Bordieu on philosophy’s limits

Pierre Bordieu’s Meditations pascaliennes opens with some truly beautiful reflections meant to put intellectuals firmly in their place. Here are two of my favorites, with light commentary (in Robert Brandom’s terms, this is commentary de re more than de dicto; aimed more at the ideas themselves than at minute exegesis):

“Or s’il y a une chose que nos philosophes, ‘modernes’ ou ‘postmodernes’, ont en commun, par-delà les conflits que les opposent, c’est cet excès de confiance dan les pouvoirs du discours. Illusion typique de lector, qui peut tenir le commentaire académique pour un acte politique ou la critique des texts pour un fait de resistance, et vivre les révolutions dans l’ordre des mots comme des révolutions radicals dans l’ordre des choses” (10).

Philosophers — and theologians and critical theorists — are prone to confusing arguments with advocacy, or still worse, reasoning with revolution. The intellectual life consists in a set of technical discourses, whether of conceptual analysis or careful exegesis, that have at best only a tangential relationship to the flourishing or liberation of men and women not privy to them. Whether we should then give up on the intellectual life, or, while acknowledging its intrinsic excellence, seek to pair it with practices (prayer, for instance) aimed at forming blessed communities, is another question altogether.

“Dans l’ordre de la pensée, il n’y a pas, come le rappelait Nietzsche, d’immaculée conception; mais il n’y a pas davantage de péché originel. Et ce n’est pas parce que l’on pourrait découvrir que celui qui a découvert la vérité avait intérêt à le faire que cette découverte s’en trouverait tant soit peu diminuée. Ceux qui aiment croire au miracle de la pensée ‘pure’ doivent se résigner à admettre que l’amour de la vérité ou de la vertu, comme toute autre espèce de disposition, doit nécessairement quleque chose aux conditions dan lesquelles il s’est formé, c’est-à-dire à une position et à une trajectoire sociales” (11-12).

It is now a truism that reasoning is pervasively contaminated by one’s “social location” (or, if we follow Ricoeur’s neat if reductive summary of the “masters of suspicion,” by one’s interest in sex, money, and power); Bordieu patiently grants this rather trite notion, and then makes the obvious retort — so what? Thinkers should certainly strive to excavate the hidden motivations that might distort their reasoning (though we learned this from Socrates or Augustine long before Foucault), but simply to observe that someone has an interest in the truth he has worked out is not so much to cast doubt on his reasoning as to change the subject. (Of course, if one has already given up on the possibility of truth, then drilling down to find the economic base on which your opponent’s ideological superstructure rests might be as much worth your time as is anything else).

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