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“It may appear surprising that profound thoughts are to be met with more frequently in the writings of poets than in those of philosophers. The reason for this is that the poets wrote under the influence of both enthusiasm and the power of imagination. There are, within us, seeds of science, as there are seeds of fire in a flint; philosophers extract these through reason; poets draw them out through imagination, in which case they shine all the brighter.” 
Descartes, Olympiques. [1]
“And I was led to ask myself whether there was indeed any truth in the distinction which we are always making between art, which is no more advanced now than in Homer’s day, and science with its continuous progress.”
Proust, The Guermantes Way.[2]

1 Art and science, in the academic world, as in the world of research or creation where they find expression, are separated, sealed off into disciplines, laboratories, and various work spaces that rarely communicate with one another. Philosophy is both evidence of this schism and participates in shaping it, in helping it take root, by separating these different discourses rather than connecting them. To literature, philosophy attributes the speech act and aesthetic function, and to science, the experimental act that enables truth, and it situates itself, as a thought act, sometimes in one camp, sometimes in the other. Truth, like beauty, is the business of specialists and, according to them, the two mingle only at the cost of their specificities.

2 Looking back to a time when the schism between philosophy and science did not yet exist, it is possible to cross the border that now separates beauty from truth, the individual experience of the artist from the falsifiable experiment of the scientist, phenomenology from positivism, by analyzing the links that this philosophy, with its claims to be a science, has with literature. Thus it is to the seventeenth century that we must repair in order to see how modern philosophy was born out of the separation of science and art, while at the same time according them the possibility of being reunited. Daniel Garber [3] tells us that “[In the seventeenth century] neither philosophy nor science as we now know them could properly be said to exist as distinct domains of knowledge: What we call philosophy and what we call science were part of a single domain of inquiry which went under the rubric of philosophy.” Descartes, whose ambition was to treat all knowledge as scientific, that is to say as certain and evident knowledge, is particularly representative of this continuum between science and philosophy. Nevertheless, the scientism of the Cartesian system maintains, from its earliest manifestations, a never-ending dialog with fiction and literature, as shown in Descartes’ treatise The World, written between 1629 and 1633. In this work, Descartes lays out the whole of his physics, but this is mediated by the use of non-scientific language, a language belonging to the fictional domain of the fable, which immediately places the language of emerging modern philosophy between science and art.

3 An analysis of the reasons for and consequences of such a choice enables a link to be established between these two poles, which are capable of coalescing in philosophy, unifying thought and human knowledge by way of the definition of a truth that surpasses divisions of genre, of discipline, and of modes of language. This comparison can serve us as a guide on our journey to cross over and pass beyond these borders. By comparing Descartes’ fable, The World, with other universes that are foreign to it, both temporally and stylistically, we will see if Descartes’ scientific claim to truth, seen through the artistic modernity of Proust or Kubrick, who employ fiction to other ends, might not become, in the course of its multiple metamorphoses, literary truth. And if the comparison is probative, if the scientific and artistic truths share the same utterance, the same language, the same concerns, are they not the same things, disguised by names, by different genres and disciplines that can be blended together through a comparison of texts and works, revealing that they have the same face hidden beneath a series of masks? “The sciences are currently masked, the masks lifted, they would appear in all their beauty,” [4] Descartes tells us, thus associating the scientist’s work on truth with the artist’s idea of beauty by way of their common role of unveiling truth. It would seem that this work of association and revelation is still necessary today.

4 The first question to ask concerns the causes and the ultimate aim of Descartes’ use of the fable. Is its primary purpose not a dissembling of the bold theories condemned by the Church, as the final abandoning of the treatise following Galileo’s conviction in 1633 proves, rather than an attempt to blend art and science in established philosophy? Would it not even be possible to interpret it as an immature form of Descartes’ still developing thought? Such readings are certainly legitimate, but they do not in any way rule out a literary reading of Descartes’ scientific project. On the contrary, it seems that giving the theory of caution absolute sway, or putting the choice of the fictional form down to simply the poetic enthusiasm of Descartes’ youth, is essentially to miss the main point of the treatise, which is to be found in this blending of genres. Comparison with Proust’s work, In Search of Lost Time, and with that of Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, will enable us to better comprehend the importance of this blending. Descartes shares the same definition of fiction used by Proust, that of a game that unveils truth, organized around a demiurgeous central “I”, and with Kubrick he shares the same notion of a space that is entirely geometrized and responds perfectly to the human mind’s thirst for knowledge, as well as a taste for analogy to account for humanity. Comparison, conceived as the act of imagination that will enable the truth to be drawn forth from that which directly hides it by establishing a parallel between two things, will enable us to see that the various claims to the truth, whether they be philosophical or literary, artistic or scientific, have the potential to come together, beyond the specificity of their mode of expression.

