Lecture on descartes’ metaphysical meditations 1961- 1962 English translation by

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Feigning: it’s a feint. Everything happens as if man couldn’t truly think without shame, as if thought were only bearable in its way of being by essence the placing into question of certitude, of being un-rest, if it is presented as a “feint.” This “fiction” in fact, is the only serious business there is, but man feigns that he is playing, he feigns that he is feigning, he pretends he is pretending.

You will find again, in Plato, the same modesty for man, and above all for the completed man, the adult man, regarding philosophy’s remoteness within its own problematic and in the pursuit of its existence or its beginning. When the old Parmenides, who at the time of the dialogue that bears his name is supposed to be 70 or 80 years old, is begged by Zenon, and above all by the young Socrates, to take up again his discourse, his favorite theme on the unity of being, he declares that to ask this of him at his age is a sort of humiliation comparable to the one he would undergo if one asked him to go naked in the gymnasium.

There is something like an obscenity in philosophy, something exorbitant whose impact moreover we feel very naively. One doesn’t need to be very learned in fact to feel the strangeness of the Cartesian beginning, and as this beginning doesn’t cease starting, the strangeness doesn’t go away either, and everyone has the modesty to say: “I am a philosopher,” whether to follow seriously on this road, or if he does it seriously it will be in secret. A secret, perhaps, not only from his family, but from his best friends and almost from himself.

The unnatural character of the philosophical question, in any case its character of not being a natural inclination, makes it in a certain way almost repulsive and shameful like all great experiences: all are in some way feared by the mind as if they were shameful.

That is why “I feign.” In reality, Descartes feigns feigning.

“[...] to the point finally that having weighed my old and new prejudices in such a way that they can sway my opinion no more to one side than to the other, my judgment is no longer mastered from now on by poor usage and turned from the straight road that can conduct it to knowledge of the truth.”

For it happens, too, that the exercise of philosophy may end by this, that the series of questions and the order of philosophical questions in fact weighs certitudes in the mind. But that is philosophical maturity.

From the straight road. This straight road: it is the shortest; that is its definition. But above all it cuts short any certitude and any good sense. Philosophy is not at all an enterprise of good sense and I dare say it in commenting on Descartes, of whom all the world knows, to the contrary, that he said that good sense is the most common thing in the world. But philosophical sense is not good sense; that sort of quotidian common sense [jugeote], that popular form that would like to tame the true.

“All you need is good sense” [il n’y a qu’à être de bon sens.]

– this is a thought that really comes from French people – and the man of good sense would favorably replace in many cases several others who are supposed to be learned, and again, especially more philosophical. Well, no, not really. It is not up to good sense to be able to adapt the truth to that sort of grouchy middle ground that characterizes it and which is deep down cowardice before the extremity of the questions.

The true questions are the extreme questions.

The true questions (as Descartes says, “the true and existing questions”) are questions that ignite the powder keg and that manifestly escape the insulation [calfeutrage]of good sense. One cannot lead one’s life according to good sense.

Which doesn’t mean either that it is necessary to act crazily and tale behavior to disordered extremes. But it means that it is of the nature of the true to be extreme. One does not get out of it so easily, and when “things work themselves out,” it’s generally because one has given up or insulated oneself [se calfeutrer]. Or it’s grace. Every man experiences the solution to his real problems as grace. Which proves that the true questions are of such a nature that one doesn’t even believe that they can be resolved. That one does not expect it. Astonishing daily humility of the man who does not expect that things be resolved although he works and waits [attende] only for that. But he doesn’t believe it; and he experiences as grace the mind’s true progress; the true displays, or the true progressions of feeling or of the mind or of knowledge, always appear as purely miraculous. So this narrow way is a ridge road. It is not the discounted sinusoid of good sense.

“For I am sure that there can be neither peril nor error in that way, and that I could not today give too much to distrust [défiance] [...]”

Very beautiful word, dis-trust; it’s the opposite of trust: the way in which the mind trusts in itself as pursuit of the truth, as dedicated to the truth, is a “distrust”--that’s to say one has no trust in the ground – the truth is not a terrain that would hold us up.

What justifies Cartesian extremity is this: one does not rest on the truth, but it is necessary that in some way thought should hold on to it; not that it produces truth but that it must at least say it and rise up to it.

