Ten principles of the philosophical exercise

Ten principles of the philosophical exercise


  1. To play the game

For any game, any practice, as for any exercise, rules are to be installed, rules that involve specific requirements and constraints, rules that call for special skills. A game is not a simple outlet: it challenges through rules. Rules that must be articulated, proposed, defined, understood, used, imposed, without forgetting to constantly review them. Indeed, the rules are worth only what they are worth, accomplish only what they accomplish, nothing more. According to circumstances, individuals or demands of the moment, according to expectancy and many other parameters, the rules will be better reviewed, renewed, adapted, rectified, relaxed, abandoned, and so on. Moreover, the rules can – or must – be an integral part of the discussion: they will be debated periodically, by a debate on debate, an essential element of the reflexive and dialectical perspective that we favor here. For, not only do the rules vary, but from one ‘animator’ to another, whether he is a teacher or a pupil, similar rules take a different turn, depending on the rigor of the application of some aspects rather than others.

Let us not forget that rules have a content: they orient the functioning of the pupil and his thought in one direction rather than in another, they try to palliate one difficulty rather than another. Thus, if pupils have difficulty expressing themselves through timidity, because of a difficult class context or by any language handicap, the emphasis will be more naturally put on the simple operation of articulating ideas rather than on the capacity for abstraction or explanation. The affirmation will be privileged in relation to the questioning, and in fact the teacher will reserve by default the role of the interrogation. Similarly, for conceptualization or problematization: the teacher will, depending on the situation, be obliged to carry out the work of valorization of the singular speech to the degree he deems appropriate. Sometimes he will have to work mainly on the vocabulary, or on the logical arrangement of the sentence, because the words and phrases used will suffer from too great a gap in their use or in their comprehension. From time to time, the implementation of the elementary principles of behavior, such as speaking in turn, will constitute most of the work, especially at the beginning of the year. But, since it is a matter of taking children where they are, as they are, this will not be a problem in itself, unless one wants to speed up the maneuver too quickly, for reasons of personal or administrative expectations, which easily interfere with the operation of the workshop.

However, let us not forget that these basic rules, rather than being perceived as a chore and pure disciplinary formalism, can very well be presented as a game, and can win to be so. If, at first, these requirements of form encounter a certain resistance, this resistance gradually diminishes, proportionally to the capacity to assimilate and to put into practice the obligations, according to the ability to take pleasure in playing with these constraints. As with chess or cards, it is a matter of passing the arid stage where we must appropriate the data of the game in order to be able to actually play. For the majority of children, such a constraint never presents a big problem in itself, even though these rules represent a certain challenge: more than adults, they are animated by the instinct of the game, they do not yet believe too much in what they do, their functioning is not yet too over-invested by a desire for appearance and various existential fears: they still know how to trust. What would be a real problem, however, would be an inappropriate set of rules, aimed at skills that are too foreign to the students concerned. It is therefore a question of maintaining a permanent tension between demand and impossibility: to place one step forward, not one step too far. This is the famous principle of Lev Vygotski called ‘proximal zone of development’. In this sense, the making and use of rules of functioning as a primary teaching tool is already an art in itself, to which the teacher will not necessarily be prepared, initiated or even disposed. An art that is never reduced to recipes, but necessarily results from the continuity of a practice.

To facilitate this appropriation of the rules of operation, it is important to insist on their playful and questionable dimension. They are playful in the sense that they do not constitute a kind of truth or absolute good. They represent only a means of playing. They are debatable in the sense that they have a ‘raison d’être’, and there are so many reasons for not being, that is to say, to be suppressed or replaced by other rules, which it is possible to discuss in all serenity. It is in this perspective that we can talk about knowing and understanding the rules. For they are no longer merely the product of a regal power, that of a master with mysterious power, but the product of reason, a reason or a contractual and questionable, even arbitrary arrangement. Consequently, they can be the subject of reflection, instead of soliciting membership alone or provoking refusal. What is a game? A collective (or individual) exercise enabling everyone to confront each other and himself, through any procedure involving specific skills. The law is no longer an end in itself, it is no longer the dura lex sed lex which derives its substance and legitimacy from its hardness, but a mere means of existing, because it offers to the being a possibility of doing and being. Such a perspective invites generosity, rather than the punitive harshness of simple discipline.

Playing the game refers to another issue: the construction of knowledge. Indeed, if knowledge is not constituted a priori, where does it come from? How does it emerge? Playing the game already implies that knowledge is a practice, a know-how, and not a set of theoretical knowledge established a priori, that is to be reproduced. Knowledge is the result of a know-how, rather than being perceived as the prerequisite of this know-how. We forget too quickly that knowledge is born of thought. Certainly, any implementation presupposes a certain knowledge, even if it is only that of a minimal language in the exercise which concerns us, but rather than worrying about making the students formally acquire these prerequisites – which can be done besides, at other times – let’s launch them into the exercise. This bet of dynamics will enable all teachers and students to evaluate the skills and weaknesses of each other and to determine what to do next.

What we are talking about here is a journey. The required procedures invite the group to summon what they know, to use this knowledge, to perceive its limitations, to identify the needs and, as the case may be, to solve the problems and obstacles that present themselves by mobilizing new ideas and new concepts. Even if the participant is left with the mere perception of the problem, the work would be accomplished, which consists in arousing a need for knowledge and in creating an air window for thought. This state of mind will induce additional motivation and provide insights for the teacher who can then explain some important principle on the basis of concrete experience. This genesis of knowledge, a knowledge asserting and demonstrating in a substantial way its necessity, should help on the one hand those pupils who undergo the work in the classroom and the apprenticeship like an immense pensum where one has to ingurgitate strange things, but also those who succeed precisely because they have understood the system and know how to reproduce what is inculcated, sometimes to the detriment of a lively and authentic thought. To play, without excluding rigor – for it would no longer be a game but a recreation – is to make thought operative and dynamic, to restore its breath.


  1. The master of the game


If, in the ideality of the absolute, the function of mastery hardly needs to be incarnated by a particular person, the group being able to self-suffice as soon as responsibility is assumed by everyone, this does not go well with the reality of everyday life. Especially if the group is large and if the game presents some important issues or particular difficulties. However, let’s face it, the more the role of the teacher can be minimized, the more successful the game can be. Without, however, succumbing to the temptation of a minimal game for practical reasons – although it is still possible to orientate oneself towards other operating options, as long as one clarifies the nature, implications and consequences of these options.

Every banquet, like every ship, needs a captain, recommends Plato. If navigation, a complex task, is carried out by more than one person, it is nevertheless necessary to appoint a person who, ultimately, according to the events, will make the final decisions which he deems just, at the risk of error and injustice. Knowing that this is not a divine power of law, but only a tacit agreement established for practical reasons. This role can therefore be assigned to different people in turn. A political role which, according to Plato, consists in weaving diversity into a single work. And if the teacher, who is more familiar with the practice he is trying to introduce, initially assumes this function, he is recommended to delegate it periodically to pupils, depending on the timing of the circumstances. The difficulties that will arise then will be an integral part of the exercise, the two pitfalls of philosophical practice being authoritarianism and demagogy.

What is the role of the master here, since he is no longer the one responsible for ‘telling the truth’? First of all, he is a legislator: he establishes the law, states it, recalls periodically the terms, and even modifies its articles. As we have already said, the rules are subject to debate, but it is a question of delineating the place of the debate, specifying the appropriate time, and deciding when it should be interrupted, so that the exercise is not a permanent debate on the debate, some traps in which it is easy to fall. Even if they ask the group, at the end of the game or at the start, whether a discharge is granted to the person in question. There are different ways to set up such a process; what seems to us the most effective is to grant the full powers to the person appointed in the game and then to reserve a discussion space at the end of the game in order to assess the work done.

The master of the game is also an arbitrator, a judicial function, insofar as he must ensure that the rules in question, whether his own or those established in advance, are respected. However, it seems preferable to refer any decision to the group, for example by means of a show of hands. His role as an arbitrator will then be to raise what appears to him to be a problem, to solicit the opinions of a few persons, and then to produce a decision, direct or indirect. Arbitration must not be conceived as an ancillary activity, but as an intrinsic part of the exercise, since the elaboration of judgment, the formulation of arguments, is nested at the very heart of the philosophical activity. Often, the most interesting questions during a discussion will arise in these often-delicate arbitration debates, which is not surprising since they require thinking about the form, the logic and the relationships of meaning, in other words, to reflect on the level of metadiscussion, not on the mere exchange of opinions. It is therefore a question of going beyond the level of agreements or disagreements of content which refer mainly to subjectivity, however argued. To think of conformity to rules is to work the demand for truth, which is never anything but conformity to something, however arbitrary it may be: another idea, a principle, logic, efficiency, etc.

The role of the game master is to be an animator, an executive function. Often, the role of the executive is perceived solely through its discretion, as a prerogative abused unscrupulously, which installs mistrust before any other sentiment, instead of its opposite, trust, without which however no group can function in a peaceful and serene manner. Moreover, his authority is arbitrary, since no one asks for the opinion of all, or he counts so little that the personal contribution of the common is considered negligible. In our exercise, it is a matter of establishing a relationship of mutual trust between the animator of the moment, whether the teacher, another adult, or a student, and those who participate in the game. For, although the game can go on without him, he cannot preside over the meeting without the others, without each of the participants. Not for purely formal reasons, but because if the slightest participant is bent on interrupting the game by untimely behavior, he can. Just as the smallest participant who puts forward a promising idea allows the whole group to move forward. Let us not forget that it is not the animator who provides the ideas, but the participants, which places the latter in a relationship of psychological and cognitive dependence, which is quite destabilizing for certain teachers who have difficulty to trust their students.

Thus, power must no longer be a bad word, an object of fear, nor must it be incontestable. It is an art and a responsibility, a practice to which one exercises like any other. This practice refers to the functioning of the city, the separation of tasks. It learns to trust others, as well as oneself, and thus revalorizes the individual through this pact between peers. It also learns to accept the arbitrary dimension of life in society, and of existence in general, not as a factor undergone, inducing passivity and resentment, but as one of the constituent elements of the establishment of a group, which must be dealt with at a distance, and to settle in time insofar as one remains aware of the general problem which it presents. This ability to accept arbitrariness requires a consciousness on the alert, it implies a distancing with oneself, a capacity to minimize oneself in favor of the group, and the learning of how to mourn one’s own claims and desires. Such a functioning involves an undeniable risk-taking, especially for the one who, in normal times, has the power a priori, but also for those who must exercise it momentarily. The alternation of the presidency and the moments reserved for the debate on the debate, where each one evaluates its own functioning and that of the others, forge the solidity of the pact precisely because it is criticizable and revocable. It is so at all times, although it is generally agreed to let the chairman go to the end of his term of office, unless there is a major difficulty. The exercise of citizenship also involves protecting what creates the game. This means, among other things, ensuring that the person who is responsible for the smooth running of the game can work with confidence. Reactivity is a way of being. Such a perspective implies quite a phenomenal psychological and identity reversal, but it is nevertheless relieving. This can be called ‘learning the principle of responsibility’.


  1. Asking for the right to speak


Most pupils are familiar with the rule of speaking by raising their hands beforehand, but it is not certain that they practice it in a rigorous way, and above all that they grasp its meaning. In general, the two most common and relatively unconscious conceptions are, on the one hand, that which gives the teacher the discretionary power to grant or refuse speech, and on the other hand, the one who conceives this act as a ritual – more or less obligatory – that automatically grants the right to speak, like the gesture of politeness that would guarantee the satisfaction of an application or legitimate a gesture, like ‘please’ or ‘forgive’. The first scenario is found more rarely in primary school, it takes place later. The second is respected to varying degrees: in many classes, there are pupils who begin to speak as soon as they raise their hand, without waiting for any authorization.

Again, we wish to emphasize the idea of ​​understanding the rules, their questionable nature, understanding and discussion, which do not exclude the possibility of imposing these rules or of considering their arbitrary aspect. The problem here is that of ‘Why are we talking?’. Is it because the word jostles in us and must come out at all costs, in other words is it to express oneself as one ‘ex-presses’ the juice of a lemon? Certain discussions can play this role, which establish in the classroom the space of a speech free and without constraint. But if it is a question of philosophizing, that is, of ‘thinking thought’, then other determinations intervene. To begin with, and this is not the least of the criteria, by listening. Indeed, what is the use of speaking in the hubbub, while others speak or nobody listens? The idea would be to speak when we have ensured maximum listening in order to maximize the impact of words and to ensure the best possible return. But what about the master? What is the example? Did he, out of lassitude, discouragement, or deafness, become accustomed to speaking in a vacuum or chaos? Or does he consider it normal, perhaps not by his speech but by his behavior, that if his word of authority demands silence, that of the pupil may, as well as possible, arise in noise?

Let us present some issues of the case. First, as we said, raising one’s hand before speaking is to make sure that listening is active before pronouncing anything, rather than letting go of words by simple flushing. There is no way to talk if someone else is talking. Secondly, the status of the pupil and the mutual respect that is actively contributing to the definition of this status. Neither should one interrupt a pupil who elaborates his thought, even if it seems slow to emerge, incongruous or incomprehensible: error or misunderstanding are an integral part of the learning process, they cannot be a vector of devaluation of the individual. All the more so as the pupil can, in the course of his intervention, gradually correct his remarks. Unless there is an excessive length or a speech that definitely gets lost in its own confusion.