The Origin of the World

5 Although the connection between philosophy and science seems evident in Descartes’ early writings, from his Regulae to his Discourse, the same is not true of literature. Nevertheless, this is the form Descartes chooses for his fable, when he lays out, in The World, “the whole of physics.” [5] When Descartes presents his treatise in the fifth part of Discourse on the Method, two elements remain important to him. On one hand, he emphasizes that what he wants to reveal here is “the nature of material things,” [6] that is to say an explication of the whole of physics from light to humanity, by way of the earth, all from a strictly scientific point of view, that allows the discovery of “many truths more useful and more important than anything I had learned before or even hoped to learn.” [7] This demonstrates a scientific concern, capable of founding genuine physics on purely mechanistic bases and principles. However, on the other hand, Descartes holds to the fictional nature of his work. The World is not about the laws of nature governing our world, but rather it creates a new world and imagines its laws: “If God were now to create, somewhere in imaginary space, enough matter to compose it and if he were to agitate diversely and confusedly the different parts of this matter, so that he created a chaos as disordered as the poets could ever imagine.” [8] Here are the two imperatives established by Descartes in his treatise The World: A scientific imperative, revealing the truth about the laws of nature, and a fictional imperative, by way of which these laws are discovered, coming together to form an unanswerable model of mechanistic cosmology.

6 Nevertheless, the reasons for a such a choice are not clear and first among them might be a kind of caution, adopted by the masked philosopher before the Church which asserts that the Earth is immobile and that the Sun moves around it. The movement of The World is entirely different in Descartes’ treatise, which here takes up the Copernican theory, according to which the Sun is fixed and is positioned in the middle of concentric spheres, which pull the planets, including the Earth, in their rotation. The use of the fable is then, for Descartes, an indirect method of making the Earth move, without fearing the lightning bolts of the Church, and support for this view can be found in the caution he would show, in late 1633, when he decided to abandon the publication of his project after Galileo’s conviction on 22 June.

7 Nevertheless, there are many elements that counter this theory of caution. Firstly, in 1629, when writing of this work began, Cardinal Bellarmin’s most recent admonition of Galileo, who had aligned himself with the Copernican system, dated back to 1616, a date that, at the time, seemed far distant to Descartes, who had every reason to think of this censure as expired, since he doesn’t hide his metaphorical interpretation of the physics of the Bible in his letters and shows no concern over his scientific experiments. [9] Descartes’ surprise and astonishment when he learned of Galileo’s conviction were not feigned and were a major factor in his decision not to publish his work. Although Cartesian caution can be clearly seen in his refusal to print his treatise, the choice of the fable dates back to a time when Descartes seemed to have no fear of being importuned for his opinions. This can be seen in Descartes’ correspondence, which shows that the fable is present in the premises of his physics and Descartes shows himself to be particularly attached to his fictional mode of expression. Three years before deciding to definitively suspend writing, Descartes was very keen to finish it: “I am too much in love with the fable of my World to give it up.” [10] Therefore, although it is conceivable that the choice of writing style gave Descartes an additional impression of freedom, it was firstly through free choice and attachment to the fable that Descartes adopted this means of expressing himself.

8 However, does this choice itself, far from being necessary and rigorous, not precisely demonstrate a rather immature outlook “cloaked in [youthful] poetic enthusiasm?” [11] There is a very widespread biographical habit of emphasizing the youthful Descartes’ taste for poetry, which he mixed, in the early years, into all of his works, and which is popularly contrasted with the rigor of his more mature works. Maxime Leroy, in his biography of the philosopher, dating from 1929, Descartes, le philosophe au masque [Descartes, the Masked Philosopher], exemplifies this idea when he writes: “This mind, which will later accustom us to its precision, sometimes even showing a certain bluntness in its metaphysical demonstrations, is, at this time, entirely given over to allegory, to symbolism. His poetic fever is extreme.” [12] This idea is lent support by the words of Descartes himself, who does not shrink from telling us, in the first part of his Discourse: “I [...] was in love with poetry” [13] However, even during these years of his youth, Descartes’ attraction to poetry never distracted him from his scientific ambitions. What was occupying this mind impassioned by poetry at the decisive moment mentioned by Maxime Leroy, the night of 10 November 1619 to be precise, if it was not science? The Olympiques, Descartes’ written work that relates the night that created this poetic enthusiasm in him, is principally about the discovery of the “foundations of a laudable science.” [14] Poetry is certainly present in Descartes’ works, but it is always subordinated to an imperative of truth, not of beauty.

