Excusable Caricature and Philosophical Relevance: The Case of Descartes
Descartes used to be the revered father of modern philosophy. Now he is its great anti-hero. He is regarded this way not just by devotees of postmodernism but by many more mainstream philosophers on both sides of the rift between the Continental and analytic traditions. For these people, Descartes’ doctrines are not there to be endorsed and elaborated but to be refuted and shunned. Thus the familiar negative connotations of the term ‘Cartesian’. Cartesian privacy, like Cartesian dualism or Cartesian scepticism or Cartesian foundationalism or the Cartesian insistence on excluding the subject from nature, is something we are invited or assumed to take a stand against. A Cartesian doctrine is not necessarily considered silly, but it is nearly always claimed to be misconceived, usually deeply so. Sometimes a Cartesian doctrine is shown to be false by arguing against it, but more often argument is bypassed: what happens is that the reader or listener is immersed in questions or practices that make Cartesian practices and questions seem artifi cial or outmoded-interesting, perhaps, as specimens of a particular philosophical pathology, but not to be entered into sympathetically. What is more, it is usually not hard to get a doctrine to be admitted to be Cartesian by a twentieth-century philosophical audience. It is usually no harder, in fact, than describing it in terms that bring to mind halfremembered passages from the Meditations.