In his two philosophical masterpieces—the Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method, 1637) and Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy, 1642)—René Descartes affected an autobiographical mode. He aimed to “delineate my life as in a picture” and urged the reader to treat his text as a personal story—even a kind of fable—of a man who, though educated in one of “the most celebrated schools of Europe,” found himself beset with doubts and uncertainties from which he managed to extricate himself. Initially, the self-portrait strikingly anticipates that of Goethe’s Faust, who, having mastered philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and even theology, sees himself, at the end of his studies, as “a poor fool . . . no wiser than I was before.” Descartes’s Narrator, realizing that he must seek within, then describes his meditative itinerary, which leads to the discovery of the “true method by which to arrive at the knowledge of whatever lay within the compass of my powers.”
How close to Descartes as a person is this philosophical fable’s Narrator? The philosophy itself is not a fable—or at least it has to be judged by the same criteria to which any philosophical claim is subject. I am speaking rather of the portrait that Descartes paints of himself as a seeker of truths beyond rational doubt.
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