9 This ambiguity is raised by the writings of Descartes himself, who continually distinguishes himself, through his aims, from poets and fabulists. The poet describes and admires a nature that he does not understand; the mechanistic physicist unpacks natural principles and prevents the wondrous from playing a role that it has no business playing. The different roles are assigned at the beginning of “Meteorology,” a clear demonstration of the scientific position Descartes is taking in relation to the poets: “It is our nature to have more admiration for the things above us than for those that are on our level, or below. And although the clouds are hardly any higher than the summits of some mountains, and often we even see some that are lower than the pinnacles of our steeples, nevertheless, because we must turn our eyes toward the sky to look at them, we fancy them to be so high that poets and painters even fashion them into God’s throne, and picture Him there, using His own hands to open and close the doors of the winds, to sprinkle the dew upon the flowers, and to hurl the lightning against the rocks. This leads me to hope that if I here explain the nature of clouds, in such a way that we will no longer have occasion to wonder at anything that can be seen of them, or anything that descends from them, we will easily believe that it is possible to find the causes of everything that is most admirable above the earth.” [15] Physical explanation takes precedence over poetic wonder and the role of Descartes is always explanatory, even when he seems to be edging towards non-scientific horizons, because he anticipates wonder instead of causing it.

10 Another difference between art and science is highlighted by Descartes as early as the first rule of the Regulae, which explains that, if the sciences are one and can be entirely comprehended by the same mind, the same is not true of the arts: “It is in this way that a false comparison has been established between the sciences, which consist of a knowledge belonging entirely to the mind, and the arts, which demand certain exercises and certain dispositions of the body.” [16] Therefore, Descartes’ choice of fiction is made quite deliberately and his youthful admiration for poetry and the arts is not clouding his judgment to the extent of losing sight of his objective, which is always science, certainty, or truth.

11 However, if the fable is more than just an action dictated by caution and if it is not to be confused with poetry’s aim of provoking wonder and with the peculiar nature of the arts, of which the young Descartes was fully aware, in what way is it necessary to the science? Descartes introduced this element to his treatise late and in an apparently offhand manner, interrupting his development of physics through mathematics at the end of chapter 5, as follows: “But so as to make this long discourse less boring for you, I want to wrap up part of it in the guise of a fable, in the course of which I hope the truth will not fail to manifest itself sufficiently clearly, and that this will be no less pleasing to you than if I were to set it forth wholly naked.” [17] The first aim is, therefore, approval. The fable of the world is a pedagogical aid that will make physics understandable to a wider audience. It is the didactic form of science, a game whose resolution is truth. This mediation of truth via the fable has, perhaps, another consequence which is in contradiction to the aim of creating wonder normally fixed upon by fabulists. In using fiction to situate physical truth in another world, Descartes also anticipated the surprise of his reader when faced with the novelty of his mechanistic explanations. The definition of Descartes’ fable, the aim of which is truth in an attractive guise, thereby evades, by this very definition, the lures of the wondrous proffered by its composition.

12 Nevertheless, the true reason for the fable is perhaps not to be found in Descartes’ words, but in the use he makes of it. By asking his readers to “allow [their] thoughts to wander beyond this world to another, wholly new, world, which [he] calls forth in imaginary spaces before it,” [18] Descartes also leads his reader away from the sensory. Prepared by the five introductory chapters to base physics, not on observation, experience, and the senses, but on the mechanistic method, reducing the object of study to the essential components of its smallest parts (analyzing light, Descartes sees only movement, taking it back to its most simple concept), then reconstructing it through geometry, the reader of The World, needed only this transition to fiction to entirely quit the world of the senses and allow physics to be given its full expression in a derealized world, made up of essential concepts and geometric forms.

The Game of the “I”

13 The Cartesian notion of fiction, as a game that seeks and enables truth, by pulling away from the world of the senses to reach concepts and the essential, can be found in a swathe of modern literature and particularly in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. A comparison between the two works, the discourses of which share definitions and goals, but which do not belong to the same disciplines, enables us to question the scientific claim to truth of the Cartesian fable and to come directly to the point in the study of the relationship science enjoys with literature.