One can never give up oneself in the truth. So much so that the form of the truth is never the altar of repose [le reposoir], be it systematic or not; the truth is not something upon which one is going to land gently. Let us not look for it thus. The more we find it, the more, to the contrary, it augments in us both faith and distrust, true faith, which is to say distrust regarding a substitute for the truth that is always its falling back under the form of a certitude.

“for I am sure there can be no peril nor error in this way, and that I could not today give too much to my distrust since it is not now a question of acting, but only of meditating and knowing.”

It seems here that philosophy is closing itself off by itself through the mouth of Descartes in this too famous distinction of thought from action. And that as a consequence it is in this very way devalued or chased out of the concrete world.

The question is of such enormity that I cannot claim to clear it up here before you or to “deal” with it now, but simply, at least I can say this: that at first, in a certain way (which is the Kantian way) the act arises from a practical categorical imperative, which therefore isn’t theoretical – that in a certain way everyone knows what a jerk [salaud] is and it is not necessary that there be a self-justification of moral conscience; I would rather rely for moral authenticity upon indignation as such, on that wild side that makes one pounce; maintaining this on the condition that one must also not make for oneself a universe from the justification of ethical spontaneity. “I don’t need to do philosophy, and I’m going to change the world, and you’re going to see how.” Always a chivalrous attitude: to right all wrongs; because one must know at what level what is wrong is actually wrong, that is to say twisted; which doesn’t happen without meditating and knowing. Therefore, complementarity is the first idea: the complementarity of acting and knowing. Namely, that if I want to make social justice reign, it is necessary at the least that I have something other than good intentions, and that I have more than vague tinctures of political economy (that’s the difference between ouvrierism and a serious workers’ movement for example; or between a vague liberalism and a true conquest or pursuit of real freedom that supposes instruments of study; therefore, “to act” rapidly becomes to dither in moral romanticism if it is not knowing). But there isn’t only knowing; there is something else that is “to meditate.”

One must know at what level an action can be paralyzed and rendered equal to inaction. It is in this sense that Marx’s analysis shows us – it’s an example – that action symbolized by the French Revolution, for the bourgeois sectors to acquire their liberty through the abolition of privileges, this action only obtained formal liberty although it was conceived of as “Liberty” (“liberty or death”) and that it only took its meaning as an action from the fact that it really had moved the object, moved the historical or real social content.

Now what is a real content always depends on the reality of the real – which is the point of first philosophy. It is in this sense that there is no objective action as such and that it is necessary to add “meditation” to knowing. For not only is action without knowledge solely unrest, but action that is only founded on a knowledge that itself does not care about its own foundation in the truth as such (here called meditation) is still, although to a lesser degree perhaps (at least apparently), mere agitation. You see, for example, the way in which liberty flees from the men who in history overturn contents and revolutionize their relations and even their relations of production; for that was the new development, and that development in Marx’s work occurred at the level of knowledge (although in fact there may also be, through Hegel’s legacy, the level of meditation itself turned back into knowledge, as philosophy turned back into political economy for Marx). Despite then this development at the level of knowledge, one still wonders if there is any action there, and if the problem is not entire and new before the men who have attempted this step that they believed to be decisive, and if it is not necessary to meditate on the nature of the social as the social of technical societies (not only the societies of great industrial production of the 19th century, but as industrial society of the 20th) and to question technology essentially enough to see if action – and in what sense – action itself has a sense, to what depths must one go so that it may have a sense and so that it should not unceasingly be the flux that calls for the reflux and the disalienation that calls for new forms of alienation. I take a brutal (and poorly sketched, moreover) example to show that one must not put too much faith in what Descartes says about the distinction of acting and meditating and knowing. First, because it is probable that veritable action, the most active action, is thought itself, it alone being in some way capable of augmenting the effective liberty of knowledge that objectively guides action.

If then, there is a foundation for action, as execution, in the knowledge of the structures of the object; and if the structures of the object, for example, socioeconomic structures (it can also be the structure of familial relations etc.) if the structures of the object are themselves determined by the being of being, that is to say, if the real is effectively metaphysical, then meditation is the horizon, the liberty of acting itself and its real beginning.

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