A ‘very un-French’ philosopher
That is philosophy? The auditorium at the French Institute in Athens was packed with visitors last Thursday evening who had come to hear Jacques Bouveresse tackle that perennial question. Those most familiar with his work had a lower threshold of expectation. As Bouveresse went on to concede a few moments later, he has always been skeptical of the «what is» type of question. After all, the French philosopher said, «the question does not even deserve the fundamental significance that is usually attributed to it.» «Perhaps,» Bouveresse dared, «the role of philosophy itself is overrated.» Bouveresse, a professor at the College de France, was invited to a round-table discussion titled «What does philosophy demand of us, and what can we demand of it?» on the occasion of the Greek publication this year of two of his most famous works, «La Demande Philosophie: Que Veut la Philosophie et Que Peut-on Vouloir d’Elle?» (published by Polis, translated by Stelios Virvidakis) and «Prodiges et Vertiges de l’Analogie» (by Patakis, translated by Terreza Bouki). Bouveresse is a humble man. In the French realm of ideas, however, he has always been treated as a philosophical maverick. A consistent, if sometimes distant, promoter of analytic philosophy, Bouveresse has swum against the dominant currents of structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism mostly associated with the often obscure «intellectual giants.» Often seen as a predecessor, and definitely a sympathizer, of Alan Sokal, the perpetrator of the famous hoax with the publication of a parody of postmodern thought in the autumn of 1994 in the «Social Text» journal, Bouveresse has pushed for a more rational, realistic and ironic mode of thinking against what is also known as the «French flue:» the obscure, incomprehensible and often vacuous discourse of more fashionable French philosophers and media-darlings. Not surprisingly, Bouveresse once admitted feeling «very un-French.» Philosophy demystified Unlike his fellow Parisian philosophers, Bouveresse demystifies philosophical practice. Echoing Austrian-born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, his intellectual mentor, he repeated last Thursday that he sees philosophy as a human activity whose success is as uncertain as that of all other human activities. It is worth quoting Bouveresse’s «La Demande Philosophie» (in English it translates as «Philosophy’s Demand») in which he says that «one does not defend a spiritual activity, which is considered to have a more critical character than any other practice, by encouraging and maintaining delusions, even less delusions of grandeur.» In the same book, he argues that «one of the biggest problems facing contemporary philosophy is that we continue to expect it, more than anything else, to remedy the nostalgia of faith, which is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the current period. In other words, [we expect philosophy] to function as the supplier of certified faiths which are, to the extent that this is possible, slightly more rational but not necessarily far more rational than religious faith.» Bouveresse thus denounces the common idea of philosophy as a secular substitute for religious faith. Bouveresse himself has far more modest ambitions for philosophy. The aim of philosophy, Bouveresse said during the discussion, is to shed more light on problems, and not necessarily to produce new knowledge. Philosophy, he noted, can thereby help us think about the problems we face in everyday life. «But to do this, philosophy must first improve the way in which it talks and thinks about itself,» Bouveresse stressed. The round-table discussion was organized by the French Institute, To Vima newspaper, the Methodology, History and Theory Department of Athens University, the European Translation Center (EKEMEL), Polis and Patakis publishers. Next to Bouveresse, and in contrast to his concise and clear talk, sat a rather verbose and, in some cases fuzzy, panel of professors made up of Aristides Baltas, Nikos Panayiotpoulos, Panayiotis Poulos and Stelios Virvidakis, a former student of Bouveresse in Paris. Unnecessary definition During the discussion, Bouveresse gave no definition of philosophy. Nor did he think it necessary to do so. What is more, he said, «all previous attempts have been flawed.» Philosophers remain as divided on the issue as they are on all other philosophical problems, he noted. Nor is there consensus, said Bouveresse, on the question of what constitutes a philosophical problem. Bouveresse rejected the Platonic view that philosophical issues are out there to be discovered and tackled by successive generations but rather argued, as did Wittgenstein, that philosophical issues are invented, random and unexpected. Some are here to stay but most just come and go. Agreeing with Wittgenstein, Bouveresse expressed the view that philosophical problems can indeed be solved and that some of them can be solved for good (Indeed, with his «Tractatus,» Wittgenstein thought he had solved all problems.) But still, «there has been no progress in philosophy, nor are we likely to see any,» Bouveresse commented. Contrary to those who have declared «the end of philosophy,» he added, philosophy remains very much alive and as unpredictable as ever. New knowledge and notions will always be launched into being, creating new disagreements. «These will be important but not to everyone – perhaps only to philosophers,» he said.