The scarecrow concept


From the beginning, more or less explicitly, quite unknowingly, we carried out philosophical consultations in an informal and semi-constructed way. Then, over time, we formalised this practice. However, one day, after having decided to “officialise” the practice, we discovered that there was a specific quality to the so-called consultations, which is undoubtedly owed to the dramatic emphasis on the context, or perhaps to the more established stage setting, and definitely to the gesture represented by a financial transaction and its outcome. Something which appeared more clearly in the human psychological pattern. We discovered, during one of our first “official” discussions, a crucial principle, which turned out to be very useful. A few years later, we called this principle: the “scarecrow concept”, the “ghost concept”, or the “the black hole of the thinking”.


Everything to be happy about

One of these initial formal consultations introduced a man who asked me the following question. “I have everything to be happy about, why am I not happy?”. In his sixties, he was a doctor who described himself as having everything to live for: “A life without major worries, a rather harmonious family, some successful professional and social lives, and even a gratifying artistic activity…” However, he could not find happiness, and even felt periodically quite unhappy. This was not preventing his functioning, neither was it obsessing him insanely; whilst talking, he feigned a certain detachment in the observation of this aberration which was affecting his psychological functioning. He wanted, however, to understand the nature of it, an intellectual desire which was somewhat haunting him. As I was asking what in his life made him the happiest, he replied that it was music. After I requested some precisions, he explained that he played the traverse flute, that he took part in an amateur group of music chamber, and that he played from time to time in small concerts. When he played the flute, he confided, he seemed to be finding an inner flawless peace which he could not find anywhere else. Since the secret of his happiness lied there, I decided to deepen the nature of what was so satisfying to him. “What makes you so happy when you play the flute?” I asked. His reply was a little surprising. “What I like most is the touch, the movement of my fingers on the keys, and feeling the frailty of the column of air at the core of the flute, which is as palpable as a living being”. I had already noticed, earlier in the discussion, the significant use of various expressions of material or organic type when expressing himself or answering my questions, but here, his answer was quite striking. The description of music as a physical activity exclusively, the manner in which he described the fact of playing his instrument, was somewhat surprising. So I asked him about the nature of what he used to play, as he had not mentioned it yet, happy to just tell about his connection to a material object erected as a living being. “What do you like to play most?”. Without any hesitation, he replied: “Mozart”. “So Mozart comes down to a touch and an air column?”, I asked. He stared at me in disbelief and granted a reply to my ludicrous question. “No, Mozart is much more than that! Mozart…”. He stopped and looked thoughtful. I insisted: “You did not finish your sentence. What is Mozart?”. He played it as if he had just emerged from a deep daydream, made a gesture so as to gain some courage or to support his own words, and said: “Mozart is…”. But he did not finish his sentence, interrupting his gesture, his hand frozen in the air, then falling heavily whilst the words could not come. The colour of his face had changed, his features were somewhat broken out, and his body was slowly collapsing on the chair. This man was not the same anymore, he had seen something, the exact nature of which I did not know, something I could only sense. Certainly, he had not replied to me, and although I could not reply for him, I could vaguely imagine what this was about. But he had perceived the “problem” himself, a true black hole in his thinking: the absence of a reply is sometimes a reply which is as substantial as a “real” reply: an absence often turns out to be a greater and more vivacious presence than an actual presence. The hollow has often more to tell than the full, for words as much as for people.

On several occasions I had to repeat the question without ever getting a clear and articulated answer. The main thing was for this man to become aware, and this enlightenment had occurred, even if he was not yet ready to name the object or phenomenon in question. I kept my inquiry during our discussion, in different ways: “What else do you find in Mozart, other than the touch and the air column?”. Sometimes he totally ignored the question, talking about something different, as if he had not heard, and other times he stared at me, speechlessly. This rational man who at the beginning of the session had answered all of my questions without any major problems, was not there anymore. Later, through experience, I would learn to stay away from a question which was too striking and I would use different angles to get back to it in a more natural manner. But here, I over-wanted a reply and in a way that was too direct. In the absolute, this was not a problem: he had perceived what I now call “his ghost”, this thing which lived in him, the reality which caused him a problem. However, through subtler and more precise questioning, perhaps he would have been able to name it, and then undoubtedly to reconcile with it. Today however, I doubt the possibility of such an outcome, as it seems that this man had done so much to deny this reality that it would have been almost impossible to summon it so bluntly. Perhaps, various hypotheses could have been discussed with him to see if one of them was speaking to him.


Attempted explanation

This is however how I now analyse this man’s situation. He had been trained as a doctor. The living must have been such an important concept even before his studies that he chose to devote his life to it, dedicating himself to the body and its harmony, fighting against pain and death. Besides, whilst speaking, he was using organic metaphors and explanations in a very natural way, more than his choice of studies could justify. I have met some doctors on other occasions who, although they shared a similar tendency, did not manifest it in such a sustained way. Also, he conveyed a rather organicist vision of medicine, or a materialistic one, where the first vision is the one of the organs, whether functioning or not, in other words a medicine of the visible, typically French, almost mechanical, where the materiality prevails, and not the processes and the psychological side of it. Now, if we follow one of Spinoza’s principles, quite useful in the work involved in the philosophical consultation, any assertion is a negation. To choose something is to reject something else, to choose a concept or an explanation is to refuse another concept or another explanation, however unpleasant this might seem to the contemporary believers of the inclusive thinking, which should actually be named the omnipotent thinking: those who think that everything is in everything, and the reverse. So, within his finiteness, within his partiality and his imperfection, man does choose, and what he does not choose says at least as much about him than what he chooses, the range being much wider. Therefore, by choosing to have the organic and the material prevail in his life, this doctor was trying to shelve a different reality which could be named, according to the circumstances, to the people and to the cultures: metaphysical, spiritual, mental, divine or other. As in general concepts have several contraries or opposites which, when they are pronounced, imply a choice that shed light on the initial term. So, if our man had “openly” picked the “other” reality, by qualifying or determining it, by naming it, we would have known more precisely which reality he was denying, but we would have also been able to specify the nature of the reality to which he desperately hung on to, through a mirror image process. But failing to do that, we only had a rough idea of what he was denying, yet still substantial.

Now if we go back to his initial question: “I have everything to be happy about, why I am not?”, what could we deduce? Let us try a “wild” interpretation of his case. On the material level, in both financial and practical senses of the word, I have everything I need, I am fully satisfied, I do not have anything else to ask for. Yet, I need something else, an “other”, something that is different and which I prefer to ignore the existence of, a desire which I shall admit to only if disguised, whether referring to its articulation or its satisfaction. This thing, which we will name “immaterial” since we know about it only through its negation and not through the assertion of its identity, yet constitutes the most urgent need, or even the only need, since the rest is fulfilled. Now, needing is necessary in life, without it we are dead, since life is desire and satisfaction of desire. So here is a man, haunted by life, denying his own life since he is denying his own need, preferring to ignore it. He fulfils it covertly however, pretending that it is something different from what it is: he conceals the immateriality in the folds of the materiality, since this is how he describes or explains his musical activity. However though, since the object of desire is being veiled, hidden, denied, the satisfaction can only be frustrated. If it were announced and clarified, it would undoubtedly still be frustrated, but at least there would be a reconciliation with the self, whereas here, this reconciliation is impossible and the self denial produces a pain which can become nagging and hard to bear. This is understandable since a whole portion of the self is denied, amputated, but in fact quite perplexing to find in an organicist mind for whom the being must be complete, integrated and fixed in order to be truly alive. We are left here with a form of partial suicide, or self-destruction. But to get to a reconciliation, the identification of the presuppositions on which the existence was founded, the existential engagement – in this case, the primacy and exclusivity of the organic and the material – would be required as well as the acknowledgement of this exclusivity is wobbly. But how to reach this with a man in his sixties who has endeavoured all his life to focus on one side of his being only. He managed to fulfil adequately, or even brilliantly, the various and numerous requirements of this idolised side of him, and he would now need to admit that he was acting in a reducing and rigid way, and recognise that he had only been grinning and bearing it. It is himself, but also his social recognition, the glory he had been granting himself all his life, his status, his personality and his relatives’ eyes which would be put in question here; his entire existence which had organised, crystallized or stiffened itself around a denial.


To recover or not

There is yet a certain difference between an approach of a psychological nature and an approach of a philosophical nature, if one can make such a generalisation. In our philosophical perspective, getting better or healing are not sought for, neither is reducing the suffering, not that these therapeutic or palliative dimensions should be excluded, but simply because they are not the purpose of our work. We do not deny that there might be a problem, that there might be suffering, or even a pathology, and those terms are useful to characterise what is happening, however we do not have to “heal”, we are no “therapists”, although the philosophical practice has a therapeutic dimension to it and our clients periodically tell us that they found in our practice a certain well-being or some attenuation of their moral suffering. Certainly, people visit us in general because they have a problem which they find hard to bear; certainly, a few colleagues call themselves philo-therapists; certainly, the consolation or the search for happiness are familiar terms in the philosophical culture; but despite all that, it is not how we conceive our practice. We would actually be in agreement with Spinoza: it is not by looking for happiness that we may find it. We could say the same about the problem itself: it is not by looking to “resolve” the problem that it may be solved. Actually, solutions are often just a “fig leaf”, a haven to hide away from the problem, to ignore or deny it. Moreover, to endeavour to solve a problem at all price is somewhat a reductive vision which pertains to a phobia of the problem.

In our opinion, philosophy is an art of the elsewhere, it is the place for the alterity, the unexpected and the unthinkable. In order to philosophise, in a certain way, one should not know what to look for. A problem can still be solved – there is no reason to exclude this possibility – but one can also accept it, ignore it, perceive its ridiculous nature, learn to love it, dissolve it, understand the constitutive dimension of its nature, one can sublimate it or transcend it, re-articulate it or transpose it, so many different ways to process a problem, but to do that, in order to find the appropriate way, one must give up any specific desires which would subordinate our reflexion to a predetermined purpose and prevent us from seeing what is going on. As the keyword, if there is any, is for us awareness: seeing, perceiving, noticing; there lies in our perspective the rooting, the non-negotiable, even though in the end the subject acknowledges, explicitly or not, that he does not want to see. Before we meet, the subject “knows” that there is something that he prefers not to see, he is necessarily aware of his desire or his will not to see. But does he accept this “knowing”? Then, with the philosophical dialogue, through the questioning, he sees, he knows, more explicitly, more inevitably. Then again, he has seen, he has lost this false virginity, the nature of which he ignored, and if he wishes to get back to the original, if he misses the garden of Eden and wishes to return to it, he will do knowingly. He won’t ever be the same. Even if, secondly, he manages to somewhat forget his own reality.

So, Socrates invites us to search for what we are searching for not knowing what we are searching for, even if it means deciding to stop searching it: we are not to decide in advance what to search for, the nature of the object that is sought for has yet to be determined. We ought to create new routes using clues, and slowly discover the object of the quest, knowing all the way that this object is not an idol but an icon; it does not constitute the substance, it does not stand for the unconditioned, it is solely reflection and circumstances. So when our doctor client does not name this dimension which inhabits him but which he refuses to inhabit, there is nothing extraordinary there. For Schiller, man is caught up in a tension between the finite and the infinite, he stands at the junction of two paradoxical dimensions, precisely the fracture of the being. There lies a human specificity. Animals are in the finite only, gods only know the infinite, as Plato tells us, so neither of them need philosophising. This rupture between the finiteness and the infinite nests at the heart of the human history, a singular or a collective history, at the heart of the human tragedy, a singular or a collective tragedy, and we do not see how we could either escape or fix this. In the same way, we could not escape our mortality or our humanity, since these diseases are constitutive of our existence. Or, ironically, let us say that we can only cure them through their accomplishment, through their realisation. Just as we would say that a cancer is cured by getting to the bottom of its process. Philosophy tells us that man is his own disease, so is there anything it could cure us from?

What will our doctor do once out of the philosopher’s practice, will he escape the questioning effect? Will he evade the awareness? We do not know and in the absolute it is not our concern, as cruel and inhuman as this may seem. We are scarcely interested in this, or just on an anecdotal level. He came, he saw, he did not say, but he perceived, he recognised or just made out the unspeakable; what more is there to do? We invited him to name the ghost, he preferred not to call upon it. Was he not ready? Was he not made for this? Does he not want this? We do not have to know for him, to decide for him, to want for him. He came to the Ball, we invited him to dance, he only cared for a few dance steps, either he got bored, he got scared, or he decided that dancing was not activity for him. The premise about the philosophical discussion is free consent: here we have an autonomous person, we may think whatever we want about him but what only matters is what he thinks of himself, what he thinks for himself, what he thinks from himself, although through our questions we invite him to think further, to think aside, to think differently. We have invited him to see, he has seen only what he could see, he has seen only what he wished to see. We have launched a process which will last what it lasts. No more no less.


Seeing and hearing oneself

Once this is said, we have to admit that we are not neutral in our practice: we do have a wish which is not completely undetermined, one without which our practice would not be called as such, or its nature would be unconscious. We actually feel suspicious about those who do not know how they operate, those who under the pretext of freedom or creativity pretend that they work in different ways according to the circumstances, as if things changed completely for each person. They simply do not dare to admit or identify their philosophical rooting, whether it be about the content or the methodology. This vagueness is just a pretext for the worst aberrations, for inconsistency and for narcissism. So for us, the key concept is awareness. Anxious about this, we found out that there was a practical problem. We wanted the subject who consults to be able to see what was going on, but we realised that during the consultation, having to focus on our questions and on the answers having to be produced, he could not see what was happening. He could not see himself answering, neither could he see us questioning him. Caught up in the succession of things, he could not have any general perspective allowing him to go further in this approach, which is to see better. Moreover, after an hour of consultation, the subject is frequently in a state of cognitive dissonance, feeling knocked sideways by the strange places he has had to visit, and it is hardly possible for him to remember what happened. We do however want this recollection, both for him to know himself and enjoy his philosophical work, and also for him to see how we operated, for him to understand that there is no jiggery-pokery, so that he is able to recognise a few basic operations of the thinking which he can re-use at later stage. So, at the beginning, we started offering any volunteers a recording of the discussions, then, later, once the technicalities taken care of, we offered them to videotape them so the dialogue could be watched later. We even wrote a questionnaire to ease the work involving assessments and analysis. But to our astonishment —  naivety knows no limits — we noticed that most people did not wish to hear or watch those recordings, not facing up to this fact, hiding behind obscure alibis. The few times when we got an explanation for this phenomenon, although just introductory remarks, other than “I did not find the time” and “I will do shortly”, they had to do with a feeling of self hopelessness which, supposedly, was associated to the exercise. Besides, this was confirmed to us by several clients amongst those who managed to find the courage – and the time – to watch and hear themselves, they found themselves “silly” or “unable to answer the questions”. However, those who had invited a close friend to share this moment with often said that the friend’s perception was different from theirs, that they had found the exercise more revealing and interesting than they had themselves. Something which confirms a very useful hypothesis for the group work: others are clearly more aware than ourselves of our own limits or imperfections; they have less to lose and so they accept better to perceive them, and also they are used to them. So others often know us better than ourselves, another premise which distinguishes us from many therapists. More recently, we started inviting clients to analyse the recording of their consultation with us, so as to go beyond the first impressionistic, shameful or fearful degree, and to try together to find the meaning of what emerged.


Self rejection

There are two incidents which seem to illustrate significantly this “self rejection”. The first one concerns a man in his thirties who visited us because he had a practical question: “Should I go back to studies?”. After a quarter of an hour of discussion, the underlying problem, the problem behind the problem – or at least one of the problems behind the problem – appeared clearly, as always out of the man’s mouth itself: with his own words. Actually, he just hoped to be loved, and going back to studies mainly represented a strategic tool designed for his personal and social success so as to be better loved, more loved, or actually loved like he hoped, some wishful thinking. When this person heard his own words, after a short moment of quiet hesitation, he suddenly stood up, angry, and declared that he wanted to leave, that he “had had enough of it”, an expression which is in fact quite interesting, expressing both irritation and saturation or satisfaction. For anyone who hears such words, “I want to be loved”, not being involved in the internal drama of this person, what is there that is so extraordinary about them? Wanting to be loved, wishing to be loved more or better, how unremarkable! There is nothing to make a fuss about! But for this person, this confession is a true tragedy. Why is that? What is his story? Here again, as inhuman and cruel as we may seem, the narration of a story is not our business, the historical origin is scarcely interesting; we would even add that it is often misleading, or that at most it conceals the actual reality of the subject. So this man could not bear to hear himself say that he wants to be loved, this sentimental or emotional side of himself was something unthinkable, unbearable. Now, it is precisely this place of resistance that matters to us. Since the nature of man is predominantly the one of a living being, with needs, vulnerabilities, fears, which the philosophising tries to deal with, to solve or to conceal, to shift or to annihilate. Therefore, to pinpoint a resistance, to obtain a reaction, is to make the life behind the words, or the spirit behind the letter, or the subject behind the object, visible. Just like a doctor would gently use a reflex hammer on the knee to examine some reaction and liveliness, the questioning tries to find the sensitive nerve centre of the thinking and therefore of the being. It is where the resistance is that the being can be found, the being as a pathology, the being as a way of being, the being as a momentum, the being as a reason of being, the being as an absence of being. About this man, it is not the fact that he wishes to be loved that is interesting, but the fact that he cannot admit it. What will he implement so as not to see this significant dimension of his being? Will he accept it when he sees it, or will he get angry, as he did with us?

The second incident concerns a woman in her sixties. She already knows me because she has taken part in some collective workshops in a town library for a few years and she has a practical problem which she would like to resolve. She has been working for her employer for many years and he now wants her to go into early retirement. She does not want that, however she wonders if it is worth fighting and refusing, whilst she still can, or if she should just accept what she is ask to do. I ask her a few questions to understand the context and I learn the following facts. She has been working all her life for the same employer, she hasn’t had any family and she got very much involved in her job. Obviously, whilst looking to identify her main motivation for the work, we naturally and easily stumble across the fear of death. Here again, nothing extraordinary. As we explained, there are a certain number of concepts which I name “scarecrow concepts” and each one of us unknowingly elect one, which is exactly the concept which we permanently try to evade or not to see. These concepts all revolve around the annihilation of the being, they incarnate the nothingness in different ways, disclosing different aspects of it. Broadly speaking, we almost always find the same concepts. They relate to not being loved, not being useful, not being recognised, not being free, having nothing, being lonely, being nothing, being impotent, suffering, and of course dying, which was the case for this person. One might say that these “negative” ideas all converge, that they all revolve around the same thing, which we do agree to, since they all deal with the “non-being”, with the cessation of being, the absence of being, the lack of being. Now, as Spinoza says in his conatus, the being always strives to persevere in its being. If psychologically these distinctions all fundamentally amount to the same thing, on the existential level it is totally different as, according to the cases, the subject will be mainly looking for love, usefulness, recognition, freedom, possession, company, over-existence, power, pleasure, life. And as much as the subject could be wanting several or pursuing them all, there is in general a specific concept which is the key-concept and which refers to what I call the “scarecrow concept”, the one which most incarnates the nothingness for this specific person. This fear, or flight, will constitute the keystone of her existential and conceptual axiology. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to dig into the conceptual mess and untangle the web of ideas to identify this keystone as, according to the principle of the octopus who throws ink in order to protect its running away, the human mind creates confusion in order to conceal to others and to itself the nerve centre of its functioning, a perspective of which the simple mention could be frightening. And when a subject is questioned so as to detect this nerve centre, he often shows the characteristics of what we call the syndrome of the drowned person. He struggles frantically, throws his words all over the place, protests, becomes aggressive, jumps from one subject to another, so many red herrings which are certainly unconscious and which sometimes become hard to contain and avoid, since the reason is given up. Sometimes, the conclusion that the person is not ready to identify this black hole in their thinking simply has to be reached. I call this concept the “black hole” because, like the astronomical black hole, it seems to be absorbing all the mental energy of the subject, in such a degree that nothing appears in the region of this concept, where a void is being created. It is therefore very tricky to define.

For this woman on the verge of retiring, as we indicated, the “black hole”, the “scarecrow” concept was death, which is – quite sensibly – a classic. What could be more natural for a living being than to refuse death, even if only the idea of it! So, during the discussion, it was established clearly and without much resistance that the flight or fear of death had been the main reason for this woman to get so involved in her job. But naturally, as a principal of reality, all the things that had been postponed indefinitely during the working life were sent back inevitably on the cusp of this new period, as long as it may be. This rendezvous, missed a million times, now became unescapable. I must admit however having been surprised by the relative ease with which the concept had emerged and had been work on during the consultation. But another more significant surprise was yet to happen. Once the discussion over, I left for ten minutes to get to my computer to engrave the recording of the conversation onto a CD. When I came back and held the CD out to this person, she stood up, made some grand gestures with her hand and dropped: “It wasn’t me speaking! It was not me!”. I answered gently that, anyway, this recording belonged to her, that she could take it and do whatever she wanted with it. She took it but it was the last time I ever saw this person again; she never took part in a workshop again.


Failure or not

This last reaction, and others of the same kind, pose the question of the continuity of the philosophical work and its commercial profitability, since it is so risky. On that subject, the practitioners do not have the same vision. During an international congress in Seville, Lou Marinoff, a famous colleague of mine, and myself had different views. As a matter of fact, quite proud of his work, he was narrating his successes to the audience when he “confessed” one of his failures. It was about a client who never came back after a session where he had discovered an upsetting concept. Since this incident was described negatively, I raised the objection that, on the contrary, this proved that a crucial point had been reached, which seemed to me to be point of a philosophical consultation. Ironically, but not jokingly however, I ventured a hypothesis that, on the contrary, it was undoubtedly the most successful session described that day, since the subject in question had reckoned he had completed what he had to do with the philosopher, and that it was up to him, alone, to pursue his own work. And undoubtedly, or maybe, during this last – or only – consultation, he had perceived or identified the “scarecrow” concept which inhabited him, and which had been enough for him. Once out of the philosopher’s practice, it is up to the client himself to determine whether he prefers to forget about this concept or bring it to life, it is not the philosopher’s business anymore, since the subject will now deliberate autonomously on the question. It is up to him to find out later if he feels an urge to consult a philosopher again, to decide if he needs a certain assistance in case he feels overtaken by his own thinking, or simply to carry on as he used to, after a short philosophical break.


The philosophical consolation

The philosophical consolation

The human being is suffering. Nothing extraordinary or new there. It is suffering, more than animals, not only because it experiences bodily suffering, as do other species, but also because it experiences moral suffering, a sub-product of freedom and reasoning, those human characteristics, some consequences that can hardly be escaped. Now, if physical suffering is not permanently present, moral pain hardly disappears, or fleetingly. Whether it be through frustration, impatience, unsatisfied desires, disenchanted expectations, or any other concerns, suffering is there, more or less significant, more or less present, more or less bearable. The range of means by which it expresses or manifests itself, showing the diversity and the persistence of the pain, is wide. By the same token, many ways are found to reduce the pain, which we may call consolation, a consolation which we pursue endlessly.

Words themselves articulate the problem and offer some solutions, some panaceas, some painkillers, because words nest at the heart of man: they constitute his being. They capture his pain, generate it, treat it, heal it. In any language, through many forms, one can find words that are painful, words that hurt, even words that kill! Admittedly, before the words, through his organic nature, man has been experiencing pain. The one from the tearing of his body, from some brutal clashes, from illness. Through lacking, hunger, thirst or fatigue, the pain arisen out of a body deprived of its fullness, from a need robbed of its satisfaction, the one of a disturbed harmony, or just anxiety. Obviously, animals also know the fear that drives them to seek protection, to escape, to fight, sometimes they are even prepared to sacrifice themselves to protect their own. The ghost of death, a vague feeling of destruction or disappearance of the being, whether individually or collectively, seems to affect a certain amount of animal species. This is perhaps an anthropological vision, but could we speak of a will to live, apparently deeply rooted in the animal function, without speaking of a will to die? Especially concerning animals that kill, or those that run away from their predators, minimally those that recognise the difference. Not to mention the fear of losing close ones, dear or attached, whether it be through simple biological identification, like some societies of insects, or through a sort of emotional attachment, like family connections amongst mammals. Desire is at the core of the existence, under multiple forms. An infinite desire, an impossible desire, which goes way beyond our ability to reason or our understanding, because it depends more on the imagination, an endless power of representation. So desire is tragic, precisely because it is endless, without boundaries, without determination, in such a way that the overweening avidity of some people turns shapeless. Dissatisfaction is chronical, the anticipation and the frustration become unbearable. Nevertheless, these expectations, which we have in our bones, move us: they drive, motivate and structure our lives. But this process is far too shapeless to suffice, the “yes to life”, joyful and complete, dear to certain philosophers, is a construction that is too intellectual, too fleshless to satisfy us. We need to say “yes” to certain things and “no” to others, to be more determined, as we could not fail to make a choice, we could not be devoid of inclinations and subjectivity. Life in itself cannot fulfil us, we need to exist and not just be alive. We cannot fail to hope, want and desire. Therefore, we just couldn’t fail to experience lack and pain.

