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The question this paper addresses is whether, and under what conditions, one can apply the concept of subjectivity to Descartes' philosophy. It is, to be sure, a widespread opinion that the Cartesian cogito has prepared the way for modern philosophy by showing that the mind is capable to doubt anything but its own existence — this latter certainty being the basis or the foundation for everything that can be known. But the real question is whether the knowledge the mind has of itself is of the same order as the knowledge it has of other things. If this were the case, Descartes would have thought the mind (or the Ego) not as a subjectivity but as just a special kind of thing. Hence the further problem triggered by this interpretation which we shall oppose: can the mind be said to have a representation or an idea of itself, as it would have of all other things? On the reading offered here, the mind is not a thing that should differ from other things by certain characteristics of its own. To the contrary, as the capacity to know everything else, the mind knows itself as an activity. The substance of the soul, accordingly, is nothing but its ability to know all other things and to know itself as distinct from them. This alternative conception of Cartesian subjectivity is further developed and argued for in the remainder of this paper which focuses on the main points of Descartes's theory of the 'passions of the soul'. Here, as elsewhere, Descartes thinks of the soul as a power that becomes aware of itself in and through the resistance with which it opposes the passions. The soul is thus not at all to be thought of in terms of some sort of self-intimacy, or as a proximity to itself. According to our reading, the absolute good for the Cartesian subject is the free will (the liberum arbitrium) which it senses in itself. Hence also the meaning and central place of the concept of generosity for Descartes: it has to do with the soul's self-esteem which it derives from the usage it makes of this freedom. The soul, then, is an ability or a capacity; it has to be conceived of in terms of the usage it makes of its freedom and of its experiencing itself as such freedom. There is no other dimension, be it in metaphysics or in morals, to the Cartesian subjectivity than this one. It is this conception that makes Descartes's subject so different from other modern conceptions of subjectivity.
Tijdschrift voor Filosofie © 2003 Katholieke Universiteit-Leuven