The Discipline of Subjectivity

The Discipline of Subjectivity: An Essay on Montaigne

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    The Discipline of Subjectivity
    Book Description:

    Through an interpretation of Montaigne's philosophical vision as expressed in his Essays, Ermanno Bencivenga contributes to the current debate about the "death of the subject" by developing a view of the self as a project of continuous construction rather than the source and foundation of knowledge. This latter, Cartesian conception of self-consciousness as a logical and epistemological starting point is, Bencivenga contends, delusive: the certainty it provides is more akin to faith than to a cognitive state. How then do we acquire knowledge of the self? Montaigne makes for a productive case study in this regard: he declares that he himself is the matter of his book, and that nothing but the constitution of his own self is his business. A study of Montaigne reveals that the fundamental category missing in the Cartesian conception of the self is that of practical effort. The self is not a ready-made entity, available for inspection and analysis, but something whose generation requires exercise, training, and discipline. It is the result of an operation that must be performed not just once, but, as in all training, over and over again until it becomes second nature. Bencivenga characterizes the particular training required by the project of constituting a subject as a revolutionary, transgressive, critical one, which shares with philosophical activity a profoundly playful irrelevance to the "ready to hand."

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6064-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-17)

    Do i exist? Of course I do. An unknown, almighty power could well annihilate the whole world around me (and perhaps already did), but there is something it cannot do: it cannot annihilate me so long as I am a terrified spectator of its incinerating action, or so long as I wonder whether such an action has taken place or not.Mypuzzlement, ormyterror, is conclusive evidence that I, at least, have not been incinerated yet.

    Do I know something about myself? Of course I do. I may be wrong about this being a crazy spring day, with...

    (pp. 18-33)

    Montaigne says that he has no memory. And he is talking about no ordinary defect, no moderate nuisance; for once, his characterization of himself is conducted in quite emphatic terms.

    There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognize almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient. All my other faculties are low and common; but in this one I think I am singular and very rare, and thereby worthy of gaining a name and reputation. (I 9, p. 21)¹


    (pp. 34-48)

    There are ways in which the argument in Chapter 2 develops consistently the suggestions offered in Chapter 1. The self is not a ready-made entity, available for inspection and analysis. It must be constituted before it can be inspected, and its constitution requires long, painstaking discipline: it requires that we forget the delusion of “always already” exercising (rational?) control over our actions and begin to pay careful, humble attention to the details of our moves, looking for a logic that is implicit in them, recording that logic on paper, and then committing the subject to it—a subject that comes...

    (pp. 49-62)

    In our search for Montaigne’s view of the self, one component of human nature has gradually come to occupy center stage. This component, usually referred to as “mind” or “reason,” is to be handled with extreme care. “The mind is a dangerous blade,” Montaigne says, “even to its possessor, for anyone who does not know how to wield it with order and discretion” (II 12, p. 420),¹ so “[p]eople are right to give the tightest possible barriers to the human mind” (ibid., p. 419), to give it “blinkers to hold its gaze, in subjection and constraint, in front of its...

    (pp. 63-80)

    There are three kinds of desires, Montaigne says (rehearsing a well-known Epicurean line). Some are natural and necessary, some natural and not necessary, and some neither natural nor necessary. “Of this last type,” he adds, “are nearly all those of men; they are all superfluous and artificial” (II 12, p. 346).¹ It is “marvelous” (ibid.) how little our nature really needs, and how much of what we want we could do without. Marvelous indeed, so much so as to invite questions on the origin and significance (if any) of this discrepancy.

    To those who would ask such questions, Montaigne answers...

    (pp. 81-97)

    Our wanderings have left us—or, if you will, left man—in a no-win situation. On the one hand, the community is the seat of values: if the supreme goal is health, and health is a matter of integration and coordinated work, then such integration and coordination do not stop at the level of the individual.¹ The individual is educated through example and training to reiterate the practices of his predecessors. The rules of custom are inscribed in his muscles and nerves, and with them comes a horror, repentine as it is beneficial, for whatever is new, strange, or foreign...

    (pp. 98-113)

    We know already from Chapter 4 that Montaigne’s “dreams” are verbal, linguistic, written ones; we know that it is in the medium of language that he conducts the experiments suggested by his imagination. We will see now that this is not a peculiarity of his: language, for good reasons, is for most people the primary outlet of revolutionary drives.

    In the last of theEssays, Montaigne gives a spirited description of the “natural infirmity of [human] mind,” of how “it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work,...

    (pp. 114-128)

    It has been a long and tortuous journey, and we are nearing the end of it—or at least the point where I will leave off, for the time being. Thus it may be in order now to retrieve our steps and study the pattern they drew on the ground: such afterthought may give us the reassuring sense that we knew where we were going, and that we got there. In doing this, we will but once again follow the lead of our guide, who says that the course of our desires and actions

    should be directed not in a...

    (pp. 129-130)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 131-132)