philosophy is for everyone
philosophers should know lots
Discourse on Malady
a fiction by Jürgen Lawrenz
Some few years ago, a study of Descartes by Bernard Williams bore the magnificent title The Project of Pure Research. A good case can be made out that the noble sentiment reflected in this title also reflects the historical truth; it is after all, a claim put forth by Descartes himself. One should every so often, he wrote, descend to bedrock and examine the very idea of a human capacity for knowledge, its preconditions, and the dangers lying in wait for anyone who might enter upon such a novitiate.
Taking Descartes' self-analysis at face value does not seem to require justification. What could be nobler than such a sentiment, such a selfless service rendered to philosophy, especially at a juncture in its career when the sheer quantity of bric-a-brac brought life-threatening obesity in its wake and urged a radical slimming cure? History vindicated the 'project of pure research', indeed triumphantly so. Descartes belongs among the major saints in its hall of fame.
The setting could not have been more propitious. A brilliant mathematical genius, Descartes cracked at the age of 19 a problem left unsolved by Pappus 1700 years before and proceeded in short order to lay the foundations of analytical geometry and reductive-eliminative physics, which comprise jointly the power base of modern science. At the same time, his metaphysical papers revamped a whole branch of philosophy, so there is indubitable truth in Eric Bell's observation that "it is given to but few men to renovate a whole department of thought. Descartes was one of these few". And he renovated two, of course.
The Discourse on Method (hereafter: MET) with its scientific appendages, which inaugurated this revolution, is too famous to require any dilation on my part. The Discourse on Malady, however, is evidently an early and by all appearances hasty sketch of what was destined to become the MET, as may readily be confirmed by noting the transfer of verbatim phrases and whole sentences. What the MET lacks in its highly polished and manicured exposition, however, is the very immediacy of experience which distinguishes this draft. The 18 years separating this document from its published sibling were clearly devoted to gaining an objective distance and allowing all-healing time to close psychological wounds, thus enabling the writer to paint a fine glaze of rational thinking and aristocratic reserve over it.
The MS was discovered as long ago as 1898 under a wooden staircase of a small Black Forest homestead leading from the kitchen to the chicken pen. The staircase broke as the woman stepped on it. In the course of digging out its lower part, a carpenter found what seemed like a pouch or wallet enclosing some (mostly rotted through) papers. Noting the foreign language, and worried that it might have some connection to an espionage ring then known to be active in the region, he reported it to the police and from there the papers eventually came into the hands of the curator of rare and ancient manuscripts of the Swabian State Library. It was soon identified as written in Descartes' own hand, confirmed by the letters "[o]itevin"  running into the last page from the torn-off margin. The piece was not, however, ever published owing to its corrupt state. The present effort is the first to make that attempt.
As much as could be reconstructed from the fragment is herewith offered to the reader. Ellipses indicate breaks in the author's text.
[Here follow, word for word, the four rules of the MET; but thereafter the text peters out in incomprehensibility and picks up again 2 pages further on, presumably still as part of Ch. II.]
1. After 10 years of studious peregrinations, a series of parhelia observed in 1629 set Descartes aflame with the desire to at last deliver to the world the fruits of his long thinking. Le Monde was ready for the printer by 1633, when the ban on Galileo was pronounced; and Descartes may well have reflected on Aristotle's words, "I do not wish the Athenians to sin against philosophy a second time." His semi-public excuses are lame subterfuges; in reality he wanted to burn his MS,  for his God had meanwhile been created and one look with a cool objective eye at such passages as 11:37-8 or 11:47 would have convinced him that his effrontery in dictating to the almighty Lord the 'rules' under which He was allowed to create the world exceeded the worst that Galileo had dared to print. 
2. In 1644 Descartes submitted his Principles of Philosophy to the Sorbonne. He did so in the firm expectation that any sane reader would be compelled to spontaneously accept the truth of his physics in any direct confrontation with Aristotle and that the university would forthwith consign the Stagyrite to the dust bin. Allow me the comment that this was not megalomania, but a conviction with which Descartes had lived for 25 years, and that he must have regarded his intervening publications as a gentle easing of the world into his new concept of God and the world, and that the world was now ready to act without delay: to destroy, once and for all, root and branch, the witch universe in which he had grown up.
