The Discipline of Subjectivity
An Essay on Montaigne
Ermanno Bencivenga


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."

First published in 1990.

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