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Haunted by philosophers

by Ted Welch Sat Apr 28th, 2007 at 05:16:15 PM EST

I am haunted by philosophers. When I moved to Paris last year I rented a small house in the same road where Lenin had lived from Dec 1908 to July 1909.

It was in 1908 that Lenin wrote his philosophical work: "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism." Its merits as a work of philosophy have been questioned:

    "... the people who could find novelty and wisdom in the ideas of Mussolini and discover sense in the vapourings of the German leader, certainly should not have felt any difficulty in swallowing also that considerable amount of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and general backwardness which mar the theoretical value of Lenin's philosophical attempt."


But at least Lenin took seriously Marx's point that: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Then I moved to Nice and rented an apartment just north of where Nietzsche stayed during his first visit

But Nietzsche had little respect for one of France's most famous philosophers, his demolition of Descartes's "cogito ergo sum" is a philosophical gem and a revelation when I first read it years ago:

    ... The people on their part may think that cognition is knowing all about things, but the philosopher must say to himself: "When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, 'I think,' I find a whole series of daring assertions, the argumentative proof of which would be difficult, perhaps impossible: for instance, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an 'ego,' and finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking--that I KNOW what thinking is. For if I had not already decided within myself what it is, by what standard could I determine whether that which is just happening is not perhaps 'willing' or 'feeling'? In short, the assertion 'I think,' assumes that I COMPARE my state at the present moment with other states of myself which I know, in order to determine what it is; on account of this retrospective connection with further 'knowledge,' it has, at any rate, no immediate certainty for me."


Diderot's dresssing gown

    Portrait of Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

Now we've just moved to Rue Diderot ! I knew that he was one of the French philosophes and was involved in editing the Encyclopedie, but he also seems to have anticipated some of Nietzsche's ideas:

    "In 1747, he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, an allegory pointing first at the extravagances of Catholicism; second, at the vanity of the pleasures of that world which is the rival of the church; and third, at the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and world."


and those of Darwin:

Consumerism and the Diderot effect"

I didn't know that he gave his name not only to my street, but also to a phrase in marketing: "the Diderot effect" ! - and wrote what seems to be the first warning of the dangers of consumerism:


    Learning Diderot's Lesson: Stopping the Upward Creep of Desire

    In the eighteenth century, the French philosopher Denis Diderot
    wrote an essay entitled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing
    Gown." Diderot's regrets were prompted by a gift of a beautiful
    scarlet dressing gown. [!] Delighted with his new acquisition,
    Diderot quickly discarded his old gown.  But in a short time, his
    pleasure turned sour as he began to sense that the surroundings
    within which the gown was worn did not properly reflect the
    garment's elegance.  He grew dissatisfied with his study, with
    its threadbare tapestry, the desk, his chairs, and even the
    room's bookshelves.  One by one, the familiar but well-worn
    furnishings of the study were replaced.  In the end, Diderot
    found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of
    his new surroundings, regretting the work of this "imperious
    scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its
    own elegant tone."

     Today consumer researchers call such striving for conformity
    the "Diderot effect." And, while Diderot effects can be
    constraining (some people foresee the problem and refuse the
    initial upgrading), in a world of growing income the pressures to
    enter and follow the cycle are overwhelming."


In fact in another amazing coincidence, one of the first things bought for me by Montserrat (in Venice in December) was a magnificent red dressing gown !  

    The new TV lures us into the land of happy zombies

Sarkozy - champion of consumerism

This of course brings us back to the current election campaign in France, where Sarkozy on the Right is in favour of taking France into a future more like the Anglo-saxon model, though he has to make gestures towards retaining traditional French culture. Thus he argues for a "rupture" with the old system, but promises that it will be a "rupture tranquille". Les Guignols, the TV puppet satire show, had famous French TV anchor Poivre ask Puppet Sarkozy  about this and he said "Yes, I'm relaxed, look, I have my hands in my pockets" - or will they be in ours? Of course he's generally in favour of business, or, as he would say, modernizing France, so the people trying to get us to buy new dressing gowns, and to generally increase our participation in the consumerist culture will be happy. Diderot warned of the likely consequences:

The Hollywood Ten and the Blacklist
Recently I was enjoying one of our recent purchases, a TV set (we had seen a TV consumer programme which said that the optimal size for a set was about 80 cm, so at least we didn't go for the giant screens) and there was a programme on some of those influenced by the philosophy of Marx, and so against consumerism, i.e. the Hollywood Ten, a period which has echoes today in the US (hence the contemporary relevance of Clooney's excellent "Good Night and Good Luck" set in that period).

