Scepticism, certainty and the subject who is supposed to know

What distinguishes the Cartesian approach from the ancient search of the episteme, what distinguishes it from the skepticism that has been one of its terms, is what we shall try to articulate on the basis of the double function of alienation and separation.


What is Descartes looking for? He is looking for certainty. I have, he says, an extreme desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false—note the word desire—in order to see clearly—in what?— in my actions, and to walk with assurance in this life.


Is not this something quite different from the aim of knowledge? This approach is not that of a dialectician or a professor, still less that of a cavalier. It has been stressed that Descartes’ biography is marked above all by his wanderings in the world, his encounters and, after all, his secret ambition—
Larvatus prodeo. If I point this out, although I am one of those who regard concern for biography as secondary to the meaning of a work, it is because Descartes himself stresses that his biography,
his approach, is essential. to the communication of his method, of the way he has found to truth.


He makes it quite clear that what he has given is not—as Bacon tried to do some years earlier—the general means of conducting one’s reason correctly, without abdicating it, for example, to experience. It is his own method, in so far as he set out in this direction with the desire to learn to distinguish the
true from the false in order to see clearly—in what? —in my actions. This example, then, is a particular one, and Descartes goes so far as to add that if what was for me, at a particular moment, my way, does not seem right for others, that is their affair, that they should gather from my experience what they
think is worth gathering. This forms part of the introduction by Descartes of his own way to science.


Does this mean that no knowledge is aimed at? Does it mean that knowledge weighs lightly in Descartes? Not at all, it is with this that he begins—there’s, enough knowledge around and to spare, there always has been, there still is. It is not I who have imposed this allusion here, but Descartes’ own text. He was trained by the best teachers, he was a pupil of the Jesuits at the College de La Flèche and there was no lack of knowledge, or of sapience, there.


Shall I go so far as to say that it is not for nothing, that it is precisely a result of his Jesuit education, that he acquired his acute feeling of the superabundance of knowledge? Is there not at the heart of what is transmitted through a certain humanist wisdom something like a hidden perinde ac cadaver, which is not where it is usually placed, namely, in the supposed death that the rule of St Ignatius seems to require?


Personally, I don’t feel very close to it, and these Jesuits, as I myself see them, from the outside, always seem to me to be very much there, not to say full of life —they make their presence felt, and with a diversity that is far from suggesting that of death. No, the death referred to here is that which is hidden behind the very notion of humanism, at the heart of any humanist consideration. And even when an attempt is made to animate the term as in the phrase the human sciences, there is something that we shall call a skeleton in the cupboard.


It is here that Descartes finds a new way. His aim is not to refute uncertain knowledge. He is happy to let such knowledge run around quite freely, and with it all the rules of social life. Indeed, like everyone at this historical moment at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in that inaugural moment
of the emergence of the subject, he has present all around him a profusion of libertines who serve as the other term of the vel of alienation. They are in reality Pyrrhonians, sceptics, and Pascal calls them by their name, except that he does not stress in a sufficiently free way its meaning and implications.
Scepticism does not mean the successive doubting, item by item, of all opinions or of all the pathways that accede to knowledge.


It is holding the subjective position that one can know nothing. There is something here that deserves to be illustrated by the range, the substance, of those who have been its historical embodiments. I would show you that Montaigne is truly the one who has centred not around scepticism but around the living moment of the aphanisis of the subject. And it is in this that he is fruitful, that he is an eternal guide, who goes beyond whatever may be represented of the moment to be defined as a historical turning-point. But this is not scepticism.


Scepticism is something that we no longer know. Scepticism is an ethic. Scepticism is a mode of sustaining man in life, which implies a position so difficult, so heroic, that we can no longer even imagine it—precisely perhaps because of this passage found by Descartes, which led the search for the path of certainty to this very point of the vel of alienation, to which there is only one exit—the way of desire.


This desire for certainty led Descartes only to doubt—the choice of this way led him to operate a rather strange separation. I would simply like to touch on a few points, which will serve as reference points in grasping an essential function, masked though it may be, which is still vital, present and directive in
our method of investigating the unconscious.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: