Montaigne and Descartes

John Phillips



The culminating essay, “de l’experience,” of Michel de Montaigne’s influential Essais makes the classic case for “experience” as a source of knowledge and justice.  The final version of the Essays from 1592, the year of Montaigne’s death, is an enormous work in three books containing 107 substantial essays.  As groundbreaking as the “new” essay form is, Montaigne here exhibits not an original but an entirely generic humanist suspicion of scientific and encyclopaedic tendencies.  The word “humanist” is of course the problematic nineteenth century translation designed to cover the Latin terms like humanitatis and humaniores that were used to designate the education systems of early modern Europe.  A “liberal” education at that time would be focused on Greek and Latin classics and involve the study of grammar, rhetoric, history and (moral rather than scientific) philosophy.  Working the scholarly and the legal situations alongside each other, he attacks first the practise of “glossing” and then the prevalence of “interpretation,” which manage, he argues, both to maintain the general populace in ignorance while ensuring their continued domination by an increasing number of authorities: “Can anyone deny that glosses increase doubts and ignorance, when there can be found no book which men toil over in either divinity or the humanities whose difficulties have been exhausted by exegesis?” (1210).  This practise of providing commentaries, explications and interpretations of the classical texts (repeated today in an encyclopaedic fever of short introductions, primers, beginners’ guides and textbooks) does not bring perplexity to an end, but rather it does the opposite; it increases it and in this way adds to the sheer number of expert authorities on a given author (and no matter how we feel, no one can demand, once and for all, that we now have enough glosses on Derrida, Deleuze or Foucault—let alone Montaigne). 

Montaigne repeats the point a little later, evoking a fluid and chaotic archive of texts about texts, an incessant “grafting” as he puts it of opinions upon opinions: “It is more of a business,” he asserts, “to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the texts, and there are more books on books than there are on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other.  All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth” (1212).  As further illustration, Montaigne quotes some verse of Etienne de la Boëtie:


Thus do we see on a flowing stream,

Water rolling endlessly on water,

Ripple upon ripple as, in its unchanging bed,

Water flees and water pursues,

The first water driven by what follows

And drawn on by what went before,

Water eternally driving into water

Even the same stream with its waters ever changing. (1212).


What is at stake in observations like these (which occur regularly throughout the Essays) is the status of the authority of the author himself, which is protected, Montaigne suggests, only by the growing multitude of commentaries and commentaries upon commentaries. 

The same problem, Montaigne argues, exists in law: “We give force of law to an infinite number of legal authorities, an infinite number of decisions, and just as many interpretations.  Yet do we ever find an end to our need to interpret?” (1210). Montaigne thus mobilizes what is already by that time a forceful humanist rejection of encyclopaedic and methodical science in the fraught and critical sphere of social justice. “Now laws remain respected,” he famously suggests, “not because they are just but because they are laws.  That is the mystical basis of their authority.  They have no other” (1216).   So there is much at stake in what by then is only the latest version of an explicit historical attempt to undermine the encyclopaedic traditions of Arabian, European, Islamic, Jewish and Christian onto-theological exegesis (carried out, notably, in explication of Aristotle).  While Montaigne could insist on a kind of “common sense” certainty about empirical experience his assertion of this seems quite disingenuous in texts that are rich with allusions to, and subtly altered repetitions of, texts from the entire fund of traditional and classical literature.     

Against this sceptical backdrop there emerges, not for the first time or for the last, a counter movement towards the establishment of supposedly “new” scientific grounds for knowledge.  Moreover this is carried out under the chronically ambiguous banner of Method.  René Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode [Discourse on the Method …] from 1697 repeats Montaigne’s (and the entire humanist tradition’s) rejection of scholastic Aristotelianism but instead promises to establish scientific grounds for knowledge that are neither empirical nor scholastic.  The full title of Descartes’s work is Discours de la method pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences [Discourse on the Method for Correctly Directing one’s Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences].  Before dealing with Descartes’s method in more detail it may be helpful to examine the conditions that he wishes by its application to emerge from.

In presenting on method it may seem that we have a choice between two seemingly different kinds of approach.  One might follow what is said on method, pursuing well defined paths or principles—one talks of the structuralist method or the several methods of dialectical materialism—thus conducting our thoughts along tried and tested ways.  Discourse on the Method is often considered as a key moment in the establishment of the modern conception of the subject of knowledge. 

Descartes’s text on method is as complex a work of literature as an epic poem by Milton, his near contemporary.  If the emergent interest in human psychology and the paradigmatic institution of ways of relating the individual to the object world outside him animate this text, it is also haunted by the texts of Aristotle (themselves obscured by encyclopaedic and methodical commentaries for diverse ends) and the revolutionary—and deliberately populist—texts of the time (written of course in the so called vulgar tongues as opposed to Latin and adding force to the emergent linguistic sovereignty of French)—like mémoires of travellers and the ever present Essays of Montaigne.  To abstract from Descartes a method for establishing the truth in knowledge (as many people, even today, have done) is to ignore the irreducible textual and historical phenomenality of the work.  Every time, in fact, that a philosopher or (social) scientist attempts to establish knowledge on firm grounds against the vagaries of diverse opinion Descartes’s perhaps disingenuous ways are re-enacted.  This is why the re-examination of these so called founding texts remain rewarding for those who seek a method.

Descartes asserts (or seems to) at the start of the Discourse that “the diversity of our opinion does not spring from some of us being more able to reason than others, but only from our conducting our thoughts along different lines [par diverses voies] and not examining the same things” (27).  Against this his text seems, again, to offer “the right path,” which he opposes to “wandering.”  But this observation (which he elaborates further along these lines throughout the first Chapter) seems to be less an assertion than an outright imitation of passages from Montaigne, who had written:

Those people who perch astride the epicycle of Mercury, and who see so far into the heavens, are an excruciating pain in the neck: for in the study I am undertaking, the subject of which is Man, I find such extreme variation of judgement, such a deep labyrinth of difficulties one on top of another, so much disagreement and uncertainty in the very school of wisdom, you will understand that, since these fellows have not been able to reach any knowledgeable conclusions about themselves and their own mode of being (which is continually before their eyes and which is within them) … I cannot believe them, can I, about the cause of the ebb and flow of the Nile! (721).

This is Montaigne, once again, as the sceptical culmination of the humanist dissociation of knowledge from scientific methodological constraints.  The study of “Man” is now the principal interest and the key value of knowledge.  So, in canonical terms, Descartes sets himself the task of emerging from two distinct and antagonistic attitudes to knowledge, which he does through both refutation (of alternative empirical and scholastic doctrines) yet at the same time a kind of “inhabitation” of the earlier texts that is nothing less than a baroque performance.  The so called “method of doubt” is sometimes regarded as a kind of radical scepticism, yet it resembles Montaigne (and others) in a fairly generic manner. 

The raising of the power of judgement (the mind, reason) above a dubious environment of experience and knowledge is nothing less than an Aristotelian gesture for the seventeenth century.  Furthermore, two sovereign languages are at stake: the philosophical language of the day (Latin) and the official, legal language of the day (French).  Descartes writes now in French while at the same time translating into Latin (though this may—notoriously—have happened the other way as well).  The issues of language, translation, politics and law, thus reside at the very heart of the text (often regarded as a founding work of modern positive science) concerned with method.

Descartes has, it seems, on a more careful contextual reading, constructed the crisis, to which his method is a response, through the subtle allusive restatement of Montaigne’s iconoclastic populism (which is itself implicated in the French Sovereignty’s program of replacing Latin with French as the official language).  Our question about method then can more usefully be focused on the saying of Descartes’s text (his discourse) than on what he says (his teaching).  Method in this sense implies at least the bringing about of the statement about.  The inevitable circularity that is signalled every time a scientific project is undermined by a sceptical response or critique (or every time a sceptical position forms the backdrop for a renewed attempt to establish the metaphysical foundations for science) is already implied at the level of the statement itself: in the double genitive: the saying of the said (or the enunciation of the statement).