In fact the Blacklist had some very good consequences for some of them - they got of the US for a while and enjoyed living in England, Spain and France, some of them writing scripts under pseudonyms, and, given the power of the dollar at the time, living quite well.

Ben and Norma Barzan didn't get paid for scripting the film "Christ in Concrete", shot in England and directed by Edward Dmyytryk. Instead they got a long, paid holiday in Paris, where they met the cultural eltite, including Picasso, who said to them: You are like me - exiles". Ben objected that they'd only been in France two months, and Picasso went round introducing them as "The exiles who don't know they are exiles." He was right, they were put on the Blacklist and stayed in France for 30 years, where they remained friends with Picasso and for a while had a house just 400 yards from his at Mougins. By another coincidence we were planning a trip to Mougins soon, but had no idea that people like the Barzans had lived there.

"Christ in Concrete" - a suppressed masterpiece

I'd never heard of "Christ in Concrete", despite having been a media studies lecturer and left-wing; but that's not so surprising, as this excellent review of a recent DVD release of the film points out:

    "All Day has outdone itself with this release, an almost totally unknown film of excellent quality and considerable significance. The 1949 Christ in Concrete was hounded from American screens after one or two bookings. Its director, writer, and several cast members had filmed it in England after being driven from Hollywood by the blacklist. This absorbing emotional experience is a socially conscious scream by artists not yet ready to surrender. The disc cover calls it a 'suppressed master work', which for once is no exaggeration.

    Director Edward Dmytryk eventually recanted and named names, thus reclaiming a Hollywood career for himself while earning the scorn of those he betrayed. The result was that Christ in Concrete was never re-discovered. Except for two brief weeks in a tiny New York theater in 1949, and one museum showing in 1975, it has barely been shown in America - and never shown on television.

    ... In the blacklist-crazed late 40s, a film didn't have to spout anti-capitalist slogans to be refused exhibition. Movies concerned with working realities always walked on thin ice. When old James Cagney pictures examined poverty, they treated it in Horatio Alger terms - slums were a great place to learn character and were prime breeding grounds for priests and violin soloists. Movies implying that basic social change might be needed just didn't get made. Over at MGM, labor concerns were often portrayed as Red agitation - see 1935's Riffraff, where we are invited to cheer as thug Spencer Tracy roughs up a labor organizer... The show doesn't narrow its viewpoint to the approved movie fantasy of happy American living.

    ... The other extras are a gold mine of insights and revelations. Norma Barzman, the screenwriter's widow, is the star attraction on a commentary [as she was in the programme I saw on French TV]  ... the book [is] a key piece of literature in the Italian-American experience, a direct inspiration for the Neorealist film movement in Italy. Norma's story of the Blacklist is one of the best first-hand accounts I've heard. Still fiery on the subject, she's an original 'progressive' from the 30s who has opinions on everything ..."


What a shame that such people were silenced for so long. But then she's lived in France for 30 years, where lots of people have opinions on everything and it's a country where philosophy is taken seriously - an American constrasts this with the US (and the same applies to the UK):

Sarkozy v the French philosopher Michel Onfray

    "A little more Sarkozy vs. Onfray philosophy debate:

      Sarkozy then says that he has never heard anything as absurd as Socrates' "Know yourself" "This admission turns me to ice" [Onfray:] "...In other words this person who wants to lead the destinies of the French nation believes that knowledge of oneself is a vain undertaking?" Onfray reminds his readers that the last three heads of state have all had need of expert psychological help at different times during their mandate. Clearly Sarkozy feels this sign of fragility is not for him.

      Struck by the cultural differences again. We'd never have an atheist philosopher arguing phil. with a conservative pres. candidate here. And criticizing the candidate for not itnending to undergo psychoanalysis while in office?

      ...a note on American philosophers' view of the French. By and large US phil. academics are jealous of the greater role philosophy plays in public life there. This Onfay fellow had a recent book that sold 300,000 copies and was tops on the non-fiction, best-selling list in France. Plus Onfay is regularly all over TV. How many people in the US can even name a living, practicing philosopher?"


