Filtering Out Non-Sense
Illustration by Guy Moll
From New Left Review:
Jacques Bouveresse is perhaps best known in the Anglophone world for being among the least well-known of contemporary French thinkers. Of the same generational cohort as Badiou, Rancière, Debray and Balibar during Althusser’s reign at the École Normale Supérieure, a long-standing friend and interlocutor of Bourdieu, elected in 1995 to the chair of Philosophy of Language and Epistemology at the Collège de France, his work has been translated into Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese, but so far rather little has appeared in English. Paradoxically, one reason for this may be the antagonistic stance he has generally adopted toward his native philosophical milieu: ‘Why I am so very unFrench’ was the title beneath which he introduced his work to the Anglosphere in the 1980s.
Badiou has famously characterized the moment of postwar French philosophy as encompassing ‘a new appropriation of German thought, a vision of science as creativity, a radical political engagement and a search for new forms in art and life.’ Against this, Bouveresse has looked to Austria, rather than Germany; valued mathematical logic and discounted any heroic role for science; adopted a politics of modest reformism; and eschewed the seductions of performative rhetoric in favour of clarity and precision. Yet as the dominant modes of French philosophy have changed—existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, ‘new philosophy’, neo-Kantianism—Bouveresse’s relation to it has adjusted too. An outline reconstruction of his work may help to provide a view of French philosophy—its habitus, as Bourdieu would say—from the perspective of one of its fiercest internal critics, and offer the basis for a preliminary critical assessment of his own achievements.
Bouveresse has confessed that it was Wittgenstein’s ‘anthropological eye’ that ‘seduced’ him: the attention paid to trivia and language games—like the building workers with their blocks and beams in Philosophical Investigations—by ‘a philosopher of the ordinary, the concrete, the practical. For the most part, he seemed also to have accepted Wittgenstein’s ultra-quietist limitation of purpose: ‘Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot justify it either. It leaves everything as it is.’ For Bouveresse, too, the task of philosophy is not to create concepts or ‘to acquire or communicate new theoretical knowledge’. Instead, it is to ‘attain clarity’, to ‘filter out non-sense’. It addresses how rather than what people think. He has identified himself with Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophical practice as therapy, defining it as ‘an activity or an exercise that one first practises on one’s self, bearing on the way in which one sees the world and what one expects from it, a work of self-analysis and reform, which one can eventually help others to undertake, but which each needs to practice for themselves.’
Bouveresse has remained uneasy, though, about Wittgenstein’s insistence that philosophy had nothing to do with science, in the broadest sense.