Consequently, for man, as we mentioned, pain is the object of a speech, which therefore turns the speech into the holder or the preserver of the pain, for himself or for the others. The speech is “pharmakon”, both poison and cure. In the same way that the speech encompasses illness, by its inherent power, it necessarily encompasses healing, and vice-versa. Now here comes what is interesting: the word that heals, the word that consoles. To start with, since we are not doctors, or psychologists, we will not endeavour to examine words as producing some somatic effects, of an unconscious nature, since the philosopher that we are cares mostly for the psychological, conscious or reasoned dimension of man. Moreover, for the same reason, coherent to our philosophical posture, the human subject is not here conceived as a disabled entity, unable to fulfil by himself his own psychological needs, but as an autonomous being, able to take responsibility for his own existence and to determine his own judgement criteria. However, the boundary that we are trying to outline is not as clear as we pretend it to be, although it seems to us beneficial to try to mark it out, as impressionistically as it may be. If only through the abuse made nowadays of a “psychological” type language, that turns a healthy adult into a person that is ill and unaware of it, in an era where all kinds of witch doctors proliferate. An era that preaches a childish ideology inciting people to be mollycoddled and spoon-fed, to confide their slightest indispositions, just because of an illusory quest for happiness, often at low cost. Admittedly, the good health of our bodies and our minds may have been far too ignored, but the idea is not to go to the opposite extreme of some unhealthy narcissism. And then perhaps the speech which confronts itself to the being and which constitutes it will play an unexpected role, more substantial than we would have thought or hoped. We could relate this to Spinoza’s injunction about happiness: best not to look for it to meet it.

Our hypothesis here is that man is suffering, and that his suffering incites him to search for remedies. On one side, the remedies which treat the objective dimension of his being, those that are the same or almost for everyone, and which therefore are a scientific, or magic, matter, and on the other side remedies which are a matter of subjectivity, of the psychological singularity, and which cannot be elaborated without the subject himself having to define the nature and the content of the problem, or at least to widely participate to define it, and the cure as well. We will call the first category medicine in a wide sense: let us remember that Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, tried to give his new practice a scientific value, so we fit psychology into this category. We will call the second category philosophy. It is up to people to understand in which framework their practice fits. But here again, such a blunt and marked distinction is bothering us slightly. However, we must try it in order to get out of this rut where nothing adds up, to avoid the pitfall of the undifferentiated scheme, this “night when all cows are black” as condemns Hegel. The “new age” spirit which, in reaction to an excessive scientism, extols a sort of “magical” vision of the being, is for us like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The general name we will give to this philosophical approach, for the need of our thesis, will be consolation. Because, despite the risk of a certain reductionism which a few will not fail to condemn, we will assume for all intents and purposes that philosophy or rather the philosophising, is nothing more than man’s attempt to heal his ills, his moral pains. We are reminded here of Plato who claims that philosophy is purely human, because gods don’t need it and animals can’t do it, or hardly need it, which is the same. Solely man, a hostage caught between the finite and the infinite, does perceive and conceive an urge for such a practice. Especially as this double nature of his is causing him additional suffering, since man is shared between the conscience of his immediate being and the hope or the illusion of what he could be, and torn also between empirical being and transcendental being. Now, it is at the core of this duplicity which is specifically human that the need to operate philosophising articulates itself, through some thoughts, through some words, words that constitute the thinking, words that are obliged by the thinking, both causes and remedies of the suffering which is affecting the mind. Yet, the body as a body can be thought as a generality, the mind as a mind, even though it can be thought as a generality, should as well be thought as a specificity, which we cannot avoid. The subject is singular and determined by its specific reasoning. The extended, or physical, matter is more common. We will be accused of being highly Cartesian or rationalist, and we will plead guilty, nevertheless as did our famous predecessor, and with some mitigating circumstances, we will admit a certain continuity, a certain important bond between these two aspects of man.

As a last attempt to mark out the extent of our sphere of action, a few words seem necessary with regards to the problem of pathology, and of diagnosis. Here again, two pitfalls appear, in this usual symmetry of the realities of the world, a recurrence whose frequency makes the dualistic scheme quite tempting. On one side, the claim of an absence of pathology, on the other side the formalism or the rigidity of pathology definition. The first instance deals with a radical relativism that entitles anyone to a full and total legitimacy of being and of thinking, all-mighty subjectivity that is legitimate solely because it exists. This “teenage” scheme claims that all thoughts are of equal merit, that people can think what they want. This could very well be a defendable thesis if only one can accept the consequences of such a vision of the world. For example, the fact here that neither logic, or reason, or morality, or consciousness are given a real status. Which would not be a philosophical problem in itself if this position was sustainable without any major obstacles. But unfortunately, what unknowingly the advocate of such a thesis would be professing here, is a discourse which glorifies the immediate, which certifies the sincerity of the moment, which annihilates the possibility of a critical perspective. A discourse which, at the slightest blow of reality or otherness, will not fail to generate various contradictions, cause of many ills. Our work as a philosopher is not here to propose a new scheme, but just to offer an opportunity of insight, to let the subject work deeper towards such a scheme, become aware of it, or let it go, as he prefers. Nonetheless, our experience allows us to recognise in such a discourse, through simple questions, not so much the pathology of the scheme, this in the absolute does not exist, but the torments of a singular being who is unable to take responsibility for his own existence, like in the case of the teenage years, those years of all dangers, of all anxieties and uncertainties.

Should the opposite occur, the one of the scientific formalism, the point would be to establish a list of thinking and being modalities, a priori defined as healthy or pathological, pathologies which would then require fighting or healing. If many philosophers have, without claiming it, written in this way, it cannot be the same for the philosophy practitioner, whose role is not to convey a specific philosophy and to teach it whilst considering that other forms of thinking are irrelevant or a “disease”. That would be for instance to teach a wisdom or a religion. The clashes between philosophers, doctrines, schools, trends, which mark and structure the history of thinking, show us the inclination of some thinkers to impose in some way a certain vision of the world, which they think is more assured, more true, vaster, more methodical, etc. Having said that, if they hadn’t had that pretention, perhaps they would not have perceived the interest of their specific contributions and they would not have been driven to keep up their writing efforts. Unlike the literary writers who generally aspire to some originality in their work and to some expression of what they care about, the philosophers are driven by an aspiration to truth, virtue, reality, in any cases to a certain form of universality, as vain and pompous as this claim may sound. A claim which is sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not, just like for any ordinary mortal. With that extra talent that the specialists of the philosophical technics deploy to evade the issue and claim a false humility.

But here we are, based on our work of negativity, critique or deconstruction and yet still of assertion, in our turn offering an axiology, offering to define a certain amount of pathologies, which we will conceitedly define as non-doctrinal, and to assert the possibility of a diagnosis. The point is not to establish a vision of the world – as much as it would be difficult for such a perspective not to show through within our words – but to identify what allows the thinking and what stops the thinking, insisting on the latter aspect more specifically, since the point is to implement the thinking, what actually nests at the heart of the philosophising. Let us acknowledge here a “personal” thesis, a vision of things that seems crucial for the rest of our text, although it is not claiming any originality. The thinking does think, very naturally, except when it is hindered. Therefore, the philosopher’s job, his technicality, to a great deal relates to the suppression of those obstacles, which allows us to state that we do not teach how to do philosophy, but that we are addressing the reasons for the non-philosophising. A bit like engineers fighting the natural obstacles that are stopping and hindering the stream of a river, rather than digging an artificial canal.

For those who may fear to move away from the topic, the consolation, let us start with proposing the work hypothesis which is that the so-called philosophical practice consists for a great deal in re-establishing the standard process of thinking that is undermined by “pain”, a concept used here in an extended and polymorphous way. A pain of which the main effect would be the fixation of this flow on a particular point, or several, in an obsessional and non-reflexive way. This pain becoming the anchoring point of the thinking subject, is acting like an astronomical black hole, a place of a disproportionate density that attracts everything to it, even light, a reason why nothing results from it anymore. As a matter of fact, some pains manage to mobilise the totality of one’s psychological life experience, to a point that it can make the subject radically impotent, except if he/she manages to channel or sublimate this pain, transforming it into a force able to move and drive him/her. To us and for that matter, this sublimation or this channelling form the core of the dynamics of the consolation, which we will endeavour to explain.


History of philosophical consolation

Rather forgotten by philosophy dictionaries, the word consolation has its importance in the history of philosophy. Although this idea seems to be of Mediterranean and western specificity, we meet it in other traditions: for instance, in the Bhagavad-Gitâ, where the god Krishna consoles and advises the prince Arjuna afflicted with a terrible moral dilemma, or in the preaches of the Buddha, where compassion and awakening aim at breaking the chain of causality that brings suffering. In western countries, the explicit role of philosophy has shown from the Antiquity, with the Epicureans (Epicure, Lucretius) and the Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), especially with regards to death. This concern about man and his woes appears in Ancient Greek times, through a form of decadence of the noble and detached themes: metaphysics, gnoseology, cosmology. The human subjectivity had already been treated slightly by Plato (The Banquet) or Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) but always in the perspective to reach an ideal, as the transcendence or the divine still formed the essence of reality: the good is more sought for than happiness, happiness being far more fashionable nowadays. We can find this opposition between a complacent thinking and a philosophical nobility in The Consolation of Philosophyfrom Boethius. Unfairly condemned to death, he starts his book in prison where he writes poetry to complain of his woes. Soon enough, “Lady Reason” visits him in his cell to reprimand him and incites him to contemplate the “great truths”, so as to forget the suffering related to his fragile and miserable existence.

With Saint Augustine, Christian philosophy experienced an important inflexion in the relationship between the consolation of human pains and the presence of an ideal, since from his own acknowledgement, the origin of his conversion was a personal despair linked to scepticism and an absence of truth. Besides, the relationship between the biblical message – used to the consolation principal – makes this illustrious Latin Father an important founder of the existential philosophy. A double Christian contribution grounds this twist in philosophy: the incarnation of God in man and the historical dimension of mankind, two grounding elements of an eschatological doctrine of salvation. The Augustinian insight will then allow us to envisage the hypothesis that any metaphysical, cosmological, sociological or other scheme is nothing more than an attempt to give meaning to human existence and to soothe the moral pain associated to the conscience and feeling of finiteness. As a matter of fact, transcendence can only find its meaning through and for the human nature, without however denying any a priori revelation or truth. The mystical tradition stating that God is first and foremost subjected to a personal relationship (Teresa of Avila, Eckhart, Hildegarde de Bingen…), just like the Christian existentialism (Kierkegaard, Berdiaev, Simone Weil, Mounier…) are in their own ways the continuators of such a tradition, for whom thinking and faith inscribe themselves above all at the heart of the personal and social experience. This is how the divinity articulates itself within its comforting and redeeming mission. In parallel to the Christian tradition, let us mention the Cathar tradition, where consolation is a simple ceremony for Manicheans from Albi on the brink of death, without any constraints of punishments, that allegedly would erase lifetime sins, offering the faithful a chance to reach salvation before dying, sort of redemption that changed life.

Another route for the study of consolation: the development of psychology – which until Descartes was dominated by metaphysics – which will slowly thrive, and emancipate itself, and through Freud will separate from philosophy in an attempt at setting itself up as a science. However, despite this effort of scientificity and its medical dimension, one can still consider that modern psychology keeps deep within itself the traces of a philosophical work destined to compensate for the deficiencies and the griefs of the human soul. The point is not anymore to understand the world but to help man live, although the main traditional currents of philosophy tended to abandon this concern. Besides, the advent of psychology is one of the many cases where the principle of a practice aimed at ordinary mortals is problematic for the philosophy, because, if the classical philosophy of systems finds itself more or less outmoded at the end of the 19th century, it continues to be a scholarly and elitist activity where the primacy of abstraction and concepts rules. Montaigne’s work, his Essays, where he declares having no other concerns than himself throughout his writing, or Rousseau’s very personal meditations, are practically excluded from the referenced philosophical publications. The fact that one engages in a work on himself seems to be contrary to the universality of the philosophical field, and to assimilate more to literature. Besides, when philosophy deals with the singular, it is dealing with nothing more than a concrete universal, and certainly not with a singular existence. This is probably why the existentialist philosophers, for whom the existence and its woes are the essential problem, did engage in novels and short stories: Sartre, Camus, Unamuno…

So the activity of philosophy can qualify as a consolation when, within it, a personal problem linked to a proper existence is enunciated, and in general when a specific solution is supplied to this problem. It remains to be seen whether this problem requires to be enunciated in an explicit, personal and confessed way for this process to be entitled consolation. Or, as says Unamuno about Spinoza, the latter establishes his philosophical system solely as “…an attempt at consolation which he built up because of his lack of faith. For some it is the hand, the foot, the heart or the head that aches, for Spinoza it was God that ached.”. Which could let us consider that any philosophical work – or any other work – is only just an attempt at consolation.

The various paths of consolation could therefore be placed in several categories: expression of pain, speech of sorrow or acceptation, high demand or ethical highlight, appeal to reason, discovering of reality or truth, contemplating divinity, inscribing into some meaning, dissolving into the negligible, the nothingness or the absurd, sublimation in the work, oversight through action or entertainment, relating to others, social commitment, so many paths allowing in general to reduce or suppress the anxiety and the pain, or permitting the search for happiness.

In those recent times, referred to as postmodern, where great established schemes have theoretically lost their aura or have crumbled, we are seeing philosophy coming back as a consolation through new practices such as the philosophical consultation, the philosophical café conceived as a collective dialogue, or the publishing of philosophical books aimed at a large public so as to help them to live.

The figure of a Socrates questioning someone has become emblematic of an individual quest for truth or happiness. In this regard philosophy gets its personal and comforting dimension back which we could then oppose to pure science, or to vain knowledge.

Gymnastics and medicine

Let us get back to our own conception of consolation. As we mentioned earlier, consolation finds its meaning solely through pain. However, pain, a necessary condition without which consolation has no reason of being, is not its sufficient condition. This is about treating the pain, not only its existence, or even its expression, although yet, by the action of expressing, we may consider that there is something else than just the pain; the Freudian innovation for instance, the ‘talking cure’, falls somehow within this aspect, but even goes beyond it.

Now, let us call upon a distinction which Plato makes and which seems favourable to enlighten any attempt at treating pain. Amongst the many “divisions” found in the dialogue The Sophist, often dualistic, there is one which is of specific interest. So as to heal the interior of the body, to purge it, he writes, or to correct its ailments, two techniques can be distinguished: medicine which fights illness, and gymnastics which fights ugliness. And as usual with this author, what works for material entities must apply to immaterial entities, therefore the soul. He explains that those two techniques have in common to be assigned to the care of both the body and the soul, which they both correct harshly and painfully, but he prioritises them, specifying that gymnastics is the rule, whereas medicine is the exception. He therefore establishes a hierarchy with a supremacy of gymnastics over medicine. The first reason to explain such an axiology is Plato’s concern for the quality and the status of the soul. In the Phaedra, Socrates declares that the soul is “what is moved by itself”, thus by moving itself, the soul is both moving and moved; it is both the being and what drives the being. We do not wish here to go into detail about Plato’s idea of the functioning of the soul, but let us examine the idea that the soul has to be powerful and autonomous. The power of being of the soul, its autonomy, relates to what is of celestial nature, whereas its heaviness, its resistance to movement, relates to its terrestrial nature. Now, it is possible to understand how exercising the soul can make it stronger, more autonomous, just like with gymnastics, whereas medicine considers it as dependant, since this is an outer intervention. The ill person is impotent, whilst the gymnast is powerful. Now, power is an essential manifestation of the being for Plato, “power of being” as Spinoza would call it. Medicine brings back the possibility of exercising to those who are deprived of it, to the injured, the disabled, but it is initially designed for the ones that are impotent. For instance, the injured athlete must be treated before he can exercise again. And so we can start seeing two treatments for the soul: cure and exercise. For this reason, the philosophy practitioner, just like any sports coach, makes sure to check that the subject is in a condition permitting to engage into the rigorous practice, the exercising. If not in a minimal good shape or condition, the latter would be unable to complete the required task. It would then be a matter of referring him/her to a “medical” practice. Without a minimal capacity for reasoning, the philosophical practice is meaningless, so it would make sense to refer the person to a psychologist, unless the philosophical work can be adjusted to the person in question. Just like the psychologist should be able to recognise the capacities of his patient, and incite him to a more demanding work with a philosopher, when he shows some aptitudes. For it would be counterproductive to maintain a person in a psychic regression state, a childish and victimising position, when it is possible for him to step out of it. Which is unfortunately often the case, in our world of consumption and of subjective indulgence.

Pain and consolation

For the soul, pain, a feeling of unbalance, is linked to desire and fear, a phenomenon which in its extension or moral amplitude is peculiar to man. Animals experience mainly biological needs. The human soul moves permanently, yearning to complete itself, so as to find back what is missing to it, feeling separated from a sort of primal unity, deprived of infiniteness or totality. The Platonic anthropology rests on a quest for a better life, on the release from a relentless desire. It implies a progressive purification of the soul, by a work on desire itself, on its nature and its functioning, and through reason. The chronic pain inhabiting us relates to the infinite nature of desire, especially to that thirst for terrestrial objects, such a pleasure, possession or recognition. This desire is infinite, unquenchable. The true need – physical for example – is easily satisfied, but human desire goes way beyond, it is disproportionate, and for this reason it generates ill-being. The point is here to treat both the causes and the symptoms.

Desire cannot disappear, it always wants more, it endlessly moves from one object to the other, each satisfaction generating a new desire. Just like a child, desire relies on the sparkling things out there, and on those which are imagined to be sparkling. It bears the evidence of a lack of unity, of an heteronomy, and of a chronic dissatisfaction. It is aware of its own thirst but it ignores that the nature of the objects sought for are unable to quench it. In order to show this, Plato uses the myth of the Danaides’ leaky barrel, this container which requires endless filling. Thus, there is a tyrant in each man, desire, which becomes manifest when it finds favourable conditions for its expression. At the same time, just like the “last man” of Nietzsche, Plato makes us contemplate the terrible perspective of a man whose desires would be fulfilled, and whom he compares to a soaked sponge, metaphor symbolising the death of the soul. The point is not to satisfy the desire, but to educate it, to purify it, to make it conscious by lifting the spirit towards celestial desires, towards the contemplation of one’s own primary nature, sort of reconciliation with oneself. But this cannot occur without agôn, without a confrontation between the self and the outer world, as The Myth of the Great Cave tells us. As a matter of fact, unlike various wisdoms which invite us to plainly contemplate the absolute, if one wants to escape the illusion of the senses, one must confront oneself to others, and therefore to its own self, which must necessarily occur through a symbolic and violent death. This is why a fine speech or a plain conversion of the soul to great ideas will not suffice.

Now we are getting slowly to what distinguishes the various types of “consolation”, especially one significant division. To outline it, let us remember the beginning of the famous text from Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. The author, Boethius himself, unfairly condemned to death and in prison, is overcome with the fate that awaits him. To comfort himself, he writes poems, where he can express his suffering, so as to soothe it. There comes Reason, in an allegorical form, who gives him a good scolding: “You have always cultivated me, and now, just because you are going to die, you are letting yourself down, you are being complacent with yourself.” And it undertakes with Boethius a long thinking pilgrim, true consolation, requiring him to exercise his mind. Poetry is gentle, reason is harsh. This can be compared to the Nietzschean ethics which refuses the gentleness of the Christian consolation, love, empathy and compassion, so as to defend the Greek idea of exercise, the principle of confrontation: “no philosophy without agôn”, says Nietzsche, or “to philosophise with a hammer”.

Therefore, the philosophical consolation does not conceive the subject as a patient, as a vulnerable person, as someone in difficulty, as a weak helpless being to protect, help or save, but as a training athlete, as a wrestler preparing himself for battle. The subject is a priori “strong”, he just needs to practice, whilst for other “therapists”, he is weak and must be taken in hand until he is “back on his feet”. The subject must determine himself, through himself, rather than depend on an exterior authority. And when there is authority, if any difference of experience or of knowledge, there is scarcely any difference of status. There is here no priest and his faithful, nor a psychologist and his patient, but two philosophers who are speaking, one of them having slightly more experience or skills than the other, but yet of equivalent status. There may be some asymmetry, through the difference of skills, but no disparity in terms of legitimacy. But the priest does not invite the faithful to become a priest and the psychologist does not invite his patient to become a psychologist, whereas the philosopher invites his interlocutor to become a philosopher. First of all because being a philosopher is not a status or a function, but an activity: to philosophise. Secondly because philosophising, taken in a broad sense, to a minimal degree, seems to be a necessity that one needs to accept, simply because one is a human being, a thinking being, and it doesn’t seem to relate to a specific practice associated to some conditions, a culture or circumstances. We wish to defend the universality of the philosophising, of its practice and of its necessity. Furthermore, the origin of any philosophical act can only be found within oneself, within one’s own reason, and not within a doctrine or other given paradigms allowing or determining an interpretation. Thirdly, both the priest and the psychologist want to “save” their interlocutor, almost against himself, whilst the philosopher wants to practice his thinking with his counterpart. The philosopher acts first and foremost for himself, by necessity or desire, whereas the two others act for the other: they are both beyond this necessity. Fourthly, the philosopher takes an interest in the humanity of the person, whilst the two others are mostly and almost exclusively interested in the specific individual, his soul or his psychological health: the person is scarcely its own finality, which would be a reductive vision of the subject. It is true that each one of those criteria can more or less apply to the two other functions, according to the conception that each one has, but let us state that, globally, this set is more a specificity of the philosophical practice.

The human being experiences pain; its forms, its names and its symptoms are innumerable. The being is driven by pain, he may complain about it and not accept it, but he may also contemplate himself complacently in it and become impotent. Without pain, man would be nothing, he would not be what he is. Without lack, he would not be aware of his own humanity. Just the gap between his own finiteness and the surpassing of this finiteness, forms his identity. Life already is an unbalance, or an unstable balance, creating there a momentum, a tension, a permanent urge. Existence is an amplification of this principle of living, taking the biological principles to a moral and spiritual dimension, along with the necessary distortion implied in the passage from materiality to non-materiality. Yet, it is difficult to avoid the desire for stability, the tempting illusion of homeostasis is watching out, sort of endless stability, immutable and permanent balance, guarantee of eternal happiness. This would mean not accepting ourselves as humans, but maintaining a perspective that is both childish and ideal: a nostalgia of a lost terrestrial paradise or hope for a celestial paradise. The whole point here lies in the consciousness of this pain, in the means implemented to treat it, in the appreciation of the difficulty that this treatment represents, in the meaning given to both the pain and its cure. There lies the problem of consolation.


I tested a philosophical consultation

This is an article from Olivia Benhamou published in Psychologies Magazine, November 2004.


I tested a philosophical consultation

Why not consult a philosopher like one would consult a shrink?  Our journalist was lead into temptation. Here is the report of her session with Oscar Brenifier, a rigorous and exciting dialogue.


I always wanted to meet Socrates

When I realised, reading the book by the American philosopher Lou Marinoff, The Big Questions. How philosophy can change your life (Bloomsbury, 2003), that some philosophical « consultations » were available – and wide spread in the US – I immediately felt like going. I had been in analysis for three years, but still restless with many existential questions. I felt an urge to try a new method which would somehow be less at the mercy of my subconscious. It required quite some perseverance to find what I was looking for. After a few hours on the Internet, I finally found how to reach Oscar Brenifier, an ageless and address-less man since he was reachable by email only.

Several times, I wondered if he wasn’t looking to put my motivation to the test: first, he sent me a couple of rather arduous articles explaining in fifteen pages the principles of the philosophical consultation and the problems that could arise during them. After making sure that I had read those texts and that I accepted to submit to this process, he gave me an appointment for the following month. Apparently, the money side wasn’t a priority for him: “Fifty euros, but if you can’t, I will do the consultation for free”.


The dialogue

As the son of a midwife, Socrates was well placed to invent the maieutics, a method for “giving birth to the mind”. Four centuries before our time, he used to wander about the streets of Athens in search of possible interlocutors to whom he would apply his dialectical method, his goal being to teach how to reason. Any topic was good to explore as long as the interlocutor accepted to submit to the fire of his questioning, which aimed at stimulating the thinking and igniting reason. Thanks to Plato, his most devoted follower, we can still have access to dozens of Socratic dialogues on topics such as love, friendship, citizenship… some essential texts for whoever wants to learn how to philosophise.

On a summer afternoon, I am facing the gate of a house, in Argenteuil, a French town in the Val d’Oise department. Oscar Brenifier is waiting for me on the last floor. It is very warm in this office which feels like a cave although it is an attic. The man is tall, with glasses, and rather cheerful. But I soon realise the rather harshness of his thinking. The intense intellectual test is however yet to come. I sit opposite him and the consultation begins.  

–      What is your question?

–      How to find the right distance with my parents?

He repeats my words and notes them down.

–      So, first we need to clarify the elements of the question. What does “the right distance” mean? I don’t expect hundreds of answers from you. I want you to define precisely what you mean by right distance, in the absolute, away from the context of your question.

I find it hard to concentrate. Shyly, I venture:

–      A reasonable distance…?

–      No, it’s not precise enough. Let us beware of concepts deprived of intuition, as Kant would say.

–      A balance between authority and freedom.

–      Now there you go. But where are your parents in all that?

–      A balance between the authority that my parents have on me and my ability to be free.

–      So for you, freedom is the ability to emancipate yourself from your parents?

–      Yes, that’s it.

I don’t really understand what is going on. Only that the thinking is happening, through the mysterious grace of a dialectic which had always seemed theoretical to me. I am now fully focused and I take my time to give my best possible answers to the questions.

–      Then, reformulate what you initially meant by “right distance”.

–      The balance between authority and emancipation.

– How does the problem articulate with this authority and this emancipation?

–  My problem is to understand what value I should award to my parents’ authority.

–      And what about emancipation?

Oscar Brenifier is demanding. Tension is rising. I realise that, in order to move forward, everything will have to come from me.

–      It would be the possibility to be living with the authority, without it being a nuisance.

–      And why would it be a nuisance?

–      Because I can’t make do with it.

–      Ok, so let’s go back. What value should be awarded to the authority of parents?

–      A moral value?

–      Is this moral value disputable?

–      I don’t know. It should be.

–      No, you need to give a real answer. Is this moral value disputable, yes or no?

Is it the heat, the intense effort of concentration, the unusual confrontation with an interlocutor paying attention to every word I say? Suddenly I feel tears in my eyes. I think I am at the heart of my problem, although I haven’t shared anything personal or the slightest painful memory. I had never felt such a feeling apart from during a psychoanalysis session. I pull myself together and resume thinking:

–      So, on this moral value, is it disputable?

–      I can’t manage to dispute it.

–      But why would you want to dispute it?

–      Because it weighs heavy on me.

–      According to you, can one live without any weight on them?

–      I would like to think so.

–      This is not an answer. I repeat: can one live without any weight on them?

A rigorous thinking is demanding and cannot bear any compromise. Painfully, I keep up my effort. At this rhythmical relentless pace, the philosopher gradually takes me to the essential.

–      Ok, so on this balance, does it need to be found between your parents and yourself, or between you and yourself?

Reluctantly, I end up conceding:

–      Between me and myself.

–      Exactly. Because if you knew how to emancipate yourself, would there be any problem with your parents?

–      No.

     Then, what could be done to emancipate oneself from the judgement of others?

–      I don’t know.

–      Think of the question differently. How does a judgement become a problem?

–      Basically, when it leads to doubt.

–      Descartes on doubt, does that ring any bell?

I vaguely remember the famous cogito, but nothing precise… He explains:

–      According to Descartes, doubt leads to knowing. Do you agree?

–      Yes.

–   Ok so if you doubt but this doubt leads you to knowledge, what is the problem? And is there any problem?

–    My problem is to be able to assess people’s judgement without overestimating it.

–      And why would you overestimate it?

–      Because I lack confidence in myself.

–      There we are.”

He pauses, then resumes, looking satisfied:

–      Here is your true question: why do I lack confidence in myself. Your initial question was just an alibi question.

The demonstration is brilliant; I have nothing else to add. I pay the fifty euros without noticing. Before I leave, Oscar Brenifier humbly asks me what I thought of the consultation. I am quite moved and totally exhausted after this hour and a half of a mental harsh gymnastics.

I still manage to express my gratitude: despite the wave of emotions during the discussion, he enabled me to cope with a rigorous thinking. Without forcing, but without giving in to my hesitations, he allowed me to view my personal problem from a new perspective, and to reveal the true meaning of my words. The result is somehow close to what I had been able to obtain lying on a sofa. But the process is completely different. Nowhere near a shrink session, where the subconscious speaks involuntarily, and nowhere near a philosophy class which gives access to a fixed knowledge, the philosophical consultation pertains to a lively and subtle mechanism of the mind, which can only deploy itself in the presence of a stimulating interlocutor. A follower of Socrates, for instance.


To be or not to be a consultant

The philosophical consultation is an opportunity to put one’s received ideas to the test. A poor listening, an inability to slowly unwind a coherent reflection, an embarrassment about the question you are asking will just show that you have knocked at the wrong door.

There are very few philosophical practitioners; however, some “café-philo” speakers do offer some consultations in their “private practice”. I visited one of them. After kindly noting down the reasons for my visit, the verdict came: “In your case, I recommend Epictetus and Spinoza!”. After a quick rundown on their thoughts, he swamped me with examples to help with my issue. I felt like attending a high school philosophy class, a bit messier though. In the end, I was given some homework: “Take five maxims from the book of Epictetus, and reformulate them in your own words. Justify them all and then contradict them all.”. Fifty euros for this seems excessive to me… A philosophical practitioner is not whoever wants to be one.


To philosophise is to reconcile with one’s own words

To philosophise is to reconcile with one’s own words

One of the main tasks of the philosophical practice is to invite the subject to reconcile with his own speech. As much as this assertion may seem strange to some, most people do not like what they say when they speak, they cannot even stand it. “How so!”, will protest the objectors, “most people speak, and they do it a lot!”. Undeniable observation which can easily be confirmed by sitting in a public place and listening to the hubbub of the conversations. Most people do speak indeed, and we would also say that they feel they must speak. A sort of urge is at work, both because they want to say something, they want to express themselves, and because they cannot bear silence. Silence is suspicious, it is cumbersome, it seems sad; a great trust in others is required to accept to remain silent with them, or a good reason, otherwise its meaning has more to do with a lack of interest, a break in the dialogue, or even a conflict. So people talk and in general they talk about just anything: weather, events, the risks in their little lives, some compliments are exchanged, some platitudes, and when the discussion goes further, some confessions are sometimes made, some secrets are disclosed, or sometimes a personal, even shameful, affliction is shared. There is however a primal suspicion that comes to mind about our so-called pleasure of talking, when observing how a discussion gets carried away on a disagreement. Spirits rebel, become heated, shut down, get irritated, become violent, the words become acrimonious. If we were not so used to the virulent way things turn, we could feel surprised: “Hey, they have finally found an idea that matters, a topic that seems of interest. And since they do not share the same opinion, they can discuss it. So why does it look like they are taking this disagreement so hard?”. “One must avoid the matters of discord” claims a popular wisdom, which means roughly all the important matters, those we care for, with an obligation to keep to formal discussions, which are less exciting indeed, but less risky.

To be right

What is the problem? Everyone claims to be right. However, one never really thinks about the meaning of this idea of “being right”, and why we care so much about it. One will explain that it is a matter of confrontation to one’s fellow humans, wrestling for recognition, fighting for power or anything else, and that the stake here is one’s own image, an explanation which undoubtedly is partly true. However, what is interesting here is another side of the story which relates to the previous intuitions: the hypothesis that the human being actually does not appreciate its own speech, which would explain both the difficulties of the discussion and its ability to take an unpleasant turn. As a matter of fact, if people somewhat liked their own speech, if they were confident in their own words, why would they worry so much about being recognised by their neighbour? Would they want so insistently to obtain anything from their interlocutor? For the time being, let us put aside the discussions which have a specific purpose, such as the ones which, by conviction or by practically, require to convince the other one, as the dialogue therefore is not open: it is not its own finality, it explicitly desires an object without which the discussion has no reasons to be: The finality is here precise and clearly stated. We think though that we are always indirectly looking for something, since in general we want to get a certain form of rallying from the person we are talking to. But the point is to understand why. In this perspective, we notice the mechanism of the “Queen mother”, Snow White’s cruel stepmother. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”. If the queen mother appreciated her own beauty so much, why would she need to ask the mirror if she is the fairest, why would she need to compare herself, why would she worry so much about Snow White? Obviously, there is a certain connection between the fact of finding beautiful and the fact of loving, whether it be others or our own self, and as Plato initiates it in The Banquet, it is hard to distinguish whether it is beauty or love that comes first? Do we love because we see beauty? Or do we see beauty because we love? Now going back to the words which we are calling into question, what does happen? Do I find my words ugly because I do not like myself? Or, do I dislike myself because I find my words ugly? On this subject, we will let one judge as one pleases, or let the specialists handle the theses. As for us, a philosophy practitioner, more concerned about grasping the issues of the thinking itself than worrying about any subjectivity, despite the bonds between them, we will query, as we did at the beginning of this text, the possibility of reconciling the subject with its own speech. Not for the sake of making one happy or setting up a eudemonist plan, but only because if one does not reconcile with one’s own words, one will be unable to think.

Protecting the speech

Before explaining this last sentence, let us specify that for us, the fact to reconcile with one’s own words does not imply finding them wonderful, far from that. To be in raptures over one’s own speech is too often the narcissist expression of an aggravated subjectivity, of an ill-being, of a lack of distance, of an inability to think critically. A bit like a mother who is keen to find her child wonderful so as to live vicariously through a happiness which she is unable to find within herself. To reconcile with one’s own speech is to accept to see it as it is, to take it for what it is, to avoid awarding it virtues which scarcely manifest, nor try to protect it from the eyes of others, through “shyness” or an excessive argumentation filled with “what I meant” and with “you don’t understand me”. To reconcile with one’s own speech is to accept to hear how our words sound in the ears of others, it is to let go of the pretended or expected meaning which visibly is absent of the formulation as it is, it is to wish to see the void, the ruptures and the treasons of the pronounced terms, it is to accept the brutal and harsh reality of the words. Should it be only because the words that we pronounce tell more about what we think and who we are than all the other words that we so want to say.

Protecting one’s words is actually what mostly motivates what, through haste and as an easy way out, we commonly call shyness. As a matter of fact, many of these “shy” people actually have a very high opinion of what they must say, but they fear though that the “others”, those who are listening, will not share the same admiration for their own words. So they consider that it is safer and less perilous to abstain from talking in order to maintain this appearance or pretention of genius, benefit of the doubt, as all kinds of virtues can be awarded to the sphinx, as long as it remains silent. Moreover, if they fear the critical judgement of their speech, it is because they disregard this practice for themselves, or they flee it. Just like the greatly inspired people, the “shy” people think they are right without even pronouncing any word, and quite unknowingly, they care more for the illusory “meaning” of their thoughts than for their own words. And when they do speak, these people try to dodge the critique of their own speech reaching out to what they really meant, they will not hesitate to abandon or to deny some of the words which were bluntly pronounced, and withdraw into themselves, or launch a rambling speech. They will however never accept to look at their own words as the true substance of their thoughts: this would expose them too much; they would have to confront their own image.


Risking thinking                                                              

Let us enjoy for a moment the antinomy identified in a shy person. By opposing what was “really meant” to the ideas already expressed, we are actually opposing the infinity to the finite, because we are opposing the omnipotence of virtual reality to the finiteness of practical reality, the undetermined potential to the determination of what has already been actualised. Virtual reality can just do anything, nothing is impossible, anything can still be said, whereas practical is right there, totally present, engaged into the otherness of reality, anchored in time and space. The word said is said, it is specific, it is binding to a shaped speech, a way of being, a particular perspective. It can still be interpreted, re-interpreted, over-interpreted, it can be made to mean anything we want, if only by claiming that it is unfinished, nevertheless it already reveals something specific, and unless you turn to complete bad faith – which is far from unusual nor excluded -, it cannot be made to say just anything or the opposite of what it has stated already. What annoys is precisely this exclusion: the fact that it makes an assertion, whatever assertion, the phrase necessarily leads to a denial, as Spinoza teaches us. Anything that asserts, on account of this very assertion, is denying. It is either denying by commission: by refusing the opposite of what it is stating. Or it is denying by omission, omitting to say some things, pushing them into the background. However, most speakers will struggle immensely to accept this negative dimension of the speech, especially the second one, easier to conceal, taking refuge in the “totality” of their thoughts, in what they could still say, a totality which is as undefined as it is infinite.

To this effect, accepting our speech or words as the expression of our thinking, or better as the true substance of the thinking (Hegel), or as the limits of the thinking (Wittgenstein), is a psychological or philosophical equivalent to accepting what we have done, what we have achieved, as the reality of what we are (Sartre). As a matter of fact, we can always find refuge in “what we could be”, “what we could have been”, “what we would like to be”, “what we were denied to be”, “what we have been”, “what we will be”, and these different dimensions of the being and of the existence do have a meaning and a reality, but they can also easily represent a sort of alibi, refuge, fortress, preventing us from seeing and taking responsibility for what we are. The past, the future, the conditional, the possible or even the impossible all constitute some folds able to conceal the present and the current. If we do not request anyone to occult or just underestimate these various dimensions, which in their own way form the treasures of the being and its freedom to conceive, we do however wish to show the pitfall that they represent, and caution against the abusive use of this multiplicity. Because, if we tend to overuse the present to the detriment of the past, the future or the conditional when it comes to the satisfaction of the desires and the quest for happiness, we also tend to occult it very often when it comes to the reality of our speech.


Abusing the speech                                                 

Let us come to what may possibly threaten this timid speech. Two fundamental criticisms were sensibly identified by the sophists against Socrates, about his way of speaking, or rather questioning. First of all, “You are forcing me to say what I do not want to say”. The reason is that Socrates, with his expert ears, can hear what a sentence says and denies, so he requires an interruption to his interlocutor, a ruling, in order to give some feedback about the sentence, so as to raise the interlocutor’s awareness about it. For him, this feedback is almost the actual definition of the thinking, or of the philosophising, since to be reasoning is to give the reasons of something. Therefore, he invites his interlocutor to return to the genesis, if not the archaeology of his words, in order to grasp its meaning and its reality. Not a genesis of the singular, the one of the interlocutor’s intent, but the genesis of the meaning, the universality of the word, the objectivity of its content. Yet this reality, seen through the words, is very often forgotten or denied by their author, simply because one is not prepared to accept the reality beyond the specific intention that drove one to pronounce them. An intent which – unfortunately – is just a slight and limited aspect of the reality put forward into one’s words: the intention is reductive. And oddly enough, the attentive audience, for which the intention is totally unknown, will perceive better the objective reality of the speech, since that audience is not inhabited and biased by the specific desire that motivated those words. Often however, the speaker will refuse the audience’s interpretation, considering it misplaced and intrusive, if not illegitimate and alienating. He will consider himself as the sole holder of the meaning of his own words, he will intend to denigrate any interpretations claiming his sacrosanct intention. As if our speech could be reduced to the only meaning that we claim to grant it, often in a distorted and absurd way. This tearing from the self, this rupture of the being between its self and the words supposed to mirror it, is precisely the core of the Socratic practice: to probe the abym of the being, to work on the crevice which constitutes our split singularity. How not to rebel against such an abusive intervention, such a biased proposal? An unbearable perspective in the prevailing psychologism.

The second criticism, in full compliance with the first one, is “You are tearing my speech to pieces”. A very unpleasant feeling caused by this sharp dissection of a so-called harmonious ensemble, in which we have put so much effort and love, a small part of our individual self, a gracious bit of our person, prettily composed, a blend which we present to the world as a choice piece of ourselves. And if ever our verbal staging leaves us unsatisfied, if we think that it is short of the true level of our thinking, or not fully in keeping with it, we become even more sensitive to others’ possible analysis, we become more nervous about the treatment they will give it. There is however a good reason why we tend to be unsatisfied by our speech, which relates to the unconscious and common fact that we often try to “say it all” when we talk. This is either about telling the most honourable, pure or unstinting truth on what we are thinking, with all its possible nuances, or about enunciating the totality of our thought, in its entirety, exhaustively, through an infinite and generally confused listing of the causes and circumstances, going into ad nauseam details. We try to cover every angle, to anticipate any objections, to protect ourselves in advance of all the critical judgements, sheltering our speech behind any possible screen, so as to make it unanswerable. And under the pretext of precision, we produce confusion, since nothing then distinguishes the essential from the accidental.

So here is what Socrates does: he takes a little bit of our “masterpiece”, a bit which he picks in an arbitrary and unseemly way, in order to examine and triturate it right, left and centre, totally ignoring what we were asserting just a moment ago. He ignores the extent, the complexity or the “beauty” of our speech and wants to question us on one specific aspect of what we said, extracting it from its context, as if we had never said anything else, asking us to answer in a short and precise way, if not a basic ‘yes and no”, reducing the magnitude of our thought to a simple judgment: the one of an assent or refusal to a particular and reduced idea, or asking us to commit to a single word. A particular idea which obviously inserts itself in a vicious trap taking us back to the previous criticism: the interlocutor forces us to say what we did not say and did not want to say. He decontextualizes our words and then requires our position on the radicality of their meaning. Furthermore, inexplicably, this perverse mind seems to find within this disintegration, in this close combat with “hardly anything”, a sudden burst of truth. Some “almost nothing” or “less than nothing” within which the truth of the being, if not the being itself, can be met.


The concern of the speech

One may believe that being subjected to an interpretation abuse is what troubles the speaker, worried that one makes his words say what he did not wish them to say, or something else than what he wished to say, but it seems to us that the matter here is deeper or more “serious” than that. Actually, it is easy to destabilise one’s interlocutor, and anyone can experience this, by asking him to repeat what he just said, in an acute way: “Can you repeat what you just said?”, and we will see him look startled and already begin to defend himself, without having criticised him in any way. Very often, he will not repeat what he had said, first of all because he has not really paid attention to his own words himself, which is significant enough. Or because he will feel threatened and therefore will want to justify himself rather than return to the words he had already pronounced, or he will transform his initial words by starting his sentence by “What I meant” … He is overwhelmed with a form of anxiety or even panic although, objectively, nothing indicated any kind of criticism. However, we could here call upon a sort of social trauma in mitigation or as an explanation. Human beings care so little about the words of others, either they ignore them because they do not feel concerned, or they argue them because their ideas differ from the others’, or in an even more reductive way, they refuse them just because those suspicious words are being pronounced by others. This is certainly how the social dynamics work, a vector of the trauma previously mentioned: since everyone lacks respect for others’ speech, any speaker is more or less knowingly convinced that his audience will be looking for any opportunity to criticise his. We would like to bring another insight on this matter: the cultural dimension. As a matter of fact, some cultures are quicker to criticise than others, but those for which criticism is considered a failing to politeness and to social conventions will express some reservations, some disdain or some disinterest either through a polite gratitude, or through the expression of a deep interest which anyone knows to be superficial, fleeting, if not false. But we have come to realise that the politest societies are not necessarily the ones where the least insecurity about the status of the individual speech is met. Let us say that each human group has its own ways of authorising, justifying or even encouraging the discredit of others.


Evading speech

There are various ways not to see or to know what we say. One of them could be called “the intricate conceptual system”, a favourite for those who want to intellectualise, knowingly or not. They summon words, clearly or confusedly, producing countless details to lose sight of the essential, to defend themselves, to avoid being caught out. Sometimes they put forward an obscure complexity which prevents them from a direct contact, some bushy words, so as not to expose themselves to others. They withdraw into their solipsism and do not risk any translation, any transposition: they would be risking being understood. They refuse any interpretation of their speech, which is usually considered as below the genius of their message. This elitist, or autistic, scheme is popular: just like the octopus which throws its blinding ink to the face of its enemies, one uses details and exhaustiveness to create confusion, a confusion of which one itself becomes the victim. They love the nuances which entitle them to shift meanings. They develop, they explain, they prefer prolixity rather than clarity. An illusion of depth and creativity, an ambition for precision, a pretence to rigor. It is here a form of impotence. They are fascinated by their speech, an image producer. They are obsessed with power, the power of their own words, which shows a fear of the words themselves, an obsession which as always expresses their dread of others.

Through the words, one “philotricks”. Lying settles in, by omission or commission. Through the absence of a clear subject matter, which does not admit itself, by getting lost in meanders, codicils and precisions. The dialectical process is even called upon, to prevent any thought from transpiring, to drown the particular idea and remain elusive. Evading the others, dreading their eyes. This display of an excessive desire to be understood actually conceals the fear to be understood: the nothingness of our speech is lying in wait for us. An anti-socratism par excellence. The “mètis”, this power of the philosophical ruse, the wisely lie, is perverted. The job here will be to find the precise place for the confusion, where the will and the thoughts interweave and contradict themselves, this point of emergence for the obscurity, precisely where enlightenment could occur. However, transparency is highly denied. The mind intuitively feels the danger. And just the possibility of transparency is dreaded.

This is why authors are useful to the scholars. When the scholars say something that they do not mean, they pretend that they do not know, they say that it is not them, it is the others. However, this phrase is constitutive of their thinking structure, even if conviction is not active. Their choice of concepts defines their affinities, their enemies, or even, by omission, what distinguishes them, and in that respect who they are, what they are. In any case, wanting to define one’s own thinking through one’s convictions solely would make no sense, although this is very commonly found. What we say, what we think shows what lives in us, what we do not think, how we think, how we are unable to think, it does not matter if we agree or not or who the author is. We think what we think, even though we say “I don’t think”, even though we want to criticise it. This thought is well within us. There are here grounds for effectuating an epistemological break.

The subject may well conceal such thought or such desire, what is in him will end up emerging, will exist outside of him in the shape of signs. Truth is powerful, it may not be concealed. After all, man is nothing more than a series of his own acts, which includes his words. This includes the assertion and the negation, or the denial of one’s assertions. It can even be stated, as we have observed in our practice, that the efforts which are made to deny or disown are one of the most constitutive elements of the specific being. For this very reason, it seems to us that it is illusory to exclude the words from the acts, as it is commonly agreed. Speech is actually one of the many acts in which man engages easily, perhaps the one which manifests and reveals him the most.

“I could have said it differently”, he asserts firmly, “But this is what you said, what you chose to say”, we will reply. Is this possibility purely a problem of form, arbitrary and deprived of substance? “I could have done that work, remained silent or helped that person, but I did not”. Could this be considered an accident? What have we got to lose to think that this pertains to the essence. A principle of sufficient reason or of pre-established harmony. But anyway, even unintentionally, during those few seconds, we did judge the man, as he had judged himself.

We must take responsibility for our choices, they are what tells the “being”, what reports it: they are the being and they constitute it. We are being because of our choices, not just because of their consequences, but because they make the organ of our thinking crystallize, just as the runner or the dancer form their organs through the exercise of their art. This way they become what they do, they are what they induce. Some of the words that we pronounce do not leave us unhurt, precisely because of that substantial moment, of that constitutive circumstance that occurred when we heard ourselves pronounce those words. After those words, we are not the same anymore. We did pronounce them, we did hear ourselves, we were indeed a witness to ourselves, whilst we actually attempt to deny them, or their reality. There can be no mistake here: what is said is said. Sometimes, by force of repetition, our words end up leaving marks on us, but here again some people will deny their own paternity or the meaning which constitutes it.

Other times, the speaker tries to get away by using a specific purpose as an excuse: “I said that because I wanted…” and then you pick: “to wake you up”, “to please you”, “to play games with you, “to be silly”, “to provoke”, “to say the contrary of what I think” … but this hardly changes anything. Not that the mysteries, the genesis, the intention or the mechanism of a specific thought are not interesting, but this is a different exercise: the one which analyses the wanting rather than the being. The being does not pertain to the “wanting”, but to the “wanting to want”. And the shape of the speech is the matter for this “wanting to want”. Of course, some connections are possible, if not useful, but it is extremely important to dread of the duplicity of the being. The basic “wanting” is too meandering: it never ceases to evade itself; we prefer to bypass it…

They all treasure that precious little self which escapes determination, as they believe, a free hypothesis. The soul, the self, the subject, this unfathomable depth therefore becomes the place for complacency. Deep down… “Deep down” can just explain anything. This indetermination really exists, it is indeed a freedom, through its multifaceted and elusive nature, but from this shapeless plasticity, from this abym, we prepare the ground for our illusions, we sow the seeds of our omnipotence: the desire to be what we want, what we pretend. As if we could know what we want to be… The being engages into the world with what it has, with what it is, with what it says. And it is possibly by seeing and admitting this empirical given that he will be able to envisage any self-surpassing. Accept the finite to access the infinite.


Thinking through others                                              

Let us go back to Socrates. Oddly, he is immensely interested in the words of others. We would like to add that he could not think without others. Otherwise, why would this grotesque faced man spend his time looking for the company of his fellow men in order to practice philosophical questioning? This shrewd and agile minded man, didn’t he have anything better to do? Why waste his time with anybody doing something that is almost insignificant? Some of the characters described by Plato are far from brilliant, nevertheless for Socrates the quest for truth has very few limits or established presuppositions. Anything is right when it comes to disclosing the good, the true or the beautiful, and if there are any obstacles, they become the melting pot for the being and for the one. Does Socrates want to do some charitable work? Is he fighting for a better humanity? Is he lonely and bored in a philosophical solitude, just like the mythical philosopher in his great cave? Does he want to convince? All things considered, even the truth is for him just an excuse. He is urged to look for something he does not know, to probe the human soul, and unlike many philosophers who probe their own, he feels pressed by his “demon” to explore all the ones that pass by, which are all so promising, so disappointing and so rich.  No need to see here any teleology: Socrates is not in search of anything, he is simply searching, he is searching to search.