1. This the editor's title, guided by alliterative considerations. The MS bears a scribble in which only the words "malo spiritu" are clearly discriminable.
2. In those years, Descartes was often referred to as "Poitevin" (cf. Aquinas, the man from Aquino).
3. MED: Good sense. The change in emphasis is too apparent to require comment. It is worth noting, however, that superstition was rife in all classes, and none more so than the educated -- from popes and kings down, anyone who could afford their services retained astrologers, magicians, alchemists etc in their pay: cf. the reference to them in the text. One of young Descartes' study books contains notes on hydrography, geometry and surveying, reading designed by his teacher Francois to alleviate the "superstitions of astrology". Hence it transpires that Descartes shared in this general affliction of the age; and the question remains only: did he ever successfully manage to cast off his superstitions?
4. Here, at the torn edge of the page, a gap of probably 4-5 sentences occurs.
5. At this points, several lines are heavily blacked out; is it safe to conjecture that the text of MET supplies the deficiency? I think not; but the deleted passage is unreadable even under ultraviolet light.
6. The reference to witches omitted in MET. However, it is indispensable for an understanding of Part II and indeed the whole trend of Descartes' philosophy and physics, that the year of this draft is 1619, in which the craze for burning witches reached its apogee in Germany and left not the tiniest or least significant village unaffected by its paroxysm of murder, and almost invariably directed at females. Wherever Descartes was billeted, chances are that he witnessed at least one such execution and heard of many more; and it would be surprising indeed if such a sensitive soul had remained unaffected by these horrid spectacles that were part of his social reality.
7. This passage, which recurs unchanged in MET disproves Baillet's surmise that Descartes had on that day participated in a drunken rout.
8. Dwellers in all alpine or polar regions of the world know that sudden exchanges between the icy-cold temperatures outside and the dry heat from wood fires -- especially if these are enforced by, say, the need to visit an outside toilet several times -- are apt to wreak havoc with one's physiological equilibrium and induce hallucinatory states in the victim. Moreover Descartes' latent consumptive conditions is likely to have exacerbated the problem.
9. The reader will note at once that this account is missing altogether from the published MET and dispersed across other writings from Descartes' pen or his biographers.
10. Herr Quacksalber, the present custodian of the ms, disputes my decipherment of this passage and urges instead "squeezed etc" the reading, "it scared the shit out of me; indeed it was running down my legs as these events transpired and the resulting mud and stench increased my discomfiture, as one may well imagine."
11. This sentence recurs in MET but under very much changed lighting. It may be conceded that the fear stirring in these words was to reverberate silently throughout Descartes' life and may in part explain his inveterate changes of lodgings and his 'forgetfulness' in leaving a forwarding address. Furthermore, neither MET nor MED actually fulfil what their programmes promise, Descartes vacillating between resolve and timidity, so that his whole metaphysics needs to be pieced together from several writings and his letters, the latter frequently explicating what his published circumlocutions conceal rather than reveal.
12. It is well-known that the theological fraternity was never happy with Descartes' non-stop protestations about God. Yet none of them thought to ask (as they might have), which God? As his correspondence with More reveals, that question could have discomfited Descartes. An insightful note by John Barry suggests that "his rebuff of More [relates to] his conception of God. He recognised behind the issues raised by More the spectre of the old world and its God. [But] the new world is a realm of strict and principled structures ... pure mind is more than a fable, it is the creator and monitor of all that is real and true. Thus, Descartes' quest for God of pure mind is a search for a new God upon which to ground his new world." Barry, James: Measures of Science. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill. 1996, p. 30.
13. But there were probably copies abroad, and such action might have attracted just the suspicion he sought to avoid.
14. The passages read: "It is easy to accept that God, who is, as everyone must know, immutable, always acts in the same way [like a machine? Ed.]. Without going any further into these metaphysical considerations, however, I will set out here two or three of the principal rules by which we must believe God to cause the nature of this world to act ..." and "... if God had created many worlds, [these rules] would be as true in each as in this one. Thus those who know how to examine the consequences [of our rules] will have a priori demonstrations of everything that can be produced in this new world." [i.e. each new world is a clone of all others. Ed.].
© Jurgen Lawrenz 2003