Part II: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

By Derek Morrow

[Part I can be accessed here].

So why does Marion place Descartes’ “white” theology in the middle of the trilogy? To answer this question, we first need to take a step back and look at what is meant by the “gray” ontology of the first book. In that book, Marion examines The Rules for the Direction of the Mind, an early work of Descartes that was never published during his lifetime, not least because he left it unfinished in 1628. Given these peculiarities, even today the significance of the work and the relation it bears to the published corpus remains a hotly contested question among scholars. Marion argues that the Rules should be read as though Descartes were conducting a silent and unacknowledged polemic against a philosopher whose authority is still too great to risk confronting directly. On this assumption, Descartes has a distinct audience in mind as he draws up his Rules, but he never identifies this audience by name. For if he were to name the adversary, Descartes would then be required to mount an explicit refutation of the adversary’s thought, which is something he is not interested in doing for various reasons. Who is this unnamed adversary? None other than Aristotle, the hidden interlocutor of the Rules.

At first glance, this thesis may seem a bit too imaginative or far‑fetched. After all, isn’t the entire claim of a hidden interlocutor built on an argument from silence? What warrant does Marion give for this interpretation? First, by a very close textual analysis, he demonstrates that the characteristic teachings of the Rules, many of which turn up later in the published writings, take on a greater intelligibility on the assumption that they are intended to replace various corresponding teachings in Aristotle. Marion’s demonstration consists, then, in lining up the Rules of Descartes, one rule at a time, against its opposite number in the Aristotelian corpus, and then showing that Descartes contradicts Aristotle by using his own words with a meaning that Aristotle would not recognize. Through the course of this exacting comparison, which Marion carries out in extensive and convincing detail, it becomes apparent that whenever Descartes advances a characteristically “Cartesian” claim, he has Aristotle in mind—without ever naming him as such. Marion thus shows that in the Rules Descartes is conducting a dialogue with Aristotle in which he contradicts him without ever acknowledging that he is doing so. The contradiction, as such, remains forever unstated.

So Descartes’ ontology is “gray” because in the doctrine of the Rules he uses traditional Aristotelian vocabulary (thus giving the impression that he is not contradicting Aristotle), but he invests it with a meaning not found in Aristotle (which enables Descartes to contradict Aristotle without acknowledging that he is doing so). Marion calls this process of linguistic reinvestment a process of “metaphorization”—and he intends this term to be taken in its literal etymological sense, as a “carrying over” (Gr. meta-pherein) from one linguistic domain to another. Aristotle’s words haven’t changed but their meanings have, and this tacit substitution enables Descartes to avoid constructing an argument that would refute Aristotle directly, even while he borrows from Aristotle what he needs for his own purposes. In the Rules, Descartes sets about constructing a new ontology that will replace Aristotelian substance ontology, but only by a kind of bait and switch. That is, Descartes never actually demonstrates that Aristotle’s view of substance is false; instead, he brackets the issue and then illicitly and unjustifiably takes what he needs from Aristotle’s ontology in order to construct its replacement. The new Cartesian ontology is therefore “gray” because it is neither black nor white, neither Aristotelian nor unabashedly anti‑Aristotelian, but somewhere in‑between. Its lack of specificity, its parasitic relation to Aristotle, and its rhetorical avoidance of any direct confrontation with him all conspire to make the gray ontology of the Rules an implicit ontology, implicit because it promotes an anti‑Aristotelian epistemology that paradoxically lacks the fully developed ontology it needs at its core to sustain it. As its title proclaims, in this work Descartes presents “rules” that direct the mind in the search for truth; these rules draw on Aristotelian ontology and epistemology, but only to contradict them tacitly or to make use of them in ways that are incompatible with their principles. Thus while not denying the existence of substance, for example, Descartes pirates that structure and abstracts as many of the features of substance as he needs for his gray ontology. Accordingly, in the Rules Descartes transforms traditional Aristotelian ontology into an epistemology without being, into an intentionally ambiguous but new ontology—a “gray ontology” in that it is not fully Aristotle nor does it refute Aristotle.

2 thoughts on “Part II: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes”

  1. Thank you for your kind words. It helps when you have guest bloggers of such high caliber.


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