However, this quest gets him into many troubles. For a start, because without wanting it or without knowing it, or even without wanting to know it, he breaks the established codes. Too busy with his desire, blind with his passion, he knows nothing and sees nothing, he does not exist anymore: he searches. Like a hound dog that chases its prey to its hole, a torpedo fish that paralyses whatever gets in the way, a gadfly that stings and harasses whoever comes close: there is a wide range of striking metaphors which can explain or justify his execution. Isn’t Socrates’ death, this inaugural gesture of western philosophy, totally inevitable? But why did questioning others make his presence so unbearable to his Athenian fellows, who in the Socratic myth represented nothing more than the human being in its generality? Now, such a character could indeed turn out to be tiresome in the long run, especially for his relatives, but why did he arouse so much hatred? A hatred which he would have kept from arousing if only he had just showed disagreement to his fellow men, if he had settled for cursing only, just like the cynics. But questioning is – can you believe it – highly more corrosive than asserting or any other forms of provocation. He is far too interested in the words of others and others, unlike what they usually claim, do not wish for anybody to have such an interest in their words. Only because the access between their words and their thoughts is far too direct; the connection between their thoughts and their being is far too implicit. Besides, when one makes every effort since early childhood to forget one’s finiteness, one’s imperfection, one’s infirmity and one’s immorality, it is very hard to accept that a kind of pervert comes by and, in a disrespectful, intrusive and brutal way, points out and asks the name of this disability or this mole which has been so ardently concealed, especially when relatives and neighbours, more empathetic and concerned about the established rituals, look away discreetly and automatically when a tiny bit arises slightly… Mankind is an odd species which, whilst looking for recognition, spends so much energy trying to hide its individual nature, a shameful reality, a specific nature which ends up being considered no more and no less as a doubtful disease whose existence and cause must be concealed. This is probably why man ignores his true nature, being a human.


Bad manners

As a consequence of the Socratic reality and of the conflicts that are generated, a final – or initial – indictment settlement results: “You must be mad at me”, or “Your intentions must be wrong”. Indeed, it is not natural to have such an interest in the words and thoughts of others, it is not normal to be questioning like that, rather than be saying or asserting, it is not considered appropriate to be dissecting in such an abusive manner the slightest word that we hear. A rupture in the traditions which puts the usual ways in question. Because if such a behaviour was not considered as pervert, therefore we could only admire such a man, a wise man, capable of such an asceticism, such a destitution, driven by such a faith in others, that he endlessly believes that he can find the truth in his congeners, whoever they are. This is what ultimately motivates Socrates. But unfortunately, the human fragility, its insecurity, perceives this confident and flattering approach as an aggression. To question someone is to go to war with him, it is to wish to humiliate him, it is to annihilate him, in short it is to force him to think and in particular to think of himself by himself. This is the reason why Nicias explains the Socratic approach to Lysimachus so as to reassure him, in Plato’s dialog Lachès: “when replying to Socrates’ questions, whatever the subject of the discussion is, after a few minutes, you inevitably end up talking about yourself!”. Know thyself! And you will know the universe and the gods. Indeed, what would the known object mean, if we ignored the instrument of the thinking, the mind itself, as Hegel raises. Yet what frightens us is precisely to get to know our minds, when the thinking subject becomes the object of his thinking. As it is one thing to be seduced by some philosophers who explain well about the breach of the human soul taken in its generality, to feel good when we get to understand or perceive the blindness or the banality in which our fellow citizens live, but it is a violent disillusion when we come to realise that the speech is actually addressed to us personally. This is not done!


Accepting finiteness

Nevertheless, how else to reconcile with one’s words and therefore with oneself, if not by accepting to contemplate the breaches and flaws that affect our speech, if not by contemplating the rigidities which constitute its elaboration, if not by perceiving the boundaries which mark out its extent. To reconcile with one’s words is to accept the finiteness, the imperfection, at the risk of feeling deeply ridiculed. Do we not love our families and our children despite their failures or their odd habits? Must we become blind in order to love the people around us? If this is the case, we might be harshly disillusioned, when our eyes open through the wear of time or as a result of some fortuitous and generally dramatic event. The same applies to the relationship that we have with our own self. Of course we can try, knowingly or not, to maintain an illusion of transparency, of well-being, of contentment, of a form of self-satisfaction, at the risk of a short-lived or fragmented complacency, and of a definite disappointment. This is when Socrates, or his equivalent, the stranger of the late dialogues, can be considered a true friend. The one who tries to speak to us in all honesty, the one who dares to point at the elsewhere. That elsewhere is precisely what “forces” us to be blinkered, because like the standard horse towing a cart, there are some lateral realities which we cannot bear: they make us nervous. We look straight ahead of us, and carry on walking ignoring the numerous questions which would make us pause, doubt, or even freeze.

Socrates questions us: “hey mate, can you see what is going on here?” “what do you think of this, or that?” Then he listens to our reply, with that characteristic false naivety. However man is smart, just like dogs or big cats, he can feel the wind. Instinctively, it sees the prey approach. And this is where the crucial experience stands, the moment of decision, the one that separates humans from humans. Does he want to react “biologically” and flee or attack whoever threatens his existential “integrity”? Or will he perceive in that odd looking and speaking man the true friend he had never met before? The friend who has no friend. A lover without a beloved one. Just driven by an objectless passion. Perhaps he is himself the object whilst not knowing who the subject is, what the subject is. Of course, he is an odd friend with a strange humour: what is this irony which can only be a lie? How can we trust him? Where do we stand? Instead of a discussion, he questions us. Even worse, he imposes a poor choice on us – is it really one? – between a “yes” and a “no”, between a “this” or a “that”. Because it is obvious that many of his questions are tricky. But still, since we got ourselves into this impossible perspective, let us see how this man who is far from human, can still be wishing us well. Well there you go, he does not wish us any good. This is why he is so interesting. He only cares for his own good, or better a good that is deprived of ownership. He looks for it, he needs us, he says it; it is only a quarter of an irony when he asks anyone to become his master, the master he has always been looking for.

The reality is that the company of such a being can only become unbearable. However, does he ever ask anyone to live side-by-side with him? He has many interlocutors; he appears to move on to new ones over the dialogues, and this is rarely an accident. The ones he says he loves change over the dialogues. Plato, who made his pittance of this being, before he went his own direction, had known him for a very short while. This may explain why he was driven by such a passion. In the long run, the corrosive effect of questioning can only induce turning away from it.


A friend who does not wish us well                            

However, what makes Socrates bearable, as we said, what makes him a true friend, is precisely that he is not wishing us well. He is not looking to convince us, nor point us in the right direction. He simply questions us, and invites us to see what we do not see, what we do not want to see, what is intolerable. This way, he invites us to die. If to philosophise is to learn to die, it is not here a question of an ulterior and final death, but a death of every moment. The one that is watching us, like the sword of Damocles, above our heads, our stunned by the daily swirl heads. A Pascalian entertainment. Our ideas are constituted of these many opinions which enable us to play or foil the game. The society game, the family game, the game of personal desires and ambitions, a quest for happiness, great or humble. The perseverance of the being, the Spinozian conatus, is far too often conceived as a heteronomy, as the product of an exteriority, a series of obligations. To live usually means to have multiple constraints, internal or external, which need to be satisfied in the best possible way. Yet the being is not one, for both Socrates and Spinoza, although this unicity does not exclude any multiplicity, far from that. Fragment is indeed its living substance, as the point here is not to be flying to a beyond of the beyond where supposedly reality would be nesting. Reduction is the melting pot of the being. As the Myth of the Great Cave says it quite well, the philosopher in us would not be able to live outside the cave: it is his hangout. He is the inner friend who makes us feel guilty, the one whom we let speak from time to time just for a good laugh, and whom we then silence as we get angry. Since we are not always – and not often – in the right mood for an interruption to our routine, for a scramble into the unstable balance which we more or less manage to create. Now, to philosophise is to think the unthinkable, an unthinkable which is by no means permitted by the existence. Existence binds us to the obvious, to the certain, to the expected. It prefers the certain, it likes the probable, but it balks at the possible since it is only just a possible, and it fears impossibility. From time to time, through aimlessness, through fatigue, or through the resurgence of the being, it enables the rising of the extraordinary, the unpredicted, the incredible. In small doses, or for a limited time, and often in a perverse way. Love, joking, mystical vision, drunkenness, are all means by which life amuses itself, for fun and by oblivion. Philosophy demands this rupture in a conscious, deliberate and continuous way. Of course, everyone has experienced a philosophical moment, this precise moment when the meaning flips over to a new one or to no meaning. To live such a moment may generate, although rarely fulfilled, a desire for the elsewhere, an elsewhere to inhabit, or even an elsewhere to life. Although some – and here again the mind is a shrewd old devil – might attempt to establish a life outside life, a life beyond life.

To reconcile with one’s own words, just like to reconcile with one’s relatives, implies to stop having any expectations, and therefore to stop being frustrated or disappointed, moreover, to stop being able to be disappointed or frustrated. This does not imply having to abandon critical thinking, nor to establish a sort of passivity, far from that. As, very often, what prevents us from engaging in a corrosive and deep analysis of some comments and beings, is the fear of losing, through fear of clashes, fear of hurting, or simply the one of an outraged sensitivity. From the moment there are no desires left to preserve a connection other than the one associated with the communal search for truth, generated by itself, what is there left to fear? Very naturally, if not restrained in its run-up, if it has not gotten used to preventing itself from thinking, the mind thinks: it grasps what it perceives through an intimate and dynamic connection to the thinking matrix which it has built for itself over the years. Obviously, this matrix is more or less elaborated, more or less subtle and more or less fluid, but it constitutes however for each thinking subject the yardstick of every new thought, the active reference, the primal place where all thoughts come from, where they all go back to. This is precisely the way in which words are an access to the being, the object of the thinking is not an object anymore, but it is the subject himself. The thinking subject then becomes the direct object of the thought; the mediation becomes the ground for the immediate, a conscious and reflective immediate. To reconcile with our own words simply becomes a commitment to presence, an acknowledgement of our own words.



The nature of philosophizing

The nature of philosophizing

In any exercise, it is not always easy to distinguish the substantive requirements from the formal ones, to link the formal rules to the skills required to work. However, we will do our best to describe our exercises by distinguishing what falls into one or the other of these characteristics, so as to perceive what comes from the spirit and what comes from the letter. To do this, since operating rules are nothing but a more or less successful application of a theoretical project, it seems illuminating at this point to bring forward a thesis on the nature of the act of philosophizing. Although we can’t deny either the fact that, in turn, theory undergoes an inflection in the face of practical outcomes, from either the successes or failures of practice. If it was not so we would give substance to the idea that philosophy is the preserve of theorization and that any practice must be but a pale representation of that theory, a kind of makeshift, a philosophy for the ‘crippled’, if not to the idea that ‘philosophical practice’ is a pure contradiction in terms. In order to distinguish our approach, let’s quickly state that the common representation of philosophy is to perceive it primarily as a scholarly and speculative discourse on scholarly discourse itself, whereas our view is that philosophy is a reflection on the discourse and on the very ‘being’ of a subject, whomever that might be, a pupil in kindergarten or a university student. In this perspective, let’s summarize what constitutes, for us, the essence of philosophizing, or of philosophical practice. We request some patience from our reader for the following abstract and theoretical discussion, however short.


Practice and materiality

A practice can be defined as an activity that confronts a given theory to a materiality, that is to say, an otherness. Matter being what offers resistance to our will and actions, it is that which is other, that upon which we pretend to act. Or, what, for our mind, is other? First, the most obvious materiality of the philosophizing is the totality of the world, including human existence. A world that we know in the form of a myth (mythos), a narration of daily events, or under the form of scattered cultural, scientific and technical information shaping a discourse (logos). Second, for every one of us, materiality is the ‘other’, our own image, our fellow, with whom we can enter into dialogue and confrontation. Third, materiality is the consistency, the presupposed unity of our discourse, whose flaws and incompleteness force us to confront ourselves with higher and more comprehensive mental architectural orders.

    With these principles in mind, in fact inspired by Plato, it becomes possible to conceive of a practice consisting in exercises stimulating individual thinking, in group situations or in singular ones, in school or outside of it. Through dialogue, the basic modus operandi consists in first identifying the presuppositions from which our own thinking operates, then in critically assessing these presuppositions so as to identify specific problems. One must then formulate clear concepts to express the global idea that has been enriched by the problematization, thus creating terms able to take contradictions into account and maybe even to solve them, by naming them. In this process, everyone aims at becoming aware of his own apprehension of the world and of himself, at deliberating on the possibilities of other schemes of thinking, and at engaging oneself on an anagogical path where one can outreach his own opinion, a transgression at the very heart of the act of philosophizing. Within this practice, knowledge of classical authors or of cultural elements is very useful, but is not an absolute prerequisite. Whatever the tools used, the main challenge remains the constitutive activity of the singular mind.

    Practical philosophical activity involves confronting the theory with the otherness, a vision to another one, a vision to a reality that goes beyond it, a vision to itself. It therefore implies a dualizing mode of the thinking process, a dialogue mode, with oneself, with others, with the world, with truth. We have here defined this confrontation in three modes: 1. our representations of the world, in the narrative or conceptual form; 2. the ‘other’, like the one with whom I can engage in dialogue; 3. and the unity of thought, as the logic, dialectic or coherence of the discourse.


Operations of philosophizing

In other words, beyond the cultural and specific content which is its appearance, generous and sometimes misleading – if it is at all possible to do without this appearance – what is left for philosophy? In answer, in order to focus solely on the operability of philosophy as a producer of problems and concepts, rather than on the complexity and scope of its corpus, we will propose a formulation defined in a rather lapidary way, which may seem like a sad and impoverished paraphrase of Hegel. We will define the philosophical activity as a constitutive activity of the self, determined by three operations: identification, criticism and conceptualization. If we accept these three terms, at least temporarily, the time to test their solidity, let’s see what this philosophical process means, and how it involves and requires otherness to constitute a practice.


Identify or deepen

How can the ‘me’ that I am define and become aware of itself, unless being confronted with the other? Myself and other, mine and thine, mutually define each other. I must know the pear to know the apple, this pear that is defined as a non-apple, this pear that defines the apple. Hence the appropriateness of naming in order to distinguish. We have proper nouns to singularize, and common ones to universalize. To identify, one must postulate and know the difference, postulate and distinguish the community. To classify between the singular, the gender and the specie as recommended by Aristotle. One must establish propositions which can be distinguished from others while sharing common elements without which the comparison would be meaningless. Dialectic of the same and the different: all is the same and different. Nothing can be thought of and exist without a relation to something else. Thus the first moment of the philosophical practice consists in an attempt to identify the nature of the subject, both the subject of the discourse and the subject who holds the discourse. What is he saying? What is he saying about himself when he says something about something? What are the implications and consequences of the ideas he puts forward? What are the ideas that form the cornerstone of his thought? What should be clarified? What to elaborate? How is that thought to be distinguished from another one? Why is she saying what she is saying? What are her arguments and their justifications?


    To further deepen and identify we mainly use the following tools:


  • Analyzing: to break down a term or a proposition, to determine its content, whether it is originally explicit or implicit, in order to clarify its scope.
  • Synthetizing: to reduce a discourse or a proposition to more concise or common terms that make more explicit the content and the intention of what was said, or simply to summarize what one wants to say.
  • Arguing: to prove or to justify a thesis with further proposals to support the initial assertion, or with a series of proposal in guise of a demonstration. A philosophical argumentation has a different purpose than the rhetorical one. Rather than proving it, it deepens a thesis.
  • Explaining: to make a proposition more explicit by using terns different from the original one, so as to clarify its meaning or purpose.
  • Exemplifying: to give examples and to analyse them: to produce one – or many- specific case to illustrate a proposal, to give it more meaning or depth by justifying it. The next step is to clarify the content of this example and to articulate its relation with the initial proposition.
  • Looking for presuppositions: to identify the underlying propositions or non-expressed postulates that an initial proposal assumes, which are not explicitly mentioned.


To criticize or problematize

Any object of thought, necessarily entrapped in choices and biases, is rightfully subjected to a critical activity. In the form of suspicion, of negation, of interrogation or of comparison, as many forms of opposition susceptible of fostering a certain problematic. But to submit my idea to such an activity, and even to simply accept, in good faith, that the other might play that role, I must momentarily become other than myself. This alienation or contortion of the thinking subject, sometimes arduous and painful, express the initial difficulty of criticism which, in a second step, through practice, can become a second nature. In order to identify, I must thin the ‘other’. In order to distinguish myself, to criticize, I must think through the other, I must think like other, at least temporarily. This ‘other’ might be the neighbour, the world or the unity of my own discourse. It is not only the object that changes anymore, but the subject. The duality becomes more radical, it becomes reflexive. This does not imply to ‘fall’ in the other. It is necessary to maintain the tension of this duality, precisely through the formulation of a problematic. Plato tells us that to think is to engage in dialogue with oneself. For this, it becomes necessary to oppose oneself.

    And while trying to think the unthinkable, this foreign thought that I can’t think by myself, I must keep in mind my fundamental incapacity to truly escape from myself. This remains the fundamental problematic: the hypothesis that any particular hypothesis is limited and fallible, and that it is only from an externality, not always identifiable, that it can discover its own limits and truth. This is a fundamental assumption that Plato calls ‘anhypothetical’: a hypothesis which I absolutely need but that I can’t formulate on my own since, by definition, externality escapes us. One sees here the interest of the ‘other’, the interlocutor who very naturally embodies this externality, the very possibility of a work by negativity.

    In this perspective, the notions of criticism or of problematization are valorised, as constitutive of the thinking process itself, like a beneficial and necessary valorization of the idea. In brief, philosophically, all propositions can a priori be problematized.

    The problematizing work can be undertaken by producing the different interpretations of the same proposition or concept, or the various responses that can be imagined to the same question. These two main tools are the question and the objection.



If identifying means thinking the other from myself, if criticizing means to think of me from another, conceptualizing means to think in the simultaneity of myself and the other, since it allows for the unification or the resolution of the dilemma, to unify a plurality. Nevertheless, this eminently dialectical perspective must be wary of itself since, as all powerful as it pretends to be, it is also necessarily confined to specific premises and special definitions. All concept implies some presuppositions. Thus, a concept must at least contain in itself the enunciation of a problematic, a problematic that it embodies both as the instrument and the manifestation. It addresses a given problem from a new angle that makes its identification easier. In this way, it is what allows interrogation, a basis from which to criticize and distinguish, that enlightens and builds the thinking process. And while the concept appears as if it was the final stage of the problematization process, let’s note that it thus initiates discourse just as much as it ends it. Thus the concept of ‘consciousness’ answers the question “can a knowledge know itself?”. And from this ‘naming’ it becomes the very possibility of the emergence of a new discourse. A concept is ultimately just a keyword, a key or a cornerstone of a thought process, which should become visible to itself in order to truly play its role as a concept.

To conceptualize is to identify the keyword of a proposition or of a thesis, or to produce this ubiquitous term even if it is not pronounced. The term can be a simple word or an expression. It is mainly used to illuminate a problem or to solve it.

Knowing what we are saying



“Indeed, truth is in their opinions, but not at the point where they imagine it to be.” (Pascal)


There is a recurring obstacle when it comes to understand the nature and issues of the philosophical exercise taking place in the form of a discussion. It consists in thinking that to philosophize amounts to merely expressing oneself, communicating something or defending a thesis. Even if it is possible to lead a philosophical exchange in many ways, including those just mentioned, we want to emphasize here the idea of a philosophical discourse that reflects itself, that sees itself and that develops in a conscious and determined way. We are starting from the assumption that to philosophize is not merely to think, but that it raises a more specific injunction: philosophizing enjoins one to think about thinking, to think about one’s own thought. It thus convenes ideas, while being conscious, or at least trying to be, of the nature, fragility, implications and consequences of the ideas that we express. Here we mean being conscious of our ideas and, of course, of those of our partners. Than only can speech be an interpellation of our ‘being’.

The principle we are referring to here does not claim to diminish the role of intuition, of spontaneous speech, or even of the approximate understanding that guides many discussions, but we hope to catch the reader’s eye, for a moment, so that he can behold the visible limits of certain types of exchanges which, out of complacency or ignorance, remain below themselves. Overall, let’s say that the problem is what can be called ‘associative thinking’. It functions under the general scheme of “it reminds me of something”, modeled on “I want to bounce back on” so popular in televised debates, or again the popular “I would like to add that” or the “I want to nuance that”. So many expressions that, in the end, mean not much, often saying what they do not say or stating a point that they did not mention.

In the classroom, this takes the form of a tendency, on the part of the teacher, to prioritize the expression of ideas, as vague as they may be, over any other considerations: the student expressed himself, it is good! This consideration is pushed to such an extent that the teacher is ever ready to conclude the statements of the student, to put words in his mouth under the pretext of reformulation, solely to be able to say: he said something, he talked! If such concerns and behaviors can be understood within certain types of linguistic exercises, it may become problematic for the philosophical work. In support of our hypothesis, we will describe some specific skills related to the discussion, which we deem essential to philosophical work.


Speaking at the right time

Some people will object us that the requirement to “speak at the right time” is only a superficial concern, devoid of real substance. There are two possible reasons for this. Either because the rule is conceived as a mere act of politeness: not to interrupt a speaker, for example. Either because it is motivated solely by a practical concern: to speak at the same time as someone else prevents proper listening and understanding. But such perspectives forget the primary goal of philosophizing: the relation to one’s own speech. The mere fact of being able to solicit or to deliberately mobilize one’s speech and mind, not through some kind of fortuitous and uncontrolled chain of events but by a willful act, conscious of itself, is already fundamentally modifying the relationship between oneself and one’s thought. What is more, if the idea in question does not become the subject of a dialogue with oneself, it is to be feared that the idea, as it will arise unexpectedly, will neither be understood nor heard from its author. To verify this, to see the problem, simply ask a child or an adult whose words sprang spontaneously to repeat what he just said. More often than not he won’t be able to do so.

There is a reason for this omission: the clumsy and awkward aspect of this behavior indicates self-devaluation. “My own ideas have no value, why would I express them? Why would I care about their form and appearance? Why would I talk to be heard? Besides, how can I chose the appropriate time to utter them? My speech comes out in spite of me, maybe even against my will. It does not belong to me.” Thus, when we ask this individual to talk at the “right time”, it is a significant effort that we ask from him, but a most necessary one. This kind of work involves going deep into oneself, something which, although not always easy, is vital.

The problem is the same when we ask that people raise their hands before talking, even if it seems difficult, especially with young children. Why not turn this requirement into an exercise in itself? But it might be a bit frustrating for the teacher, who primarily wants to show to others and to himself that “his” children have ideas. Yet perhaps they simply repeat what they heard at home or at school, but it feels so good to hear it. While the fact of talking at the right time, on the contrary, shows that the child knows how to do what he must, and that a non-accidental inner debate has been initiated. And, with nuances, it is the same for adults. To take distance from oneself, by decoupling one’s speech and self, is a constitutive act of being.


Finishing one’s idea

As we have mentioned, it is so tempting to finish the sentence of one’s interlocutor, child or adult! But if we think about it, what drives us if not some kind of impatience taking the guise of a superficial and complacent empathy? If the child falls, is it necessary to rush to lift him up, or can we give him the opportunity to do it by himself, even if he cries, so that he learns to help himself on his own. Especially since the words or sentence parts that are obligingly provided by the teacher or the neighbor might be very far, or very short, of what the speaker wanted to articulate. But just like a drowning man rushes on whatever is thrown at him, without thinking, even if that thrown object might be of no use to him, someone who looks for his words often instinctively grabs whatever words are told to him, without analyzing their content nor even their effectiveness or correctness.

Invariably, while claiming to help the other, what we seek above all is to please ourselves. We shamelessly give in to our impulses. While the one who is struggling to complete his task is trying to do important work on himself and his thought. This does not mean that he must toil without any assistance whatsoever, but the first kind of help that he deserves is to be allowed time, so that he can find his way by himself without the external pressure of the group or of the authority, to rush him while pretending to help. If there is really a deadlock, some procedures might be devised to allow him out. For example, by learning to say “I can’t make it”, “I am stuck”, or by asking “can someone else help me?” Because, from that moment onward, the problem has been articulated, it is signaled, and in this way the person remains free and autonomous, since he is conscious of the issue and is able to express it in his own words.


The role of the idea

Leibniz makes the risky assumption that it is not in the thing in itself, but in the connection that the living substance is to be found. Taking advantage of this insight, we suggest that what distinguishes philosophical thought from the general one is precisely the “connection”, that is to say the expressed relationship between ideas. In itself, an idea is just an idea and a word a word, but within the grammatical, syntactic and logical articulation, the word, since it becomes operative, reaches the status of concept, and the idea takes part in the elaboration of thoughts, since by joining other thoughts it helps to construct and build.

It is not so much the ideas that we are seeking, however smart and brilliant they may be, else the discussion would look like a vague shopping list, like a vulgar debate of opinions, thus producing a disordered and inchoate global thinking. What we are looking for are links, connections, relations, involving the mastery over these connectors generally so poorly understood and applied, beginning with the “but”, and proceeding through the “yes, but”. We are aiming at an increased understanding of the relationships and correlations between the propositions. How many dialogues are exchanging conflictual statements without noticing the slightest contradiction, without evaluating the potential problematic! How many statements of disagreement that fail to precise or to perceive the specific character of the disagreement, while the competing statements are not even concerned with the same object, or again they state the same idea but use different words.

So, rather than hastening out other ideas, or other intuitions, before piling up even more words, why not taking some time to identify and to evaluate the relationship between concepts and ideas, so as to become aware of the nature and scope of our words. But there again, impatience reigns: this is laborious work. It is apparently less glorious and most frustrating, yet, is it not more consistent?

Also, a simple exercise, let’s ask the one who is about to talk to announce first the intention of his speech, to articulate the link between his intention and what has already been said, to qualify his speech. If he can’t make it, he should recognize it and try to fulfill this task once his speech has been said. If he still can’t make it, he can then ask others if they can help him. But to achieve this, one must be interested in the already expressed words, and not solely to think about what one wants to say, even if the grass is always greener on the other side. One must set himself a goal, bind himself to it, focus and not let oneself be overflowed by the inner turmoil when ideas are scrambling at the gate like a subway exit at rush hour. Hegel would call it a, « Schwärmerei », the roar of a swarm of wasps where nothing can be distinguished anymore.

It is not sufficient to simply say something, but one must determine in a deliberate way what he wants to say, to tell effectively what he wants to, and to know what he is saying. Otherwise the discussion can be quite nice and friendly, but is it philosophical? It is not sincerity nor profound words that qualify a philosophical talk. One like the other fall into the trap of evidence, because it is possible to transmit an idea or to repeat what we have heard without knowing what we have said, without grasping the content of our speech, its implications and consequences. What are the key words of our statements, what we could call the ‘concepts’? What is the principal proposition that underpins the others? How to synthetize our words? What is the main idea that is not expressed but that is nevertheless present? What allows us to say what we say? What are the propositions and how are they articulated? What is the potential for contradiction in our discourse? On what ignorance does it rest?

To philosophize, as an attitude, perhaps stands on a fundamental act of faith: all discourse is limited, biased, contradictory, incomplete or false with respect to various requirements, such as truth, reality, efficiency, transparency, intent, etc. Thus, the opposition does not lie between those who have a perfect speech and those who suffer from various imperfections, but between those who are aware of their own shortcomings and those who prefer to ignore them.

Philosophizing in primary school

Philosophizing in primary school

What has philosophy to do with primary school? Whether in a positive way or critically, most of those who hear of such an initiative are puzzled and raise the question. How could this activity even be considered with children aged three to eleven while eighteen years old teenagers, whose Bachelor results in the field are not particularly good, often struggle with this strange material of dubious reputation? Or else, let’s ask the question differently: at eighteen, isn’t it too late to philosophize, too late to start in any case?

Which professor does not periodically feel helpless while striving for a whole year to induce a kind of critical thinking in his students, amongst other skills, often without much success? If, for reasons generally related to a favorable family environment towards this type of method, some students seem to be able to develop a certain intellectual fitness to move about within the philosophical path, this is not the case for the majority. For most, critical thinking and the development of speech as a reflective tool remain foreign and unusual practices.


It is not that an initiation into critical thinking would necessarily produce miracles and solve all pedagogical problems, but if we were to think that it is somewhat necessary, could we not avoid the artificial veneer, the tardy and drop out side of the matter, the idea of a single school year set up as a coronation? Could we not instead chose to gradually accustom our children to such a state of mind, according to their gradual cognitive and emotional development? Of course, and there probably lies the crux of the matter, it would be required to extract philosophy from its mainly cultural and scholarly coating in order to conceive of it as a probation of the singular being, as the constitution of an individuality that builds up since tender years through the formation of the mind. The true difficulty certainly lies in this Copernican revolution: it requires the toppling of a certain amount of educational concepts.


From our point of view, we are here involved in a ‘philosophizing’ defined as a pedagogical practice and not as a separate field of inquiry or as a specific subject. To begin with, let’s try to identify how, for example, a discussion with children could be philosophical. This is because the form of the exercise often amounts to a discussion, especially when writing skills are still missing, when it comes to confront various perspectives or when one must harass the mind in order to bring its errors to light. We were once asked: “Would it not amount to a mere propaedeutic to philosophy, a simple preparation to philosophizing?” But in the end, within the Socratic tradition, is not philosophizing in essence a propaedeutic? Is it not a never ending training? Is not ongoing questioning its live matter? Is not any particular idea a simple hypothesis, a momentary event in an ongoing thinking process?


Therefore, do we engage in philosophy less when we actually make a practical attempt at philosophy or when we get stuck in thick and complex philosophical theories? Does the scholar engage in philosophy more than the child in kindergarten? Nothing is less certain. What is worst, the question is irrelevant. For, if philosophizing is a trial of the singular being, it is by no means certain that the awakening of critical thinking is not a much more fundamental transformation on the personal level than what any intricate analysis of the seasoned scholar could ever offer. It is for this reason that philosophical practice should be incorporated early on in a child. There is otherwise a risk that the life of the mind be later on perceived as a peripheral operation, something external to existence. This is a common phenomenon observed within the philosophical establishment and more generally in education.


However, let’s imagine that in attempting to inculcate a philosophical practice in the early beginnings of the schooling process we might run the risk of reaching the limits of philosophy. Haven’t we fall in the mere learning of language in general? Or in some minimal art of discussion? The philosophical ingredient here seems to be so diluted that it is to flatter oneself to continue to make use of such a label to define the pedagogical practice. Here again, let’s look at the problem from another angle. Let’s ask ourselves if, on the contrary, the fact of facing liminal situations, all the while challenging the very idea of philosophizing, its mere possibility, does not force us to restrict to a maximum the definition of such an activity, so as to articulate its constitutive and limitative unity in a more essential manner. In other words, is not by any chance the emergence of philosophizing the very essence of philosophy? This seems to be the question towards which Socrates is pointing at when, to the bewilderment of the modern scholars, he continuously engage in philosophy with the uninitiated, including the learned sophists, those so-called enemies of philosophy. It is as if he was challenging us by showing just how much can thus be accomplished. Could not this extreme trivialization of philosophy become its most revealing expression, a dramatization of its mysterious activity which escapes from anyone who tries to grasp at it as a vulgar object, like the amorous feeling?


2 – The three registers of philosophizing


As a starting point to our practice, let’s determine three registers of philosophical requirement, in other words three aspects that will be used to constitute the practice. These three aspects of the activity seem to define a requirement that comes in addition to the mere exercise of speech or to the use of reading and writing, similar to what any elementary teacher is already doing. We are referring to the three intellectual, existential and social dimensions; three terms that anyone can rename has he pleases. All three registers could be summarized as the idea of thinking by oneself, being oneself and being among the group.


Intellectual (To Think by Oneself)


  • To propose concepts and hypothesis.
  • To structure, articulate and clarify ideas.
  • To understand the ideas of others and one’s own.
  • To analyze.
  • To reformulate or modify an idea.
  • To work on the relation between an example and an idea.
  • To argue.
  • To practice interrogating and objecting.
  • Initiation to logic: the link between concepts, coherency, and the legitimacy of ideas.
  • To formulate one’s judgement.
  • To use and create conceptual tools: error, lie, truth, triviality, contrary, identical, categories, etc.
  • To verify the comprehension and the sense of an idea.


Existential (To be oneself)


  • Singularization and universalization of thought.
  • To express and assume one’s identity through one’s own choices and judgements.
  • To be aware of oneself: of one’s own ideas and behavior.
  • To master one’s reactions.
  • To work on one’s own way of being and thought.
  • To question oneself, so as to discover and to recognize errors and incoherencies.
  • To see, to accept, to say and to work on one’s own limits.
  • To distinguish between one’s way of being, one’s ideas and oneself.


Social (To be and to think within the group)


  • To listen to the other, to give him space, to respect and understand him.
  • To be interested in the ideas of the other: to reverse self-centeredness by reformulating, questioning and engaging in dialogue.
  • To risk oneself and to integrate a group: to test oneself through the other.
  • To understand, to accept and to apply functional rules.
  • To discuss functional rules.
  • To take responsibility: modification of the status of the student towards the teacher and the group.
  • To think together instead of competing: to learn to confront ideas and to emulate.


Thinking by oneself


One possible summary of the activity that we are describing here is the principle of “thinking by oneself’. It is an idea cherished by the philosophical tradition, something that Plato, Descartes or Kant articulated as the first and fundamental injunction. Of course, some might smile at the idea of “thinking by oneself” in kindergarten. We will discuss this reluctance later on. For now it suffices to say that, if we maintain this pattern of doubt till the end, we won’t hesitate to assert, in Final, if not even in College, as is common, that students don’t have anything interesting to say anyway. No wonder then, that we see ignorance and contempt, for oneself and others, flourishing in a more or less conscious and explicit manner.

“Thinking by oneself” means, first of all, to understand that thought and knowledge do not fall from heaven already armed and shielded, but that they are produced by individuals whose sole merit is to ponder on ideas, to express them, to examine and to refashion them. Thus, the thinking process is a practice, not a revelation. Otherwise, if from his early days a child is led to believe that to think and to gather knowledge amounts to learning and repeating the ideas of adults, all preconceived ideas, then it is only by accident that he might ever learn to think for himself. Generally speaking, it is heteronomy rather than autonomy that he will be prompted in his behavior. A difficulty remains: how can one who assume the Master’s function, the teacher, ever encourage a child to think by himself?

One must consider In the first place that the thinking process might be defined as a natural act which every human being possesses in varying degrees from his early days onwards. However, considerable work must be done, and this is the responsibility of the parents and teachers. In class, any exercise in that direction will require the child to articulate the ideas that arise and dwell in his mind in a more or less conscious manner. Their articulation constitute the first and most crucial component of the practice of “thinking by oneself”. On the one hand because verbalization allows for a greater awareness of these ideas and of the mind that generates them. On the other hand, because difficulties encountered during the formulation of these ideas directly relate to the difficulties inherent in thinking itself: imprecisions, paralogisms, incoherencies, etc… One must therefore not simply incite a child to talk, to express himself, but to do so with a greater mastery of his thought and speech. By the way, let us mention that even if understanding, learning and summarizing a lesson might also help to acquire this capacity, this traditional mode of teaching, left unto itself, tends to encourage parroting and formalism, a disembodied speech and, most of all, a double language. In other words, it leads to a radical rupture between expressing what one thinks and holding a discourse expected by authorities. This catastrophic rupture has severe consequences on the intellectual and social level.

In brief, ‘thinking for oneself’ consists in several components. First, it means to express what one thinks on a given topic, which already requires that one reflects on the question, and to clarify one’s own thought in order to be understood. Second, it means to become aware of what one thinks, an awareness that already partially refers to the implications and consequences of such ideas. From this, a somewhat forced reasoning draft comes about. Third, it means to work on this thinking process and this speech so as to fulfill the requirements of clarity and consistency. Fourth, it means to venture towards the other, this other who questions us, who contradicts us, of whom we must assume the ideas and speech while reviewing and rearticulating ours. However, there is no formal lesson that could ever replace this practice, nor would discourses on swimming ever replace a jump in the bath and movements in water.


Being oneself


As shocking as this may seem to some, going to school is an alienating activity for the existing and thinking subject of the child. This being said, to reassure our readers, we may add that all educational and institutional activity is alienating in one way or another, since it pretends to root out the child from its natural state in order to initiate him to the human community. The purpose here is simply to become aware of the paradoxical pretentions of such an enterprise. It is even more pronounced in the French educational establishment, which is rather traditional. In the West, the French system is one of those who insists the most on that uprooting dimension of education, despite certain inflexions in primary education undertaken in the last decades. The whole issue is to what extent one can decide between a “naturalistic” vision, where the child is left to himself, where his natural tendencies must find their own expression, and a “classical” vision resting primarily on the transmission of values, knowledge, truths and so on. There is no readymade and perfect recipe able to guarantee the success of the enterprise. It is simply a matter of being aware of the tension through which operates all educational action. This is the only safeguard between Charybdis and Scylla.

    To be concrete, let’s describe two kinds of resistance to philosophical activity in class, be it in primary or in secondary school. First, the good student syndrome: this one will not commit himself unless he is certain to get the right answers. He knows that, when a question is being asked, a “right” answer or the way to find it has already been provided to him. If a question is asked while no help is provided to find the answer he remains silent. He won’t risk anything. He is usually very perceptive and able to guess the expectations of the adult. To model his behavior on those expectations does not cause him the least problem. In fact, he trusts the adult more than himself. He is generally a quite pleasant student and one would wish to have more like him since he is quite rewarding for the teacher. He is thus well schooled and appreciative of the established order, something which somewhat prevents him from being creative. He does not value the self, especially if he swears by the established order. In this sense, he does not allow himself to be who he is, since all his identity rests upon the institution’s sanction. He has no distance from external pressure.

    A mirror of “the good student”, the “duffer”, like any inversion, preserves in essence what he is opposed to. The second is the “cunning” version of the first. He is as equally aware of the institutional mechanisms in place at school as the first one, but he is much more cynical. Maybe he is so because he does not feel capable of playing the game, or maybe he simply does not feel like it. But he knows how to “play” in his way. He can consciously cheat. He must be in class while he would probably prefer to be somewhere else, so he learned how not to be there while pretending that he is. He knows very well what the limits not to be exceeded are and, even when he transgresses them, he knows that he does. He knows what should be done and that’s why he is not doing it. He places no trust in the adult, or very little. But he knows how to get what he wants, however destructive his “desires” might sometimes be.

    Why do we spend time on these “caricatures”? To give a negative sample of what we mean by “being oneself” in the philosophical practice. It means to take a personal risk in exposing oneself to judgement without having any certainty nor warranty regarding the correct answer; to risk oneself in confronting the other without knowing who is right. It means to accept that the other, our kin, might have something to teach us, and this without him having received any form of authority from some kind of institution. The hierarchical relation between the teacher and the student is here more or less dissolved. This might be problematic since, from then on, in the eyes of some, it is not obvious anymore whom or what to obey. Others might wonder what they should be resisting from. One is therefore left with the only option to get involved and to engage in the process, to risk making mistakes and shortcomings, to be oneself and to become aware of the limitations and weaknesses of our being. This must happen while avoiding both the complacencies of self-glorification and of self-contempt. We must help others.


Being and thinking together


The practice of philosophical discussion mainly boils down to connecting the student with the world he lives in, something that can be called a process of “socialization”. Here again could be argued that this process has nothing particularly special, since any school activity implies a dimension or another of socialization. On the other hand, one may wonder about the relationship between this socialization and philosophy. Let’s suggest the idea that the increased dramatization of the relation to another, a relation that is central to the functioning of our exercise, allows for the creation of a situation in which this relation becomes an object to itself. This can be explain from several viewpoints. First, the rules set out require everyone to stand out. Second, they imply to know the other, to know what he said. Third, they involve entering into a dialogue or to risk oneself in confrontation with the other. Fourth, they involve being able to change the other and to be changed by him. Fifth, they involve verbalizing these relations, to raise in conversation topics that usually remain in the shadow of the unspoken, or confine themselves to a mere alternation between reproach and reward. To turn the problem or difficulty into an object to be considered in itself, something to reflect on, is a specific feature of the philosophical practice, something that is called “problematization”. Problematization requires that the thinking process be caught in its flow, taken as it comes, as it is, and to work with that spontaneous reality instead of with some predefined theoretical ideas.

It would be possible to compare our practice with that of team sport, an important socialization factor for children. It is something that involves getting to know the other, what he does, how to act on him and confront him. This type of activity can be distinguished from classical intellectual activity, which generally occurs alone, even within a group; an intellectual individualism naturally encouraged by the school, often without the teachers fully noticing it. It is a tendency that gets exacerbated over the years. It causes many problems along the way, amplifying the “winner and loser” aspects of the game.

On the contrary, the philosophical practice that we are describing here encourages the “thinking together” dimension. It aims at introducing the idea that we are not thinking against the other or to defend ourselves from him, either because he scares us or because we are lock in a competition with him, but that we are thinking together with him, through him. On the one hand, it is such because the general reflective process evolves along the students’ contributions to the discussion. During the workshop, the teacher will have to periodically summarize the important contributions that gave the context to and formed the discussion. On the other hand, it is such because, while discussing with him, while changing our mind, or while changing his, instead of coldly clinging to our views, if not angrily, we learn to benefit from the other. There again, the fact that problem management difficulties arise, coming from a colleague or from the teacher, is part of the discussion and helps to defuse individual tensions. It encourages the child to reason instead of wanting to be right. Let us mention that this kind of fear, if left untreated, creates major difficulties, ever more visible as school years go by, and this goes without mentioning the impact on the adult to be. If a child learns to think in common at an early age, he learns both how to assume a singular thought, how to express it, and how to defend it. He learns to benefit from the ideas of others and to let others benefit from his. Thus, the philosophical dimension consists in making sure that the child is becoming aware of the processes of individual and collective thinking, that he notices the epistemological obstacles that constrain the thought process and its expression, and that he can verbalize these blockages and obstacles by raising them in conversation topics.

  A last argument in favor of this increased socialization process of thought is that inequalities among children appears very early on. Already in kindergarten one can see that some children are not accustomed at all to discussion. Regardless of the relative individual ease or difficulty to engage in discussion, the teacher realizes that some children are not surprised to see that we want to discuss with them, while others seem at lost to understand what is expected of them when they are invited to speak up. These behaviors are most likely linked with the familial context. For these reasons, speech, which should be a source of integration and socialization, becomes a source of segregation and exclusion.

Transcription and analysis of a consultation – The case of Kim

Kim came to participate to a philosophy festival, organized around the theme of love. She is a professional translator. Once there she heard about the practice philosophical consultation and decided to give it a try.


1 – Oscar: Do you know that when one comes for a consultation, one usually raises a question. Were you told that?

Kim Ha: No

O: OK, it doesn’t matter. But do you have some topic that you would like to think about? It can be about anything, about you, about the world. Some issue where you tell yourself: “I would like to think about it”.

K: Well, since the topic is about love (nervously laughs)

O: And do you have a question about love that you would like to ask?

K: Yes. Is long lasting love possible?


When Kim first comes in, she presents herself in an assured way; she is calm and collected, clear and coherent. Until she announces the subject she wants to discuss, which visibly seems delicate and painful for her, by the manner her behavior changed drastically. The presupposition we can derive from her attitude and question is that her love stories – or story – do not last, at least not as much as she would wish, she most likely gets abandoned and feels betrayed. This makes her doubt of her strong desire or expectation: that love would sort of last forever.



O: OK, I will write it down. (writes down the question). So, “Is long lasting love possible?” This is the question that interests you?

K: Yes.

O: Since French is not your native language, does the word presupposition speak to you?

K: Presupposition? Yes.

O: What would be the presupposition of someone who asks: “is long lasting love possible?”

K: (Laughs) The presupposition would be that the answer is “no”.

O: That means you have reasons to think it is not possible, do you agree?

K: yes

O: What could be the main reason that makes you think that long lasting love is not possible?

K: It is through experience         

O: Is it your experience or in general experience of human beings?

K: Mine, life experience.



Oscar writes the question, a gesture that has both a practical and symbolic function. The practical dimension is to remember the initial question, which indicates the starting point, the crux and the anchorage of the discussion. The symbolic dimension is to indicate that this question is important enough that time and effort should be taken in order to transcribe it. And the short interruption provoked – the question could have been written while speaking – for doing this creates a certain tension ensuring that some thinking take place. Sometimes, the subject enounces a “false” question, some superficial, disconnected or side issue, used consciously or not as a decoy. Even then, it is worth marking strongly the question, underlining thus what it stands for.

The question on presupposition is geared at verifying the degree of consciousness of the interlocutor, as well as his general literacy, for example his capacity of analysis. This will give us some indicators for determining the nature of our strategy in the development of the discussion. And visibly, Kim is rather awake: she is well educated, smart and relatively conscious of her own speech. She knows what is a presupposition and can identify one quite rapidly, knowing very well that the formulation of her question rather implies certain despair, through the negative answer. Although this negation could as well be a sort of exorcism, expressed in order to get reassured or to magically dispel the horrible possibility. Her laughter at that moment is rather ambiguous, but it rather confirms the emotional tension she is undergoing in this discussion.

Since she confirms that indeed the answer is most likely negative, we investigate the reasons for her thinking in such a way. And of course, she tells us that her personal experience points definitely in that direction, a conclusion that was rather predictable and confirms our hypothesis of her suffering.


10 – O: Did you notice that the question you are asking is general? The question “Is long lasting love possible” is a general question, do you agree?

K: Yes

O: So you’re answering a general question with a particular experience? Do you agree?

K: Yes.

O: And do you consider legitimate to answer a general question with a particular experience?

K: It is a little piece of it…

O: But in French, the word “piece” indicates an important proportion or very little?

K: (shakes her head) Very little

O: Very little. Do you know the principle of induction?

K: (nodding). Induction, deduction

O: Yes. What you are saying looks like saying “I have seen such a tree, therefore all trees are like that”.

K: (nodding). Exactly.

O: So it is very limited. Do you agree?

K: Yes.

O: And when you answer a general question with a particular experience, can we as well think that it is a bit limited?

K: Yes, yes

O: Does it surprise you that your argumentation is a bit limited?

K: No

O: And why doesn’t it surprise you?

K: Because I am not a great thinker. (Laughs)

20 – O: Ok, you are a little thinker. (Laughs). I don’t know you very much, but I asked you if you knew what induction and presupposition is and you said you knew. Do you realize that such knowledge would already exclude a lot of people?

K: Maybe

O: I am not asking if it is “maybe”…

K: (interrupts) But I cannot know the others

O: Oh, so you don’t know the others?

K: One cannot know if the others know…

O: Right, right. Do you have a hard time knowing the others?

K: (nods affirmatively) It is possible


We attract Kim’s attention to the fact that if her question is general, the answer or proof for the answer is of a particular form. Visibly she understands the idea, but immediately she tries to justify it, instead of simply acknowledging it. This indicates a certain anxiety, a desire to look good, especially to look smart, since this deals with intellectual matters. Most likely, she fears being caught making a mistake.

Of course her justification attempt, like most quick reactive justification, is of rather low quality. In this case, it is a weak argument since, as she further realizes, the experience she mentions is a very reduced aspect of reality. Including the fact that our personal experience is generally a warped one, deprived of objectivity. The choice of using one experience as an answer to a general problem tends to show a certain dose of egocentrism and excessive subjectivity.

Kim agrees that her argument is rather a limited one. But she justifies it with the avowal that she is not a great thinker. But this happens after different statements showing that is an intellectual: she knows what a presupposition is, she is familiar with types of reasoning, like induction and deduction. And again she laughs when she makes this claim. This shows a certain ambiguity and worry about her intellectual status, between a desire to look smart and realization she says things that are not so smart. She probably suffers from the good student syndrome: looking smart, giving proof of knowledge, but afflicted by a fear of thinking, a fear of making mistakes, a fear of insufficiency and failure, a desire for perfection.

We try to investigate her statement of not being a “great thinker”, by transposing it to being a “little thinker”. It is always interesting to transform a negative statement in a positive formulation. Since those negative forms often are used to produce a euphemism effect, putting it in an affirmative form will have the opposite effect of creating a strong effect, more striking to consciousness. We then show her the contradiction there is between such a statement and her previous admittance of intellectual culture. There, she gives a very evasive answer, a “maybe” attesting that this issue is a rather perturbing one. Of course, it is always possible in general to answer maybe, but in this particular case, like in all cases of rather evident statements, pronouncing a “maybe” indicates an emotional reaction: something is here bothersome, consciousness is deranged, there is some cognitive dissonance. Although all answers which show a clear discrepancy with logic tends to indicate such a cognitive dissonance.

When confronted to this situation, the level of tension goes up one notch. First she interrupts me, which is out of profile with her behavior so far. Second she answers with a very radical statement about the impossibility for her to “know the others”. We see here a drama unfolding, telling us the solitude that she is plunged in, the relational impotence, rendering the others inaccessible to her. We start seeing the amplitude of her initial question, about the eternity of love: it echoes the eternity of her loneliness. Again we confront her about this ignorance of others, which she confirms by generalizing the problem: “One cannot know if the others know.” Therefore it is the whole of humanity that is plunged in this deep solitude, showing the strength and radicality of her emotional glut. We try a simple question to therefore get her to admit in a different formulation her difficulty to understand others, but again we stonewalls our question with the evocation of a mere possibility, a classical dismissal, apparently soft but actually rather aggressive. She is manifesting her passive aggressive behavior.

Although, interesting feature, through nodding, her body admits more freely the problem. Often gestures of the body more readily tell us some truth that words deny, ignore, try to evade or dilute.



O: Have you noticed it already before? That you are rather ignorant of the other one?

K: (starts to wonder, her eyes go up) Not ignorant…

O: Visibly the word “ignorant” bothers you

K: (interrupts) It is just that I don’t see many things in others

O: Well, that is what is called being ignorant. Unless you have another word that you would prefer

K: If you want (laughs)

O: It is not if I want, it is for you to decide. Do you have another word beside ignorance? You told me that there are a lot of things you don’t see in others. Do you prefer another word beside ignorance?

K: Unconscious (with a questioning tone)

O: You are unconscious (writes down the word). Generally, when someone is unconscious, will he be rather ignorant or no?

K: Yes, it is true. If you want

O: No, it is not “if I want”. I don’t know if you know but in French when we say “if you want”, it means we want to get rid of the other one (shows a sending away gesture with a hand)

K: (laughs) I would agree that I am a bit constrained here

30 – O: So in this way you get rid of the constraint. Do you agree?