To ask a pupil to listen to his neighbor is to guarantee him in return that he will also be listened to. Also, remember that if the teacher can still follow the thread of his ideas when interrupted by a student, the student will find it harder to keep his concentration if someone else speaks. This is all the more so for the shy or rough student. Moreover, in order to ensure a greater listening as well as the manifestation of this listening, it is better to ask the students not to raise their hand while a fellow speaks: this is tantamount to asking him to activate or to shut up. Anyway, we do not listen better to the arm raised in the air…

Thirdly: to accustom the pupil to articulate his own thought, to perceive its limits and to become aware of its difficulties. In this respect, it is a common practice for the teacher, whose potential is harmful, to regularly finish the student’s sentences himself or to rephrase his words in an abusive manner. It is not always possible, depending on the context, to take the time to let everyone express themselves, so much so that the natural reflex is to speak for the pupil, instead of the pupil, but one will perceive the limits of this kind of behavior. It is therefore important to reserve certain moments of class life for this ‘loss of time’, which we call philosophical discussion because we allow the pupil time to think his own thought, failures, understood mistakes and misunderstandings, since they are the reality of his thought, a reality which it would be inappropriate to erase. Especially since the pupil takes the habit of this artificial and unsolicited aid, by facility. This does not prevent the teacher, as we shall see later, from actively helping a pupil by proposing ideas that he cannot articulate, but it is preferable that other pupils play this role.

Fourthly, the interest of this hand-raising ritual relates to the ability of the student to distance himself from himself, to shift in time, not to be impelled and automated. Often the student who releases words as soon as he ‘feels’ them, does not take the time to construct his speech, and often does not retain what he has just said: it will be enough to ask him to repeat himself in order to realize it. If only because he will not dare, out of fear and shyness, to assume this word again in the ears of all. It is often costly to repeat, because doubt and shame are naturally required. Who has never experienced in the classroom the situation of the pupil who, in the hubbub of the class, throws out ideas which he will not dare to repeat once all listen attentively to what he has to say.

This brings us to the fifth point: the singularization of speech. To dare to speak in a singular way as an individual who addresses his peers, the whole of the ‘city’, with all the dimension of the risk taking that it implies. This is a practice that is not natural to everyone and requires a certain amount of work, some experience that the teacher must promote. Through forms, it is nothing less than learning to assume an explicit and articulated singularity, to assume the temporary seizure of power that it represents, taking the risk of listening, of the gaze of others and the image of ourselves that they send back to us. It is taking the risk of existing openly and fully facing the world.

The simplest form of demanding to speak is the commonly used form of the hand or finger raised. But there are other techniques to invite the pupil to distance himself from his own speech, to teach him to suspend and temporize, to delay his gesture while awaiting a favorable opportunity, to shape his idea as best as possible before expressing it, to leave the immediate and to decenter, to take into account the group while separating it from himself. You can use a speech stick, or even a microphone, that circulates in the group, and no one can speak without holding it. Either the one who just spoke invites someone else to speak by naming him by name. The important thing, as we have said, is to instore some meaning into the gesture, as a means of establishing a relationship with the community, to restore its symbolic value, and to extract the rule from its reduced gangue of mere authority, in order to make it fully play its educational function.


  1. To stick to one idea


This rule is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental cognitive factors, which requires constant attention to a given subject, to remain focus on a specific idea, in order to discuss, deepen, and analyze it, in order to illustrate and problematize it. The key to all intellectual exercise, both its Ariane’s thread and its substance, the subject, as an object of reflection, must constantly be present in the minds of all. This is not always evident, insofar as any discussion, any reflection, will attract our attention on ancillary tracks, towards associative connections, digressions more or less legitimate and useful, even on the stakes of metareflexion which will have to be evaluated without abandoning the first subject. This task is all the more arduous because our discussion exercises are realized in multiple and crossed voices, multiplicity and crossing, the interlacing of which creates innumerable opportunities for drifting and losing ourelf in parallel paths, bushy roads and dead-end impasses. Listening to others, even if we recommend it or impose it as a rule, offers us the permanent temptation to forget the subject to be dealt with, in order to react and rebound to the various words we hear. In order to characterize the general problem posed here in thought, let us resume the idea of ​​Plato, which enjoins us to grasp simultaneously the whole and the part, each particular idea taken alone being capable of trapping thought in an inadequate partiality. Following a subject involves sometimes contradictory acts and functionalities. Let us look at some of these, before seeing to what extent this conflictual diversity contributes to the construction of thought.

First, it is a question of being able to contemplate an idea, before trying to establish its usefulness, and especially before asking whether one agrees or not with it. This last reaction in particular, often assimilated to a simple reflex, embodies the first obstacle to the understanding of many words and many texts. The position, or reaction, usually precedes the comprehension in operative speed, the latter is often distorted by the first. According to the Cartesian injunction, therefore, to follow on a subject is first and foremost to suspend judgment, to retain its approval or rejection for a moment, to keep subjectivity away, in order to receive the idea with a relatively open mind. It is therefore a question of inviting the participants to avoid in the first place any statement of the type “I agree with this sentence” or “This idea is false” or “This idea does not please me.” For, it is above all to weigh the idea, to examine it, to understand it.

If it is a question, it is crucial to assess it initially as a question, without interfering with it by the automatism of a response. Let us beware of this reflex which, like any other reflex of thought, connects two concepts or ideas, moves or grafts them unto each other, or even telescopes them, without taking the time to apprehend them separately and to observe what they contain within themselves. To answer a question is to reduce it to almost nothing, to take away its interrogative potential, it is to fix its meaning in a single outcome, rather than to consider the magnitude of the problem posed and to envisage the questioning potential of this question. Since, by definition, a question poses a problem, since it is a problem, why not invite the participant to contemplate the problem for himself? An aesthetic moment, as in the museum, when one lets himself be questioned by a given work, instead of rushing to the next one, instead of watching his watch and wondering what remains to be seen in order to finish the visit.

It is not that it is forbidden to answer the question, on the contrary, and, as we shall see later, nor is it forbidden to object or to agree with a given idea, but it simply seems useful to artificially decompose the movement in order to grasp its moments and to take away their chained, compulsive and systematic character. The skills are diverse, and since this is a game, lets justify this requirement by explaining that its dynamics are set up and structured at times when actions, roles and functions differ. Most sports have different strategies, and part of the training is to work separately on the dexterities, subtleties and techniques that are attached to them.

We are advised to take time, to contemplate ideas, ideas being both the object and the finality of our exercise. Let us recall that at one time, before the reign of utility and subjectivity was established, it was highly recommended, in ancient Greece for example, to contemplate ideas, especially those which seemed worthy to us, those which precisely edified the architecture of thought itself, for example the ‘great’ concepts, the transcendental ones, such as the true, the beautiful, and the good. The concept of transcendental, as Kant explains, refers to what conditions and allows thought to be constituted.


But the rule demanding the contemplation of ideas is difficult to put in effect. For, if the mind of the pupils is somewhat rebellious to this slowing of the movement of the mind, what about the teacher? Is he himself able to get at it? Is he not accustomed to wanting to move the discussion further at all costs? For the sake of efficiency. For fear of annoying or bullying students. Out of uncertainty about the value of the ideas in question. Because he expects specific ideas that alone interest him. Out of fear for the void. By simple impatience or manner of being. Posing thought, breathing, interrupting the process that takes place, artificially installing interstices in the discussion, all the common and understandable obstacles that hold the teacher back. Yet, if one thinks of all these children and adults, who live in the excitement of the world, in the permanent zapping and desire to save time, if it is not in school that one learns to take some time to think, to give value to ideas in themselves, when and by what happy or miraculous chance will one ever learn it?

More actively, to remain on one idea is to explain it, without commentary, it is to rephrase it, to ask to recall it by enunciating it, to repeat it as a kind of mantra in order that it penetrates the mind. If a participant wishes to question or object to an idea, first ask him to reiterate the idea to which he wishes to put an end. If a participant wants to answer a question, ask him to repeat the question he is asking to answer. Especially when he has already answered and it is evident through his answer that, obviously, he hardly remembers the question. If a listener believes he has understood the idea of ​​a comrade, ask him to verify what he understands with the author of the idea, even if the latter does not know if he poorly expressed himself or if he was not well listened to. In other words, before going any further, check whether the starting or anchoring point is still clear and present. These simple demands often constitute an exercise in themselves, which leads everyone to become aware of the bad habits which we maintain in our hygiene of thought: we mean something, but we do not know what we are talking about, what we are responding to.

Let us not forget, however, that if the game sometimes consists in staying on an idea to take the time to appreciate it, it is also a movement, since it invites the participant to go through various stages. And, it is the ability to follow in these steps, to meet the various requirements and to know how to change roles, a role that is then put to the test.


  1. Rehabilitating the problem


We have already mentioned the concept of a problem, but it seems that we need to take it up again as a principle in itself, constitutive of the philosophical exercise. The challenge is to rehabilitate the problem, to consider it as an integral part of teaching and learning, rather than as an obstacle, a regrettable hindrance to be eliminated at all costs, if not to hide it altogether. The difficulty rests on the bad press that the problem attracts: the problem as a problem. “There are no problems”, says the teacher in his words, actions and silences. He has his conscience for himself. For the student, there is one. Sometimes the worst of the problems: when the student does not understand it, and does not even know how to express the nature of the problem. If he knew it, the problem would begin to disappear. For now, he only feels a pain and say “I do not like this matter”, when it is not “I do not like this teacher.” A reflex which could not be more appropriate, as a defense of the territorial integrity of being: the other inflicts a pain upon us, it is normal that he is perceived as an enemy. The less the student is able to express the problem, the greater the pain, the livelier the reaction will be, whether through confrontation or absence.

Faced with this, what is the point of speaking? In any dialogue, talk is above all about problematizing, to change perspectives. Problematization is not only a matter of inventing a problem, it is also articulating a problem that is present, an articulation that does not necessarily solve the problem, but it at least identifies and treats it. A problem needs not necessarily be solved, although it can be. A problem must above all be perceived, be seen, be manipulated, become substantial. As a practice, painting will always be a problem for the painter, like mathematics for a mathematician, like philosophy for a philosopher. The most catastrophic illusion is the one which suggests that this is not the case, since it suggests that the teacher is a magician, in the traditional sense of the word, that he has particular powers, rather than showing that he is an illusionist, someone who simply knows how to pull the strings, because he sees how these intertwine and organize.

But, to do this, one must above all rehabilitate the concept of problem. “There is no problem!”, “I do not have any problems!” Pride or some concern for tranquility compel us to deny the very idea of ​​a problem. The problem is what keeps us from acting, it is an obstacle, a brake, a speed downer. And what if, exactly in this apparently perverse purpose, were its substance and interest! For, are we not always tempted to reduce a material and its learning to a set of data, to a few different operations, as many educational elements that are quantifiable, verifiable and evaluable? Nevertheless, what about the spirit, among others that of the subject taught? Certainly, the mind filters through the various activities proposed, but why should we abandon it to its sad fate, that of a random, accidental and secondary factor, which is hardly a preoccupation in itself? Especially since this intuitive knowledge is not given to all students. If some are prepared to receive it for reasons and circumstances that are hardly within the competence of the teacher, the others, those who struggle with the strangeness of the approach, enter precisely into its field of action. For this, it is necessary that the matter be a problem for the teacher himself, and that it is not carefully stored in the department of household items. A storage that the student in difficulty would disturb.

The student’s difficulties serve a specific purpose: rethinking the subject taught, its nature, its effectiveness, its truth, and its interest. If all this goes without saying, the difficulties become a mere obstacle which must be disposed of as quickly as possible in order to advance. The program becomes the alibi par excellence, the refuge of fear and insecurity. We have all these things to learn, what time do we have to work on the mind? The mind of the studied subject and the mind of the thinking subject. We have to focus on the matter. We soon forget the lesson of the Ancients, and we find ourselves with a substance without any soul, reduced to learning and to perform. Useful indeed, but so reductive.

Thus, in the first place, it is possible to say: “I have a difficulty”, “This specific task raises a problem for me”, which can also be articulated in the form of “I do not know”, “I cannot answer”, or simply “I do not understand.” These words, which by their relative absence of content or reply may appear to mean nothing and to bring nothing to the discussion, but a simple admission of a difficulty, which may allow it to be assimilated to a loophole or to a ritual form of politeness of some sort, are on the contrary heavy with consequences. Already, these words openly pose the existence of the problem, which then opens the door to the ensuing meaningful events. By recognizing this productive status, the problem is extracted from its gangue of guilt and of bad conscience, which in general forbids those who suffer from the opacity of a given knowledge or practice. On the contrary, this ‘painful’ observation becomes an agent of reflection. For, the problem of one becomes the problem of all, and first for a good reason: it is evoked. Secondly, because it may well be that this singular problem is also shared by other people who have not been able to admit or acknowledge it. But, it is also the problem of those who think they have no difficulty with the problem in question, who will have to publicly check their ability to treat it. For, once the problem of one becomes the problem of all, each one is invited to take care of it by a seemingly innocuous sentence pronounced by the author of the problem: “I do not understand and I ask for help.” From there on, those who think that they are able to articulate or to deal with the problem will explain themselves, in turn, or by some sort of selection process. Until the one who had expressed a difficulty is satisfied with it or by concluding, after a few unsuccessful attempts, with a temporary impossibility of resolution.

Of course, this process is slow, which requires trampling on a specific and reduced aspect of the journey, perhaps even an ancillary aspect, but there is no question of doing ‘as if’, of passing as if nothing, in spite of the ‘lack of time’. And, if one allows the slightest impression that the problem to be treated prevents the procedure from ‘advancing’, implying, in other words, that there is better to do, then all the work of rehabilitation of the problem and of the confession of ignorance will be reduced to nothing. This does not mean that one should get bogged down during a session in one single difficulty; a ‘safeguard’ procedure, such as the one which proposes to limit any attempt to solve a problem to three consecutive tests, makes it possible to extricate oneself from a thorny matter without, however, having ignored it.

Thus, there would not be on one side the problems worthy of the name, well intellectualized, baptized with the pompous name of problematics, and on the other the ‘beasts’ problems, those emanating out of lack, by ignorance and incomprehension. Such a distinction would encourage the denial of the real, deep and existential dimension of the problem, unavowable, in order to express only the problems that would result from the elucubrations of subtle minds. The teacher himself would no longer dare to have problems, even unacknowledged ones. And, why would he then launch himself into risky procedures, of which he cannot foresee either the pitfalls or the culmination of the exercise? An exercise like that of a reflection in common, taken with all its rigor, imposes on each one a certain minimum humility, and in any case a capacity to openly admit difficulty and error, a refusal of omnipotence, and an acceptance of some dependence on others. Thus, ideas will be able to live.


  1. Articulating choices


As we have explained in part, from the outset the workshop starts with some risk taking on the part of the pupil and the facilitator, who take a risk of choice and of judgment, which is prolonged throughout the exercise. By reflecting on their choices, by articulating them, while knowing that they will have to argue them over, or even justify them, in order to go deeper into their contents and to verify their content, the student takes a risk that should not be underestimated. Periodically, some will not make it. The risk of expressing what he thinks, the risk of speaking in front of comrades, the risk of speaking before the teacher, the risk of not being able to justify his choices, the fear of ‘doing wrong’, etc. For the teacher, taking risks is to hear choices and arguments that may seem aberrant, disturbing or even false. Without expressing his disapproval or concern. While continuing the questioning procedure, with this student or with another. Some teachers also admit their impatience in this kind of situation, revealing a certain anxiety: they prefer to ‘rectify’.

In general, the workshop begins with a question. A question that incites to think, to judge, that does not rely so much on specific knowledge authorizing any authority to validate or to invalidate the answer as good or bad, as true or false. It is a question of producing a thought, not of providing the right or the true answer: it is simply asked to be clear and relevant. A requirement that may surprise the student, unaccustomed to this type of request. For, if the demand for truth is not there, there are others which are no less demanding. Does the answer answer the question? Does it dodge it? Does it answer another question? Is the answer clear? Is it a minimum justified by an argument? Already, it is necessarily to produce sentences, rather than to express a simple assent or to articulate a single word. It is about building thought, not about checking the assimilation of a lesson.

Uncertainty about the lack of immediate and assured validation will often hamper the most ‘academic’ of pupils. They will feel like they are being delivered to nothingness. They will ask and will ask again what to do, incredulous, having difficulty in believing that they are only asked to think, without expectation of specific answers, validated beforehand. When it comes to a discussion with the class as a whole, these meticulous and studious pupils will feel abandoned by the master, a betrayal depriving them of a secure presence, the usual and comforting guarantee of a certified judgment of compliance. Even the ‘dunces’ will be worried by this type of procedure, which also removes them from the specificity of their status, voluntary or not, in which they have settled. For, it is in the judgment of the class as a whole that each pupil must measure himself, a moving and unexpected, unpredictable and destabilizing judgment, which he is asked to confront. Confrontation is otherwise more perilous than that of the quasi-indisputable authority of the master, even if the speech assumes a more free and spontaneous appearance. Thus, what appeared to be too easy turns out to be rather arduous, very difficult for some.

However, as we have already said, in order to de-dramatize risk-taking among pupils, the exercise is often presented as a game, comparable to another, and the playful aspect must be recalled periodically, alternating with more serious moments. For children who have difficulty expressing their opinion, it is a question of being patient, of resorting to them from time to time, so that they do not feel excluded, even if they do not succeed in verbalizing easily, or even very little, and reassure the shy by suggesting that they talk later if they feel stuck. The teacher must ensure that everyone can express a minimum, making sure that the most loquacious do not overwhelm others, a recurring danger of any discussion. Especially since those who produce themselves orally in a more laborious way are not necessarily the least interesting and the less profound.

Answering questions of knowledge presupposes a specific learning: a lesson learned, elements of information retained. Articulating a thought involves the totality of being. It is in this sense that discourse no longer refers to mere issues of theoretical and formal knowledge, but rather to a know-how, even to a knowledge of being, to the ability to determine an existential positioning. For, it is the whole thought that is summoned when it comes to making a choice. Hence the interest of risking the articulation of a choice, conceived as the inaugural act of thought. There is then a need to justify the initial proposal by mobilizing the acquired knowledge, by elaborating arguments and possible reasoning, and by attempting to answer questions and objections in a second step. Even if it means revisiting its original judgment, which is a fundamental decision, because it shows a certain freedom of thought and an honest and courageous relation to others, as well as what can be called a quest or a concern for truth.

The last important point about judgment: it corresponds to an existential reality insofar as knowledge is generally what allows us to make choices, day after day. Such a practice thus makes it possible to give back its usual reality to teaching, since it no longer refers solely to the class, the good and bad grades and the foreseeable succession of years, but to what constitutes the relation between a subject and the world around him, the world he inhabits. It is therefore a matter of working on the body of the schizophrenic tendency of the double life, of the double language, between the school and the street, between books and the house, between the classroom and the playground, a gap which greatly weakens – when it does not mince outright – the work of the teacher and the process of education to which the child is supposed to participate. Thus, during the philosophical exercise, the pupil will be led to make choices to answer the questions, to analyze his own choices and those of his comrades, to justify these choices, to determine the degree of validity of the arguments invoked, and even to make judgments about the behaviors that govern the speeches, reactions and responses of each. These are crucial decisions that must be slowly constructed and examined, because they are not only ancillary to daily functioning, but also form the substance and the melting pot. And, if it is a matter of thinking, discussing and working more directly on specific school subjects, the appropriation of this subject will be facilitated, since the pupil will be invited to implement it, to make it operational, to take a stand in relation to it, a practice which forbids a sort of formal exteriority to class work. No one can therefore confine themselves to an external position, since the rule of the game poses as a preliminary the need to situate oneself in relation to the matter studied. Life is restored to matter, matter is restored to life.


  1. To question, to argue, to deepen


If there is a fundamental principle to be inculcated in our case, it is the reflex of questioning, questioning the other and questioning oneself, questioning all that is stated. Now, there is a privileged access to questioning: the ‘why?’, a dynamic and triggering element, the founder of thought and discourse, which will give thought and discourse its substance, asking it to support and deepen itself. The ‘why?’, to which echoes a ‘because’, responds to various types of request: “What makes us say this?” “On what right are we saying this?” “How do you explain that?” “What is the purpose of this?” “What does it mean to say that?” “What does it imply to say this?” Both the meaning of the words, the purpose of their object, the legitimacy of their author, etc., are questioned. This multifaceted process, triggered by a powerful interrogative adverb, invites us to extract the discourse from its flat and immediate evidence, in order to unravel its mysteries, to illuminate its genesis, to glimpse its implications and consequences. A ‘magic word’, shall we say with the younger ones, in order to let them glimpse the strength and the innumerable possibilities of the questioning contained within the ‘Why?’. If there is a term that enables us to show the power of words, it is that which, when it is thrown at an interlocutor, often leaves him embarrassed, whereas the author of the discourse must simply account for a minimum of his own words.

Students grasp the meaning of ‘why?’ because once they are introduced to this term, when they have to ask a question, they hasten to use it repeatedly, if not erroneously, as a solution of ease: ‘Why did you say that?’. For, if ‘How much?’ ‘When?’ ‘How?’, ‘where?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Which?’ or ‘Does it?’ require for their use the understanding of specific circumstances and the elaboration of an appropriate sentence, the ‘Why?’ can always be framed in a simple way, without great effort of the imagination. To such an extent that it will sometimes be useful to temporarily suspend its use, in the case of an abusive systematization which seems to hamper the progress of work. For, if the question is easy to ask, it is all the more difficult to answer; but the questioner must also realize a real work, allowing new ideas to emerge, posing problems specific to the interlocutor, and not finding a ‘trick’ that can be framed at any point.

Questioning therefore requires the student to justify his or her remarks, to provide arguments, evidence, reasoning, new proposals that should in principle support the initial proposals and deepen their content. In this perspective, a certain number of classical arguments are held in check, which, if they are not openly pronounced, nevertheless act as a law, especially in the classroom: the authority argument, for example. For, in the philosophical exercise, it is no longer a question of referring to the teacher, to the parents, or to any book, to establish the value of an idea. Not that these ‘first’ sources of knowledge are automatically invalidated, far from it – it would be difficult and vain to pretend to abstain from them – but they will find their place only within the framework of an intellectual construction, that is to say, in an arrangement of propositions established by the pupil. In this sense, the latter becomes the author of his own discourse, even if the imprint of a certain influence can be felt in an obvious way.

The process in which each participant is engaged through this questioning is called, in Plato, an anagogical principle. It is a question of tracing the origin of a particular thought in order to verify its content, for it is in this origin that the true meaning of an idea is found, and not in its apparent evidence. Moreover, the process of re-emergence of the idea within the being restores its vigor to thought, which makes it possible to pass from the stage of opinion to that of the idea. Indeed, the distinction between opinion and idea is summed up in the work that engenders and surrounds it. The same proposition can therefore be considered opinion or idea according to the mode of reading or analysis used, depending on the degree of intensity of the interpretation. Finally, this inquiry into the causality of an idea also furnishes in time a certain number of ancillary ideas, correlates of the initial idea, which illuminate the latter. Some contradictions or inconsistencies emerge, which are open to study and criticism. This confrontation between the different perspectives thus becomes an opportunity, through an effort of coherence that can be assimilated to a concern for truth, to identify and rework various postulates that until then remained unconscious in the mind of their author. Confronted with a multiplicity of propositions, the intellect must discover its founding and causal unity, or at least understand its contradictions.

Thus, the initial work of providing arguments for answering questions as to the justification of an initial statement quickly turns into a work of deepening. The argument can practically be reduced to a mere pretext, that of a more thorough exploration or examination. This permits us to evaluate the legitimacy of an idea not by some canon established a priori, or by belonging to an official text, but by the relation that a specific idea maintains with its intellectual environment. But, to realize such a project, it is necessary to learn to ask questions, an exercise that constitutes an art in itself. For, while certain questions, striking ones, facilitate the work and give rise to a deepening, others, on the contrary, find close door or invite in no way the production of concepts.

The work of questioning oscillates between two pitfalls. On the one hand, the question resembles a course, difficult to understand, with a long preamble which often contains the expected answers: those that leave the speaker on the tile, either through incomprehension or because he feels that nothing is expected of him but an acquiescence. On the other hand the vague question that does not ask for anything specific: the uninspiring “Tell me more!” or the “Can you develop better?” that invites nothing more. On this aspect of the work, more than on other aspects, the teacher will learn from the pupils, that is to say from multiplicity, for it is difficult to predict what kind of question will work more than another in a special case: it is only through experience, ‘on the job’, that this practice will improve. For if it is more easily possible for the teacher to perceive a blind spot or a contradiction in a given word, it is not a given that he will find the words that will catch the interlocutor, causing him to become aware of the internal problem which his speech incarnates. This is why the whole class is invited to consider the proposals of an ‘author’, because everyone must realize that it is not so much to give ‘his’ answer that represents the real work, but to forge the appropriate questions. All the more so because a real question requires one not to put forward his own ideas, which implies a redoubling of work: to become aware of the ideas that are conveyed and to succeed in silencing his own concepts and convictions, to put them aside in order to talk to someone so as to know what he thinks, without trying to communicate some ‘good thinking’ to him or to induce some content. Internal criticism, says Hegel, who interrogates a thesis from within, to be distinguished from external criticism, which consists in advancing arguments and concepts used to object. Questioning is giving birth, which means that the ideas must emerge in the interviewee, and not be supplied in turn by the questioner. Questioning is creating a breathing gap and not obstructing the hole.


  1. Singularity of the discourse


The singularity of the discourse presupposes a kind of originality, which constitutes its specificity. Yet it would be difficult to say that all that is heard in a class discussion has such a characteristic of originality. Also, without excluding the sometimes-unexpected side of certain answers, for the least surprising, we propose the hypothesis that the first form of singularity is rather that of engagement. To embark on an idea, to take options on an idea, is to make it singular, or personal, by a phenomenon of appropriation. Thus, during the course of the exercise, the pupil must take part, whether by the production of an idea or by his relation to the ideas of others. Not only on the fact of agreeing or not, but also on the very nature of the proposed discourse, its coherence, its logic, or its correctness, his own or that of another. A prejudice which, as we have seen, should as far as possible be explained, argued, justified, etc.

The idea of ​​determining one’s position in relation to a given question, whatever the degree of abstraction, implies an act of reflection, an awareness, which requires pupils to make an effort, to some more than to others. For, it becomes necessary to ask consciously the question of personal choice, which in small classes is not necessarily a given. For this act to take place, it is first and foremost important not to fall into a first trap: the reflex of repetition, very common in these ages. To say, like the others, be they the pupils or the master, is the temptation and the solution of facility, the fusional reflex so common in children. Fusion with the group, because it is less scary, because you feel less alone or because you have to do like the others. Fusion with the master, because he is an adult, because he is the one who knows, because he must be right. Later, this will turn into a fear of error, the ‘first error’ according to Hegel.

For this reason, during our exercise, it is crucial that the teacher does not show agreement or disagreement, at least on content, even on form, which should not prevent him from returning at some other times on a given problem that seems to require him to treat it by himself. As for the relationship between peers, in order to ensure that there is no mechanical repetition, one of the rules of the game is to prohibit repeating what has already been said by someone else, at the risk of a symbolic ‘rejection’ or a momentary elimination. We sometimes observe some pupils who propose different formulations of the same answer in order to take up an idea already expressed without being penalized by the rule of the game which prohibits repetition, which in itself is an interesting mechanism. For, it will be a matter for all to ask whether this ‘new’ answer is identical or not to the previous one, or whether it has produced any conceptual novelty. The teacher may at any time ask the class: “Has anyone ever said that?” And in order for the proposal to be rejected, it will first be necessary for at least one student to recognize that it is the same answer as someone else: he must explain how these answers are similar and preferably name the author of the initial response. In case of doubt or dissent, the facilitator may propose a discussion and cause a vote on the question, a vote during which each one will have to resolve the dispute.

Do not repeat. Ensure that an answer answers the question. Determine whether the question is a question, whether it is about the object it is supposed to question. Identify inconsistencies in a proposal. Various rules among others, as many different demands which invite everyone to arbitrate the discussion by using his judgment. Such a function has the following advantage: it obliges everyone to listen and to remember what the others say, because at any moment the student can be solicited in order to evaluate the legitimacy of what has been said. Any analysis, any particular and personal reading of the ideas evoked may change the discussion in one direction or another, since the discourses are elaborated in reciprocity and are not impermeable to each other: they validate or invalidate each other, they deepen one another or become problematic among themselves. This leads us to another aspect of singularization: the principle of responsibility, underlying the exercise.

Certainly, any discussion implies a certain sense of responsibility, if only in relation to the ideas that one sends out oneself. But, insofar as we forbid arbitrarily jumping from one subject to another, where we prevent one from passing from one idea to another according to individual fancies without establishing any link, because the whole group remains on an idea before moving on to another, in order to work, each becomes implicitly responsible for the ideas of others. Whether it is by questioning it, in order to make it say what it has not yet said, by putting formal judgments on it, or by raising substantive problems, we take a heavy responsibility vis-à-vis the author of the idea and of the whole class. The fact of decentering oneself, in order to give priority to the ideas of the neighbor, offers in a paradoxical way an increased degree of singularization, through taking responsibility. To distance oneself from oneself means to become responsible, since we are more than ever listening to others, since we respond to others. Nevertheless, there is a fracture within this responsibility: the tension between oneself and others, between the singular and the collective.

Another crucial aspect of the singular character of the idea is: the justification or the explanation. For, if a given idea can have a common and obvious sense, or even an apparently objective meaning, it can also find in the mind and the words of its author or its interpreter a very particular content. As incongruous as the latter may be, it is out of question to remove it with a simple hand gesture. Especially since certain apparently absurd propositions, or ones endowed with some strange turns, will really take shape unexpectedly after some explanation or modification. Specific words will also know such a drift, used in strange meanings, when they will not settle, on occasion, squarely in the opposite sense to their classical definition. In these various situations, whether it be paralogism, incomprehension or inadequacy, the role of the teacher will not be to ‘rectify’ things that do not belong to him, but to trust the author and the group, to attract the attention of all and to solicit their opinion on one particular point or another, avoiding, of course, to project any remotely guided ‘good’ thought. He will trust the group, and he will realize that many ‘shooting errors’ will be rectified on their own, a more rewarding, pedagogical and coherent procedure than if he corrected everything himself, albeit much slower.

Moreover, no one will be able to modify the proposal of another participant without his consent. Already because every proposition or idea inscribed on the painting is signed, which singularizes thought. The ‘we’ does not have a right here. Any suggestion of modification or explanation by a comrade must therefore be accepted by the author in order to be entered on the board. But the group can sanction a proposal that it considers inadequate, by way of a majority vote, for example, a proposal that is out of context, contradictory or confusing. This is the only role assigned to the group as a group: to act as a jury, in order to approve or sanction a hypothesis or an analysis, since the facilitator of the discussion does not have that right. It will be useful, however, to specify that this arbitration function is purely pragmatic, explaining that the group can be quite wrong, insofar as a single person can be right against all. But let us admit that, in class, in general, the group remains relatively relevant in its judgments, enough in any case to allow it to be used as a referent, if only for practical reasons. However, we must remain open to significant changes in the situation, and for this reason it is advisable to bar the rejected proposals rather than delete them.


  1. The substantial link


We take up Leibniz’s expression on our own account, for it specifies for us precisely what distinguishes ‘ordinary’ discussion from philosophical discussion. For this author, the reality or substance of things does not reside so much in their distinct being as in their relation to what they are not. What distinguishes an entity rather calls for a definition, a relatively static analysis of a fixed and isolated object, while grasping an entity in its relation to one or more other ones invites to problematization, a more lively and dynamic intellectual posture. Not that the definition is excluded, but because it is subordinated to a set of situations whose moving nature modifies and works at the core the meaning which can no longer be defined a priori. The work of thought consists then in testing the resistance of an idea or of a concept by rubbing them with what at first seems foreign to them, thus revealing the constitutive limits of their being. To be coherent with ourselves, let us suggest the principle that the relation between an ‘ordinary’ discussion and a ‘philosophical’ one consists precisely in the explicitation of the relation, a constituting and determining relationship, because the explanation of the relationship modifies, by enlightening them, and thus by modifying them, the very elements of the report.

To be more concrete and visible, let us take the first stage of this report, as we integrate it into our practice: the reformulation, used as a verification tool for listening. How could we pretend to conduct any discussion, and a fortiori a philosophical discussion, if the interlocutors do not listen to each other? All the more so because one of the characteristics of the philosophical exchange could consist in the contiguity and the ‘rapprochement’ between the arguments in order to bring out the essential elements of the architectonic. “Take off your shirt, and join the melee!” enjoins Plato. Not a melee to know who will prevail, but in order to test the ideas and the relations which they maintain in themselves and among themselves. It is never the presence of words or their existence that can be challenged, but only their use or function, that is, the occasional connection they keep with other words, and the finality to which they are theoretically subject.

The reformulation, which refers to the agreement of the parties concerned as to the object of their discussion or to the nature of their differences, a condition of a real discussion, seems to represent the first stage of the ‘link’ which we are trying to establish as a principle. An intellectual link, as we have just defined, but also psychological link: to establish a minimum of empathy with the interlocutor. Indeed, reformulating quietly, seeking the agreement of the partner on the summary of his remarks, requires one to not merely interpret in a reductionist way, it prevents caricature, and above all it obliges one to distinguish clearly the understanding of the arguments heard and the various nuances, corrections, or objections that arise and which are about to be moved forward in response to what has been heard. As for him who hears his reformulated word, such an exercise compels him to hear what is heard by his listener, an experience which in itself is not obvious. For, to hear our own ideas or words pronounced by a mouth other than ours can represent, in itself, a rather painful experience. If only because it forces us to rethink our remarks, more distantly, with all the critical dimension that this redoubling infers. Often we will feel a certain irritation towards the one who acts as a mirror, which thus increases our anxiety. On the other hand, our listener is not a recording machine: he translates with the words that are his own, he summarizes as he can. We must then be able to distinguish the essential from the accessory, to mourn the ‘magnitude’ of our thought and everything that we would like to say or add, in order to be able to admit that these foreign words correspond to ours. Such a judgment is delicate, which must evaluate the adequacy between two formulations: without a certain freedom of thought accompanied by rigor, it becomes impossible. If one plays the game, however, the reformulation will allow us to get a better glimpse at what our ideas contain, to perceive their weaknesses and limits.

The substantive bond, as we see it already, is also the unity of a discourse, a transcendent unity, not necessarily expressed, which contains in a condensed form the content, the abridgment or the intention of our thought, a reduced proposition whose form and substance often escapes us. Once formulated, this underlying unity may even surprise or insult us. It is the unifying or generating principle of our examples, the antecedent cause of the famous ‘it’s like when…’ so popular among children, and even among adults. The explicit establishment of this connection requires the requisitioning of key words, or concepts, chosen terms that make the discourse operative by extracting the intimacy of the meaning. To do this, it becomes necessary to work on the art of breviloquence. Thus, a speaker may be asked to forge a simple proposition, a single sentence which seems to him to capture the essence of what he attempts to signify through a multiplicity of sentences, the tangling of which often has the primary role of obscuring the meaning rather than making it manifest. It is this sentence that will be noted on the board, to serve as an exclusive witness to a given thought. However, we should not be surprised if a student fails to meet this challenge, and if he or she has to seek the help of his or her classmates to accomplish his or her task. Periodically, it will be necessary to transform some crucial aspects of the initial speech to succeed in this bet: from the moment our discourse becomes more explicit, we often find ourselves obliged to change its terms.

The substantive bond is therefore the unity of a discourse, but it is also the unity of two or more discourses: the conditional possibility of dialogue. Of course, to the extent that words come from different origins, they can be expected to have a contradictory or conflicting dimension. Contrary to a single word that must be constrained by a concern for coherence, the multiplicity of authors in no way obliges any consensus. However, the requirement of the discussion implies a unity: that of the object. It is therefore important, first and foremost, to identify, in spite of the variety of forms of expression, the angles of attack of the subject or of the diversity of perspectives, some community of meaning without which we find ourselves engulfed in absurdity, solipsism and some deaf dialogue. At the same time as this community of objects, and thanks to it, we will discover the conceptual differences, accompanied by the worldview underlying them, which will allow us to estimate and pronounce the stakes of the discussion. A ‘dialectics of the same and of the other’, proposes Plato: in what is the object of the discussion the same or different? The simple sentence, a single proposition that always seems so necessary, will naturally take the form of a problematic. A proposal which poses a problem in the form of a question, a contradiction or a paradox. We find here the same demand: the art of the breviloquence. But often, in order to place two propositions in opposition, we must discover one or more antinomies whose terms are not expressed consciously in the initial propositions. In the same way that we have to dig in a single discourse to grasp its meaning and intent, producing new concepts and a simple proposition, a certain work of deepening must be carried out in order to capture and to visibly show what opposes two speeches. Surprisingly, we will then discover periodically that statements which are considered contradictory are scarcely paraphrased, arguing exclusively on some point of semantics or other insubstantial subtlety, while those who claim to ‘go in the same direction’ maintain a fusional illusion devoid of any justification.


  1. To think the mind


In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant distinguishes two types of concepts: empirical concepts, drawn from experience, and pure concepts, some products derived from reason. Thus, the concept of ‘man’ originates, for a good part, out of experience, but that of ‘contradiction’ is generated by reason. For, if I can perceive through the sense organs of concrete men, I cannot perceive contradictions by these same organs, the latter concept referring only to a problem of the intelligible and not of the sensible order, and therefore to a work of analysis and of synthesis. Now, it seems to us that philosophical work must tend to the production of concepts, certainly empirical, but also to pure concepts of reason. A process of abstraction which we have already dealt with. But we want to come back to the production of these pure concepts through which a thought conscious of itself and of its functioning is forged. A thought that can and must periodically withdraw from itself in order to engage in a process of meta-reflection.

The most obvious aspect of this process exists very early on, on the intuitive level, in what we will call the logical intuition. For, if childhood is characterized by a magical vision of the world, a world where everything can happen without anything surprising, little by little the mind is initiated to the ‘order of things’. Through an associative process, a prelude to the journey of reason, objects, beings and phenomena are connected together. Different links are established which will slowly become the structuration of space, time, causality, logic, language, existence, with all the cumbersomeness and rigidities that this fixed view of the world implies, but which also proves to be the necessary condition for the advent of reason. To reason is to know or recognize the reality of things, to understand it and therefore to foresee. For, if nothing is foreseeable, if nothing is recognizable, our reason becomes obsolete. This explains our astonishment, when an event transcends the boundaries of our reason and its expectations. The transformation of which we speak is that of a mind for which everything is possible, which gradually distinguishes the possible and the impossible, as well as the ‘compossible’: that which is possible in relation to a given condition, the very foundation of logical thought: ‘if this, then that’, or ‘if on the one hand this and on the other hand this, then that’, the very basis of the classical syllogism.

The philosophical exercise, through discussion or otherwise, consists in inviting reason to carry out a double work on itself. On the one hand, to go ‘till the end’ of its interrogations, its problems, its analysis. On the other hand, to see oneself functioning, to identify the mechanisms, both those that operate and produce thought, and those that slow down, deflect or interrupt the process of reflection. These two aspects of work are mutually nourishing, since the perception of limits makes it possible to grasp the precise nature of a process, and the identification of a process makes it possible to rework or to go beyond the limits. Thus, the work of metareflexion allows thought to progress. It is precisely the problem that is raised by some teachers who tell us “I do not know what to answer the students’ questions” or “It goes round in circles, I do not see how to advance the discussion”: how to bring thought forward. The solution is neither to provide ready-made answers on which the students will rush, nor simply to propose a track that ‘save the group’, but to invite each of them to observe their own functioning, their ideas, their contradictions, their shifts in meaning, etc., simply by a few small methodological rules that specify the role and the purpose of each moment of reflection.

The first aspect of this process consists in being conscious of the nature of our remarks and of our actions, and for this to know how to categorize these words, to know the form or the finality of our word. Are we asking a question, proposing a new idea, answering an objection or providing one, demonstrating or proving an idea, arguing or problematizing, giving an example or conceptualizing an illustration, reporting facts or interpreting them? We are here concerned about emerging from the “I want to say something… It makes me think of… I would like to add…”, or the simple compulsive and recurring “yes but…” All are expressed wishes to ‘comment’, ‘nuance’, ‘complement’, ‘bounce’, or ‘specify’ which, when verified, do not mean much, are very vague or remain far from what they intend to say. The type of analysis that we propose refers first to the intention of the speech to be identified, because, for its author, it is often experienced and perceived exclusively as a ‘speech impulse’, something which comes to mind and asks one to come out, as soon as possible, some opinions of primarily associative origin, whose nature and role we do not know. An ignorance which explains a certain number of difficulties in articulation, some stammerings, erasures and contradictions. To become conscious of what one wants to say, also means to work and to smooth out this word according to an authoritative finality allowing one to better structure one’s thought. Although, during the first attempts, categorization or definition seems to make our speech even more confused. Making and seeing oneself, as a simultaneous action, can be thought of and initially experienced as a splitting factor, burdening the task, but more or less rapidly, as the capacity to be both ‘in’ and ‘outside’, this process facilitates the work of thought and of the expression by clarifying one’s understanding.

To tell some words is to think, says Hegel, affirming that it would be illusory to believe in thinking without forging this thought with concepts. Intention, feeling, impression, intuition, so many inadequate, insufficient and deceptive forms of thought, a thought not conscious of itself. Of course, this presupposition, like all presuppositions, knows its limits, but it also knows its usefulness. To know what one says is to say what one says, to announce one’s intention, to define the form, to articulate the relation to what has already been said. However, as with the whole of the exercise, it is not a matter of doing vocabulary work on the terms ‘hypothesis’, ‘objection’, ‘abstract’, ‘essential’ or on other such terms, although it is hardly excluded to do so at another time. Not to know, but to know-how; not to know something, but to use it. Our business is above all in making sure that the pupil trains himself in thinking his thoughts through, that is, in trying to specify the nature of his discourse. In a sense, whatever words he uses, those that will be his at first, approximate and unusual, or those that he will acquire during the practice, more precise or more conventional. The important thing is to unseal the immediacy that binds him to his word, to dig a gap, to install a breath, to pass from the implicit to the explicit, so that the subject detaches itself, so that thought becomes an object for itself. Our opinions are truths, says Pascal, on the condition that we hear what they say, and the truth of our opinions is not always where we think it is. Let us try to get closer to it.


Guidelines for rational judgment and dialogue

Guidelines for rational judgment and dialogue

1. The principle of sufficient reason should be applied: everything that is has some reason to be; everything that is not has some reason not to be. Thus reality will be addressed under a conditional, hypothetical, problematic or dialectical mode, rather than under an assertoric or categorical mode.  

2. Everything that happens has meaning, all phenomena are significant: they cannot be taken exclusively in themselves, as isolated events, they reflect in some fashion the nature of reality. Therefore, everything we do happens for reasons, conscious or unconscious, which we can either know or ignore, but that we need to explore.

3. Accidents are merely phenomena where causes, intentions or conditions are not accounted for, and seem arbitrary.

4. Indetermination has to do with human knowledge, its nature, its defects and limitations, and not with objective reality in itself. Any event has to be accounted for with the most probable rationale, until this explanation is proven wrong or insufficient by further events.

5. Certitude is not necessary to make a valid assumption, since such certitude is most likely impossible. Probability is sufficient, mere possibility is insufficient, except to provide an objection, when we need to problematize a proposition.

6. All judgments are susceptible to revision since absolute certitude is a theoretical impossibility. All assertions are limited in value, content and application, constrained by determined paradigms and conditions of possibility, including the present assertion.

7. Exceptions can overthrow a judgment to the extent they are significant, in number or in content; otherwise they merely confirm the rule. Accidents are events that happen unintentionally and unexpectedly. They are insignificant unless they are repetitive, repeatable or substantial. At which point they have to be accounted for through new principles.

8. For all human actions, some intention and knowledge should be presupposed, even if unconscious, unless proven otherwise. The mind is never neutral: our desires, feelings, emotions and thoughts shape our relationship to the world and to ourselves.

9. All knowledge of events and beings should be used as an access to reality through rationality, since nothing is deprived a priori from meaning or significance. Any particular being or event potentially reveals the totality of reality.

10. Indetermination only occurs within a context of determination. Otherwise it becomes meaningless, denying any possibility of reason and knowledge.

11. Beliefs, intuitions, opinions and feelings form the substrate of our being and thinking, but they should remain available to any argument, reason or evidence provided, directly or indirectly, from our own observations and thoughts, or from other persons’, to the extent those data seem grounded.

12. Our personal views of the world constitute the basis for our own thinking, but this particular perspective should be conscious of otherness and remain open to common sense, objective reality and other singular perspectives, in order to be susceptible to broadening, revision and improvement. Our particular visions of reality should be looked at from the standpoint of their own limits, from the outside.

To philosophize is to cease living

To philosophize is to cease living

goldfish jumping out of the waterThose who apply themselves to philosophy in the proper way are doing no more nor less than to prepare themselves for the moment of dying and the state of death – Plato The Tao Te King is so mysterious that one is willing to die soon after hearing it.— Confucius To change my idea ? Biologically, I cannot! – Carmen

If to philosophize is learning to die, learning how to die, it cannot be done except than by practicing dying. Thus our proposal is that to philosophize is actually dying, in order to acquire a real experience of death. So we will try in this text to show that to philosophize is to cease living, or in other words, how philosophy is opposed to life.
Two philosophies
“Philosophy is life”, is an expression we hear commonly among philosophy fans. But it seems to us that actually it is exactly the contrary. Although that is the way it goes for many commonplace expressions: they are good at putting reality topsy-turvy. Probably because of their intention: they hide reality in order for their author to feel better. And when we think about it for one moment, this might be one of the “popular” reasons for “philosophy”: a desire for a good conscience, a hope for the mind to feel easy and relaxed. A common conception of philosophy: philosophy makes you “cool”. Thus it seems useful to us, as often, to take the counterpoint of this principle, to effectuate the reversal of this reversal, if only to better examine the effect produced by the operation. And in this case, like in many others of same type, it works quite well, since it seems to us that for example the expression “To philosophize is to cease living” is a rather sensible and interesting expression. Probably, indeed, we have now another meaning of philosophy, opposed to the previous one: philosophy implies to overturn established ideas and induce uneasiness, at the risk of a bad conscience, a sort of psychological suffering and death. But of course we are conscious that we have here posed as opposites two very distinct classical conceptions of philosophy, that can be coined as the “vulgar” one and the “elitist” one. We are not trying to establish a hierarchy between them, since “vulgar” could become “popular”, and “elitist” could become “abstruse”. But subjectively, in defense of this “harsh” philosophy, let us claim that if philosophy was life, it would fill up football stadium, supply supermarkets, we would find it in opinion polls, appear at primetime television, and probably established philosophers would look less dusty and speak to everyone. Although some of this somewhat may happen already over the last few years, for different reasons!
Let us examine different ways in which philosophy would be opposed to life. First, by taking up the classical refrain that “To philosophize is learning to die”. Plato, Cicero, Montaigne and many others have affirmed, written and rewritten that preparation to death would indeed constitute the heart of philosophical activity, the philosophical experience par excellence. Of course we can oppose here some philosophers like Spinoza, with his concept of “conatus”: every living being tends to persevere existing, or his famous quote: “the free man thinks to nothing less than to death”. Or Nietzsche who claims life itself is that the core of real thinking, when he writes that the great reason is the body, the small reason is the mind. Or Sartre, whom in the footsteps of the epicureans affirms that death is exterior to existence, since it is absence or cessation of life. But since by principle, especially on these matters, not a single proposition can obtain unanimous agreement among philosophers, we will not bother about the consensus: we will only examine the viability of our propositions. And in fact, we most likely will reconcile with our philosophers of “opposition” in the course of our peregrination. Already because in those different philosophers the concept of finitude is important, and it is precisely on this trajectory that we wish to invite the reader: examining the different stakes of thinking, undergoing and living the finitude: existential, epistemological, psychological…
The wise has no desires

One of the most common obstacles to philosophizing is desire, even though desire itself is found at the heart of the philosophical dynamic. For Plato, the perversion of philosophy is carried out in the reversal process of the erotic. When desire abandons its most legitimate object for a philosopher: truth, or beauty, in order to seek more immediate satisfactions, such as the pursuit of power and glory, accumulation of wealth or knowledge, lust, etc. It is not so much that he ceases all intellectual activity, but this vulgar purpose not being in the service of its natural vocation, its activity is perverted by earthly considerations. And if this philosopher, who has therefore become a sophist, obtains the agreement of the majority or becomes popular among his fellow citizens, it is only because the common of mortals does not know what a philosopher look like. The layman gets impressed by mere appearance, by the simulacra of thinking, he is dumfounded by the summersaults of he who for Plato is nothing but a buffoon or a juggler.
Life has a lot to do with desire, for life is composed of needs, and the pursuit of what ever object will satisfy those needs, and the anguish at not obtaining the objects that would satisfy the needs, and the pain that comes even when the needs are satisfied, through fear and worry. For it seems that life has an enormous capacity to create new needs and therefore new pains, in particular for man, whose scope of existence is much wider than any other species: he can even envisage the infinite, an exciting vision indeed, but as well one who can produce an endless list of unsatisfied desires, sometimes if not often simply because they are impossible. If most species are contented with the particular needs of their own species – the hen does not want to underwater, the elephant does not want to fly – the human species knows no boundary to his pretensions, wills, ambitions, and therefore no boundary to his pains. One could hear argue that man satisfies more desires than any other species and therefore could feel more contented, but it seems that his imagination and lust far surpass his own capacities to be satisfied.

Even though philosophy has throughout history and geography threaded many paths, and proposed many different schemes, there is still a certain coherency in the different manners philosophers have used to solve the excessive capacity of man to make himself unhappy. We will call this common ground “reconciliation with oneself”. Be it with the epicurean “carpe diem”, which invites one to appreciate the present moment, with the idealist pure pleasure of thinking and reasoning, with the perspective of an extramundane world or reality that moderates, restrains or annihilates common desires, as we find in many religions as well, with the commitment to simply accepting reality, in spite of its harshness or due to it, with the love of transcendent concepts such as truth, good or beauty, who in themselves sublime all pains and satisfy the soul, with the projection of one’s self in the future, with the enjoyment of pure action, physical or mental, freed from any expectation of reward, thus philosophers have attempted to provide men with many recipes to have what could be called a “better life”. Evidently, one will jump here and cry out : “You see, philosophy is life! You just said it yourself: philosophy helps us live a better life!”. But our critique forgets here something fundamental. Let us ask him the following questions. Why did those philosophers have so little following? Why were those philosophies so hard to follow? Were not philosophies offering propositions opposed to the common conception of life? For even the mass based religions have to realize that the messages they deliver, even though when recognized as the divine words, encounter very difficult times to be obeyed and followed to the letter.

Let us try to examine why philosophers are not so easily followed, to say the least. As a general answer to this question, we can propose the following hypothesis. Philosophers ask us to give up what is dearest to our heart, or rather to our guts. In what way do they ask this? Once again, the most general way to characterize their demand is to say they ask us to give up the obvious or the immediate in favor or something else which is rather distant, rather impalpable, rather imperceptible, and difficult to account for. Be it the median way, wisdom, autonomy, perfection, reality, love, consciousness, absolute, otherness, essence, they can all be mere words to pursue, compared to food, pleasure, dancing, working for a living, reproducing, appearance, popularity, etc. Even living in the present moment, which might seem something easy to do, since we don’t have to worry about anything else, is actually a very ascetic and demanding task, since man spends lots of his energy regretting a wonderful past, even mourning about it, or being anxious about the future and its unpredictability. Thus living the present moment can last for a very short while, but within a short delay other dimensions of time, including the desire for eternity, will knock at the door. So it is with love, that seems so popular. But when we look closer at its manifestation, we identify all kinds of sordid calculations, resentments, jealousies, possessions and other gross and humanly perversions of the pure concept.

We get an interesting view of the problem as well when we look at the life of philosophers: the great genius Leibniz with no one at his burial, Kant living all his life alone with his servant, Wittgenstein giving up his inheritance and living like a pauper, Nietzsche going crazy, Socrates killed by his fellow citizens, Bruno burnt at the stake, although some, we must admit, got fame, glory and wealth, like Hume or Aristotle.

But let us know examine some other aspects of our claim that to philosophize is to cease living.
Stopping the narration

Life is a sequence, a series of events. When someone tells his life, to his friends or by writing an autobiography, he tells a story: this happened, then this happened, and finally this happened, thus ending the narration. And in general human beings enjoy telling each other their “life story”, sometimes because important things happened, but most often giving an account of the most trivial and uninteresting details, just to be able to hold a conversation with neighbors, and exist a little bit more. The same thing goes for hearing the “life story” of other persons, the gossiping about the neighbors or about celebrities, an insatiable drive for voyeurism. Another way in which life is a narration is the way we conceive our activities, often ran by an agenda, which establishes what we should do on such a day and at such time, a laundry list of activities such as getting up, working, shopping, miscellaneous appointments, daily chores, and the indispensable television programs schedule, all of which rhythms many a family life. And how much do we worry about all the things we haven’t done, that we should do and probably will never do, that have to inscribe themselves anyhow in the infinite list that compose our existence, as if time was the main or only parameter. That is one of the reasons why it is so easy to feel eternal or to forget our own finitude: our desires resist and strongly conspire against such a limit. If I had the time! Existence is thus a large list of events and deeds, and a much larger list of hopes, expectations and fear of events and deeds.

