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Cartesian “Riddles”: Descartes, Words, and Deduction

30 January 2012


Traditionally, ‘René Descartes’ is synonymous with ‘method.’ The so-called father of modern science, he is perhaps the systematic and methodological philosopher par excellence, a fundamental motivation for his attempt to secede from contemporary thought being the possibility of establishing a universally valid method in the search for truth. In a passage in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes contrasts his method with what he calls scholastic “[r]iddles,” verbal equivocations that hinder the acquisition of knowledge. In this paper I analyze this notion of riddling and the Cartesian method to posit that, finally, Descartes cannot avoid replicating the very riddles he criticizes, that his ‘revolutionary’ method only generates more riddles to be methodically solved. In short, Descartes’ method is dependent upon words but also calls for the effacement of the very words that constitute it. Words are both a methodological necessity and limitation; a double bind, there is no method without words, but, at the same time, there can be no method with words, that is, no methodo-logos. In its broadest formulation, Descartes must always at once say too much and too little.


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