K: (laughs) Yes

O: You see, you are not conscious of the others. But when I talk to you, you tell me: “you bother me, stay away from me” (shows a sending away gesture with a hand)

K: (protests) No, you don’t bother me. (keeps speaking indistinctly)

O: (stops her with a gesture) Slow down, slow down. To be constrained, in your vocabulary, is it rather something positive or rather something negative?

K: It is rarely positive

O: (laughs) You are answering me with “rarely”. Is it rather positive or rather negative?

K: Rather negative

O: Ok. When someone constrains you, you are not happy. It doesn’t please you very much. Do you agree?

K: (nods)

O: So one makes these signs, it means he is not too happy. Do you agree?

K: (smiles) Yes



Now that the subject has been evoked, we invite the subject to realize in a plain way her difficulty to know others, by naming it with a crude word: ignorance, a word that of course we expect her to dismiss in some way. And she does not fail to do it: ignorance” in an unbearable qualifier, especially when applied to her. She interrupts again, to claim “she does not see much”, a formulation that seems more palatable to her, and after this she proposes “unconscious”. But we insist, in order for her to become conscious of an important problem, connected to her initial question: her ignorance of others. She wiggles and jiggles, troubled emotionally and cognitively, and finally her defense system becomes clearly aggressive with the “if you want!”, a classical indicator of rejecting other.

Again she half admits the violence of her reactions but justifying it. It is a classical way that children learn very young: the “it’s because”, where one replaces the admittance of a personal fault or a problem by right away attempting to give the reasons for their action. They replace the “what”: the phenomenon or objective fact, with the “why”: the genesis, the cause, the circumstances. They short-circuit the immediate harsh reality by diverting the discussion to the general situation or context. And in the present case, the context is “constraint”, a term that indeed makes sense: it explains her pain and her instinctive desire to get rid of the interlocutor. And when this desire is outrightly mentioned, she admits it with a chuckle, showing a certain embarrassment coupled with some pleasure or relief.

So now comes the time to show her a major problem in her functioning: the coherency between her not understanding or knowing others and her rejection of others because she feels constrained by the relation and discussion. Even though the type of discussion we are having is a bit particular, it indeed bears constraint, the performative dimension of it reveals the patterns of behavior she tends to fall into. There, she protests, because her rational or moral side rebels against the idea she would be rude or rejecting me. She mumbles and speaks fast, which means she speaks to herself, displaying the tension of her internal debate. So much that we have to calm her down in order to reestablish the dialogue.

We then question her about the concept of “constrain”, about its connotation. To interrogate someone about the connotation of her word, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, and other criteria, is always a useful way to make some conscious of his words, thoughts and being. In our choice of words, we most likely are not deliberately choosing our words in this way, aware of the semantic field, identifying the harmonics of the terms chosen, its overtones and echoes in the mind.

Of course, she uses again the euphemistic form to answer me, with a “rarely positive”. This shows her difficulty with reality: negating the negativity of things, repudiating the dark side of the world and self, is the most common form of reality denial. Although the reverse exists as well, a sort of depressive or paranoid vision of the world, where everything is bad and dangerous. And those two extremes can easily join: the negation of the negativity, in order ton hide or disguise the fundamental horrible nature of the world. And on insisting, she admits that the constraint is negative, showing that is still capable of reason, she is not overwhelmed by emotions. Some other persons would remain much more adamant about refusing the evidence of their words’ content. She even smiles, granting full status and reconciliation to the perspective that she is not happy about what is going on. A mental shift implying that she now can deal with it: accepting that we don’t like the nature of reality is one step toward accepting this reality. Denying we don’t like it or despise it indicates a very strong conflict within self.



O: I will propose to you an idea that meeting with the other one usually implies constraint.

K: It is possible

O: I am not asking if it is possible, I am asking if it is probable. (Kim is silent). You see, your “it is possible” is another way of getting rid of me

K: Ah really!

O: Now it is “Ah really!”. Do you notice, you have several techniques to get rid of the interlocutor?

K: (laughs) Well, I learned it with French language. (reaches out for her bag on the floor)

O: Now you are trying to justify yourself, saying it is the fault of the French language. Do you notice?

K: (takes out the fan out of her bag) If you allow me, it is very hot here… (starts to move it next to her face)

40 – O: So you said that you learned it with French, right?

K: yes

O: So it is like saying “I was not like that before and they made me like that” do you agree…

K: (starts to make a resisting face, moves away with the body)

O: (stops her because of the face she makes). Stay with me, stay with me!

K: (interrupts) it is some kind of rhetoric…

O: Exactly. Right now I don’t manage anymore to talk to you. Each one of your answers after another is rhetoric. Do you agree?

K: (doesn’t answer)

O: Yes, no?

K: (doesn’t answer)

O: You have used this term “rhetoric”. Do you agree?

K: Yes

O: So with me you are using these rhetoric tricks. Do you agree?

K: (unwillingly nodding, speaking in a low voice) Yes


Since she is reconciled with her own concept of “constraint”, we decide to work on it, though a common technique of banalizing it, universalizing it, examining its global sense and operating power. We will ask if it applies globally to all human relation, a perspective that dedramatizes the term, depersonalizes it, and allows it to be thinkable. She admits it, but in a weak way, again as a mere possibility. When something obvious is only granted a status of possibility by a subject, this implies that this subject does not appreciate very much the idea, it is a way of pushing it away, as a mere toleration rather than full acceptance, because if would be too difficult or impossible to deny it totally.

In this affair we use a rather important distinction in order to determine the ontological or practical status of a phenomenon. The gradation between fours terms: impossible, possible, probable and necessary. Often they are confused, and we slide easily from one to the next. For example we take as impossible what is in fact possible with difficulty, making ourself blind and impotent. We declare possible what is probable, just like if we hoped it not happen when in reality it most likely will take place, a situation that can be called wishful thinking. And we judge necessary what is merely probable, a mistake that implies that we refuse to examine the possibility of failure in our expectations, which can be called an absence or lack of critical thinking.

So we try to make her think further her “constrain” concept by checking its application in human relation, through the distinction between its mere possibility of presence and its probability. But we don’t do it though a question but through a provocation: telling her that by using the term “possible”, she is trying to get rid of me. Of course, the pedagogue which wants to apply the Vigotsky principle of “zone of proximal development” will assess that we are overwhelming our dialogue partner, since it makes in theory makes the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he can do only with help. Maybe indeed we go too quick and jump over some logical steps. But for one we have sufficient trust in her that she can fill the gaps by herself, and it is useful to challenge her, even at the risk she does get the point and feels frustrated, misunderstood or even attacked. Furthermore, like Socrates, the cynics or the Zen teacher, we think provocation, even in its absurd dimension, is a healthy principle to make someone go beyond himself, facing the uneasiness, perplexity and destabilization, with the confusion deriving from it, as a way to break the usual patterns of thinking and allow new connections to be established, creating space for new schemes to take place.

Indeed, Kim perceives the problem, she laughs again, a usual strategy, and this time she dodges the issue by convoking the French language as an argument. By learning it with the language, it is not her responsibility anymore, but some vague cultural or institutional authority; it was imposed on her. And when we try to make her conscious of her last avoidance strategy, she suddenly feels very hot, which from our standpoint does not really make sense from an objective standpoint. We can probably say she is now feeling the heat of the discussion. And when we insist by telling her that she has some passive or victim position, “she was made like that”, her faces contracts unhappily and she backs away. We invite her to stay with us, but she accuses us of manipulating her, implying we would have some bad or minimally suspicious intentions, by claiming it is “some kind of rhetoric”.

The mind is a very strange operator. A person is using rhetoric as a way to escape, initially rather unconsciously. As we make her conscious of her functioning, making the tricks rather expensive, the concept of rhetoric surges in her mind, and she uses it, against us, as her last trick. We can call it a sort of projection, projecting our own scheme upon the interlocutor. But in this case, since out client is still rather rational, when confronted to this psychological phenomenon, she rather accepts it, even though her low voice and tense look express some kind of shame or embarrassment. We say Kim is quite rational, because most clients, taken in this situation would rather deny totally or at least resist for a while before acknowledging this kind of tendency in themselves: after all, their whole strategy is based on this technique, revealing its nature makes it totally inoperative.



O: Are you stubborn?

K: I don’t know. It is possible

O: (sighs) It seems you are pulling again the same trick on me, with this possibility? Look, you have lived with yourself for quite a few years, no?

K: Yes

O: So should you know if you are stubborn or no? Or you really don’t know

K: (looking sad) I would like to answer you with the answer…

50 – O: (interrupts) And you are doing the same thing. I am asking you a question and you want to answer me with “I would like to answer you with the answer”. At the very beginning you were answering me, but since a little while you abandoned me. You are not answering anymore and you are using rhetoric. Do you notice it?

K: (smiles sadly) No, I do not realize it

O: (starts to speak)

K: (interrupts) It is because I cannot answer with one hundred per cent certainty

O: Did anyone ask you here to answer with one hundred per cent certitude? And answer me with yes or no

K: When you ask me “yes or no”…

O: (interrupts) If you don’t want to answer my questions I will stop, because I cannot do it anymore. Did anyone ask you here to answer with one hundred per cent certitude?

K: Yes.

O: Give me a term that I used that would indicate that I am asking 100 per cent certitude

K: “Are you stubborn? ”

O: Ok, then when…

K: (interrupts) If I answer with yes…

O: (interrupts) wait, wait. Do you realize now what you are doing? You want to add things, to complicate things.

(During this latter time she has been vigorously agitating a Spanish style fan)

O: You know, it is not an accident that you want to ventilate yourself now. I am glad that you refresh yourself, but do you know what it as well indicates?

K: (doesn’t answer)

O: (picks up a sheet and starts to ventilate himself). If you are talking to someone and he does that, what can it indicate to another person?

K: (shakes her head, showing she doesn’t know)

O: Come one, it is easy. What can it indicate?

K: (doesn’t answer, her face looks sad and stuck)

60 – O: You see, you don’t answer me anymore. If I talked to a child 8 years old, he would have answered me. “If a teacher does that, what do you think happens in her head?”.

K: (doesn’t answer)



We decide to straightforwardly ask Kim if she gets stuck in her own mind, therefore taking a fixed position in the dialogue, what is commonly called being stubborn. First she pleads ignorance, than admits the possibility, a slight progress in her mindfulness, but still resistant. Since she pleads a relative ignorance, we use a familiar trick where the subject is invited someone to consider his life as a whole and make a judgment about himself. This came about by noticing how much people ignored themselves, since when they are asked to determine is they are endowed with some specific quality, they don’t seem to know, or they commonly tell us to ask other people than know them. Just like if those people had more competency or authority, and just like if those people had never told them anything about it, even though they are close to them. Or they answer it depends, referring us to a case-by-case situation, instead of making a judgment on their global personality as a whole. The know thyself is not very popular.

As we are putting more pressure on her t take the risk of answering, she starts wanting to set her own agenda, express her frustration and desire. She realizes her attitude is a problem, since she is giving up on the process, so she looks sad. But she cannot resist trying to say what she would like, the way she would like, undergoing a strong desire to express herself. We don’t let her get away with this abandon, trying to maintain the tension. This results in an interesting outburst on her part, the fascination with the “one hundred per cent certainty”, haunting her mind. “When you ask me yes or no” implies total certitude in the answer!

At this point, we have to outline a phenomenon that we have discovered throughout years of philosophical practice. In our endeavor to invite subjects to answer clearly to our questions, we provide them with some alternative such as “A or B?” or “Yes or no?”, to which they have to answer in a determinate way. Taken aback by the resistance of most people toward this form of question, we tried to investigate the reason for their resistance to something that constitutes a mere exercise. And we discovered, among other reasons, that most people are obsessed with certainty, coupled with a fear of mistake. Thus, when they are asked a question that needs a clear answer, they freeze and cannot answer because they are not “one hundred sure”. Just like if life or thinking had anything to do with certainty! But most human beings have a certain phobia about uncertainty, which is probably why they want guarantees and insurance, and why they are often disappointed with others and themselves. And being this desire for certainty, we see some expectation of perfection, of some earthly paradise, a rather unrealistic perspective that makes their life rather heavy and painful, that makes their relation difficult. Thus, sometimes, we soften the question by asking if it “rather yes or rather no?”, but we realized it does not modify so much the problem.

To make her conscious of the problem, we ask her to give a term I use that would indicate a necessity for the answer to be one hundred per cent certain”. And predictably, she takes the question are you stubborn, that with her perfection scheme she reads unconsciously as: “Are you totally sure that you are stubborn?” For her, it is not a matter of thinking and hypothesis; it is a matter of knowledge and certitude. But through our different questions and her answer, she probably understood the problem, since when we want to question her further, she suddenly interrupts the process, not waiting for the question to come, with the beginning of an explanation starting with a conditional conjunction: “if”. This simple word is characteristic of an attempt to complicate things, to get away from commitment and enter some undetermined process where we get lost in a series of conditional clauses. Of course, there are moments when going shifting fro the categorical to the conditional can be useful, but in other situations like this one it is only an attempt to complicate the course of the dialogue and create confusion in order to protect oneself. We call this the strategy of the octopus, projecting ink in the water in order to blind his enemies and fly the coup.

We in turn interrupt her to make her realize what she is doing. We raise the issue of the refusal to answer and escape the dialogue through the attempt to complicate the discussion. But we notice that she is more vigorously agitating her fan. Her gestures seem so violent that we choose to attract her attention on this behavior, quite revealing of her own internal mental state. We ask her what such a gesticulation would indicate to the interlocutor one would be talking to. But she first remains silent, then nods to answer she does not know, two different ways to refuse consciousness, reflection and dialogue, and remain stuck. As a way to get her out of this slump and invite her to reason, we try to delocalize her thinking, to decenter herself, a strategy we periodically use to help someone escape the trap of his own subjectivity. We invite to person to become someone else, like a little boy, a proposal that sometimes create a mental shift and resolves the problem. But this time, to no avail. She prefers to remain stuck. The wager is too high.



O: So you don’t want to answer me anymore. (looks at the notes). Your question was: “Is long lasting love possible?”. I have been talking for 10 minutes with you, do we see a problem in your functioning that can create a problem for a long lasting love?

K: (nods with a sad look).

O: Yes, right?

K: yes. I don’t dare answer anymore

O: Look at that: “I don’t dare answer anymore”. When someone says it, do you know what she says to the other person?

K: (doesn’t answer)

O: I will translate in vulgar terms. She is saying: “get lost”

K: Not at all! Not at all!

O: Do you know that when you say something, you cannot control the interpretation someone gives to it?

K: For sure

O: I will repeat: “when you say something, you cannot control the interpretation someone gives to it” Do you know that?

K: Yes

O: So when you say something, the other one interprets based on how it appears, or how he feels, but your intentions do not count, the other person does not care here about what you want

K: (shakes her head in a protest) It cannot be the same thing…

O: Well! Do you know that it is rather hard to talk to you?

K: It is the first time…

O: (interrupts) Try to answer. Do you think it is easy to talk to you?

K: In general?

70 – O: Let’s see differently. You know, in my work, I speak with a lot of people, and lead this activity in a number of countries. For example, I do evaluations for businesses where I must make a judgment on how a person is. Do you believe me?

K: Of course, yes

O: Try just yes or no.

K: Yes.

O: Do you think that my judgment could be useful for you?

K: Yes

O: So if I find it difficult to talk to you, do you believe me or not?

K: Yes

O: Am I the first person who tells you “It is difficult to talk to you”? Or someone else has told you before?

K: Yes

O: When this person told you this, you said: “you are right or you are wrong?”

K: (sighs) I didn’t answer

O: Ok. Do you know that not answering to someone is a way to send this person away?

K: (smiles) Yes


We now decide it is time to go back to the initial question. There always comes a moment when this becomes useful, and necessary, since the initial question is after all our anchorage, what we are dealing with, at least formally. In this case, the deadlock in the dialogue we arrive at, coupled with the emotional climax, indicates a good moment for making the shift. We do it in a classical way: we ask if there is connection between the past exchanges and the problem in question. Kim acquiesces with a sad look on her face. We insist to get a clear vocalized answer. This is important for two reasons. First of all to force the person in front not to stay half in himself and be totally present in the dialogue. Second is to induce some consciousness of what is being said, in this case awareness of the affirmation and what it stands for: the connection between the behavior in the dialogue and the question about love. And since some problems clearly showed up, the subject prefers not to think about the connection, not to establish any link: probably they would be too painful.

When the answer is articulated, “yes”, it is accompanied by an interesting comment: “I don’t dare answer anymore”. This statement is rather ambiguous. On one part it means “You are bothering me. You are not letting me speak the way I want. Therefore I won’t speak to you anymore.” But as well it signifies: “This is too painful. I don’t want to get involved in this discussion anymore. I refuse to participate from then on because I am scared.” Does the responsibility lie with the subject or with his interlocutor? The formulation remains vague, but the refusal to discuss is clear. And in general, when there is an ambiguity with no clear orientation toward either possibility, we conserve the option that both make sense simultaneously.

In order to force the issue and clarify the stakes, we choose to radicalize the statement by interpretating primarily as a dismissal of the interlocutor, and observe the reaction of the subject. But she protest, meaning either that she wants to remain polite and well behaved, or that she wants to maintain the dialogue, which for her has probably some interest. But to continue her reflection, which has to deal with relation to other persons, we invite to examine a new angle of it, which is probably a blind spot for her, since she does not see or understand other persons. That is the perception they might have of her behavior. She is so self-centered that she must have no clue about the messages she sends through her way to talk, respond and handle herself. She is full of her desire and intentions, and if she does not see others, she does not see herself. First because she is not used to look at persons from an objective standpoint, that is looking from outside: she only feels her own perceptions. Second because the mirror others incarnate for all of us does not function for her: she ignores what they would tell her about herself. Either she does not listen to their signals, does not understand them, or she forgets them. And when the signals disappear because the persons are gone, she wonders why reality is so cruel and mysterious.

So we try to put forward the idea that there is an objective factual reality of her behavior, and that is what persons perceive, not her inner feelings or intentions. But at this point she seems to be a bit gone. She shakes her head as a sign of protest, and pronounces a cryptic sentence: “It cannot be the same thing”. The probable interpretation we can give of this statement is that reality presented to her does not fit her idea of things, or what she would like this reality to be like. Whatever it is, at this point Kim is folded on herself and being largely emotional. The other is evidently a threat.

So we invite her to wonder about her behavior, just by asking if it is easy or hard to speak to her, although the question is almost rhetorical: the answer is obvious. But she first tries to justify herself by speaking about the “first time”. It is an excuse we hear periodically in our work. When people have a hard time reasoning or admitting things, or get overemotional, they claim that is the first time they do a philosophical consultation. They just ignore or forget that even though this type of dialogue is more tense or formal, it involves the same competencies and attitudes that are necessary on a daily basis to maintain relations, think adequately and function in life. Their claim to the exceptionality of the experience only manifest how little they use those functions in their daily life, a lack which explains their difficulty in the present situation. The second time we ask the question, she answers with another classic. Answering the question with a pretended specification question: “In general?”. Of course, in the absolute, the question could bear about the specificity of the present moment, but most likely it is asked as general principle. The rhetorical trick is here to answer the question with another question. For one, by keeping in mind a quite remote possibility and not going with the most probable interpretation. Second, by trying – or seemingly trying – to ensure oneself about the meaning of the question. It is a way to not take any risk, by being both not thoughtful and not generous, while pretending to be rigorous.

One element of analysis we should give about rhetorical answers is that they are neither a straightforward or honest answer, nor an outright lie. They are a contradictory or paradoxical way to say the truth while not saying it, or to lie while not lying. Such statements – or questions – are often a mixture of truth and honesty with more “impure” elements, often said indirectly to better deceive the listener, or they use irrelevant issues, sliding of meaning, preempting, pretense and other gimmicks. Often rhetorical speech says the truth but on different subject. But in spite of all, in the practice of rhetorical answer, there is a sort of moral concern, be it in reality or in appearance. Blatant lie is an arduous endeavor, morally and cognitively: there is a compulsion to somewhat fit the truth, to coat the lie as much as possible. Be it lie of commission or omission, one feels rather compelled to say something that would at least be possible to accept, something plausible. Although in spite of the disguise, we see the lie, or we can see it. But since social habits prohibit confronting one’s neighbor when he pretends to be “good”, since critical thinking is little practiced, an since by a principle of reciprocity a pact is made whereby fellow citizens as much as possible do not confront each other in the matter of dialogue, in order to maintain peaceful relations, we learn to accept the rhetorical truth, the packaged lie. This way we feel protected.

Since the questioning does not seem to function, we decide to operate more straightforwardly, somewhat using indirectly the argument of authority. So we tell the client we are experienced in making professional judgments. We ask her if she trusts us on this matter. She does, showing her connection to authority. As well she first adds “of course”, to insist on the trust or respect. We ask her to “try yes and no”, as a way to make her conscious of those superfluous words she often uses as a way to prove something and reassure herself. Then we state that it is “difficult to talk to her”, which she believed, and then asked her if anyone had ever told her, to which she responded again by the affirmative. Here we have to mention that this particular question: “Has anyone ever told you that…” is one we use regularly and is rather efficient. The principle behind this question is that whatever strong trait of character we have, has necessarily been remarked by people surrounding us, because it is a noticeable feature and most likely because it must have engendered a relational problem at some point in life. When people deny any such comment from other, I insist: “Father, mother, grandparents, spouse, children, colleague, friend, no one has ever said anything on this matter, in those words or in other words, or even by reactions they had?”. And in general, quickly or with lag, we finally get an “Oh yeah! Now that you mention it!”, periodically with a funny grin. Then we ask them how they said it, which word they used, and if at that moment the subject told them they were right or wrong, to which most admit that they denied the problem at that point, with a certain a posteriori embarrassment. Often this subterfuge touches some visibly important relational issue.

And this is the case with Kim, which readily admits that she was told the problem. Then we a sigh, indicating heaviness or pain, she remembers that she answered nothing, a likely familiar scheme in her life. And she accepts to interpret this behavior as a way to reject the other person. Of course, all this echoes the problems that she encounters in her love life, expressed in her initial question. As often, the point is to make persons realize how they have a way to send away relation partners, sometime coldly and brutally, like in this case, sometimes in a more violent and agitated fashion, to make them see their rejection stratagem, instead of acting and speaking as an important victim.



O: So you have a way of sending people off. When someone tells you there is a problem, you don’t answer him, it is his problem

K: (doesn’t answer, looks pensive)

O: Did you do something of the sort to me?

K: No

O: And if I tell you that you did it many times, you will think it is false, right?

K: (sighs heavily)

80 – O: I will take your sigh as an answer. Does this sigh indicate that there is pain?

K: (doesn’t answer, starts crying)

O: Let’s go back to your question: “Is long lasting love possible?” Is it possible there is a necessary condition for this “long lasting”, called “generosity”?

K: (silence)

O: Do you know generosity?

K: Of course!

O: In your way of talking to another person, do you think you are generous?

K: I don’t know

O: Is it that you don’t know or that you don’t want to give an answer?

K: (Silence)

Do you know what is a performative answer?

K: (shakes her head)

O: It is when you don’t answer with content, or words, but you answer with a gesture, an attitude. And here again you answer with a non-answer.

K: (nods silently)

O: It is the least generous act, when we don’t even answer.

K: (keeps nodding)

O: So I think you have an answer to your question about “the possibility of long-lasting love”, and the answer in your case is “no”, because you are not generous. Does this conclusion surprise you?

K: In words, in gestures?

O: Ok, you don’t want to answer me, no problem. We will stop here. I just want to ask you two or three questions. Did you like our discussion or no?

K: No

O: Tell me, why didn’t you like it?

K: It is not that I didn’t like it…

O: So, did you like it or not?

K: No

90 – O: So let me know why you didn’t like it. It is the last act of generosity I will ask you for today.

K: It is because it hurts (smiles with tears in her eyes)

O: Did some reality appear in our discussion?

K: Yes (keeps crying)

O: But now, when you see it and you notice that there is some reality in in this description, there is a choice to be made. Either we say “It is like that and I will learn to accept it”, or you prefer: “I want to change something”. So what do you want to do?

K: This I don’t know

O: You should know there is a principle in love: taking risks. We don’t know, but we take risk. An act of generosity means to take a risk. Did you know it?

K: No (smiles sadly)

O: So let’s stop here. Do you want to add something else or ask something?

K: No



The Idea of “sending people off” seems to bring memories back to pour client. But when I ask her if she did this to me, she denies, which probably implies that what she did to other persons was harsher than with me, since she is still talking to me. We insist on the repetition feature of the phenomenon, since when a strong feature appears in a personality, the expression of this feature and the problematic consequences it entails must reiterate themselves frequently. The sigh which answers the question confirm the hypothesis, and sates the painful dimension if the affair. A pain that when explicitly stated provokes tears in our client.

Having gathered enough elements on Kim’s functioning, we decide to back to the initial question, and examine what insights we now have on it. If the subject was more lively and responsive, we could ask him to relate her behavior to the question and produce a concept, but this is not case right now. It was doubtful she would give us anything, and such a request would only intensify her doldrums. So we prefer to produce a concept, the one most striking to us at this point, very present through its absence: generosity. For it seems indeed that the act or attitude of “giving” this fundamental dimension of love, is rather absent in her existential dynamic.