Onfray's account of the discussion (mostly Sarkozy on the attack according to Onfray) is damning:

    "J'avance une autre phrase. Même traitement, flots de verbes, flux de mots, jets d'acides. Une troisième. Idem. Je commence à trouver la crise un peu longue. De toute façon démesurée, disproportionnée.

    Si l'on veut être Président de la République, si l'on s'y prépare depuis le berceau, si l'on souhaite présider les destinées d'un pays deux fois millénaires et jouer dans la cour des grands fauves de la planète, si l'on se prépare à disposer du feu nucléaire ...  alors comment peut on réagir comme un animal blessé à mort, comme une bête souffrante..."


France needs philosophers, not political animals of the Right like this. Segolene Royal was on TV Fance2 (25.4.07) and came over as a very bright, but very humane person; preferring encouragement rather than punishment. One imagines that she warms to the injunction "Know thyself" and that, unlike Sarkozy she is not afraid to do so.

Onfray himself is quite a character, almost combining Nietzsche and Lenin:

 "... a self-described "Nietzschian of the left", except that Onfray is also "radically libertarian socialist". Thus he is also rather like one of the few people I really respect, Noam Chmsky, but with added French hedonism:

    "Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent -- while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions. All this presupposes, in Onfray's philosophy, a militant atheism and the demasking of all false gods [like Nitzsche]..."


But also with a popularity in France, which even a Chomsky cannot achieve in the context of US media control and philistinism (see above). Like Chomsky he isn't interested in celebrity for its own sake and is something of a workaholic (despite the hedonism):
    "Onfray is a well- known figure in France - not just through his many books, which avoid academic cant and are rendered in an elegant but accessible, sparkling prose that is admired even by critics who abhor his ideas - but as a frequent guest on French TV's numerous literary and intellectual chat shows. The national public radio network France Culture annually broadcasts his course of lectures to the Universite Populaire on philosophical themes. But Onfray has deliberately rejected the incestuous and corrupt Parisian mediatic-politico-academic microcosm and its seductive but ephemeral blandishments, and insists on living in the small Normandy town of Argentan where he was born, just 57 km. from Caen. Free from the distractions of urban mundanities, Onfray devotes his time exclusively to his intellectual work, which helps explain his astonishing output at such a relatively young age."

    ... Onfray's latest book, Traité d'Athéologie (Paris, Editions Grasset), became the number one best-selling nonfiction book in France for months when it was published in the Spring of 2005 (the word "atheologie" Onfray borrowed from Georges Bataille)."


Onfray has helped rescue one of France's earliest atheists and radical thinkers, Jean Meslier:

    I. Of a Certain Jean Meslier

    "HOW ASTONISHING that the prevailing historiography finds no place for an atheist priest in the reign of Louis XIV. More than that, he was a revolutionary communist and internationalist, an avowed materialist, a convinced hedonist, an authentically passionate and vindictively, anti-Christian prophet, but also, and above all, a philosopher in every sense of the word, a philosopher proposing a vision of the world that is coherent, articulated, and defended step by step before the tribunal of the world, without any obligation to conventional Western reasoning.

    Jean Meslier under his cassock contained all the dynamite at the core of the 18th century. This priest with no reputation and without any memorial furnishes an ideological arsenal of the thought of the Enlightenment's radical faction, that of the ultras, all of whom, drinking from his fountain, innocently pretend to be ignorant of his very name. A number of his theses earn for his borrowers a reputation only won by usurping his work. Suppressed references prevent the reverence due to him."


What a contrast between Meslier's obscurity and Onfray himself, a star TV intellectual who uses the profits from his best-selling books to fund radical education and a popular philosophical community:

    "Onfray has never forgotten his underclass origins, and his dedication to helping the young of the left-out classes is admirable and inspiring. The Université Populaire, which is open to all who cannot access the state university system, and on principle does not accept any money from the State -- Onfray uses the profits from his books to help finance it -- has had enormous success. Based on Onfray's book La Communauté Philosophique: Manifeste pour l'Université Populaire (2004), the original UP now has imitators in Picardie, Arras, Lyon, Narbonne, and at Mans in Belgium, with five more in preparation."


