Paul Nizan 1937

The Tricentennial of a Manifesto

Source: L'HumanitÚ, May 22, 1937;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2013.

Great philosophers, with whom only a small number of exegetes, specialists, and men impassioned by ideas have commerce, sometimes find a public glory that gives their names a new glow. This recognition of great philosophical figures generally occurs once a century. Descartes is entering this brief period of renown: three hundred years ago the “Discourse on Method” appeared.

This famous discourse is without a doubt something more than a philosophical book, something more than Spinoza’s “Ethics” or Kant’s three “Critiques:; it is a truly historic piece of writing.


Maxime Leroy, in a work whose title is worth more than its text, called Descartes the “masked philosopher.” There is no author more misunderstood than the greatest of French philosophers. The man was mysterious, full of a singular carefulness and prudence, and concerned to hide his true face. This taste for secrecy, which led him to lead a life of long solitude in Holland, isn’t enough to account for the deformations his philosophy has suffered.

There has long existed a Cartesian myth or legend that is a part of French propaganda: Cartesian reason, as it is called, is a platitude ordinarily associated with French “measure;” with the well-tended the gardens of the Ile-de-France and the Touraine; with the humanities taught in high schools after they had been taught in Jesuit colleges; with the grace of Racine and the charm of the Princess of Cleves. Everything has been done to present Descartes as a distinguished philosopher, as a notary who loves roses, lawns, politesse, bourgeois wisdom and Horace’s poetry. This propaganda has had aspects still more odious: during the war we saw professors like M. Chevalier describe the battle of the Marne as a victory of this bizarre Descartes of school textbooks over the barbaric philosophy of Germany.

In order to see how laughable the official image is it’s enough to go see the portrait of Descartes by Hals at the Louvre, to see those sunken eyes, that stubborn forehead, those bitter lips. In truth, “The Discourse on Method,” in which Descartes fully explained himself for the first time, constitutes a philosophical coup de force. It is something more than the “Ethics” because it is the historic manifesto of bourgeois intelligence, just as the “Summa” of Saint Thomas was the manifesto of feudal intelligence, and as the works of Marx were to be the manifesto of proletarian intelligence.

Whoever says historic manifesto says boldness. Nothing better defines Descartes’ than daring or that virtue he places in the front ranks of moral values and which he calls generosity. The man was as bold as his ideas: his biographers recount how Descartes, threatened by boatmen who were transporting him, held them back with his gaze, even though he was all alone.

That is how Descartes must be viewed: ready to draw his sword. This philosopher was a soldier, a militant sage, even though he despised war and the career of arms, in which he'd spent some time.

Before him modern thought had certainly manifested itself: the entire Renaissance testifies to its development and, before the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, which a certain understanding of history has presented as the Dark Ages, is full of movements that announce its coming. Before Descartes there was da Vinci, before da Vinci Nicolas of Cusa.

But the progressive constituting of a new type of intelligence is one thing; becoming aware of this novelty is quite another. Greek thought did not wait for Plato to constitute itself, but it was Plato who revealed it to itself.

“The Discourse on Method” is the book through which the young bourgeois intelligence reached full awareness of its existence and its means. Before Descartes there was Galileo, there was Kepler. But against the dogmatic and feudal rules that theology expressed and that revelation dominated, it was Descartes who elaborated the rules of the new form of thought.

Unquestionably Descartes took precautions and continued to say that God guarantees the truth of human knowledge, but the formal conviction with which he says it is not really convincing. It is upon man’s spirit that knowledge reposes; there is an instrument of knowledge that is the “understanding:” there are not two. God isn’t absent from Descartes’ world, but truth is not subordinated to him; in fact, it depends only on man’s capacity to discover it. This change in position is a historic revolution.

The new demand for thought’s rights and authority rest on a specific invention, on the discovery of a new mathematical method, one where the activity of thought shines through. It’s the mathematician in him that inclines Descartes to boldness. It'is from the moment when he invents analytic geometry, i.e., when he discovers the means of expressing a geometric figure through an equation, that he becomes fully conscious of the power of understanding, which, through algebra, is the master of space. So begins the mathematical conquest of the world that will henceforth characterize the evolution of science. For a science that, like feudal science, rests on the analysis of qualities, Descartes substitutes a science founded on the calculation of quantities.

An intelligence that feels itself capable of measuring the world through the techniques it has itself constituted knows no limits to its ambitions, and this is why the “Discourse on Method” denounces all knowledge received from tradition and preserved by routine. Nothing can resist its judgments. Everything is on trial before this tribunal; first the theological truths and then, in the eighteenth-century, all political and moral truths.

These characteristics don’t exhaust Descartes’ novelty: he wouldn’t be a man of his time if he didn’t express the values of rising bourgeois society. That society wasn’t disinterested: it aimed at establishing domination; it was a conqueror; it is the society that would assume the industrial transformation of the world. Descartes aims primarily at extending as far as possible the domain of truths established by intelligence, but he also aims to apply them. He doesn’t conceive of a science that can’t find an application: there is no more modern a trait than this refusal of contemplation. Ancient thought made little of the application of science: technique and machines seemed to it to be forms of divertissement. But Descartes dreams endlessly of an applied intelligence, of the prolongation of human life, for example. He expresses modern thought’s great wish when he says that his method must, in the end, make men “the masters and owners of nature.” This dream of Descartes’ is one of the great ideas of history: from the moment man clearly conceives himself in combat with nature and as a conqueror, modern times have begun. These are not the traits of a wise gardener with which Descartes is so often depicted.

Many elements of this thought are dead. When Descartes describes the characteristics of understanding he says it in the terms of nascent idealism: the famous “I think therefore I am,” in submitting the proof of existence to the primacy of consciousness, founds post-Cartesian idealism. The ambiguity of Cartesian thought from which is derived both an idealism and a rationalism which would culminate in the materialism of the eighteenth century has never been better demonstrated than by Marx in “The Holy Family.”

Descartes, who clearly sees the effect thought can have on the material world doesn’t see the material origins of that same thought. The praxis of which Marx spoke appears to him to be merely a consequence. This is perhaps because he is a stranger to the idea of the collective action of men. Cartesian thought is still the thought of the solitary man.

The Cartesian Úlan was extinguished in bourgeois thought. It has arrived at the time of disavowals. But it is an Úlan whose heritage revolutionary thought can finally assume.