Then, how does philosophy oppose the idea of a narration? Although there again some philosophers will in the modern period defend such a phenomenological vision of existence and promote the narration, one of the great revolution of philosophy, as it appeared in the classical Greek upheaval which some consider – rightly or wrongly – as the birth of philosophy, was to move from the mythos to the logos. Until then, everything, be it the creation of the world, the existence of man, natural phenomena, moral and intellectual problems, were explained in the form of stories that us, modern and “enlightened” minds, we would call myths. If we did not take into account the quality factor, we could call them very well television shows. And since some of those most fantastic myths needed actors, all kinds of creatures were invoked and convoked to perpetrate the actions accounting for the different cosmic or unexplained phenomena. Thus poets, as they were called, like Hesiod or Homer for the Greeks, Virgil or Ovid for the Romans, insightfully composed inspiring tales that gave coherence and explanations to the world. Cosmogonies, theogonies, epics, all kind of stories were concocted that would be used to educate the population, giving them the idea that there was sense in the universe, that daily events had something to account for them. And of course, to bring this home, our most minute human happenings should echo those great “historical” feats, so we could have as well our daily small myths, intertwined with cosmic ones in some kind of causal relation. Therefore the universe as a whole and all the parts composing it had meaning, significance, laws and principles, all in the form of a “story”. This would allow as well a reassuring proportion of predictability to console us from the hardships of life, even by way of an explanation all we had was the temper tantrum or the love story of some wild god. And small stories would reflect great stories, but everything was stories. This was the case not only in Greece and Rome, but in Egypt, in China, in India, to mention only some of the most famous and long lasting cultures, since those myths were actually founders of civilization. And as we see still today in many countries, like for example in Africa, those stories have a very important educational function, since patterns emerge, what some call archetypes, that allow us to perceive the events affecting us not just as particular occurrences, but as the manifestations or recalls of something more fundamental.

The emergence of the logos, that took place not only in Greece – it is just the most famous such upheaval – but as well in some other cultures, is basically the transformation of a “story telling” culture to an “explanation” culture, which some call “rationality”, or “abstraction”. The idea was to substitute stories with reasons and rules, procedures and methods. It implies that one can get away from concrete situations, particular or universal, to replace them with ideas, which have for specificity to be a-temporal and a-spatial. Those ideas would then be organized and formalized to create systems, that could be used to produce new knowledge, and general principles, that would be used to examine critically thoughts and even facts. Logic is an example of pushing to its limits such an intellectual functioning. Mathematics and astronomy are in many early cultures the most visible and primary forms of such endeavors, sometimes medicine and physics as well. Those new sciences would allow an understanding of the present and the past, and predict the future. Knowledge would not be based only on empirical data, but on abstractions and intellectual constructions. Laws would emerge, that were not only descriptive, explaining what we perceive, but as well prescriptive, telling us what we should do.

The reason we used brackets for the terms explanation, rationality and abstraction, is that in a certain way, the mythos culture was already attempting to do this, just in a different way. In fact, in Africa today is raging a debate to determine if there is – was – or not an African philosophy, to determine if the story telling of the “griots”, the traditional bard, can be considered or not as philosophy. The western oriented African intellectuals claim that this is not philosophy principally because there is no conceptual system and critical apparatus, and therefore the philosophical content is not explicated. The other camp, which are called the ethno-philosophers, claim that these stories do question, analyze and problematize, in particular human existence, on existential, social and moral questions. We must here remind as well how Shelling, a German romantic philosopher, counterpoised to the idea of the traditional Aristotelian “first philosophy”: metaphysics, a “second philosophy”, which is the narration, the story telling, although this second philosophy is chronologically the first one. For it is true that societies are founded on great myths, that embody the essence, the nature, the reason of being, the goal, the specificity of this given society. That is why literature, in the form of theater, poetry or else, is such an important institution, along side philosophy, to explain who we are, what the world is. And Shelling will not be the only philosopher criticizing the abandon of the narration as a crucial form of philosophy. More recently, the very idea of “philosophy of systems” or the one of “method” has been under great attack even by philosophers.

Thus along the great myths, there are the numerous tales, ancient or recent, that contribute to create the identity of the ones that tell them and the one that receive them. This includes the stories than run in families, the myth that each one makes for himself. Don’t we all have those stories about ourselves, that we have told so many times, changed and embellished along the numerous occasions of telling them, those stories that others repeat like us, those stories that our entourage are sometimes tired of hearing, but we keep telling them because those stories are what we are, or we are what they are. We say they are real, but in a way a story cannot be real, since it subjectively describes in a specific and partial way an event which in itself escapes any description, with words or otherwise. After all, man is the only animal that invents himself!

Thus to make more clear our idea of philosophy as a rupture with life defined as a sequence of events, let us summarize with the following points. Telling a story is easier and more natural than explaining; it is concrete, it speaks more to everyone. Examples come more readily to the mind than explanations. Stories look more real than explanations, since they are concerned with describing facts rather than giving subjective interpretations and biased analysis. Stories are more gratifying, because we can look good with very few easy and simple words. Stories give much more room to imagination than reason, the latter being much stricter. Stories are more pleasing to hear than abstract thoughts: even children enjoy them, since they have an esthetic dimension that explanations and ideas often lack. Philosophy has a more arid image, not as easily pleasing, since it implies understanding, much more than narration does. But of course, those work hypothesis are in no way absolute, since they merely try to provide some generalities about general perceptions, that already are not valid for many philosophers, since most of them enjoy what the common mortal does not enjoy. The philosopher is in a way, in the eyes of many persons, someone that at least partially gave up on life. He seems not to be interested in “real life”: he prefers abstruse ideas. Which takes us to our next point: the ascetic quality of ideas.

The asceticism of the concept
This aridity of the philosophical speech takes us directly to another facet of opposition between life and philosophy: the ascetic dimension of the concept. The concept is a crucial tool of the thinking, if not the main one, as is generally accepted in philosophy, in particular since Hegel. For the German philosopher has put forward this “tool” as what constitutes the scientificity of our mental activity. That is why he rejects story telling, which for him is definitely not philosophy, even when encountered it in a classical philosopher such as Plato, who indulges in telling stories, as Hegel sees it, when for Plato the myth still had an important founding role in the thinking.

What is a concept? It is an intellectual representation, which capture the theme or the prominent idea in a given discourse; we could as well call it the “key word” or “key expression”. It can be included in the speech, or can be induced by it. Often it can be considered as a category, a common name to a multiplicity of objects. “Apple” is therefore a definite concept that refers abstractly to an infinity of objects with different form, size and color, but that have in common certain criteria that allow them to enter in the category of “apple”, a concept which in return define those objects that correspond to it. It is the result of a double operation. An abstraction, since it keeps only some characteristic of the objects and not others. For example “ripeness” does not enter in the definition of the apple, even though that concerns us in “life” when we deal with apples. And a generalization, since the characteristics retained are applicable to all the objects that belong to the category. It is a mental object with a double dimension. Comprehension: the totality of the constitutive characteristics. Extension: the totality of the objects these characteristics can be applied to.

Therefore it is short – generally one word, sometimes two or three, rarely more – and abstract or general, since it does not refer to a concrete thing. To show the process and degrees of abstraction, Kant has an interesting distinction between empirical concepts, that refers to objects we can perceive, and derivative concepts, that we cannot perceive, since they refer to relationship between objects, and qualify them. “Hole” or “man” would be empirical concepts, “equal” or “difference” would be derivative concepts.

Actually, it is not so much the concept that interests us here, but the dynamic itself of conceptualization, the production of concepts. As Hegel indicates in his realist scheme – one for whom ideas are real – we don’t want the concept to be determined merely by its object, i.e. to be the concept of something, where reality would be external to the thinking, but rather we aim at a concept which is the object itself of thought: something as a concept, where reality is engendered by the thinking itself. For it is this activity of conceptualization that is a problem for man, reasoning, more than the concept itself, which, as a passive virtual mental object does not represent any concrete threat: to give and use a name, arbitrarily, can be an activity that implies no particular intellectual accomplishment.

Then, what is conceptualization? It is the activity of recognizing, producing, defining and utilizing concepts, integrated in a global thinking process. Each of the four aspect of conceptualization presents some king of difficulty, which constitutes reasons for resisting conceptualization. But in a general way, the problem with conceptualization is that it consists in an action of reduction, of shrinking, that has a dry and harsh connotation, for the following reasons: we are going from the concrete to the abstract, from the multiple to the simple, from the actual to the virtual, from the perceptible to the thinkable, from entities inscribed in time, matter and space, to acosmic, immaterial and intemporal entities: we enter the realm of pure ideas, the realm of thinking the thinking.

And if most often the idea of reduction carries a negative connotation, we should remind the reader that in philosophy, it can be on the contrary a positive and useful activity, such as in the concept of phenomenological reduction, as proposed by Husserl. It is a mental process where we are invited to bracket the world and suspend our judgment, in order to seize the inner reality of a phenomenon, in itself, as it appears. Of course, we have to give up on all surrounding reality, in order to contemplate the objects of our mental perception disconnected from any context. This phenomenon can happen naturally, when we are astonished, but the process of phenomenological reduction asks us to recreate artificially such a natural occurrence, a very demanding task that allows us to seize the inner essence of an object of thought by abandoning to the extent possible our established worldview, which subjectively taints our thinking. The reduction process can as well occur by observing the variation of appearance of a given object, in order to give up the contingent characteristics and conserve only the necessary, its essence, thus revealed.

Recognizing a concept, in someone else’s speech or in one’s own, is difficult because we have to select, among all the words pronounced, which ones are the center of the thinking pattern expressed by the given speech. It is a difficult process, since we have to eliminate a lot of words, in fact most of them, to only keep one, or very few. We loose the narrative perspective or the overall explanation by nailing the point with a single word.

Producing a concept is difficult because we have to convoke a term which transcends a given reality, we have to identify a term which unites a plurality into one single determination, we have to divide a totality of undetermined objects by a process of naming that implies creating determined categories, or we have to qualify a global reality through a specific term, what can be called labeling. There it seems often that our own language escapes us, that reality is beyond our capacity to think it.

Defining a concept is difficult because we have to determine the reality the concept encompasses. We would rather give examples, since the concrete or the particular comes more naturally to the mind than the abstract and the general. To define is to touch at the essence of a reality, to determine and outline its nature, it is one of the most demanding mental exercise. To do this, another common easy way is to produce synonyms, but even though this might be useful, the problem remains: it does not say how to determine the nature of this reality. The problem as well is that some concept of a highly transcendent nature are in general used to determine or qualify other concepts: they seem to refer only to themselves, as self-evident entities. This is the case for example with “good”, “beautiful”, “true”, etc. Therefore, they seem to escape any definition, and any attempt to do so will always appear reductionist and highly questionable.

Using a concept is probably the easiest aspect of conceptualization, since it can be done in a much more intuitive fashion, less formal. Or course, to determine if a concept has been used in an appropriate fashion is part of the utilization, and this would be the hardest part of it, since we have to evaluate our own thinking. In order to do this, we have to maintain a rather clear idea of the meaning of a concept. But then again, intuition can sometimes function quite well, and after all, language is taught to us in a rather “natural” or reiterative fashion, as a daily practice, more than as a conscious process. The common reticence of school children to study grammar and a certain abandonment of its teaching in modern pedagogy brings some evidence to prove our point about the “artificial” nature of this formal activity. Although from our standpoint “artificial” is in no way contradictory with necessary.

Thus, to synthesize what is ascetic and unpleasant in conceptualization – and therefore contrary to life – are the following requirements. Having to choose and give up, because we want everything. Producing specific terms with a specific function, because it looks formal and complicated and we prefer what is easy. Dealing with abstractions that have no immediate empirical reality, because it is useless and a waste of time. Analyzing the thinking and becoming conscious of one’s thinking, because it is frightening. One could object to our idea that conceptualization is cessation of life by simply saying that what we described is merely some kind of intellectual work, and that work is part of life, even if we don’t like to work, and some people like to work anyhow. We would like to answer this objection in two steps. First we will deal with the work aspect, then with the intellectual aspect.

Among cultures and thinkers, there are many different visions of work. We don’t want to do an extensive study on the matter, but just provide some intuitions on how the opposition functions between “life” and “work”. As a proof of this, we could already mention the fact that the word “work” itself, in some languages like French: “travail”, or Spanish: “trabajo”, come from the Latin word tripalium, which was then an instrument of torture, or a contraption to immobilize animals, when animals are defined precisely by their mobility. Work is therefore linked to constraint and pain. “Negotium” is another Latin word for work, and it means the absence or rest, of leisure, the absence of what the French call “temps de vivre”, literally: time to live. Aristotle recommends to not give citizenship to the working man, Rousseau criticizes the agitation and the torment involved in working, Pascal pretends we use it not think about our self, Nietzsche considers that work is a police that is used to control everyone in order to stall the development of reason, of desire and of independence. The concept of alienation has been an important accusation against the idea of work. But the concept of “work” carries as well its fan club. On the favorable side, Arendt thinks that work provides pleasure and good health, Comte affirms it provides social cohesion, and Voltaire writes that it protects us from three terrible scourges: boredom, vice and need. And we will notice that the defense of work does not simply rest on its practical usefulness, but as well because it contributes to existential growth. These “opposing” authors are here mentioned to show that in no way we take our ideas for certitude: they constitute mere work hypothesis.

One might criticize as well the fact that we do not distinguish and rather confuse here different meaning of “work”: as a social function, as a way to earn a living, as an activity, etc, and therefore we don’t distinguish for example the pleasant and free activity of the thinker from the physical and painful activity of the laborer. We shall plead guilty on this account, we do not want to oppose a “noble” intellectual work to a “base” physical work, we find interesting not to oppose those conceptions of labor, since they interchange easily, especially today, even if that opposition can still be very true in many circumstances. For an intellectual can write a book for economic and status reason, a sort of necessity, when the mason can construct a house for the mere pleasure of building something. As well, we will not enter in the debate about the nature of man as “homo faber” (man as a fabricator), who naturally tries to accomplish something in his life, or man as “lazy”, as a “sinner” who engages in the sin of sloth when he tries to get away with doing his share of work. We just want to give some hints about the existential reticence to work, in order to justify and give meaning to the fact that life and work are rather incompatible in many ways, and that work is often accomplished under the strain of necessity, for example as “earning a living”, an endeavor that often if not very often, men would rather do without if they actually were asked to freely choose without any constraint. And indeed, this might be an explanation of why philosophy, which is a practice involving work, a lot of work, by learning a culture, acquiring skills and confronting oneself, without any kind of immediate necessity or easy reward – it is not the most obvious mean to earn a living or become rich – has never filled football stadium. Of course, if philosophy is a mere discussion about life and happiness, of the kind we would naturally have while taking a drink at the bar, then it is evidently another issue. And that is the direction that some “philosophers” take in order to make philosophy more popular. But if philosophy is work, struggling with oneself and other, in order to produce concepts or being, it will tend to be rejected by the majority as an obstacle to the “good life”.