14 Thus the first point shared by Proust and Descartes in their journey towards the truth seems to be not to utter it directly, but to use fiction to defer its revelation. Proust even sees this deferment as constituting the specificity of literary language, when he writes to Jacques Rivière: [19] “As an artist, I found it more delicate not to allow it to be seen, not to announce that it was a quest for Truth I was setting out upon, nor what that consisted of for me.” If Descartes does declare, as a scientist, that it is a quest for truth that he is setting out on, the exposition of this truth nevertheless takes the same deferred form as in Proust’s novel. Indeed, it is worth drawing attention to the manner in which the two authors continually delay at the outset of their works. In Search of Lost Time is in a perpetual state of commencement for several hundred pages. The first pages herald a false beginning, a preliminary digression on sleep and art, and this continues up to the evocation of Combray [20], which ends approximately 40 pages into the novel and which offers a new point of departure by way of “involuntary memory.” Some hundred pages later, when we believe ourselves firmly settled into the novel, “A Love of Swann’s” again opens on a new beginning. The theme of falsity and illusion accompany this deferment of the beginning, which thus becomes deferment of the truth. The first pages of In Search of Lost Time are concerned with uncertainty, by way of a lexical field of appearance and established belief. [21] The description of the character of Swann also plays a part in this presentation of illusion. The Swann of Combray is a vague figure, described as a “dark and uncertain figure who emerged [...] from a background of shadows and whom we recognized by his voice,” [22] and who has no other aspect than the erroneous one bestowed upon him by the family of the Narrator. According to them, he has no worldly connections and enjoys only a superficial relationship with art, two observations that will later be contradicted by the portrait of Swann and that demonstrate the extent to which “we fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions that we have about him, and in the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly have the greater part.” [23] It is in this way that Proust’s novel will pull away from sensory impressions to present an entirely internal truth, directly masked by observation, which conceals the reality of people and of objects through the appearances we bestow upon them.

15 This “stuttering” of beginnings followed by a denunciation of illusion and of falsity, consisting in a literary work that directly conceals its aspirations, can also be found in Descartes’ scientific work, even if the latter is prompt in exposing its aims. The fable is offered to the reader of the treatise as a recommencement and appears in the fifth chapter like a new beginning, to the point that it could be considered, as Adam and Tannery point out, that “the book only truly begins with the sixth [chapter], where Descartes presents what he calls the fable of his world.” [24] The first five chapters, as in Proust’s work, present error and illusion, first criticizing the confidence that physics normally places in the senses and in observation. If some light is shed on the Cartesian text, it makes no real mention of this, but rather strives to cast a veil of doubt over our interpretation of sensory data, by showing that there is a radical difference between ideas and things that cannot be conceived of through simple observation. Descartes does not, therefore, start out with an utterance of the truth, which will take shape much later with the fable, but firstly denounces an illusion, by warning us that “it is possible for there to be a difference between the sensation we have of [light], that is, the idea that we form of it in our imagination through the intermediary of our eyes, and what it is in the objects that produces the sensation in us, that is, what it is in the flame or in the Sun that we term ‘light’.” [25]

16 Thus the two works defer their beginnings and their truths so as to introduce a novel method of elucidation, which firstly detaches itself from direct sensory experience, to better form the correspondence between truth and the mind’s necessity, which will be expressed in a fictional, scientific, or literary form. This derealization through fiction in both works allows the mind to move away from empirical observation, to create a world that is no longer real, but true. It is the use of the first person that will give the world described this character of truth. Going beyond its subjective nature, the “I” will confer its universality, its certitude, and its truth onto the fictional discourse.

17 From the beginning of The World Descartes stresses the specificity of the person who is writing, beginning a scientific treatise with the word “I” and following it with five other occurrences of the first person in the first sentence alone. Pierre-Alain Cahné, in his linguistic study of Descartes’ writing, which he compares “passing over the centuries and the genres, with the sensibility of Proust,” [26] stresses that unbroken reading of Descartes’ works, in chronological order, as is made possible by the François Alquié French edition, gives the impression of reading a long novel, relating the history, in its narrative and novelistic sense, of his mind. The World plays a significant part in this self-portrait, to the point that this perpetual staging of an “I” who is regulator, organizer, and, finally, creator of the fable, brings Descartes into competition with the other creator of The World: God. Who is the true demiurge in The World? God, who creates the world, or Descartes, who creates The World? It should be noted that the main character in the work is not God, but this first person singular who represents Descartes in this fiction. Unlike God, who absents himself at the beginning of the work and is eclipsed well before the end, Descartes is everywhere in The World. Although God is summoned in chapter six to make the necessary matter for the world of the fable, it is certainly Descartes who is its real creator and who unequivocally brings it into being before the summoning of God. The chapter is clear on this point, as demonstrated by its first sentence: “Allow your thoughts to wander beyond this world to another, wholly new, world, which I call forth in imaginary spaces before it.” [27] This creative displacement superimposes Descartes’ fable of the world and fable of the life of the mind in The World, as it is no longer a question of explaining an objective world created by God, but of analyzing a subjective world, created by Descartes and obeying the laws of his mind. What is important now is to identify these laws of the mind with the laws of nature.

