[Note: This is the first of four guest posts by Mark Ohm. ]
Here is one of four follow-ups to Jon Cogburn’s link to the translation of Raphaël Millière’s wonderful essay on the recent history of analytic and continental metaphysics. As I will be writing my Master’s thesis on the revival of metaphysics in France, in addition to being committed to and proposing a number of translation projects over the next few years (including translating and editing the ATMOC mirror site), I thought that I’d share with non-Francophone readers a rather disturbing exchange that took place last summer in France, which Millière refers to in notes 154 and 157 of his essay.
For lack of a better term, I will call this the “Claudine Tiercelin Affair.” I do so not in order to project the clichéd image of France as a place that feeds on polemics and scandal, but rather because I believe that the letter, article, blog post, and interview are relevant to the numerous (and sometimes heated) discussions on New APPS and in the philosophical community more broadly over the past few years apropos the divide, sexism in the profession, the pluralist’s guide, the PGR, and, more recently and particularly, Cogburn’s posts on unearned contempt and monolingualism in the profession (or what might translate into what Bouveresse calls “philosophical nationalism”).
Before sharing Bouveresse's letter let me provide some background on Tiercelin and what prompted Bouveresse's letter.
Tiercelin’s most recently published work is Le Ciment des choses. Petit traité de métaphysique scientifique réaliste, published in Ithaque’s series “Science et métaphysique”, which includes published French translations of John Heil’s From an Ontological Point of View, David Armstrong’s Universals, and Achille C. Varzi’s Ontologia, and which will feature future publications of François Clementz’s La Réalité des apparences, Olivier Massin’s La Réalité tangible, the Descartes-More Correspondance (1648-1649), and French translations of specific works by Brentano, Meinong, and van Inwagen.
Bouvresse is responding to the attempt by Aude Lancelin and Le Nouvel Observateur – self-proclaimed arbiter of philosophical values in France – to discredit Tiercelin. Lancelin’s opening move in her four-page article on “the unknown of the Collège de France” is taken straight out of playbook of the shock doctrine: “Stupefaction. Rue d’Ulm. Agitation. Place de la Sorbonne...”
The most remarkable characteristic of Lancelin's article is not that those who are cited are only adversaries of the philosophy in question. Nor is it that so many of them remain anonymous. Rather, what is astounding is that all of the sources cited cry foul that this kind of philosophy has no value, that it is moreover not French, and that it should therefore not have a legitimate place in the Mecca of research and thought like the Collège de France.
In the next part of this series, I will present a complete translation of Lancelin’s article. Due to it’s flagrant misogynistic and condescending tone, I have decided to present Jacques Bouveresse’s response first.
Since the 1970s, Bouveresse has not stopped denouncing the stranglehold of a particular kind of journalism over the French philosophical world and how some philosophers in search of cultural capital and power make use of traditional media for their own selfish ends. What follows is the letter that Jacques Bouveresse addressed to Le Nouvel Observateur in response to Aude Lancelin’s article on “the unknown of the Collège de France”. The original French version is available here.
Since you have given me the honor of asking me, in mail dated May 23, for my response regarding Claudine Tiercelin’s election at the Collège de France (and I explained to you, and I believe in a sufficiently clear manner, why I was in a position that would have made, at the very least, strange an intervention from me in this respect)*, I allow myself to inform you of the astonishment and indignation that the article that you just published in Le Nouvel Observateur gave rise to in me. It is not only contemptuous, but even in many respects insulting for Claudine Tiercelin and for all the philosophers who, in France, are directly or indirectly connected with the analytic tradition. The title itself, “L’inconnu du Collège de France”, seems to me already, at the very least, contestable. I am not surprised that Claudine Tiercelin is unknown by Le Nouvel Observateur and the media in general, but to introduce her as an unknown tout court is absolutely absurd. She is certainly known in the philosophical and intellectual milieux that have reasons to take interest in what she does, and she even has an international reputation that a lot of philosophers could envy her for.
On the other hand, I find particularly disturbing the tendency that one has more and more today to forget that media-staged celebrity and celebrity tout court does not constitute a sufficient proof of quality and importance, and are in absolutely no way a necessary condition for it. The fact of being unknown or little-known has never constituted and will never constitute by itself a serious argument to use against an intellectual. Finally, I notice that your newspaper, up to now, is content with ostensibly ignoring more or less everything that philosophers write, philosophers who, in France, are directly or indirectly connected with the analytic tradition in philosophy. I did not think, I admit to you, in being reduced to thinking an entire day about this, as had been the case when I had read your article, that this was perhaps, thinking about it, again what could befall them more tolerably.
When I had received your mail, I had naively imagined that it was essentially about offering to your readers a slightly more precise idea of what Claudine Tiercelin does, about the importance of the contributions she has made to philosophy today, and about the reasons that motivated the choice of someone like her for a chair at the Collège de France. I do not doubt that it was in reality and above all about allowing a certain number of people who are discontented by this election to have bones to pick through the press. Unfortunately, your article does not give any explanations, which we have the right to expect, on what Claudine Tiercelin exactly does, on the reasons why we have been able to speak, for some time now, about a real renewal of metaphysics, which it was important to represent at the Collège de France, and, furthermore, which has the particularity of being done in countries like Australia or the United States as much as in France. More or less as if there were not also philosophers who had fully justified the choice of Claudine Tiercelin and were delighted about it, the only persons to whom you have given the floor happened to be a priori hostile people and who, if I can judge them after what they said, have no real knowledge of her work. I think that, in cases like this, one ought to perhaps make an effort to go seek information in other places than the bookstores of the Latin Quarter and the rue d’Ulm – whose most representative philosophers, or in any case the most prominent, seem convinced more than ever that there is nothing interesting in philosophy outside of France.**
Of course, I do not reproach the people to whom you speak for evidently not knowing much about philosophers as important as Peirce (here I speak about Peirce the metaphysician), Bradley, McTaggart, David Lewis, David Armstrong, and others, whom they have perhaps not even ever heard spoken about, but the least you could do, in a such a case, is appear a little more prudent and a little less categorical in your judgments, and, for a newspaper, to not repeat those judgments without taking at least a minimum of distance in relation to them.
I do not want to enter into the details of a discussion that would carry me much further and would evidently not serve much purpose. But I will nevertheless allow myself to make some remarks on some particular points:
(1) To say that people like Foucault or Bourdieu would not be elected today to the Collège de France is a gratuitous and perfectly absurd affirmation, formulated by someone who obviously ignores the entire real situation.
(2) The epitome of inaccuracy is attained by Badiou’s declaration.*** Of the four philosophers who had taught at the Collège de France since Jules Vuillemin’s and Gilles-Gaston Granger’s retirement, in 1990, and before the election of Claudine Tiercelin, none can be considered, even from a distance, as a representative of American analytic philosophy. It is certainly not the case of Anne Fagot-Largeault, nor of Jon Elster, whose philosophical training had, besides, been to an extent essentially French (Jean Hyppolite, Raymond Aron, etc.), and not even of Ian Hacking either, who is an admirer and disciple of Foucault. As for me, who Badiou had qualified in the past as a “herald of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony,” I had in fact essentially worked, as it is easy to give an account of by simply looking at a bibliography, on philosophers and writers that are Austrian and German. And if I effectively have a certain proximity to analytic philosophy, this is surely not because I prioritize American analytic philosophy. In spite of everything that some of those among us have tried to say in this respect, Badiou, since the 1960s, continues to repeat more or less the same clichés and the same untruths about analytic philosophy in general and also about Wittgenstein.
(3) There are forms of philosophical nationalism that I cannot consider otherwise than as puerile and dishonorable, in particular the one for which the rue d’Ulm seems to have become, for some time, the representative par excellence in its way of fighting for the return to a single philosophy worthy of the name – in other words, French philosophy, and more precisely “French Theory.” Will we one day finally see a time come when we will find it normal, for those who think they have reasons for doing so, to be able to critique certain celebrities of contemporary French philosophy, like Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and others, without risking being immediately suspected of belonging to a kind of “foreigner’s party” in philosophy? If philosophy, at least when it is about thinkers of this kind, is in the process of changing into a kind of religion whose dogmas and shepherds are more or less hailed as untouchable by their flock, as for me, I prefer quite simply renouncing the quality of the philosopher. And if there is a regression that is in the process of taking place, unfortunately I fear that this is not in the sense that is suggested by the people who you have questioned, but rather in another sense.**** Indeed, I fear that it is not those who, like myself, since the middle of the 1960s, have tried, in particularly unfavorable conditions, opening French philosophy onto foreign countries and internationalizing it a little more, who have reasons to be worried. But rather, it seems to me, it is those on the side of the defenders of essentially and even sometimes uniquely “French” philosophy where a newspaper, having intellectual ambitions like yours, ought to be situated.
When I speak about “regression”, of course, I do not simply compare the actual situation to what things were still like a decade or so ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, I had myself heard multiple times of philosophers like Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, and others object to the provincialism of French philosophy and its lack of opening onto foreign countries, in particular onto the Anglo-Saxon world. Even if they had themselves not done much concretely to try to put into practice what they preached, they nevertheless found it encouraging that there were those who tried to do so. In fact, it was by Althusser’s request – who, if he was surely not a liberal in theoretical matters, was nevertheless undoubtedly one in matters of the organization of education – that I had given courses on analytic philosophy during the years 1966-1969 at the rue d’Ulm. This is really the last thing that could come to mind in trying to respond today. And if I still have hesitations towards responding, what I had read in Le Nouvel Observateur would have surely made me say these things.
(4) The name of the author of the book entitled Ontological Relativity (1969) is not “Quayle”, but “Quine” (first name: “Willard van Orman”) (1908-2000). He is probably the most famous and most important American philosopher of the twentieth century, and, it seems to me, he would at least have the right to having his name cited correctly.
(5) Although that might seem to be an insignificant detail, I want you to know that Jules Vuillemin was not, in any case surely not solely nor even primarily, a “philosopher of science”, but a philosopher tout court, in the most classical and fullest sense of the term, and a first-rate historian of philosophy (he was a student of and heir to Martial Gueroult). If I tell you this, it is because qualifying someone as “philosopher of science” always amounts to implicitly suggesting that she does not take on “big” philosophical problems and can only interest an absolutely limited number of specialists. In the case of Vuillemin, this in no way corresponds to reality. Moreover, I do not see what authorizes you to speak, as you do so in the article, about a “guaranteed effect of terror”***** when people that are truly knowledgeable endeavor to communicate at least a part of their knowledge to students and auditors who have come there in order to learn, and who have no reason to feel terrorized. This is a sensation that I have in every case never had when I had found myself or find myself still today in a situation of this kind.
After having first personally sent you a version of this message, I have decided to publicly disseminate it, with some corrections and additions. I have felt obliged to do it insofar as things are in the process of taking a disagreeable turn (so as to not say more).
All the notes below are not Bouveresse’s, but rather written by a French editor.
*“Concerning Claudine Tiercelin’s election to the Collège de France, I do not have to express a reaction, since it is I who had proposed and defended her candidacy (every proposal for the creation of a new chair at the Collège de France must be presented before the assembly of professors by one of them). It would even be, I believe, unseemly enough that I expressed myself in the press by saying nothing but good things when I think about what she does (without that, I would obviously have not thought of her occupying a chair at the Collège de France). In any case, it seems to me that what counts in this affair and what Le Nouvel Observateur should be interested in is essentially the quality, novelty, and importance of her work, and not the opinion that I might have about it.” (25 May 2011)
**In her response to Jacques Bouveresse, with the simplicity and good faith characteristic of the mainstream media in general and Le Nouvel Observateur in particular, the journalist explained having “actively researched for defenders of Madame Tiercelin’s election”, and that “this mission is quasi-impossible in Paris today”. It is interesting to note that in addition to Jacques Bouveresse’s refusal, Le Nouvel Observateur occasionally does not even give a response to its demands. The good news is that, in knowing this, we would begin to mistrust the use that the official press can make of the interviewees cited.
***“Alain Badiou,” the journalist writes, “sees in this election the result of 25 years of humiliation that will have succeeded in making the institution where Barthes and Foucault taught ‘an old-fashioned sub-prefecture of American analytic philosophy, favoring the conservative consensus to the detriment of the contemporary innovator’”, Le Nouvel Observateur, 14 June 2011.
****Le Nouvel Observateur reports, for example, that “the psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco, refer[s] to a great period of decline for the institution [the Collège de France]” and that “Répétiteur at the ENS, the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux also says that he is troubled to see that, through a spectacular reversal, it is henceforth in the United States that “French Theory” is obliged to go into refuge”, Ibid.
*****Le Nouvel Observateur writes that Claudine Tiercelin’s inaugural lectures produced “a guaranteed effect of terror for whoever is quite accustomed to the neighboring establishment, the Sorbonne”, Ibid.]
For a complementary analysis of the article in question, read Marie-Anne Paveau’s “Barbarella au Collège de France. Du traitement médiatique de la métaphysique et des métaphysiciennes”, La Pensée du discours, 15 June 2011. An English translation of this short piece will be Part III of the installment.
For an interview with Claudine Tiercelin: “La philosophie ne protège et ne console de rien”, Le Monde, 30 June 2011. An English translation of this interview will possibly be Part IV of the installment.