Work generally opposes it self to life, since it is an obligation when life is desire. Friedrich Schiller, being at the same time a philosopher, poet and dramatist, did not appreciate this rather Kantian dualism between what he called “sensuous drive” and “formal drive”, an opposition which he wanted to resolve through a “play drive”. He claimed that when the philosopher will rebuke his listener by the aridity of his speech, he will bring him back through this “play drive”, because man loves to play, for example with ideas. But of course, this implies that emotions be educated by reason, and emotions resist such an endeavor, although it must be possible, otherwise how could children grow? For the German humanist, in the “beautiful soul”, duty and inclination are no longer in conflict with one another. Expressing oneself does not have to be linked to primitive banal feelings, but can be connected to higher order emotions, to beauty. Human freedom expresses itself therefore as a capacity to go beyond animal instincts. But of course, this implies some kind of work, no such accomplishment springs forth naturally. If it is natural, it is an acquired nature, a specificity of man which is as well called culture.

Let us now examine the “intellectual” problem of philosophy. To start, we can remind the reader of the famous history of the Thales and the servant girl, told by Plato. Apparently, Thales, philosopher and astronomer, was looking at the stars, and not looking at his feet, he fell in the well. A servant who saw the scene started laughing heavily at such a fool, who so busy with “ethereal spheres” thus ignored the reality in front of him. The question which of course imposes itself to the philosophical mind, which as the story implies is probably not the case of the servant girl, is to know if the well, the hole in the ground, the immediate physical presence, is endowed with more reality that the far away heavens that Thales was engaged into contemplating. This story captures well the general view of the philosopher, of philosophical activity, even though it will be labeled as a cliché. But after all, a cliché is a term that at the origin designates the picture taken by the camera, showing in a fixed way what is immediately visible; therefore, in spite of its reductionist quality, there is reality to the cliché. So the philosopher, by claiming there is a reality other that the immediate and visible reality, focuses on this hidden reality, is obsessed by its secret, and therefore does not see anymore, or much less, what is visible to anyone else. This again brings us back to Plato and the allegory of the cave, where the man that has seen the “light of truth” is blinded once he is back in the dark cave, he cannot play the common games, which will lead his fellow citizens to first laugh at him, then kill him.

Another point of difference about life, when we think of Thales and the servant, is the body issue. For is seems that if the servant inhabits her body, the philosopher does not. We could well think of him – as of many philosophers – as a mind on legs, his body being a mere transportation instrument of his head, as we se it on small children drawings. She has a body, he is some kind of ectoplasm. Contrary to her, he does not care about what happens to his body, and that is why he falls. Immediacy of the senses has no real meaning, since his senses are so stretched out, looking at the stars, that they don’t distinguish themselves anymore from the mind’s activity. When the servant girl seems to be endowed of what is called “horse sense”, this common sense so closely linked to sense perception. She trust her eyes and her mind for what they tell her, when he doubts, dissects and tries to go beyond. She is alive, she exists, he is an intellectual being. He incarnates the classical intellectualist thesis: the body is a prison for the soul, a soul which desperately tries to reach the unbounded, attain the unconditioned, but a soul that the body constantly humiliates, reminding him of his finite self. While the soul, in return, scorns at this ridiculous piece of flesh called the body. Life is dirty, and messy. That is the reason Lucifer could not understand why God would not prefer beautiful angels, creatures of light, to muddy and clumsy humans. Lucifer as the “saint patron” of the philosophers…

The other body ignored or despised by the philosopher is the social body. Just like the personal physical body, the social body is binding, heavy, banal, rude, messy, coarse, immediate, etc. What is common is bad, what is special is good. What is distant is beautiful, what is close is ugly. What is perceived is determined, what is thought is freedom. Of course, once again, such a cliché of the intellectual cannot pretend in any form to establish some kind of absolute prism, but as a general “thumb rule”, it works pretty well, and is useful to understand our own functioning, as one more of the classical dualisms inhabiting man’s existence. To understand for example our own tendency not to trust anyone but ourself, the fundamental mistrust against common opinion, a suspicion that seems to inhabit at different degrees all human minds.

Last but not least, the other manner in which the intellect denies life is in its relationship to feelings. Let us take one which is common and is often a reason not to philosophize: empathy. Empathy, like compassion, love, pity and others are the social feelings that makes us human, that makes us livable. But the intellect, like any other mental functioning, by privileging its own activity tends to ignore, diminish, deny, frustrate or suppress other types of activities, especially if they are not of same nature. And indeed, to analyze and conceptualize, and to demand from someone that he does so, to search and expose truth, to question, can be and most likely will be painful and contrary to social feelings that would rather prefer to ease things for our neighbor. Of course, the partisans of “wholeness”, another form of omnipotence connected to the “new age” trend, or persons indulging in some form of “psychologism”, will claim that these two activities combine very well. But from our own experience, those “humanists” tend to project their own fears and ideas on the adults or children they deal with, expressing more than anything else a lack of trust toward their own intellectual identity, and from then a mistrust toward the intellectual identity of others, a very common phenomenon. There again, feelings seem to constitute basic life principles, a common way to behave, and philosophizing takes the appearance of a forced and artificial activity, often with a demanding, therefore harsh and brutal connotation. They forget that philosophy, like any martial art, cannot avoid tripping, falling and bruising. And that is probably the way it teaches us to grow, through dealing with reality.

These different specificities of the intellect can be covered by an existential concept that is dear to us: authenticity. And in spite of its existential connotation, we claim that authenticity is a form of death. To be authentic, means to radicalize our position, to dare articulate it, to accomplish it without constantly looking behind our shoulder: authenticity has no need justify itself. A good reason for others to qualify it as haughty and arrogant. This extreme singularization is one of the main reason explaining the ostracism against the philosopher, although it can as well be the cause for his glorification. The cynics are a good example of this case, who dare think and express what they think, without any consideration for established customs, principles, morals and opinions. They show disrespect for everything considered sacred by their entourage and fellow citizens. Of course, this can only take them on a confrontation course, or isolation. They appear rigid and dogmatic, when in order to survive one has to be flexible and adapt. One can even accuse them of falling into a pathological type of behavior, suicidal like. And if they are accused of making mince meat out of the people they encounter, one should not overlook the fact that they make mince meat out of themselves as well. If only because of the perpetual state of war they are de facto engaged in, although that is not their purpose: it simply derives from their incapability to pretend and play social games. But as well because their own person is denied in favor of something more important, some transcendent concept, be it truth, nature or else, a concept that might not even be willing to pronounce, but to which they are willing to sacrifice everything including themselves. The only reason they appear like faithless outlaws is because they don’t accept half-measures and compromises. When we observe the daily forms of conversation, we observe how most dialogues are composed of three main ingredients: small talk about weather and gossip, self-glorification and self-justification, and obtaining some practical advantage from someone. The authenticity of the philosopher is in a total rupture with this scheme: small talk is boring, one has no need to glorify and justify himself, dialogue should have only to do with transcendent preoccupations. If not, it is better keep silent and shut up the interlocutor.

The allegory of the cave captures well the two frequent distinct attitudes the common man maintains toward the philosopher: laughter and anger. Laughter because he acts in a strange way, anger because there is the suspicion – or the certitude – he knows something the others don’t know: envy. This description fits the philosopher defined as another person, but what about the philosopher within oneself? How do we relate to him? Let us examine how this inner philosopher – this daemon as Socrates calls it – stops us from living. We can answer this question indirectly by stating that in the general educational process, parents will simply not encourage this kind of preoccupation or world outlook in their offspring. For the simple reason that a child with this kind of attitude would generally be perceived as carrying a sort of handicap: he would be clumsy, not really inhabiting his self, not being practical, being bothersome, etc. In other words, he would not seem to be preparing himself with the struggling that most people consider life to be, even when they don’t claim it openly. One has to adapt, one has to be practical, to be outcome minded. Especially today, at a time where economic competition rages fiercely, engaging oneself in philosophical preoccupation does not seem to provide the most useful preparation for life. It seems at best to be a luxury, at worse a threat. We observe this frequently in our work with children, where the one of the main objection against philosophy we encounter is that learning thinking takes time and there are more urgent matters to deal with. While we are on this topic, we can add that secondary to the first objection but still important is the suspicion that the child would be destabilized or troubled by this kind of activity. His child life would be inhibited by the activity of thinking, which could only provoke anguish and unsettle him. Life is considered hard enough, without having to think about terrible things; so let the child be a child, they say… Probably the adult as well… Thus, beside the actual difficulties of thinking, as we have already examined it, is the suspicion that the kinds of thought that would come about would be destructive. Which in a way is most likely true. A path that takes us with the next contradiction between life and philosophy: the issue of problematization.

Thinking the unthinkable
One of the important skills of philosophy is the capacity to problematize. Through questions and objections, one is supposed to critically examine given ideas or thesis, in order to escape the trap of evidence. This “evidence” is constituted by a body of knowledge and beliefs that philosophers call “opinions”: ideas that are not reasoned, they are merely established by habit, hearsay or tradition. Thus, when engaging in the philosophical process, one must examine the limits and falsity of any given opinion and envisage other possibilities of thinking, which at a first glance or to common thinking seems odd, nonsensical or even dangerous. In order to do this, one has to suspend his judgment, as Descartes invites us to do, and not trust usual emotions and convictions. Further on, through his “method”, he asks us to undergo some mental process that for him guarantees to obtain a more reliable kind of knowledge, which he calls “evidence”, in opposition to some kind established opinion, be it vulgar or scholar. In order to be reliable, this “evidence” has to be able to withstand doubt, avoid precipitation and prejudice, and take clear and distinct forms. With the dialectical method, be it in Plato, Hegel or others, the work of criticism or negativity goes further, since it is necessary to be able to think the contrary of a proposition in order to understand it, evaluate it and go beyond it; any possibility of “evidence” therefore disappears. Of course, to put into effect such cognitive procedures, ones needs to be in a certain mental state, to have a specific kind of attitude, composed of distance and critical perspective.

This attitude is very demanding, it knows many obstacles. Sincerity for example is such an obstacle to this attitude, so is good conscience and subjectivity, that must give up their tight hold on the mind. More radically, the moral principles, cognitive postulates and psychological needs that guide us in life have to be put in parenthesis, submitted to a harsh critic and even rejected, which of course does not happen naturally since it produces certain pain and anguish, unless one is capable to take distance from himself. To split oneself, as Hegel suggests, as a condition of real thinking, as a condition for conscience. And in order to accomplish such a shift in attitude, one has to die to oneself, give up, even momentarily, what is dearest to him, idea wise, emotion wise. “Biologically, I cannot do this!” answered me once a Spanish professor when I asked her to problematize her position on some subject. She had quite well perceived the problem, without visibly being fully conscious of the intellectual consequences of her outcry. Our life, our being, seems to be founded on certain established principles that are non negotiable. Thus, if thinking implies to problematize as a condition of deliberation, therefore one indeed has to die in order to think. And if we observe how persons involved in a discussion get heated up when contradicted, and resort to extreme positions and strategies in order to defend their ideas, including the most blatant bad faith, we can conclude that indeed, in general, abandoning one’s own ideas represents a sort of small death.

One can wonder why we so eagerly refuse to abandon an idea even for a moment, why so much resistance to such a short interlude of problematization, as we regularly encounter when such a demand is formulated. At least for adults, since this does not seem to be as much of a problem for children, less conscious of the implications and consequences of such an “artificial” counterpoint position. One insight we have on this matter is provided by Heidegger, through the status he gives speech: “Language is the house of being”, says he. For him, to speak is to make something appear in its being, we could therefore say that speech provides existence. Of course, for man, a being of language par excellence, this is rather obvious all though often denied, for example by the common objection “These are only words”. Without histories, myths and history, without narration and dialogue, what would we be? Certainly not human beings! Therefore, what we say about ourselves, be it in the form of narration – mythos – or in the form of ideas and explanations – logos – is indispensable and dear to us. To prove the importance of speech, we just have to observe how we feel threatened when our speech is ignored or contradicted; suddenly we pretend to be so preoccupied by truth! Actually, our real worry bears upon our own image, our self that we have laboriously and painstakingly constructed, a self that pretends to master his own production, a self that has strong pretensions to detaining knowledge, experience, reason, i.e. a valuable self… Our image is an idol to which we are willing to sacrifice anything; no oblation is too excessive. So when philosophy or a specific philosopher invites us to examine the shallowness, absurdity or vanity of our own thoughts, our whole being reacts strongly, instinctively, without having to think about it, as a mere survival reaction. The spiniozian conatus, our desire to persevere in existence takes over our thirst for truth, our desire for being specific, for existence, is ready to deny any form of otherness, deny reason itself. The person, this empirically constructed self, feels threatened in its very existence by the faceless, indentityless being. To problematize our innermost thoughts, our fundamental principles, to slightly give up or freely examine those postulates we have stated or defended sometimes for many years, becomes an intolerable position. Our ideas are us, we are our ideas. And such a modus vivendi should not be seen simply as a form of stubbornness. After all, how could we position ourselves and act in society if we did not have such an attachment? How could we commit ourself to any life project, if we did not pledge allegiance to some fundamental principles? How would we exist, without some regulatory ideals guiding our life, however distant we are from realizing them ? If man is the thinking being, he is a being of ideas. The only problem here is that if ideas are tools for thinking, too often the means is taken for the end and the ideas becomes an obstacle for the thinking. Therefore, to problematize is the attempt to reestablish the primacy of thinking over ideas, a task which is not easy to accomplish, since the empirical self has a hard time to give way to the transcendent self. To give up specific ideas is a form of death, thinking is therefore like dying.