18 Putting himself in the center of the world he creates with his mind, the Cartesian “I” identifies himself with The World, as the narrator will identify himself with In Search of Lost Time. It is this identification of the individual with the work that enables the universalization of the laws of a singular mind and underwrites the claim to truth of the two works.

19 Proust’s novel also has an “I” creator as its main protagonist, as it is he who writes the novel that we are reading and thus the world that he describes. The end of Time Regained sees the Narrator, back in Madame de Saint-Loup’s house with all his illusions and cured of his procrastination, finally setting himself to writing the novel of his inner life, which takes the form of what we began to read at the beginning of The Way by Swann’s. The work opens with a reflection on sleep and the manner in which it merges the Narrator with the book he had just closed before falling asleep: “it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about.” [28] It is this complete identification between the “I” of In Search of Lost Time and the work that he is writing that the whole novel recounts. The definitive sentences of Time Regained, such as “the supreme truth of life resides in art,” [29] or “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature,” [30] take on their full meaning from this point of view. The identification culminates in this key passage from In Search of Lost Time, which presents the literary calling of the Narrator: “And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life [...] Thus, my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.” [31]

20 However, this identification between the “I” and the novel does not mean that what the book relates is strictly individual. On the contrary, the novel seeks constantly to surpass singularity in order to attain the universal. This point is particularly emphasized by the fable that closes the film adaptation of Time Regained by Raoul Ruiz: “The day that the sculptor Salvini died, he was accorded, like other mortals, the time to peruse all the places and the moments of his life on earth. The sculptor refused this favor. ‘My whole life has been a succession of extraordinary adventures and revisiting them would only sadden me further’ he said, ‘I prefer to use the time I have been accorded to peruse my final work: Divine Nemesis, which is better known by the name of Love’s Triumph.’ And this is what he did. A little time later, the Angel of Death appeared to announce that the period of grace had passed. ‘There is a paradox here,’ Salvini exclaimed, ‘I had enough time to revisit every moment of my life, which lasted sixty-three years, and this same amount of time was not enough to peruse a work that took me three months to complete.’ ‘In that work is all of your life and the lives of all men. To peruse it, you would have needed an eternity.’” In the scientific or literary work that creates a world obeying the laws of the mind, the mind that is expressed by an “I” becomes all minds and is universalized into a “we” by way of the work that is both written by and describes the “I”.

21 Fiction is, therefore, the process that denounces the sensory in order to derealize the world, to which the author gives truth by giving voice to the novel of his mind. The identification of the “I” with the work is what allows access to a truth common to the whole of humanity, as the individual “I”, mediated by fiction, becomes a collective “I”, in which every person can recognize his/her mind. One major difference remains: Although, according to Proust, this is the essence of literature, for Descartes it is only a scientific experiment that enables certainty. Does this difference in conception not lead to two different definitions of truth, one literary, the other scientific? The answers are perhaps muddled here because, despite the caution he attests to, Proust is certainly writing a work whose aim is speculative. Therefore, it is with a work far removed from the world of Descartes, but laying no claim to the truth, that I must continue my comparison.

Science Fiction

22 A work of science fiction, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey falls within this context of giving a plausible form to an imaginary world, yet without sharing the scientific aim of Descartes’ creation. Although the film, made in 1968, uses the technical and scientific knowledge of its time in as realist a manner as possible, it does so, above all, to give a credible foundation to the universe it depicts and a plausible character to the invented world. The work even makes use of the history of science to this end. Arthur C. Clarke extrapolates, for example, on scientific discoveries, giving them a role that they did not yet have at the time of writing. Thus, he writes about suspended animation: “But, half a century of research had proved that artificially induced human hibernation was perfectly safe, and it had opened up new possibilities in space travel.” [32] Going beyond its plausibility, the use Kubrick makes of science is, above all, an artistic one. The visual representation of the colors, of the shapes - it is this, first and foremost, that the film delivers to the spectator.