I wouldn't be surprised if many streets are called "Rue Onfray" in future,  in a France made even more philosophy-friendly by him, and, I hope, less friendly to demagogues like Sarkozy.

of ProgressiveHistorians, a community site dedicated to the intersection of history and politics, I would be honored if you would cross-post this excellent diary there.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Sun Apr 29th, 2007 at 12:15:30 AM EST
Thanks very much. I'm honoured by your invitation. I see that I need to restict the width of images to 500 and will post to your site soon, which seems to be another very congenial place for the kind of pieces I like to write.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Apr 30th, 2007 at 02:10:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
France is very good a producing schools of philosophy, many of which have had noticeable effects (however, mostly on other schools of philosophy). Rousseau influenced much political and educational thought, for example. I'm not exactly what the effect of Sartre and his school have been, but I know I was very taken with their writing when I was a teen.

Lately I've been reading about the only true American school of philosophy - Pragmatism. The principal proponents were C.S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Their focus was also on "results". The school has been so successful that it's not much talked of anymore, it has just be absorbed into the common wisdom. The main points have to do with our knowledge of the world being based upon our own senses, and that "truth" is found by means of the scientific method.

This did away with all the various "idealistic" schools of thought going back to Plato and also did away with supernatural explanations for physical happenings. James, especially, was unwilling to let go of religiosity completely and tried to understand exceptional mental states in terms of a "religious experience". Peirce and Dewey were much more willing to leave the supernatural behind altogether.

Here's a link to Peirce's most famous essay:
The Fixation of Belief

Dewey took his "pragmatic" outlook and applied it to education. His methods of learning by doing rather than by rote have become the norm in many places.

It is a bit ironic that a philosophical school started in the US has found acceptance elsewhere, while it is still struggling in its home country. If the poll numbers of 80% who believe in a supernatural being in the US are accurate then pragmatism hasn't been much of a success in some areas. On the other hand the scientific community has adopted its precepts over the last century and the technological results are amazing.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Apr 29th, 2007 at 05:10:47 PM EST
Haven't you heard that God's existence will be proven this week?
I'm going to watch the livestream, it will probably be funny as hell.

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." Sun Tzu
by Turambar (sersguenda at hotmail com) on Sun Apr 29th, 2007 at 07:49:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Pierce's influence, aside from his private correspondence and talks with Dewey, was nil until his private papers started getting published in the 1930s.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Apr 30th, 2007 at 02:00:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not to pick nits, but he was also a close friend of William James, and I think his influence on James may have been even more important.

The article I cited (and a couple of others at the same time) were influential in that they were published so far before the main development of pragmatism.

Imagine a philosopher publishing in "Popular Science" these days...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Apr 30th, 2007 at 08:46:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well there wasn't really a "school of Sartre" although he was very influential, both inside and outside France, being treated as a celbrated intellectual in the US, USSR, China, etc.

He is popularly known as one of the founders of Existentialism, but even his one-time friend Camus was not happy with the label. Sartre himself recognised its limitations when he was captured by the Germans and his freedom curtailed as a prisoner of war. But it also meant that he met a wider cross-section of people than the privileged intellectual elite he'd been part of and valued the feeling of solidarity. This led to his interest in marxism but also his difficult relations with the the French Communist Party.

From a review of Ian Birchall's "Sartre Against Stalinism", by Rebecca Pitt

"Sartre's earlier works such as Existentialism and Humanism and Being and Nothingness express 'Sartre's basic message--that the world can be changed; that we are free to change it; and if we fail to do so we bear the responsibility'...

... the head of the PCF, Maurice Thorez, for example, had condemned Sartre's ideas as 'the existentialist putrescence'--showing the threat that the PCF perceived from Sartre.17

That Sartre's interest in freedom was not purely philosophical is made clear in the example of Sartre's 1943 occupation play The Flies. The Flies originates from the Greek myth of Electra and Orestes, and discusses the nature of fate and freedom via a comparison of Electra and Orestes' reactions to matricide committed as revenge. Yet the play, Sartre commented in 1947, was an attempt to show that 'remorse was not the attitude Frenchmen should choose after our country's military collapse. Our past no longer existed... But the future--even though an enemy army was occupying France--was new...we were at liberty to make it a future of the defeated or a future of free men'.18 Birchall recognises there was a tactical reason why Sartre chose to initiate performances of The Flies during the occupation. The Flies was intended to make clear to the French people that they were responsible for how they responded to the occupation. With this in mind, it becomes obvious that the writer Gilbert Joseph's criticism of Sartre for collaborating with occupying forces by allowing his work to be performed fails to understand the very objective of the play.19

