical treatise ...; on the contrary, it is a conspicuously narrated story.... The line between truth and fiction in autobiography is sometimes impossible to draw." Jean-Luc Marion argues that Descartes' use of discours instead of traité "implies already that the method is not to be found explicitly thematised as such. The paradox begins very early" ("Ouverture," in Problématique et réception du Discours de la Méthode et des Essais, ed. Henry Méchoulan [Paris: Vrin, 1988], p. 13 [emphasis in text]). Daniel Garber similarly notes that, according to Descartes' letter to Mersenne, the Discours, unlike a treatise, "does not contain a true exposition of the method" ("Descartes et la méthode en 1637," in Grimaldi and Marion, Le discours et sa méthode, p. 73), while Berel Lang explains the "choice of 'Discourse' rather than 'Treatise'" as the reflection of a method in "use": "the Discourse both recounts Descartes' discovery of a method and affords a view of that method at work" ("Descartes between Method and Style," chap. 3 of The Anatomy of Philosophical Style: Literary Philosophy and the Philosophy of Literature [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990], pp. 45-46). Commenting on the paradoxical structure of Descartes' stated use of a national "natural language" to appeal to universal "'natural reason,'" Jacques Derrida ties discours back to traité: "this work becomes then also ... a discourse on its own language as much as in its own language, that is, a 'treatise' on discourse, since the word 'discourse' in the title Discours de la mithode, maintains, among other meanings, that of 'Treatise'" ("La philosophie dans sa langue nationale," in Du droit à la philosophic [Paris: Galilée, 1990], p. 287).Pascal, "Discours sur les passions de l'amour" (1652-53?), Corneille, "Discours sur le poème dramatique" (1660), Bossuet, Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681). On the historical usage ofdiscours, cf. Friedrich, Descartes und der französische Geist, p. 12n4.Cf. Ronsard's Discours des misères de ce temps (156263) and La Boétie's Discours de la servitude volontaire (published by Montaigne in 1571). Leibniz's Discours de métaphysique (1686) would be a notable exception to the lexical shift described here.In the only references I have found to Descartes' choice of prepositions, Jean-Luc Marion significantly interprets this "de" as an ablative of origin—Le Discours de la Méthode should not be understood as a discourse on [sur] method but as a discourse which originates in method [un discours à partir de la méthode] in view of the project which engenders and sustains it" ("Ouverture," Problématique et réception, p. 16)–while Evert van Leeuwen, noting that Descartes' "phrase leaves more than one possibility for the genitive," suggests "it might be the case that the discourse is spoken by the method," a view he considers briefly as "more than a little odd," but suggestive of the common purpose of discourse and method (see "Method, Discourse, and the Act of Knowing," in Essays on the Philosophy and Science of René Descartes, ed. Stephen Voss [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993], p. 226). Without similarly ascribing agency to method, the present analysis investigates the origin of method in discourse, Descartes' "talking about."On the substantial agreement of the rules of Part Two with the Regulae, see Lewis J. Beck, The Method of Descartes: A Study of the Regulae (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), pp. 1-8, and Peter A. Schouls, The Imposition of Method: A Study of Descartes and Locke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 52-87, 256-57. On their status as "pale shadows" of the Regulae and reinterpretation as a mode of analytic comparison, see Jakko Hintikka, "A Discourse on Descartes's Method," in Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 74. In "Science and Certainty in Descartes" (also in Hooker, Descartes), Daniel Garber singles out the criteria of "clearness and distinctness" as "substantially new in the Discourse" (p. 119), a view he maintains but modifies in "Descartes et la méthode en 1637" by identifying essential agreement between the two works and locating the turning point in Descartes' interest in method in the inadequate relation of the previously written Essais to the newly completed Discours whose method they are stated to demonstrate (in Grimaldi and Marion, Le discours et sa méthode, pp. 73, 80, 83-87). The accepted chronology of the Essais is as follows: the Dioptrique may date from as early as 1629, the Météores is a revised part of Le monde (1633), and the Géométrie dates from Descartes' solution of the Pappus problem, communicated to him by Golius in 1631. Cf. OP, 1:549-50; Leon Roth, Descartes' Discourse on Method (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937), pp. 1720; Gilbert Gadoffre, "Sur la chronologie du Discours de la Méthode," Revue d'histoire de la philosophie et d'histoire générale de la civilisation Jan. Mar. (1943): 45-70; Gadoffre, Introduction au Discours de la Méthode (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1947); Gadoffre, "Réflexions sur la genèse du Discours de la Méthode," Revue de Synthése 22 (1948): 1127. Garber, "Descartes et la mèthode," p. 65; cf. Ferdinand Alquié, "Introduction," Le Discours de la Mithode et les Essais, OP, 1:564. OP, 1:584-86.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments viii

Notes on the Text ix

Preface: What Is ModerN? 1

Part 1. Descartes' "Design"

1. Triaté or Discours de la méethode 11

2. Autobiographical Discourse: "Fable" as "Tableau" 18

3. The "Discourse" of Thinking: Architectural Design 32

4. The Things a Thinking Thing Thinks 38

Part 2. The Discourse of Method

5. Letters and Lines: Algebra and Geometry in Descartes' Géométrie 49

6. Writing and Intuition 68

Part 3. Thinking As Line

7. The Cogito and Architectural Form 87

8. Staircase as Labyrinth: Eudoxe on Method 111

9. Postscript: Architectural Theory after Descartes 117

Epilogue: The Line between Aesthetics and Knowledge 141

Bibliography 151

Index 161

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