In the Discourse on Method, Descartes explains that everyone has an equal amount of common sense and that no one would even think of wanting more of it. Examining this famous opening, the chapter exposes a complicated relationship between envy and language, concealed in the form of a definition of common sense that acts as a solved riddle and provides the precondition of thought. Descartes’s early education in Jesuit-inflected Renaissance humanism exposed him to the form of the enigma, the emblem, and the riddle, forms which also appear in the Regulae, in which Descartes teaches his reader how to solve Oedipus’s riddle without the threat of mythic consequences. As envy and language intersect in the frustrations Descartes characterizes as a struggle experienced in infancy to become a subject of language, the hidden force within Descartes’ apparently egalitarian distribution of common sense is the “natural perversion” of envy, the effects of which he seeks to tame through an intellectual program that imagines a universal literacy whose first principle is universal close reading.
Keywords: Descartes, common sense, riddle, envy, close reading, infancy, enigma, Oedipus, language acquisition, perversion