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Monday, February 29, 2016

Getting Descartes wrong

Getting Descartes wrong (from Stanford Enc of Philosophy:
How could interpreters get Descartes so wrong? One recent explanation suggests that many post-modern “theorists” have absorbed their Descartes at second hand, and the same explanation might be extended to others who invoke Descartes after only cursory engagement with this writings. As the literary historian Michael Moriarty explains, leading French theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault would have, in the course of their French educations, “received a solid grounding in philosophy, and in Descartes' works in particular” (Moriarty 2003, 52). They then use Descartes as a stalking horse. Moriarty suggests that many readers of Lacan and Foucault have not received the same education in philosophy or in Descartes. Such individuals, “who read Lacan or Foucault without, or before, reading Descartes, thus imbibe a certain perception of Descartes, more negative, perhaps, than the authors themselves, writing against the grain of their own culture, may have intended to convey” (2003, 53). The implication is that Lacan and Foucault engaged Descartes from a knowledge of his writings, whereas others who lack such knowledge misunderstand the value of such genuine engagement and take away misunderstood implications. This would also explain how Descartes could be charged with denying the emotions even though he published an entire book on the Passions, and how the implications of this book might be overlooked by someone eager to find a famous target to disagree with.
How often does this happen, not just with Descartes but with almost everyone? In other words, someone has not read Descartes, or Foucault, but maybe a chapter on Foucault in a book on literary theory. Or maybe they've read something about Derrida's view of Husserl. I'm not putting myself forth as some great expert. I know nothing about Husserl. But I probably wouldn't take his name in vain when writing about something else.

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