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I'm reading Descartes Discours de la méthode, and in the first chapter there's a passage I can't quite work out. In particular, I'm confused by a use of ne...point followed by que. In this passage, Descartes says that he has enough status and money that he doesn't need to pursue the sciences for glory or to support himself. He explains that he's financially fine, and then he continues:

et quoique je ne fisse pas profession de mépriser la gloire en cynique, je faisais néanmoins fort peu d'état de celle que je n'espérais point pouvoir acquérir qu'à faux titres.

As I understand it, this says "and although I didn't make a declaration of despising glory in the manner of a Cynic, I nevertheless thought little of a state which I had no expectation of being able to acquire". And then I can't see what to do with "qu'à faux titres". My first thought was that it was somehow implicitly comparative, picking up fort peu. In which case it says that he makes as little of that state "as for false titles". That is, he cares as little for glory as he does for titles acquired in some illegitimate way.

Translations, however, usually do something like "that I could not hope to acquire except through false pretenses" (trans. Roger Ariew; the Cottingham translation is similar). That suggests that ne...point...que means "not...except", but I'm not familiar with this usage.

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The basic construction here is ne {verb} que {subordinate clause}.

point here underscores the ne, making it more absolute; in this sentence you can remove it or replace it with pas or better pas du tout without really changing the meaning of the sentence.

In this construction, que is usually translated except or only.

So, que je n'espérais point pouvoir acquérir qu'à faux titres could be translated that I never hoped to be able to acquire except by false pretenses.

You are missing faire peu d'état, which means to make light of, almost to ignore or try to ignore or belittle, nothing to do with "state", and celle which refers to the gloire. Descartes speaks of his métier in the previous lines, he hasn't stopped. So, *even though I did not make it my work to cynically despise glory, I nevertheless thought little of that glory that I never hoped to acquire except by false pretenses".

In my humble opinion . . . I could be wrong about what celle refers to, it could be the profession (métier more than declaration).

  • Thanks for the note about faire peu d'état. I had misunderstood that idiom. And thanks even more for the explanation of ne...point...que. I'm familiar with ne...que as except or only, but I wasn't aware that you can add a pas, pas de tout or point in this way without changing the meaning. You must be right that celle refers to glorie and not *metier*—which is masculine. – Telemachus May 15 '16 at 18:44
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    Very good analysis. However I think it's worth pointing out that the "middle" part of the ne ... point ... que construction in the sentence is in strongly dated at best, archaic at worst compared to contemporary French. I can't imagine writing that without a teacher docking me points for it. Ne ... que alone is the modern usage. – Circeus May 15 '16 at 20:07
  • faire état or its opposite faire peu d'état can be found in modern (even though very formal) French, but as @Circeus says "ne ... point ... que" would normally not be. I didn't think of that. Celle could possibly refer to la profession, but I think the sentence would make less sense if it did. Going from the previous sentences, I think the glory in question is probably the glory acquired through scientific reasoning, from success in scientific work. – Law29 May 15 '16 at 21:17

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