Putting Sartre in perspective

In 1974 Simone de Beauvoir (philosopher, novelist and author of The Second Sex) asked Sartre how he perceived the relation between himself and organised politics. He replied:

Whenever I committed myself in one way or another to politics and carried out an action, I never abandoned the idea of freedom. On the contrary, every time I acted I felt free. I've never belonged to a party... I have...been in touch with various groups but without belonging to them.20

This makes it clear that there was never a formalised relationship between Sartre and the PCF following their 'four-year romance' in the 1950s. He refers in the same interview to French Maoism--which he was interested in during the 1968 period--and to the fact that he could not completely 'commit' himself to one political organisation. In the introduction to his book, Birchall discusses why this may have been the case, pointing to the nature of revolutionary organisations as being 'always the choice of the future against the present' as a possible cause."


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Apr 30th, 2007 at 03:29:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this.

I've been rereading Althusser's very fine Lenin and Philosophy recently.   He certainly makes a good case for Lenin as a certain kind of philosopher, albeit one who calls into question the traditional goals of philosoophy and rationality.  Reminding one of Marx's point in the Theses on Feuerbach that the point of philosophy is not to describe the world, but to change it.  

by kellogg (kellogg[dot]david[at]gmail[dot]com) on Sun Apr 29th, 2007 at 05:32:38 PM EST
But note this:

"In attacking Anderson and Nairn, Thompson did not consider that he was simply correcting erroneous interpretations of history. He saw himself as defending the practice of historical materialism against an empty formalism which characterised too much Marxist analysis. 'Minds which thirst for a sturdy platonism very soon become impatient with actual history', he suggested. A decade later, his defence of 'actual history' against 'platonic Marxism' took the form of a no holds barred attack on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser.

Thompson's critique of Althusser developed points which had been made by other writers.16 What distinguished Thompson's attack, The Poverty of Theory, however, was its fierce polemical tone and its attempt to demonstrate that Althusser's position was saturated with Stalinism. Not surprisingly, Thompson's polemic begins with an assault on the contempt for history that characterises his adversary's project. Thompson quotes the astonishing statement by two British Althusserians that 'Marxism, as a theoretical and political practice, gains nothing from its association with historical writing and historical research. The study of history is not only scientifically but also politically useless.'17 And he proceeds to demonstrate that Althusser's system is nothing less than the wildest form of idealism.

Central to Althusser's position was the idea that Marxist science could be constructed only at the level of philosophy by means of the pure refinement of concepts. Any contamination of theory by history, any attempt to ground concepts in lived experience, he denounced as 'empiricism'. It followed that Marxist science could be developed only at a conceptual level, by refining concepts by means of other concepts. Thompson had no doubt as to the thoroughly idealist nature of this theoretical operation:

...this procedure is wholly self-confirming. It moves wholly within the circle not only of its own problematic but of its own self-perpetuating and self-elaborating procedures... It is a sealed system in which concepts endlessly circulate, recognise and interrogate each other.

Such a position is neither scientific nor materialist. And Thompson did not shrink from giving it a name. Althusser's theoretical enterprise, he wrote:

is a break from disciplined self-knowledge and a leap into the self-generation of 'knowledge' according to its own theoretical procedures: that is, a leap out of knowledge and into theology.18

The tone of Thompson's spirited polemic offended many academic Marxists. Yet Thompson's combination of satire and denunciation with theoretical argument was nothing new in Marxist polemics against idealism--one need only consult the tone adopted by Marx and Engels in a work like The Holy Family to see that The Poverty of Theory has its place in a long and honourable tradition. But Thompson's essay offended in large measure because of the political and social characterisation of Althusserianism it contained.

Thompson notes the origin of Althusser's work: 1956. And he recognises that Althusser's project was defined by an effort to render the Communist Parties immune from the sort of criticism which was emanating from libertarian communist and socialist humanist quarters. The easiest way to do that was to eliminate human beings from the project of 'Marxist' science. To that end, Althusser sought to bury Marx's concepts of alienation and reification and to reconstruct Marxist science as a philosophy of structures. But Thompson, seasoned in the battles of 1956, understood the political character of Althusser's project. 'We can see the emergence of Althusserianism', he wrote, 'as a manifestation of a general police action within ideology, as the attempt to reconstruct Stalinism at the level of theory.'19"


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Mon Apr 30th, 2007 at 04:23:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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