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Drichel, S. (2016). Cartesian Narcissism. Am. Imago, 73(3):239-274.

(2016). American Imago, 73(3):239-274

Cartesian Narcissism

Simone Drichel

Man's unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child.

—Simone de Beauvoir

Arguing, in her 1947 text Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté, that childhood, insofar as it is at odds with the existentialist project, constitutes a problematic stage of life, Simone de Beauvoir cites the authority of none other than the “founding father” of modern Western philosophy in support of her claim: “Le malheur de l'homme, a dit Descartes, vient de ce qu'il a d'abord été un enfant” (1947, p. 51)—or, in the English translation, “Man's unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child” (1948, p. 35).1 While this particular “citation” is likely to be one of her own making,2 Beauvoir is right in a general sort of way: childhood does constitute a problematic stage of life for Descartes. Thus we read, for example, in Principle 71 of his Principles of Philosophy that “the first and main cause of all our errors” derives from childhood: “The chief cause of error arises from the preconceived opinions of childhood” (1985, p. 218, emphasis in original).3 In fact, although he here associates childhood with “error,”4 not, as Beauvoir suggests, with malheur (“misfortune,” “tragedy,” or, as in the Frechtman translation of Pour une morale, “unhappiness”), this may well have been the passage in Descartes' work that Beauvoir had in mind when she “cites” him on the conjunction of childhood and malheur.


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