23 Yet, if Kubrick’s claim to truth is secondary to his artistic demonstration, the means used to render the imaginary plausible are in line with those used by Descartes. It is, beyond the discursive purpose, in the orientation of the argument of the two works, in the similarity of their means to render the imaginary credible, that the potential complementarity of discourses can be found - discourses that are, apparently, not in any way reducible to one another. This presentation of a plausible imaginary world is initially created by a geometrization of space, permitted by its derealization. Space in the Cartesian fable obeys the mechanistic laws of geometric movement and the structure of Kubrick’s film also seems to conform to this. Kubrick’s space, whether created by humans or the universe they travel through, is simply lines, perfect geometric shapes, cylindrical objects, circular movements, and symmetrical structures. In 2001, as in The World, fiction enables the world’s total submission to laws of the mind, which are expressed, first and foremost, by those of mathematical necessity. This substitution of necessity for the real, through the imagination, is also what permits an account of the human being and his/her mind.

24 However, the world is not the only subject of the two works, which also undertake to depict the world’s inhabitants. The World does not come to an end. On the contrary, it leads into the “Treatise on Man,” the chapter on anatomy, which explains the make-up of the beings that people Descartes’ world. Having anatomy follow physics is, therefore, a means for Descartes to affirm the absolute nature of his physical laws and to show that humanity belongs entirely to the world and is not a microcosm. What truly links the treatise on anatomy to that on physics, is the fable. The beings who people Descartes’ imaginary world are introduced into the work little by little until, in the final chapter, they inhabit it completely. One of the final assertions in chapter fifteen of the treatise evokes “the inhabitants of the planet I have assumed to be like the Earth,” [33] and it is certainly these that Descartes is studying when he begins his treatise on anatomy by referring to “These men.” [34] However, as Descartes’ imaginary world is, in all points, like our own, it would be pointless to imagine fantasy creatures with which to people it and so the human beings who inhabit it will be like us. Here, therefore, in the same way as 2001 uses the science of its time to found the science of the future, it is the analogy between real humans and the humans of the imaginary world that forms the basis for the plausibility of the fable. The “Treatise on Man” opens with this analogy, which also reminds the reader that he is reading a fiction that tells the truth. “These men will be composed, as we are, of a soul and a body.” [35]

25 It is again by an analogy that Descartes will pursue his study of these beings, explaining their bodies in the manner one might explain a machine. The anatomical method, thus following mechanistic principles, is, for the most part, comparative. The human being is by turns “a statue” and an “earthen machine,” [36] and later human bodies are explained as “clocks” or “artificial fountains.” [37] Thus the thread of the analogy is woven though the whole work. Pierre-Alain Cahné stresses the omnipresence of this comparison in Descartes’ work and writes that there is “on one hand the human body; on the other, a great hydraulic machine: The fountain engineer who is the architect of the whole is consequently assimilated to the rational soul.” [38]

26 This analogy, giving its account of humanity, can also be found in Kubrick’s film—the whole film tends to superimpose man and machine to the point of converging with the Cartesian fiction of the man-machine. Thus, Kubrick shows us machines that tend towards the human and depicts his human characters as machines. Therefore, the shapes of vessels mimic parts of the human body, while the space vessel is depicted in the film as an independent and almost living organism. This theme culminates with the vessel’s on-board computer, HAL, achieving consciousness. However, the superimposing of man and machine works both ways, as, in 2001, humans function as cold machines, programmed to achieve an objective. In this vein, Clarke relates the perfectly identical days of the vessel’s two occupants as “a comfortable, utterly uneventful routine.” He goes further: “the passage of time [was] marked only by the changing numbers on the digital clocks. The greatest hope of Discovery’s little crew was that nothing would mar this peaceful monotony in the weeks and months that lay ahead.” [39] So the human being is explained by Clarke and Kubrick as a machine, whereas the achievement of consciousness by a machine enables an understanding of humans, particularly through the unleashing of violence this provokes. This account converges with the separation of soul and body imagined by Descartes as a fictional way of explaining the human being and it could be said that Kubrick and Descartes were right, as this convergence permits a direct understanding of the human being. The two analogies, although similar, certainly do not have entirely the same meaning in 2001 and in The World, as Descartes puts his analogy wholly to the use of his mechanistic and scientific explanation, whereas Kubrick employs it to give an account of modern humanity’s behavior. However, their use is very much the same, as they both speak the truth about what humanity is.

27 Therefore, a certain fraternity of metaphors can be found in the two works and this position will be confirmed when their action, which will prove to be similar, is considered. This action begins with the human being, ascends towards the stars, and, finally, comes back to consciousness. An odyssey being a journey back towards a point of origin, The World and 2001 can both be called odysseys of the mind, which, after a long journey through the universe it has invented and which belongs to it, comes back to itself. It is on this, in the end, that the claim to truth in the two works rests, on this return of the creative mind to itself. Kubrick’s film is not a tale of the creation of the world in the biblical sense, as The World may be, but the genesis he recounts is broadly similar to that of Descartes.

