College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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René Descartes, fable, method, imagination


This dissertation traces the effects that attending to Descartes' deployment of fable have on our understanding of the Cartesian method and its conception of the imagination. Descartes must take on the task of inaugurating a break from Scholastic metaphysics and physics. Because of the limitations he sees in Scholasticism’s methods, especially in syllogisms and syntheses of previously established knowledge, Descartes frequently finds it impossible to defend his own approach to metaphysics and physics through those methods. Thus, he must find a way to establish his method without deploying it. To claim that his method is useful is not helpful in this regard because a claim of utility presumes that the method has already been deployed. His solution is to begin his texts by claiming them to be fables. "Fable‟ can be understood to refer to those moments in which Descartes explicitly uses this term in reference to his texts (The World and the Discourse on Method). However, I contend that, as a form of defending and explaining the Cartesian method ahead of its use, "fable‟ can also refer to numerous early moments throughout Descartes’ corpus, in particular those in which he refers to his work as a novel (Principles of Philosophy) and those in which he engages self-deception (Meditations on First Philosophy). Attending to the fable in this way reveals a method much more dependent on synthesis and inexact sciences like history, etymology, and politics than Descartes would seem to have recognized. In addition, such attention shows that Descartes’ understanding of the imagination is counter to frequent presumptions of its status and role: It cannot be a passive faculty and there cannot be a pre-formed faculty psychology because the imagination reveals itself to be the faculty which sets into motion the fables that defend and explain the method itself. Thus, we are able to see the Cartesian imagination as a faculty that exceeds the very limitations it sets for itself.