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THE MATTER OF MIND

REASON AND EXPERIENCE IN THE AGE OF DESCARTES

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By Christopher Braider

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The Montréal Review, March 2012

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"The Matter of Mind: Reason and Experience in the Age of Descartes" by Christopher Braider (Toronto University Press, 2012)

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My book challenges the universal presumption that the decisive turning point in early modern Western literary and intellectual culture was what Richard Rorty has called the dualist 'invention of the mind.' It has largely been taken for granted that the 17th century witnesses the emergence of an entirely new historical personage, the so-called 'modern subject': a self-disciplined rational ego whose fundamental pattern was laid down in Descartes's Meditations. From Descartes on, personal identity is perceived as a reflex of methodized rational thought; and thought in turn is portrayed as an act of disembodied mind rescued from compromising entanglement in the body and the material world to which the body attaches us. Some com­mentators (Hans Blumenberg, Jonathan Israel, Desmond Clarke) endorse Descartes's estimation of his own historical significance in seeing the dualist ego as emancipating humankind from the errors, fantasies, and prejudices of the past. In this light, dualist epistemology inaugurates a new era of moral, practical, and intellectual freedom of which Western modernity is the unarguably positive fruit. Others, including indeed the majority of scholars working in comtemporary literary and cul­tural studies, follow Theodore Adorno, Charles Taylor, or Michel Foucault in regarding Descartes's impact as marking the advent of the individual's self-subjugating enslavement to new tyrannies endemic to mo­dernity itself, and in particular those identified with Foucault's favorite icons of the modern technocratic state: the insane asylum, the panoptical prison, and the barracks-like public school. All nonetheless agree on the centrality of the Cartesian picture of mind and on the authority it exercised over early modern conceptions of self and of self's relation to material reality.

The Matter of Mind argues that the Cartesian model of self was not in fact as authorita­tive as both sides in the debate about its value and consequences believe. A far better candidate is the, in every sense, 'experimental' picture of self formulated by Descartes's skeptical pre­decessor, Montaigne. Rather than come at the matter of mind through yet another critical re­hearsal of the dualist version set forth in Descartes's Meditations, I approach it in the perspec­tive of the great skeptic's late essay 'On Experience.' As Montaigne reminds us by direct ap­peal to the humble facts of everyday life, the desire for knowledge whose putatively 'higher' calling argues the unconditional supremacy of the faculty of reason is in reality a natural func­tion as deeply rooted in the body as any other. While it flatters us to think of reason as exalting us above the limiting demands of physical experience, the pursuit of knowledge unfolds on the same plane as those more obviously natural pursuits to which we traditionally oppose it: eating, sleeping, sex, or (if, like Montaigne, you suffer from kidney stones) the blessed release of a good piss. As even, at times, Descartes himself came to acknowledge, especially in his lonely old age, the result is not only that such knowledge as we are capable of is fundamentally con­tingent and ambiguous; it depends less on the kind of unconditioned act of mind Descartes imagined than on open-ended conversation with our neighbors and on the disciplined explora­tion of the resources as well as limits of our own embodied natures. Which is to say that the solution to the 'matter of mind' conceived as an open question of epistemological interest turns out, for the vast majority of Descartes's contemporaries, to lie in acknowledging what the mul­tifarious experimental matters that perplex the search for knowledge suggest: the mind's world-bound materiality as a reflex of human embodiment.

Though The Matter of Mind stands alone as a piece of historical scholarship in its own right, it is the first in a series of three books, the second of which explores the complexly 'experimental' character of person or self in early modern literary, artistic, philosophical, and theological culture generally while the third sets out to draw the wider theoretical im­plications for humanisitic scholarship at large, regardless of discipline or period. These related projects indicate the precise task the current book undertakes. It sets out to make the preliminary case for the radical revision of our notions of early modern conceptions of mind and identity the subsequent books extend into the European 17th century as a whole and from there to the wider future of humanistic studies generally. To this end, rather than diffuse its fo­cus by engaging a necessarily small number of case histories drawn from across the continent of Europe, the book proposes to demonstrate the limited reach of the Cartesan model even in that time and place where one would expect to find it most deeply entrenched, so-called 'classi­cal' France. The book accordingly opens with an analysis of Descartes's Meditations approached less as the repository of the dualist theses for which it is usually mined than in terms of the at once social and commercial circumstances surrounding its publication as expressed in the form of the actual volume that first presented those theses to the world in August 1641. This is followed by discussions of related issues in painting (Poussin and the French Academicians, Le Brun and Félibien), in tragic drama (Corneille and, in his long, imposing shadow, Racine), in comic drama (Molière), in theology (Pascal), and in the philosophy of lan­guage (Boileau and, with his help, the great 17th -century French lexicographer, Furetière).

What this sharply defined test-case sacrifices in national scope it regains in disciplinary diversity. The book's interdisciplinarity is seconded by the range of historical and theoretical perspectives it engages. The critical account of the publication history of the printed volume containing Descartes's Meditations both draws on and contributes to the history of the book; the discussion of what Louis Marin has called the 'sujet-peintre' of Poussinian art opens on the broader problem of the emergence of aesthetics as an autonomous subfield of philosophy; and the analysis of Corneille's invention of poetic genius, the direct literary counterpart of the Car­tesian ego, leads to a revision of both the Foucaldian 'author function' and the feminist critique thereof-this last occasioned by the fact that the personification of poetic genius in Corneille is his first great tragic heroine, the infanticidal witch from Colchis, Medea. The net effect not on­ly demonstrates the degree to which the Cartesian picture of mind was contested across the full spectrum of contemporary culture; it illustrates, in rich detail, the remarkable variety of early modern notions of mind, self, and identity our fascination with the Cartesian model screens from view.

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Christopher Braider is a professor in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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