28 The film opens and closes with humanity, initially in a prehistoric world, then in the world of the mind. The passage from one to the other operates through the intermediary of the derealization and geometrization of the world. Therefore, it is the human being and the human mind that is, above all, the odyssey of 2001. The theme of artificial intelligence which introduces into the film the Cartesian analogy of the man-machine, immediately indicates that the film, although it depicts space, comets, Jupiter, and black monoliths, is, above all, centered on humanity. It is humanity that opens and closes the tale, while also being its thematic center through its study and explanation by the machine. The image of the eye, which returns as a leitmotif throughout the film and a close-up of which occupies the center of the screen as soon as thought needs to be represented, again shows this centralization of humanity and the human mind. [40] The essence of 2001 is there, in the mind towards which the film’s narrative journeys and in the creative mind that is imagining the film and the world it depicts.

29 As in 2001, it is not accidental that The World ends with the description and explanation of humanity. For, although The World effectively closes with the analysis of the human body, a large part of which is concerned with the study of the eyes and the brain, it should, originally, have ended with the description of the “rational soul,” [41] before Descartes abandoned the writing of his treatise in 1633. The study of the mind, therefore, followed that of the body, which permits the assertion that the real final theme of the treatise is, as in 2001, humanity and the human mind. The same is true of the inaugural theme, which immediately presents the omnipresence of the “I” in the scientific position. [42] It is, therefore, in a way, through the affirmation of the importance of the creative mind that the work of physics, which wishes to show the true nature of things, begins. Although the treatise apparently opens and closes on the theme of light, it is, in fact, as in 2001, the human being and the human mind that are its true extremities. The convergence of these two ends finally allows it to be seen that the affirmation of the creative mind is at the center of their concerns. This celebration of the mind in a work of the mind that creates that work, is the mark of artistic modernity. It is by centering the work on the affirmation of a creative mind, which is both its origin and its outcome, that 2001 surpasses its purely formal nature to inscribe itself in this modernity, eager to tell the truth. The two works find themselves going beyond their discursive purpose, in their desire to speak the human mind, the creative force, both scientific and artistic. It is surely on this that one of the essential roles of philosophy rests. Philosophy certainly must not mix different types of discourse by reducing one to another, but must articulate them while preserving the specificity of each, [43] and by showing that their subjects and their methods can be drawn together, to give voice to a truth about humanity, their common subject.


30 A comparative reading of The World enables the creation of a bridge between epochs and disciplines the foundation of which is a similar use of fiction, the discourse that speaks the truth by way of an untruth. Fiction can be defined, as much by the Descartes of The World as by twentieth-century artists as diverse as Proust and Kubrick, as the discourse that enables a derealization of the world, depicted outside the empirical data of observation and the senses. Fiction’s claim to truth is then validated by a necessary return to the mind that speaks this world and that is universalized by merging with its creation.

31 Through this fraternity of means, the discursive purpose of the works takes on a lesser importance. Of course, the discourses cannot be superimposed, but they complement each other, heading, side by side, in the same direction. This path is the one that leads towards an explanation and an understanding of humanity and of the world surrounding us. Consequently, scientific and artistic discourses complete each other, as much in their means as in their ends, and philosophy has the potential to accomplish the task of merging them by taking in hand their particular specificities through comparison. The philosopher is, according to Proust, happy “only when he has discovered, between two works of art or between two sensations, a common factor,” [44] and it is only then that truth may begin.

32 Truth eludes the real, but the mind knows where to find it. The mind’s quest is situated within itself and is expressed through the creation of a world that obeys its laws. The World takes us towards this discovery, demarcating the two wide paths that, following the classical era, philosophy is readying itself to take—one path for the hard sciences and the other for literature—without losing sight of the truth in the potential for interdisciplinary reconciliation. The work reminds us that knowledge is one and that the mind can discover truth in this recreation of unity.