We ask Kim if she is generous in the way she speaks to other persons, and she answers: “I don’t know”. Such question indeed can be considered difficult, since we are not used to make general judgments about ourself, and we feel slightly embarrassed about the tension it creates in our conscience when time comes to make such judgment. We can call this the Osiris judgment, or weighing of the heart. The old Egyptian story told hat the soul of the dead was placed on a scale, with a feather of Maat – goddess of truth – on the other side. If the soul was heavier that truth, it would be devoured by a monster, if it was lighter, it would live forever among the blessed in paradise. Thus comes a moment where we have to make a simple and clear assessment on our “whole” or “undivided” being. But when we try to execute such an appraisal, different parameters enter in conflict, rendering difficult or minimally complicating the formulation of such an assessment. Here are some elements of this complexity, without any hierarchical order. The desire to be sincere or truthful. The attempt to give a precise, certain or absolute answer. The difficulty to answer generally about our being and not refer to a case-by-case or situational context. A tendency to be good to ourself, or complacency. A pretention to complication, nuance or depth, repulsive to any simple or clear predication of our being, the attribution of a simple adjective, viewed a reductionist endeavor. The fear or being judged or even condemned by others, or by our own glance. The difficulty to analyze our own functioning. Still, or for these reasons, we find interesting and revealing to ask thus type of question and observe the reaction and answer of the subject. Beside the fact that it is a rather healthy exercise on the path to know ourself, to confront ourself.

One thing we have noticed about the question “Are you X?”, X being some adjective, when persons answer say “I don’t know”, they are bothered, it is something that is a problem and preoccupies them. It is a refusal to answer, rather strong. Stronger still is another answer: “You have to ask others!”. Therefore the issue of generosity is a problem for the subject. As well, we can take the performative dimension of the answer: very few words, no content. “I don’t know” Is not a generous answer, far from it, and that’s the way Kim tends to answer. Either she says what she wants, or she resists, pouts, closes herself. And as often, we try to check the meaning of the answer, through a verification question: “Is it that you don’t know or that you don’t want to give an answer?”, and the ensuing silence confirms the problematic dimension of generosity concept in the life of our client. We tell her the implications of her answers or non-answers from this standpoint and she nods affirmatively. And at this point, we decide, that it is time to stop, since the subject seems to have reached her limits and the discussion has some elements of conclusion.

So we use this absence of generosity as a way to answer the initial question. Starting from the standpoint that love has to do with generosity, the lack of generosity can easily be a reason for the dying out of love. Indeed it is a common feature we have observed in couple ruptures or in family feud: the absence of giving, the tightness of self, the not giving oneself. Unless the other partner – especially women, since men are less good at this “art” – is capable of a strong abnegation attitude and a sense of sacrifice, the absence of generosity makes the relation rather unlivable. When we propose this hypothesis to Kim, she understand rather well the suggestion, it means something to her, since she asks a specification question about the lack of generosity: she wants to know if this means in words or in gestures. Just like if she could escape the question by problematizing it, a typical “intellectual” trick. At the same time, as usual, she found a way not to answer, although she expresses her worry, her insecurity. Visibly, at least one of these two aspects – if not two – shows in her usual behavior a clear lack of unselfishness, kindness, compassion, benevolence, decentration, charity, big-heartedness, free-handedness, goodness or whatever one wants to call a form of altruism.

She did not like the discussion, she says, but there is a “but”. She did not like because it hurts, but when we ask her, she has the courage to admit the truth of what came out, and it hurts because it brings the pain of reality, a cruel reality. We ask our usual question: “Do you want to learn to accept it or do you want to change it?”. There again, mixture of trouble, impotence and lack of generosity, Kim answers “I don’t know”. The “this” just insists on how crazy it is to ask her such question and moreover expect an answer. She tells her she is far from taking such a decision. We propose to her as a last shot that to love is to take risks, and she answers with a sad smile. Visibly, she understood something, which is a bit much for her.

This dialogue with our client is rather asymmetric. Such an encounter naturally tends to be this way, since someone comes for help, advice, coaching, or whatever assistance, and is ready to pay for it. But in this case it is particularly accentuated. We provide most of the content, and when the subject wants to speak it is to move elsewhere, to justify herself or concede a minimum lip service, to look like she is answering. We have to use to the maximum her rare words, although her behavior answers rather more than her words, a rather unusual situation, since interpretation of gestures or demeanor constitutes in general a minimal part of the exercise. We usually function more in the production of ideas and concepts. But in this case, the question initially announced already warned us, the issue is so much about subjectivity that there is not much room for articulation of ideas. We are left working primarily with and attitude problem, with a psychological issue. Although it invisible that our client is following the process, she has access to the reasoning, So in that sense, in spite of the strong emotional dimension of the problematic, we are still engaged in a philosophical work, since the process is largely determined by rationality.

Principles and difficulties of the philosophical consultation

  1. Principles

Philosophical Naturalism

In recent years, a new wind seems to blow on philosophy. In various forms, it has as its constant aim to extirpate philosophy from its purely academic and scholarly framework, where historical perspective remains the main vector. Diversely received and appreciated, this tendency incarnates for some a necessary and vital oxygenation, for the others a vulgar and banal betrayal worthy of a mediocre epoch. Among these philosophical ‘novelties’ emerges the idea that philosophy is not confined to scholarship and discourse but that it is also a practice. Of course, this perspective does not really innovate, insofar as it represents a return to original concerns, to this quest for wisdom that articulated the very term of philosophy; although this dimension has been relatively obscured for several centuries by the ‘learned’ facet of philosophy.

However, despite the ‘already seen’ side of the case, the profound cultural, psychological, sociological and other such changes that separate our era, for example, from classical Greece, radically alter the data of the problem. The Philosophia Perennis is obliged to account for history, its immortality being hardly able to avoid the finiteness of the societies which formulated its problems and its stakes. Thus, the philosophical practice – like philosophical doctrines – must develop the articulations corresponding to its place and time, depending on the circumstances that generate this momentary matrix, even if at the end of the day it does not seem possible to avoid, to leave or to go beyond the limited number of major problems which since the dawn of time have constituted the matrix of all reflection of the philosophical type, whatever may be the external form taken by the articulations.

The philosophical naturalism that we are discussing here is at the center of the debate, in that it criticizes the specificity of philosophy on the historical and geographical level. It presupposes that the emergence of philosophy is not a particular event, but that its living substance nests in the heart of man and lines his soul, even if, like any science or knowledge, certain moments and certain places appear more determinant, more explicit, more favorable, more crucial than others. As human beings, we share a common world – in spite of the infinity of representations which makes this unit undergo a serious barrage – and a common condition or nature – again in spite of the cultural and individual relativism – and we should be able to find, at least in an embryonic way, a certain number of intellectual archetypes constituting the framework of ‘historical’ thought, at least some of its elements. After all, the strength of an idea being based on its operability and universality, every master idea should be found in each of us. Is it not, therein, expressed in other words and perceived from another angle, the very idea of Platonic reminiscence? Philosophical practice, then, becomes that activity which enables everyone to be awakened to the world of ideas that inhabit oneself, just as artistic practice awakens everyone to the world of forms that inhabit us, each according to its possibilities, without all being Kant or of the likes of Rembrandts.

The double requirement

Two specific and common prejudices are to be discarded in order to better understand the approach we are dealing with here. The first prejudice consists in believing that the practice of philosophy – and thus of philosophical discussion – being reserved for a learned elite, the same would apply to philosophical consultation. The second prejudice, unlike the first – its natural complement – consists in thinking that philosophy being, in fact, reserved for a scholarly elite, philosophical consultation cannot be philosophical since it is open to all. These two prejudices express a single fracture; it remains for us to attempt to demonstrate simultaneously that philosophical practice is open to all and that it implies a certain requirement distinguishing it from mere discussion. In addition, we will have to differentiate our activity from psychological or psychoanalytic practice with which we cannot fail to amalgamate it.

First steps

‘Why are you here?’ This inaugural question imposes itself as the first, the most natural, the one that one has to permanently ask to anyone except to oneself. It is unfortunate that any teacher in charge of an introductory course in philosophy does not start his academic year with such naive questions. Through this simple exercise, the pupil, accustomed for years to the routine school, would grasp from the outset the stake of this strange matter which interrogates to the most obvious evidences; the difficulty of actually answering such a question, as well as the wide range of possible answers, would quickly reveal the apparent banality of the question. Of course, for this purpose, one must not to be content with one of these empty responses dropped from the tip of the lips so as to avoid thinking.

During the consultations, many of the first answers are of the kind: “because I do not know much about philosophy”, “because I am interested in philosophy and want to know more”, or “because I would like to know what the philosopher says – or what philosophy says – about…” The questioning must continue without delay, in order to reveal the unacknowledged assumptions of these attempts at answering, not to say those non-responses. This process will not fail to reveal some ideas concerning the subject – the person engaged in the consultation – about philosophy or any other topic discussed, involving him in a position necessary for this practice. Not that it is necessary to know ‘the substance’ of his thought, unlike psychoanalysis, but because it is a question of venturing on a hypothesis in order to work on it.

This distancing is important, for two reasons intimately related to the basics of our work. The first is that truth does not necessarily advance under cover of sincerity or subjective ‘authenticity’, it may even be radically opposed to it; an opposition based on the principle that envy often thwarts reason. From this point of view, it does not matter whether the subject adheres to the idea or not. “I’m not sure what I’m saying (or will say)”, we often hear. But what would one want to be sure of? Is not this uncertainty precisely what will enable us to test our idea, while any certainty would inhibit such a process? The second reason, close to the first, is that a distanciation must be established, necessary for a reflective and posed work, an indispensable condition for the conceptualization which we want to induce. Two conditions which by no means prevent the subject from venturing on precise ideas, he will in fact do it more freely. The scientist will more easily discuss ideas on which he does not inextricably engage his ego, without forbidding that an idea pleases him or suits him more than others.

“Why are you here?” This also amounts to asking: “What is the problem?” “What is the question?” That is, what necessarily motivates the meeting, even if this motivation is not clear or is unconscious at first. It is therefore a matter of carrying out some identification work. Once the hypothesis is expressed and somewhat developed (directly or through questions) the interrogator will propose a reformulation of what he has heard. Generally, the subject will express a certain initial refusal – or a cold reception – of the proposed reformulation: “That is not what I said. That is not what I meant.” It will then be proposed to him to analyze what he does not like in the reformulation or to rectify his own speech. However, he must first clarify whether the reformulation has betrayed the discourse by changing the nature of its content (which must be stated to be possible, since the interrogator is not perfect…), or whether it has betrayed it by revealing, in open daylight, what he did not dare to see and admit in his own words. Here we see the enormous stake that a dialogue with the other poses on the philosophical level: insofar as one accepts the difficult exercise of ‘weighing’ words, the listener becomes a pitiless mirror that sends us hard back to ourselves. The emergence of the echo is always a risk whose scope we do not know.

When what has been initially expressed does not appear to be reformulable, out of confusion or by lack of clarity, the interrogator may without hesitation ask the subject to repeat what he has already said or to express it otherwise. If the explanation is too long or becomes a pretext for a ‘release word’ (associative and uncontrolled), the interrogator will not hesitate to interrupt: “I’m not sure I understand where you are going. I do not quite understand the meaning of your words.” He will then be able to suggest the following exercise: “Tell me in a single sentence what you think is essential. If you had only one sentence to tell me about it, what would it be?” The subject will not fail to express his difficulty with the exercise, especially since he has just demonstrated his disability to formulate a clear and concise word. But it is in the recognition of this difficulty that also begins the consciousness connected with philosophizing.

Anagogy and discrimination

Once the initial hypothesis has been somewhat clarified, as to the nature of the philosophizing which brings the subject to the interview, or on another subject that concerns him, it is now time to launch the process of ‘anagogical return’ described in the works of Plato. The essential elements are what we will call on the one hand ‘origin’ and on the other hand ‘discrimination’. We begin by asking the subject to account for his hypothesis by requiring him to justify his choice. Either by means of origin: “Why such a formulation? What is the point of such an idea?”. Either through discrimination: “What is the most important elements of the various expressed ones?” Or, again: “What is the keyword in your sentence?” This part of the interview is carried out by combining in turn these two means.

The subject will often try to escape from this stage of the discussion by taking refuge in circumstantial relativism or in undifferentiated multiplicity. “It depends […] There are many reasons… All words or ideas are important.” Choosing, forcing to ‘vectorize’ thought, makes it possible, first of all, to identify the anchorages, the ‘refrains’, the constants, the presuppositions, and then to put them to the test. For, after several stages of rise (origin and discrimination), a sort of frame appears, making visible the central foundations and articulations of a thought. At the same time, through the hierarchization assumed by the subject, a dramatization of terms and concepts takes place, which brings out the words of their undifferentiated totality, of the ‘mass’ effect that erases the singularities. By separating ideas from one another, the subject becomes conscious of the conceptual operators by which he discriminates.

Of course, the questioner here has a key role, which is to emphasize what has just been said, so that the choices and their implications do not go unnoticed. He may even insist by asking the subject whether he fully assumes the choices he has just made. However, he must avoid commenting, even if it means to ask some supplementary questions, if he sees problems or inconsistencies in what has just been articulated. The whole idea is to get the subject to freely evaluate the implications of his own positions, to glimpse what is concealed in his thought and thus in thought itself. This slowly extirpates him from the illusion entertained by the feelings of evidence and neutrality, a necessary propaedeutic for the elaboration of a critical perspective, that of opinion in general and that of his own in particular.

Thinking the unthinkable

Once a specific anchor, problem or concept has been identified, the time has come to take the opposite view. This is the exercise we will call ‘thinking the unthinkable’. Whatever the anchoring or the particular theme that the subject has identified as central to his reflection, we ask him to formulate and develop the opposite hypothesis: “If you had a criticism to formulate against your hypothesis, what would it be? What is the most consistent objection you know or you can imagine with regard to the thesis that is close to your heart? What are the limitations of your idea?” Whether love, freedom, happiness, body or anything else is the foundation or the privileged reference of the subject, in most cases he will feel incapable of making such an intellectual reversal. Thinking of such an ‘impossibility’ will have the effect on him of plunging into the abyss. Sometimes it will be the cry of the heart: “But I will not!” Or, again: “This is not possible!”

This moment of clenching serves above all to raise awareness of the psychological and conceptual conditioning of the subject. By inviting him to think the unthinkable, he is invited to analyze, to compare and especially to deliberate, rather than to take for granted and irrefutable this or that hypothesis of intellectual and existential functioning. He then realizes the rigidities that form his thought without his perceiving it. “But, then, one can no longer believe in anything!” He will lament. If, at least during the time of an exercise, for a very short time, wondering if the opposite hypothesis, if the opposite ‘belief’ does not hold the road equally well. Strangely enough, to the surprise of the subject, once he risks this inverse hypothesis, he realizes that it has a lot more meaning than he thought a priori and that in any case it illuminates his hypothesis of departure, from which he succeeded in better understanding the nature and the limits. This experience makes one see and touch the liberating dimension of thought insofar as it allows one to question the ideas on which one unconsciously tense oneself, to distance oneself from oneself, to analyze one’s thought patterns – concerning their form and substance – and to conceptualize one’s own existential stakes.

Switch to ‘First Floor’

By way of conclusion, the subject will be asked to summarize the important parts of the discussion in order to review and summarize the highlights or the significant ones. This will be done in the form of a feedback on the whole exercise. “What happened here?” This last part of the interview is also called ‘moving to the first floor’: a conceptual analysis in opposition to the experience of the ‘ground floor’. From this elevated perspective, the challenge is to act, to analyze the course of the exercise, to assess the stakes, to emerge from the hubbub of action and the thread of the narrative, to capture the essential elements of the consultation, the points of inflection of the dialogue. The subject engages in a metadiscourse about the groping of his thought. This moment is crucial because it is the locus of the sudden awareness of this double functioning (inside/outside) of the human spirit, intrinsically linked to the philosophical practice. It allows for the emergence of the infinite perspective which gives the subject access to a dialectical vision of his own being, to the autonomy of his thought.

Is it philosophical?

What are we trying to accomplish through these exercises? How are they philosophical? How is philosophical consultation different from psychoanalytic consultation? As has already been mentioned, three specific criteria specify the practice in question: identification, criticism and conceptualization. (Let us mention another important criterion: distancing, which, however, we shall not retain as the fourth element because it is implicitly contained in the other three.) In a way, this triple requirement captures quite well what is required in the writing of a ‘dissertation’. In the latter, on the basis of an imposed subject, the student must express some ideas, test them and formulate one or more general problems, with or without the help of the authors. The only important difference concerns the choice of the theme to be treated: here the subject chooses his own object of study – in fact he is the subject and the object of the study – which increases the existential outreach of the reflection, perhaps making the philosophical treatment of this subject even more delicate.

The objection to the ‘psychologizing’ side of the exercise is not to be dismissed too quickly. On the one hand, because the tendency is great in the subject – when faced with a single interlocutor who is dedicated to his listening – to unburden himself without any restraint on his feelings, especially if he has already taken part in interviews of the psychological type. He will also feel frustrated at being interrupted, having to make critical judgments about his own ideas, having to discriminate between his various propositions, and so on. So many obligations that are part of the ‘game’, its requirements and its tests. On the other hand, since, for various reasons, philosophy tends to ignore individual subjectivity, to devote itself especially to the abstract universal, to disembodied notions. A sort of extreme modesty, even puritanism, causes the professional of philosophy to fear public opinion to the point of wanting to ignore it, rather than to see in this opinion the inevitable starting point of philosophizing on everything; whether this opinion is that of the ordinary mortal or that of the specialist, the latter being no less a victim of this ‘sickly’ and fatal opinion.

Thus, our exercise consists firstly in identifying in the subject, through his opinions, the unacknowledged presuppositions from which he operates. This allows to define and to dig the starting point(s). Secondly, to take the opposite side of these presuppositions, in order to transform indisputable postulates into simple hypotheses. Thirdly, to articulate the problems thus generated through identified and formulated concepts. In this last step – or earlier if utility is felt earlier – the interrogator may use ‘classical’ problems, attributable to an author, in order to enhance or to better identify issues that arise during the course of the interview.

It is doubtful, of course, whether a single individual could recreate the whole history of philosophy by himself, just like that of mathematics or language. In addition, why should we ignore the past? We will always be dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. But should we not risk the gymnastics, just watching and admiring the athletes, on the pretext that we are short on legs, or even disabled? Should we just go to the Louvre and not put our hands into clay, on the pretext that our mental functions do not have the agility of those inspired beings? Would it be a matter of disrespect to the ‘great’ if we were to imitate them? Would it not be honoring them, at least as much as by admiring and quoting them? In the end, have they not for the most part enjoined us to think for ourselves?


  1. Difficulties

Our methodology is mainly inspired by the Socratic maieutic, where the philosopher questions his interlocutor, invites him to identify the stakes of his discourse, to conceptualize it by distinguishing key terms in order to implement them, to problematize it through a critical perspective, to universalize its implications. For the sake of comparison, this practice has the specificity of inviting the subject to move away from a mere sensation to allow him a rational analysis of his speech and of himself, a sine qua non condition for deliberating on the cognitive and existential stakes which must be made explicit at first. The removal from oneself that this unnatural activity presupposes, for which it requires the assistance of a specialist, poses a certain number of difficulties which we shall here attempt to analyze here.


The frustrations

Beyond the interest in philosophical practice, there is a regular predominance, at least temporarily, of a negative feeling in the subject, which is most frequently expressed – during the philosophical consultations as well as during the group reflection workshops – as an expression of frustration. First, the frustration of the interruption: since a philosophical conversation is not the place of release or of conviviality, a misunderstood and long speech, or one which ignores the interlocutor, must be interrupted; if it does not feed in the dialogue directly, it is of no use for the interview and has no place in the context of the exercise. Second, the frustration associated with harshness: it is more a matter of analyzing speech than pronouncing it, and everything we have said can be used ‘against us’. Thirdly, the frustration of slowness: it is no more a question of provoking accumulations and jostling of words, we must not be afraid of silences, nor of stopping on a given word in order to fully apprehend its substance, in the double meaning of the term apprehend: to capture and to dread. Fourth, the frustration of betrayal, again in the double meaning of this term: betrayal of our own word which reveals what we do not want to say or know and betray our word that does not say what we mean. Fifth, the frustration of being: not being what we want to be, not being what we believe to be, being dispossessed of the illusory truths that we maintain, consciously or not, sometimes for a very long time, about ourselves, our existence and our intellect.

This multiple frustration, sometimes painful, is not always clearly expressed by the subject. If he is somewhat emotional, susceptible or unwilling to analyze, he will not hesitate to lambaste censorship, or even oppression. “You prevent me from speaking”, while long unused silences, unoccupied by speech, periodically punctuate that same speech which has difficulty in finding itself. Or, “You want me to say what you want”, whereas at each question the subject can answer what suits him, only to the risk of engendering new questions. Initially, frustration often expresses itself as a reproach, however, by becoming verbalized, it makes it possible to become an object for itself; it allows the subject who expresses it to become conscious of himself as an external character. On the basis of this observation, he becomes able to reflect, to analyze his being through testing, to better understand his intellectual functioning, and he can then intervene on himself, both on his being and on his thought. Certainly, the passage through the moment, or through certain moments, imbued with psychological overtones, is difficult to avoid, without, however, dwelling upon it too long, for it is a matter of passing quickly to the subsequent philosophical stage, by means of the critical perspective and by attempting to define a problem and some issues at stake.

Our working hypothesis consists precisely in identifying certain elements of subjectivity, snippets that could be called opinions, intellectual opinions and emotional opinions, in order to take the opposite and to experience ‘other’ thought. Without it, how do we learn to voluntarily and consciously leave conditioning and predetermination? How to emerge from the pathological and the pure felt? Moreover, it may happen that the subject does not have the capacity to carry out this work or even the possibility of considering it, for lack of distance, lack of autonomy, insecurity or because of some strong anxiety, in which case we may not be able to work with him. Just as the practice of a sport requires some minimal physical dispositions, philosophical practice, with its difficulties and demands, requires some minimal psychological dispositions, below which we cannot work.

The exercise must be practiced in a minimum of serenity, with the various pre-conditions necessary for this serenity. Too much fragility or susceptibility would prevent the process from taking place. From the way our work is defined, the causality of a lack in this field is not within our purview, but that of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. By limiting ourselves to our function, we cannot go to the root of the problem, we could only notice and draw consequences. If the subject does not seem to be able to practice the exercise, even though he feels the need to reflect on himself, we will encourage him to move rather towards psychological consultations or at the very least towards some other types of philosophical practices, more ‘flowing’. To conclude, as far as we are concerned, as long as it remains limited, the psychological passage has no reason to be avoided, since subjectivity does not have to play the role of a scarecrow with sparrows, even if a certain philosophical approach, rather academic, considers this individual reality as an obstruction to philosophizing. The formal and chilly philosopher is afraid that, by rubbing against it, the distanciation necessary for philosophical activity is thus lost, whereas we take the option of making it emerge.

Speech as a pretext

One aspect of our practice which is problematic for the subject is the relationship to speech which we are trying to set up. Indeed, on the one hand, we ask the subject to sacralize speech, since we allow ourselves to carefully weigh together the least term used, since we allow ourselves to dig from within, together, the expressions used and the arguments put forward, to the point of making them sometimes unrecognizable for their author, which will cause him from time to time to scream to scandal on seeing his word thus manipulated. And, on the other hand, we ask him to desacralize speech, since the whole of this exercise is composed only of words and that whatever the sincerity or the truth of what it advances: it is simply a matter of playing with the ideas, without necessarily adhering to what is said. Only the coherence, the echoes that are reflected in words between each other, interest us, the mental silhouette that emerges slowly and imperceptibly. We simultaneously ask the subject to play a simple game, which implies a distancing from what is conceived as the real, and at the same time to play with words with the greatest seriousness, with the greatest application, with more efforts than he generally puts in constructing his discourse and in analyzing it.

Here, truth goes masked. It is no longer a truth of intention, it is no longer sincerity and authenticity, it is a requirement. This requirement obliges the subject to make choices, to assume the contradictions unveiled by working on the clutter of speech, even if to carry out radical frontal reversals, even if to move abruptly, even if refusing to see and to decide, even if one were to be silent before the many cracks which allow us to envisage the most serious abysses, the fractures of the self, the gaping of being. No other quality is necessary here in the interrogator and, little by little, in the subject, except that of a policeman, of a detective who tracks down the slightest failures of speech and behavior, which demands one to account for each act, for each place and every instant.