  • [1]
    René Descartes, Œuvres philosophiques, tome I, 1618-1637, F. Alquié edition (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1963), 61.
  • [2]
    Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Guermantes Way, translated by Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Vintage, 2000), 376­377.
  • [3]
    Daniel Garber, Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 9.
  • [4]
    Descartes, Œuvres philosophiques, Préambules, 46.
  • [5]
    René Descartes, The World and Other Writings, translated and edited by Stephen Gaukroger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xi.
  • [6]
    René Descartes, Discourse on the Method And The Meditations (London: Penguin, 1968), 62.
  • [7]
    Descartes, Discourse on the Method And The Meditations, 61.
  • [8]
    Descartes, Discourse on the Method And The Meditations, 62.
  • [9]
    On this topic, see Annie Bitbol-Hespériès’s notes, p. 275 in Descartes, Le Monde, L’Homme, texts collated and annotated by Annie Bitbol-Hespériès et Jean-Pierre Verdet (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, collection “Sources du savoir”, 1996).
  • [10]
    René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of René Descartes: Vol. III The Correspondence, translated by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) , 28.
  • [11]
    Daniel Garber, Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 34.
  • [12]
    Maxime LEROY, Descartes, le philosophe au masque, (Paris: Rieder, 1929), 102.
  • [13]
    Descartes, Discourse, 31.
  • [14]
    Descartes, Œuvres philosophiques, 52.
  • [15]
    René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology, translated by Paul J. Olscamp (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 263.
  • [16]
    Descartes, Œuvres philosophiques, 77.
  • [17]
    Descartes, The World, 21
  • [18]
    Descartes, The World, 21.
  • [19]
    Letter dated 7 February 1914.
  • [20]
    Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2002).
  • [21]
    It “seemed” to the “uncertain” Narrator, who also speaks of belief. Proust, The Way by Swann’s.
  • [22]
    Proust, The Way by Swann’s, 22
  • [23]
    Proust, The Way by Swann’s, 22
  • [24]
    René Descartes, Œuvres de Descartes, Adam and Tannery edition, XI (Paris: L. Cerf, 1897),706.
  • [25]
    Descartes, The World, iv.
  • [26]
    Pierre-Alain Cahné, Un autre Descartes, le philosophe et son langage (Paris: Vrin, 1980), 9.
  • [27]
    Descartes, The World, 21. My emphasis.
  • [28]
    Proust, The Way by Swann’s, 7.
  • [29]
    Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Time Regained, translated by Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Vintage, 2000), 262.
  • [30]
    Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Time Regained, 253.
  • [31]
    Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Time Regained, 258-259. The whole passage should be cited here.
  • [32]
    Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: Roc, 1993), 86.
  • [33]
    Descartes, The World, 67.
  • [34]
    René Descartes, Treatise of Man, translated by Thomas Steele Hall (New York: Prometheus, 2003), 1.
  • [35]
    Descartes, Treatise of Man, 1.
  • [36]
    Descartes, Treatise of Man, 2
  • [37]
    Descartes, Treatise of Man, 4
  • [38]
    Cahné, Un autre Descartes, 79.
  • [39]
    Clarke, 2001, 101.
  • [40]
    The figure of the eye is omnipresent in the film and again weaves the analogy between man and machine, as close-ups on human eyes correspond to the circular shapes of the vessel, which bears a striking resemblance to mechanical eyes, true reflections of the human ones. This approximation culminates with the representation of HAL, the on-board computer, symbolized by a single red eye. HAL’s mechanical eye can also be interpreted as a metaphor for a camera, the tool through which the creative mind of the cineast, Kubrick, finds expression.
  • [41]
    Descartes, Treatise on Man, 108.
  • [42]
    See above regarding the way in which Descartes does not begin his treatise with physics, nature, or light, but with himself.
  • [43]
    For a study of the relation between art and philosophy with neither radical exclusion nor total inclusion, see I. Thomas-Fogiel’s most recent book, Le concept et le lieu, figures de la relation entre art et philosophie (Cerf, 2008).
  • [44]
    Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and the Fugitive, translated by Carol Clarke (London: Penguin, 2003), 6.


Contemporary philosophy is pulled between the two apparently irreconcilable poles of literature and the hard sciences. Nevertheless, a possibility of reconciliation and of fusion is conceivable by returning to Descartes who, in his treatise The World, saw no discontinuity between philosophy and science and who uses fable and fiction to set out a universal scientific truth. This truth is expounded by means (experimental derealization of the world, geometrization of space, the power of a mind that is expressed by an “I”, analogy permitting an account of humanity) which are also those employed by modern artists such as Marcel Proust and Stanley Kubrick. By comparing Descartes’ The World with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and with Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is possible to show the fraternal bonds of these works, despite the different times in which they were written and the difference in their styles and their aims, and to highlight the unity of their claim to truth, whether it be scientific, artistic, or philosophical. The differences between these disciplines coalesce in these works, which always have as their ultimate aim the remaking of the real in the image of human understanding, in order to better explain it.

Victor Lopez
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