Of course, we may be mistaken in the fact that the discussion has changed, which remains the prerogative of the interrogator, the undeniable power that he has and must assume, including his indisputable lack of neutrality despite his efforts in that sense. The subject may also be ‘misled’ in the analysis and ideas he puts forward, influenced by the questions he is subjected to, blinded by the convictions he wishes to defend, guided by biases for which he has already opted-in and on which he would perhaps be incapable of deliberating: ‘over interpretations’, ‘misinterpretations’ or ‘sub-interpretations’ are flourishing. No matter these mistakes, apparent mistakes or alleged mistakes. What matters to the subject is to stay alert, to observe, to analyze and to become aware; his mode of reaction, his treatment of the problem, his way of reacting, his ideas that emerge, his relation to himself and to the exercise, everything must here become a pretext for analysis and conceptualization. In other words, making mistakes here does not make much sense. It’s all about playing the game, practicing gymnastics. What matters is only to see and not to see, consciousness and unconsciousness. There are no more good and bad answers, but there is ‘seeing the answers’, and if there is deception, it is only in the lack of fidelity of the word towards itself, not anymore in relation to some distant truth pre-written on the background of a starry sky or in some subconscious shallows. Nevertheless, this fidelity is doubtless a more terrible truth than the other, more implacable: it is no longer possible to disobey, with all the legitimacy of this disobedience. There can only be blinding.

Pain and epidural

The subject quickly becomes aware of the issues at stakes in the case. A sort of panic can thus set in. For this reason, it is important to install various types of ‘epidural’ for the ongoing delivery. First, the most important, the most difficult and the most delicate, remains the indispensable dexterity of the interrogator, who must be able to determine when it is appropriate to press an interrogation and when it is time to pass on, when it is time to say or to propose rather than to question, when it is time to alternate between the rough and the generous. It is a judgment not always easy to emit, because we easily allow ourselves to be carried away in the heat of action, by our own desires, those wanting to go to the end, to arrive at a certain place, those linked to fatigue, linked to despair, and many other such personal inclinations.

Second, the humor, the laughter, related to the playful dimension of the exercise. They induce a sort of ‘letting go’ which allows the individual to free himself from his existential drama and to observe without pain the derisory of certain positions to which he sometimes clings with a touch of ridicule, when it is not in the most blatant contradiction with himself. Laughter releases tensions that otherwise could completely inhibit the subject in this highly corrosive practice.

Third, the duplication, which allows the subject to come out of himself, to consider himself as a third person. When the analysis of one’s own discourse goes through a perilous moment, when the judgment encounters issues that are too heavy to bear, it is useful and interesting to transpose the case studied to a third person by inviting the subject to visualize a film, to imagine a fiction, to hear his story in the form of a fable. ‘Suppose you read a story where it is said that…’ ‘Suppose you meet someone, and all you know about him is that…’ This simple narrative effect allows the subject to forget or relativize his intentions, his desires, his wills, his illusions and disillusions, in order to deal solely with speech, as it arises during the discussion, allowing it to perform its own revelations without permanently erasing it by heavy suspicions or with patent accusations of insufficiency and betrayal.

Fourth, the conceptualization, the abstraction. By universalizing what tends to be perceived exclusively as a dilemma or as a purely personal issue, by problematizing it, by dialectizing it, the pain gradually diminishes as the intellectual activity begins. Philosophical activity itself is a sophrology, a ‘consolation’ of sort. It was considered as such by the Ancients, like Boethius, Seneca, Epicurus or more recently by Montaigne. It is a balm which allows us to better consider the suffering intrinsically linked to human existence, and ours in particular.


  1. Exercises

Establishing connections

Some additional exercises are very useful for the reflection process. For example, the exercise of the connection. It allows the discourse to emerge from its ‘flow of consciousness’ side which functions purely through free associations, by abandoning to the darkness of the unconscious the articulations and joints of thought. The link is a concept all the more fundamental because it deeply touches the being, since it links the different facets, the different registers. A ‘substantial link’, says Leibniz. ‘What is the connection between what you are saying here and what you are saying there?’ Apart from the contradictions which will be revealed by this interrogation, so will the ruptures and jumps which signal nodes, blind points, whose conscious articulation allows the discourse to work closely with the spirit of the subject. This exercise is one of the forms of the ‘anagogical’ approach, which makes it possible to go back to unity, to identify the anchoring, to update the point of emergence of the thought of the subject, even if only to later criticize this unity, even if it is necessary to modify this anchoring. It makes it possible to establish a sort of conceptual map defining a pattern of thought.

True Speech

Another exercise is that of ‘true speech’. It is practiced when a contradiction has been detected, insofar as the subject accepts the term ‘contradictory’ as an attribute of his thought, which is not always the case: certain subjects refuse to envisage it and deny, by principle, the mere possibility of a contradiction in their speech. By asking which one is the true discourse – even if, at the generally staggered moments in which they are spoken, they are expressed as sincerely as the other – the subject is invited to justify two different positions which are his, to evaluate their perspective, to compare their relative merits, to deliberate in order to finally decide in favor of the primacy of one of the two perspectives, a decision which will lead him to become aware of his own functioning and of the fracture which animates him. It is not absolutely necessary to decide, but it is advisable to encourage the subject to risk it, for it is very rare if not impossible to meet a real lack of preference between two distinct visions, with the epistemological consequences which are derived from it. The notions of ‘complementarity’ or of ‘simple difference’ commonly used in everyday language, although they hold their share of truth, often serve to erase the real, somewhat conflicting and tragic, stakes of any singular thought. The subject may also try to explain the reason of the discourse which is not the ‘true’ one. Often, it will correspond to the expectations, moral or intellectual, which he believes to be perceiving in society, or even to a desire which he considers illegitimate; a discourse revealing of a perception of the world and of a relation to authority or to reason.


Another exercise, that of ‘order’. When the subject is asked to give reasons, explanations, or examples of any of his words, he will be asked to assume the order in which he enumerated them. Especially the first element of the list, which will be related to the subsequent elements. Using the idea that the first element is the most obvious, the clearest, the safest and therefore the most important in his mind, he will be asked to assume this choice, usually unconscious. Often, the subject will rebel to this exercise, refusing to assume the choice in question, denying this offspring born in spite of himself. By agreeing to assume this exercise, he will have to account for the presuppositions contained in a particular choice, whether he adheres to it explicitly, implicitly or not at all. At worst, as with most consultation exercises, it will accustom him to decode any advanced proposition, in order to grasp its epistemological content and to glimpse the concepts conveyed, even if would dissociates himself from the idea somehow.

Universal and singular

On the whole, what do we ask of the subject who wishes to question himself, the one who wishes to philosophize from and about his own existence and to think about himself? He must learn to read, to read himself, to learn to transpose his thoughts and to learn to transpose himself through himself; a duplication and alienation which require the loss of self through a passage to infinity, by a leap into pure possibility. The difficulty of this exercise is that it will always be a matter of erasing something, of forgetting, of momentarily blinding the body or the mind, the reason or will, desire or morality, pride or placidity. In order to do this, the speech of occasion, the speech of circumstance, the speech of space-filling or of appearance must be silenced: either the word assumes its charge, its implications or its content, or it learns to be silent. A word that is not ready to assume its own being, in all its scope, a word that is not eager to become conscious of itself, no longer has to present itself to the light, a game in which only the conscious has the right of city, theoretically and tentatively at least. Obviously, some will not want to play the game, considered too painful, the word here being too heavily charged with meaningful stakes.

By forcing the subject to select his speech, by referring him back to the image he deploys, through the reformulation tool, it is a question of installing a procedure in which the speech will be the most revealing possible. This is what happens through the process of universalization of the particular idea. Of course it is possible and sometimes useful to follow the paths already traced, for example by quoting authors, but it is then the rule to assume the content as if it were exclusively ours. Although the authors can serve to legitimize a fearful position or to trivialize a painful position. Moreover, what are we trying to do, if not to find in each singular discourse, as unpopular as it may be, the great problems, stamped and codified by illustrious predecessors? How is articulated, in everyone, the absolute and the relative, monism and dualism, body and soul, analytic and poetic, finite and infinite, etc. This happens at the risk of creating a feeling of treason, for one can hardly bear to see his cherished word treated thus, even by oneself. It creates a feeling of pain and of dispossession, like the one who would see his body being operated upon even though all physical pain would have been annihilated. Sometimes, sensing the consequences of an interrogation, the subject will try by all means to avoid answering. If the interrogator persists in a roundabout way, a sort of answer will doubtless emerge, but only at the moment when the stake has disappeared behind the horizon, so much so that the subject, reassured by this disappearance, will not know how to establish a link with the initial problem. If the interrogator recapitulates the steps in order to re-establish the thread of the discussion, the subject can then accept or not to see, as the case may be. It is a crucial moment, although the refusal to see can sometimes be only verbal: the path cannot have failed to trace some kind of imprint in the mind of the subject. By a purely defensive mechanism, the latter will sometimes try to verbally make any work of clarification or explanation impossible. But he will not be less affected during his reflections later on.

Accepting the pathology

As a conclusion on the difficulties of philosophical consultation, let us say that the main test lies in the acceptance of the idea of ​​pathology taken in the philosophical sense. Indeed, any singular existential posture, a choice that is more or less consciously made over the years, for many reasons makes the impasse on a certain number of logics and ideas. Basically, these pathologies are not infinite in number, although their specific articulations vary enormously. But, for those who experience them, it is difficult to conceive that the ideas on which they center their existence are reduced to the simple, almost predictable, consequences of a chronic weakness in their capacity for reflection and deliberation. Yet, is not the ‘thinking by oneself’ advocated by many philosophers an art that is worked and acquired, rather than an innate talent, a given, which would no longer have to reflect back unto itself? It is simply a matter of accepting that human existence is in itself a problem, burdened with dysfunctions which nevertheless constitute its substance and dynamics.

The Art of Questioning

The Art of Questioning


  1. The role of the master


If we were to summarize the role of the professor of philosophy by a single function, we would say that it is to introduce the student to the art of questioning, the founding act and the historical genesis of philosophizing. Philosophy is a process of reflection, a treatment of thought, before being a culture, which is only its product, its matter or means. (Although we can just as blithely assert the opposite, reversing the end and the means). As with all art, this process results from an attitude, it is based on it. However, in the absolute, as Plato suspects, an attitude cannot be taught, which should lead us to affirm that we cannot teach philosophy. At the same time, this attitude can be discovered, one can become aware of it, one can feed it; so, it will be stated in the same way that the philosophical approach can be taught. The term ‘attitude’ derives from the same Latin origin as ‘aptitude’, of agere, which means ‘to act’: disposition and capacity are intimately connected with one another, as well as with action, of which both are conditions. The philosophical fiber must therefore be supposed to be present in the pupil, to pretend to teach philosophy, as well as the aesthetic feeling, to teach painting or music. Here, the Aristotelian tabula rasa is reductive, presupposing to fill a void with knowledge, which advocates the conception of philosophy as transmission, a conception widely spread in the institution. The presuppositions of Socratic maieutic are different: only the divine spark which nests in the heart of every human being, whether it is to enliven or to revive, is the only one that operates.

But it can also be assumed that philosophy is above all a sum of knowledge, if one assumes this encyclopaedic vision and its consequences. Similarly, let us ask whether philosophy is a codified practice, dated historically, geographically connoted, or whether it belongs by nature to the human mind, in all its generality. The problem rests in the same way as to its origin. At the same time, can we honestly, without blinking, claim to be without a father or mother, believe to proceed from spontaneous generation? Little naive beings who would only know the song of the birds and the strawberries of the woods, but would be creative and conceptual. Why deny what our ancestors bequeathed or imposed on us? Did they not try to teach us to question? Unless for this precise reason they deserve to be relegated to the dungeons.


  1. Nature and culture

We are therefore obliged to confess the presuppositions from which we operate, when we summarize philosophy as an art of questioning. Philosophy is for us inherent in man, but the one or the other, according to circumstances, have more or less developed this natural faculty. Tools have been produced in the course of history, which we have inherited, but no more than technical progress makes man an artist, established philosophical concepts do not make man a philosopher. Thus, the art of questioning, which embodies the legacies of history, an art which would have no reason to ignore the works of the predecessors, favors the emergence of philosophy. For, if we have denounced the encyclopaedic and bookish temptation of philosophy, we must also warn against the other form of tabula rasa: that which purports to make the economy of history to favor, it says, the emergence of an authentic and personal thought. Between these two pitfalls, it seems to us necessary to draw a path, in order to guide our own steps, in order to encourage each teacher not to neglect either the pupil’s abilities or the inheritance of the elders. For, if it has seemed necessary to condemn philosophical cramming and the great abstract and pontifical discourses, it seems equally urgent to condemn the discourse of philosophizing without philosophy, which tends to glorify singular or collective thought under the pretext that it is made of flesh and bone, real and alive, and that it owes nothing to anyone.

Let us propose the following paradox: philosophical art, or the art of questioning, is the art of knowing nothing, or the art of wanting to know. A question that states a discourse is not a question. The more the discourse states, the less it questions. How many teachers pretend to ask a question of their pupils, by questions so laborious, so charged, so heavy, that they stun the student, who can only answer yes, by lip service, by politeness, or because he is impressed by the erudition so deployed, or because he has understood nothing of the so-called question. The first criterion of a good question is that it does not want to demonstrate or teach directly: it must be conscious of its own ignorance, believe it, display it, seek by all means to escape the knowledge from which it emanates. Like an arrow that has to prune its empennage to really strike. The more refined it is, the greater its range. The more it penetrates its target.

To practice this art, every interlocutor is good: the mind blows where it wants, whenever it wants, as it wants, the whole idea is to listen and to know how to hear. It is for this latter reason that our artist cannot be an ignorant, but can only practice the art of ignorance, in order to refine his hearing skills. He knows how to split himself, to cast himself in the abyss, to abstain from himself, what his pupil does not know, and who, moreover, believes he knows even if he knows nothing, even when he does not know. He believes he knows what he knows, whereas the philosopher educator knows that he himself does not know what he knows. Already, because he never sufficiently knows what he knows, the implications and consequences of which he still does not know, because he does not perceive all the contradictions. On the other hand, because he knows that what he knows is false, because it is partial, it is partial and vague. This opacity does not worry him much, for he knows that absolute speech, totally transparent to itself, does not exist, or cannot be articulated. But, at the same time, it obliges him to listen, to grant a true status to this indefinite multiplicity that constitutes humanity, always to expect everything from everyone.

Yet, if our philosopher knows nothing, he must know how to recognize, and in this redoubling of knowledge about itself all the difference is nested. One cannot question if one recognizes nothing, if one does not know how to seek and recognize. The questions will be awkward, odd, devoid of vigor, decentered, general, even out of place, and they will not really hear what is being answered. To be able to recognize, you must be armed, your eyes and your ears must be seasoned. He who has never opened his eyes, he who has not learned, is not on the watch. He cannot be on the lookout. For, it is by learning that one learns to learn. To be alert in the woods, one must appreciate the various rustling in the foliage, the various songs of birds, the varieties of mushrooms edible or not. Otherwise, we will not see anything, we will hear nothing, nothing but noises, colors, shapes, indistinctly. We will not seek to know if we do not recognize forms.


  1. Typical questions


Thus, our teacher of philosophy has a dual function: to simultaneously teach knowledge and ignorance, or knowledge and non-knowledge, for those whom this term of ignorance worries. But, if some teachers focus on knowledge, others specialize in non-knowledge. Both think they teach, and both teach, but do they teach philosophy? And do they philosophize? Absolutely, it does not matter, and we continue our journey. Let us see what questioning consists in, and see in what consists the role of the teacher of philosophy. Let us therefore take a few typical, recurring questions throughout the history of philosophy. Recurring, no doubt because they are of the utmost urgency, of the greatest banality and of the greatest efficiency. But we must still be sensitive to it.


What is it all about?

As we have already stated, the first condition of action is attitude, the cousin of aptitude. So, as with a sport, as with a song, it is a question of putting oneself in a good position, in a good disposition, both to allow philosophy and also to work on what is the foundation of it. In this first stage, which is indispensable, some pupils will exhibit severe handicaps, which cannot be ignored or disregarded as if nothing had happened. To philosophize, it is necessary to pose the thought. If this attitude must be provoked by the teacher, it is because it is not natural. Indeed, in general, there reigns in the mind of man, child or adult, a certain hubbub, whose outward and verbal manifestation is but a pale reflection. In order to pose the mind, it is first of all a question of asking for a silence, or of demanding it, according to the degree of ‘violence’ implied by the nature of the group. Then, the request is made to contemplate an idea, to reflect on a question, to meditate on a text, to reflect without expressing anything. “What is it all about?” He asks himself. Finally, in a third time, to express an idea to oneself, orally or in written format. Knowing that if it is orally, it is a matter of asking for the floor and waiting for his turn. And, as soon as someone speaks, there’s no reason anyone else should keep his arm up. A fourth step, which is a reversal, may be a request for verification by an author or by the auditors as to the relevance of the remarks made. Are they clear? Do they correspond to the instructions? Do they answer the question? It is not a question of entering into problems of agreement or disagreement, but merely of examining whether, on the formal plane, the remarks are adequate, in order to verify whether the thought is at the ‘rendez-vous’. The requirement is to precisely identify a content.

Examples of questions asked to clarify the situation: “Does the answer answers the question asked or another question?”; “In your opinion, is your answer clear to your listeners?”; “Does what has been expressed satisfy the instructions given?”; “Did you answer the question or give an example?”. The problems posed here are those of the relationship of meaning, coherence, nature and clarity of speech. They ask to identify what is happening, to verify its nature and content. This going back to one’s own thought, the analysis that one makes of it, constitutes the first entry into philosophizing.



The second question, the foundation of thought, is the ‘why?’ ‘. Asking ‘Why?’ is to pose the problem of the finality of an idea, its legitimacy, its origin, its proofs, its rationality, and so on. It can be used in all its forms, without any need for specification, and the pupils have understood this well, who use it as a system: “Why do you say that?” A very undifferentiated question, it asks everything and, as a result, it does not ask anything. But, it is useful because it introduces pupils, especially the younger ones, to this dimension of the hereafter or of the below of the discourse. Nothing comes from nothing. The why implies genesis, causality, motive, motivation, and to work this dimension we accustom ourselves to justify automatically our arguments, to argue them, in order to grasp their deeper content. It makes us aware of our thought and of our being, for which every particular idea is only the pale reflection or roughness from which we can practice the escalation of mind and being.


Example or idea?

The first tendency of the child, as often of the adult, is to express himself by an example, by a narration, by the concrete: “It is like when…” “For example…” “There are some who…” Plato describes this natural process of the mind, which tends to proceed from one case to several cases, then to finally access the general idea. To ask the child what is the idea underlying his example, to ask him whether the case is specific or not, is to ask him to articulate the process of generalization of his intuition, formalizing it; to ask him to move on to the stage of abstraction. An idea is not an example, although they contain and support each other. In the same way, certain ready-made generalities also represent a short-circuit of thought, a concept without intuition, Kant would say. No intuition without a concept, no concept without intuition, he enjoins us.


Even or other?

To think philosophically is to think about the link. Everything is bound up in human thought, everything is distinct. A dialectic of the same and of the other to which Plato invites us. All that is different is even, everything even is different: no relation is possible without community and distinction. But, then, everything rests in the articulation or in making this relation explicit, in the proportionality of community and difference, framed by a context. Nothing can avoid the judgment, always questionable and revisable. For, in order for a real reflection to take place, it is a question of not repeating oneself indefinitely, unless for consciously re-examining. Nor is there any question of repeating, without being conscious of repeating. What is the relation between an idea and that which precedes it? To build, to dialogue, ideas must be aware of each other, to take charge of each other. Is the content nearly the same? What is the nature of difference, that of contradiction? What does what I say or what I have just said say about what has already been said? On what concepts are the stakes or the similarities grounded? These are the questions that must accompany any new formulation of ideas. Questions that can only be dealt with in relation to a specific context. With two possible pitfalls. Either distinctions will always be possible, the trap of the nuance to infinity. Or, everything is connected, united, beginning with the opposite with its opposite, a sort of fusional drive.


Essential or accidental?

A powerful distinction proposed by Aristotle. To think is to sift through what comes to mind, preferably before we say it. Without that, we speak, we say what passes through our head, but we do not think, or then in a very vast and fuzzy sense. It is above all to discriminate what comes to mind, according to the degree of pre-eminence, importance, efficiency, beauty, truth, etc. To ask whether an idea is essential or accidental is to invite an axiology, or to explicate it, because every thought operates from a hierarchy and a classification of priorities, however unconscious or unspeakable. The essential is also the invariant, which means that an entity, a thing, an idea or being, holds a certain quality, not in an ancillary but in a fundamental way, which belongs to the essence. Does one thing remain what it is without this predicate, or does it become something else? The fruit grows in the trees, but can a fruit not grow in a tree? Is any quality or predicate granted to an entity really necessary? Is it also valid for a radically different entity? These are questions which reflect on the nature of things, ideas and beings, on their definitions, their differences and their respective values.


What is the problem?

Once we have an idea, we can wonder about its degree of universality. To do this, it is necessary to think of the exception, an exception which has the right to be because it can both disprove and confirm the rule. It invalidates it because it deprives it of its degree of absolute, it confirms it because it determines its limits. This treatment characterizes the scientific approach, according to Popper, according to which the fallibility of a proposition establishes scientificity and protects the religious schema, which is based on incontestable propositions. All that belongs to reason is debatable: the absolute word belongs to the act of faith. Knowing the limits of generality is tantamount to grasping the profound reality of it, and above all, not to fear the objection, but to desire it. So, for any proposed idea, let us ask from the outset where the fault is, positing as a starting postulate that it necessarily exists and must be identified. Moreover, the emergence of any singularity will allow us to reach another degree of universality, some new hypotheses.


  1. To give the example


In the beginning, the teacher somewhat monopolizes the questioning function, in order to set an example, in order to set the tone, to inspire rigor, but promptly, he invites the students to undertake this task. Little by little the pupils are initiated, some quickly, others slowly. The role of the teacher is to be a foreigner, like the one staged by Plato in his late dialogues, whose only patronym is the ‘Stranger’. The stranger is one who takes nothing for granted, one who does not accept any habit, one who does not know the pact and does not recognize it. The pupil becomes accustomed to becoming a stranger to himself, a stranger to the group, not to seek protective fusion, recognition, or agreement of any kind. He is not there to reassure, neither the others nor himself, he leaves it to the psychologist or the parents. He is there to disturb, to provoke that anxiety which is inherent in thought, the living substance of thought, as Leibniz says.

But to induce philosophy, one must philosophize. The teacher who wishes to make his pupils philosophize cannot claim in this respect any extra territoriality, exempt from requirements and reflection. He must therefore philosophize himself, and also become a stranger. If he does not get used to loving, desiring and producing what does not belong to him, how could he engender philosophy in his class? It would therefore hardly be understood that he would not seek a minimum of what our famous ancestors had been saying. Certainly, their speeches are not always easy to read or to understand, and they are not all exciting. Especially since we can all have subjects of predilection. But, if ignorance becomes a posture, in search of justification, which would claim to be a spontaneous philosopher, ready to marvel at infantile or adolescent speech as a substitute for thought, then imposture is not far off. Sapere aude! Called the teacher, as Kant to his pupils, without putting into practice this imperative. “Dare to know!” Said he, but his acts will betray him. What energy does he convey, if he pleases himself with letting erroneous words go unrecorded or being vaguely associative? From time to time, maybe, some stroke of genius occurs, by some mysterious chance, but no mastery emerges, as consciousness is hardly solicited. If there is no rigor in the treatment of thought, the teacher necessarily opposes the thought of the pupils to the knowledge inculcated in class, in mathematics for example, where it is a matter of reporting the result by a process. It will therefore have created a pleasant place of exchange, useful perhaps, but without allowing everyone to accede to the universality of his purpose. For, only the approach is validating, of what otherwise remains an opinion. But an approach cannot be accidental. The process demystifies, it releases, insofar as the mind deliberates in full knowledge of the cause. And, to deliberate, if the human mind will never be reducible to defined processes, just as in mathematics, there are processes that are better known. Why not take advantage of the past? If it is fun to try to recreate mathematics, it is at least as fun to do so by relying on what has already been done.

One can think indefinitely about the procedures to be set up, about their subtleties and complexities, about the multiple rules of discussion, about the psychological and affective dimensions of the case, even if philosophizing remains above all an art of questioning which, like all art, uses techniques and knowledge that condition the emergence of creativity and genius. Attitude and aptitudes are the conditions of action. But why disregard what is, what is given?

If we love problems, nothing else can alienate us. It is then that one becomes the stranger, because habit does not like problems, it appreciates above all the certainties and the evidences. To love problems, for their contribution to truth, for their beauty, for their ‘mise en abyme’ of the being, for their aporetic dimension, is to love difficulty, strangeness, and question. In this, it is an education of emotions: to go beyond the urgency of expression, the rigidity of opinion, the fear of the problem, in order to allow the mind to no longer revel in immediacy, to interrogate the subject on the basis of what emerges from the world, and not from nothing, from arbitrary and frozen rules or from some academic reading grid.

Who are you? Asks us Socrates. Do you exist? Nagarjuna asks us. Do you know what you say? Asks Pascal. Where do you get that evidence? Asks Descartes. How can you know? Kant asks us. Can you think otherwise? Hegel asks us. What material conditions make you speak thus? Marx asks us. Who speaks when you speak? Nietzsche asks us. What desire animates you? Freud tells us. Who do you want to be? Sartre asks us. Why not let yourself be questioned? And to whom do we pretend to speak when we do not want to hear these questions? Unless we prefer to discuss only between ourselves.