More important things to do
In certain cultures, the philosopher maintains a real status, he is admired, for his knowledge, for his wisdom, for his depth, for he seems to have access to a reality that is denied to the common mortal. In other cultures, on the contrary, he is viewed as a useless being, suspicious, awkward or even perverted. To come back to Thales and the servant girl, some societies give more room to the celestial perspective than others, and some societies are more earthly than others. The second case is generally manifested through different forms. First possibility: philosophy is rather absent from the cultural matrix, or is reduced to a strict minimum in terms of its importance in the collective psyche. Second possibility: philosophy is viewed as an enemy, since it undermines the postulates and principles guiding this society, by introducing doubt and critical thinking. Third possibility: philosophy adapts to the cultural matrix, anchor itself in material preoccupation, in order to stop the thinking from escaping into some kind of ethereal reality. Of course, those three aspects can easily combine, the Anglo-American culture being a good case of this. Be it in the USA of the UK, philosophy is a rather weak cultural endeavor. It is often viewed as a threat against established political, economic and religious postulates. And its philosophical tradition tends to remain within the realm of empirical and material reality, as we historically see in the schools of empiricism, utilitarianism and pragmatism.

This third aspect, a specific form of philosophy, is therefore not accidental. The issue here is one of axiology. What are the values of a given society? What is the hierarchy of values around which this society is organized? We can here be reminded of the famous painting by Raphael: the school of Athens, which shows Plato pointing at the heavens and Aristotle pointing toward the earth, while different philosophers seem concerned with different issues. The history of philosophy is nothing but a series of statements and rebuttals, accompanied with some epistemological considerations on the methods and procedures used in order to prove different points. Therefore the criticism of philosophy or rejection of philosophy is still operating within the realm of philosophy, because it is always only the criticism or the rejection of a specific and particular form of philosophy. Philosophy produces its own criticism and strives on its own criticism. This is the reason why philosophy can claim as its own any form of antiphilosophy, be it religious, scientific, psychological, political, traditional, literary, etc. For it seems, as we are subjectively willing to claim it, that man cannot escape philosophy, no more than it can escape faith or art. The only parameters that change are the values adopted, the methods used, the attitudes taken and the degree of consciousness. Man creates his own reality, and this production of reality has philosophical content. The meaning of man’s accomplishments may differ, the desire to determine the meaning may vary, the relationship to meaning may change, the relative importance given to meaning may oppose the importance given to “factual” observations, but whatever we do, we cannot escape meaning, because man is a rational animal, and he cannot escape reason. This signifies that he interprets, he judges, he evaluates, he subjectively decides which degree and nature of reality he grants to reality, he sets the standard for what truth is, and we can state that reality and truth are nothing but concepts, human constructions or inventions. Even when man declares that reality escapes him, because it is materially bound, objectively defined or God given, he makes a commitment, he engages himself into a defined set of values.

In other words, the servant girl is as much an interlocutor – and in a way as much a philosopher – as Thales, even though she looks a lot like our next door neighbor. Which brings us back to the issue of “vulgar” philosophy and “elitist” philosophy. Because philosophy is an attempt to step out, to go beyond, but those spatial transformations cannot make any sense without the this-sidedness of things. Thales is meaningless without the servant girl, strangely enough she is his “alter ego”: she is just another ego! Without the dialogue and the tension between those two postures, Thales becomes meaningless, the girl becomes uninteresting. Let us here bring back the allegory of the cave. Why does the philosopher come back to the cave, in Plato’s allegory? He comes back to die! He cannot stay outside, looking at the pure light, even though he would prefer to be a slave in this enlightened world rather than a king in the darkness. But Plato cannot help it, he cannot not propose to bring this man back in the cave, just like if some fatality obliged him to this forced dialogue, to this confrontation, to this death. There is no philosophy without “agon”, claims Nietzsche. The agon being in the Greek tragedy the moment of confrontation, of drama, of tension. It is, ambiguously and paradoxically, destructive and constructive. Thinking is a dialogue with oneself, claims Plato, and there cannot be dialogue if there is no distance, no gap, no interval, if there is no confrontation.

Here, our claim is that by adopting the position that there is more important or more urgent things to do than philosophy, we are already in the philosophical debate. Even by forgetting that philosophy exists, we are in the philosophical field. The role of the philosopher, like the one of the artist, is to point, to show, to indicate. Foucault claims that if the scientist makes the invisible visible, the philosopher makes the visible visible. Once one has seen, he can accept he has seen, he can deny he has seen, he can forget he has seen, but his eyes are not the same anymore, the world is not the same anymore: he can no longer claim some kind of virginity. Philosophy makes fire out of all woods. In dialogue, the philosopher always wins, just by engaging the dialogue with the other. But he does not win in the way of the rhetorician; we should not confuse philosophy and eristic. In dialogue, the philosopher wins in two ways: by getting the other one to see something, and by seeing what the other one sees. This is why dialogue is so fundamental for philosophy. This is why Socrates so adamantly and relentlessly pursued his fellow human beings in the streets of Athens, and claimed no more fundamental interest in life than examining the minds of his fellow humans, delving into their souls. He claimed to find truth there. How is this possible? Was he surrounded exclusively by prophets or wise men? Not if we look at the dialogues, where Socrates looks much smarter than his interlocutors. Our proposal is that Socrates found truth in those people because they gave him the possibility to abandon himself, to die to himself. By entering those strange and foreign souls, he was able to confront himself, as a kind of ascetic pursuit, just like the fighter or the soldier needs an opponent in order to challenge himself, to go beyond himself, to become himself, to die to himself.

If we look at the history of philosophy, we have another reading of this matter. At its origin, philosophy was everything thinking was concerned we: knowledge on all topics: nature, religion, wisdom, ethics and even practical know-how. And indeed there was there a strong connotation of omnipotence in this activity at the time, both in terms of theoretical and practical knowledge. We can here remind ourselves of Hippias the sophist telling Socrates that everything he bore on him he had made himself. Or Calicles, that explained that through his art of rhetoric, the strong could take over the weak, or again Gorgias, that pretended he could convince anyone of whatever he wanted. There are not limits to intellectual pretensions, hubris rules. Truth there does not have a stand, neither does common reason, nor any regulating principle; it is the law of the jungle. The only reality of the speech is the subject and his desires. Then, of course, the erudite will criticize our words, saying that philosophy was born out a rejection of those conceptions, as a search for the true and the good, accusing us of willfully confusing the philosopher and the sophist. But our claim is that sophism is nothing but a specific school of philosophy, and in fact through the relativist and amoralist – or immoralist- stand they proclaimed, they were precursors of many more modern strands of thought. And the pretension to omnipotence of the sophists, even though it takes later on other forms, has remained as a characteristic feature of the over bloated self-image of the philosopher, which in his time Socrates was trying to take on, correctly so. By stating those were not philosophers, from our standpoint Plato was essentially right but formally wrong. Although he knew this, he recognized the proximity of two species, as indicates his analogy on the subject: he claimed that the philosopher compared to the sophist like the dog to the wolf, or the wolf to the dog…

Throughout history, philosophy lost a lot of its domain: science of nature – physics, astronomy, biology, etc. – and science of the mind – psychology – are the striking historical losses of philosophy, to which we could add many other more secondary specialties: linguistics, grammar, logic, sociology, etc. Strangely enough, as soon as a particular field wanted to claim some certitude, it abandoned philosophy and establish itself as what we call now a science, a knowledge constituted of objective “irrefutable” evidence, founded on facts and figures, observation and experimentation. Philosophy could therefore claim only the “problematic”, as Kant calls it: what is merely possible. But philosophers, like their sophist ancestors, do not want to give up certitudes. The result is that today, the type of certitudes they are left with and claim are of three kinds: certitude of a world outlook, with political, social, spiritual or other content, certitudes of historical knowledge on ideas, schools and authors, rather academic, and certitude on how to think, bearing on method and epistemology. And post-modernism, with its rejection of any universality, has just managed to create a “new” type of certitude: a omnipotent figure of the subjectivity, finally quite cousin to the one of the sophist.

With all this, we are trying to justify that the “agon” principle is consubstantial to the philosophical activity, and not only the “agon” but the “agony”, this slow endless dying to oneself. And even if many “moments” of the philosophical history have pretended to have provided some kind of definitive answer to the previous endless debate, there was always some “new” claim emerging, ready to “kill” that “definitive” thesis. Hegel had forged this concept of “moment”, and he tried to show us how each “moment”, as it followed and refuted the previous moment, participated to reaching some kind of absolute, that of course he himself had been able to discern. But in a funny way, his claim to the absolute, his “inviting himself at the table of the divine” – the criticism he held against Shelling – is part of the process, and even a necessary step of it. The criticism launched by Marx against this hyper idealist dialectics was therefore only a lawful and necessary reaction. The other aversive reaction to such a absolutist vision was American pragmatism. And if those two schools of thought have determined in large the future of humanity, intellectually, culturally, politically, etc. the latter is of course still largely hegemonic. But if we retain a common criteria to both these inverted avatars of “traditional” philosophy, we will mention the advocating of reason as “common”, belonging to some immanent process, and not to some transcendental power. Once again, the philosopher had to die: he theoretically cannot claim some “god given” or “spirit given” power: he has to answer to some property that belongs to everyone, as Descartes coined it already when he wrote that “Reason is the thing in the world that is the most widely shared”. And this anti-elitism is probably, when faced to it, one of the most humiliating and inhuman experience for the philosopher. And probably, for the same reason, one of the most fundamental philosophical experience. Unlearning, called it Socrates. Philosophizing with a hammer, called it Nietzsche. It could be called : “The triumph of the servant girl”.

To be no one
Odysseus is a real hero for Socrates, most likely his favorite one, as he defends it in the Lesser Hippias dialogue. The main reason for this stand is that Odysseus is “no one”, as he tells Polyphemus the Cyclops. He is nowhere and somewhere, he deals with men and gods, who fight over him, he is shrewd but is at the mercy of powerful forces, he is a leader and a lonesome man, he always longs for what he is not, he is elusive, even to himself, his life is constantly on the brink. He seems to be the Mediterranean version of the classical Taoist vision of life, which we can summarize in the following way. Who preoccupies himself mainly about his life and is too attached to life does not live, not so much because this worry will undermine his joy of living, but because it blocks and corrupts vitality, the very source of life. This idea that life – endless procession of small preoccupations, tensions and rigidities about “small things” – is an obstacle to vitality, offers the existential equivalent that ideas are an obstacle to thinking. Vitality does not cling to life; thinking does not cling to ideas. We get another echo of this in the figure of Christ: son of man, son of no one and everyone, born to die, who does not even have a stone to rest his head, as he told the scholar who wanted to follow him.

Thus the essence of philosophy is dynamic, tragic and paradoxical. Be this in the passionate western tonality or in the detached eastern version, the challenge facing man through life and philosophy is to let go without giving up. But life as we know it has an aversion for letting go, a rigid posture for which the only alternative is all together giving up. Thus life is often summarized as a series of chronicle manic depressive cycles, which luckily or unluckily ends with death, the ultimate manic or depressive state, according to moods and circumstances.
The fundamental philosophical experience is an experience of otherness, and experience of other-sidedness, which can be lived only from the standpoint of a this-sidedness. The gap, the abyss, the fracture of being, the tension between finite and infinite, reality and desire, affirmation and negation, will and acceptance, are as many forms of the same experience. The eternal interplay between singularity, totality and transcendence. There are as many ways to describe what drives man to think and explore, and as many ways to obscure and deny what he looks for. Strangely enough, the history of philosophy has been constituted as a superposition of visions and systems pretending to complete, explain or reject the previous ones. All philosophical texts are mere footnotes added to Plato’s text, said someone. But if we already look at Plato’s text, it captures the paradox of philosophy. The initial drive of Plato’s work is to witness the story of a man who questioned more than he stated, a man who never wrote one line, as far as the story goes. But already, Plato starts to state, starts building a thesis founded on this man, or inspired by him, and wrote a lot. Immediately afterwards comes Aristotle, whom in our sense will set the frame for future western philosophy: a sort of encyclopedia of knowledge, including everything: natural sciences, political sciences, psychology, ethics, etc. Something solid and reliable… But like Socrates, we think philosophy is not reading or writing, since this has to do with mere objects: books, when philosophy has primarily to do with tackling the human soul. Then why do you write books, if you are against books, correctly objected someone once? Well, how can you unlearn if you have not learned? How can you burn books, if you have not written them? How can you die if you have not lived? And with dialectical reversal so common to philosophy, let us ask as well the following. How can you learn if you have not unlearn? How can you write books if you have not burnt them? How can you live if you have not died

The only problem with philosophers, like with all human beings, is that they confuse or invert the means and the ends. For the very simple reason that one is closer to hand than the other. To be a professor, to have knowledge, to write books, to have a title, to have ideas, to be famous or important, to be bright, to be respected, to be recognized, as many possible consequences of philosophizing, as many obstacles to philosophizing. Because philosophers, like all men, want to exist, as philosophers. This is probably what motivates Socrates to quote Euripides in his discussion with Gorgias the sophist, when he says: Who knows if to live is not to die, and if on the other side to die is not to live.

That philosophizing is dying to the world, is a rather common idea. That philosophy is dying to oneself, is already more rare and strange. But if furthermore we state that philosophy implies the death of philosophy, we fall right into the absurd, where few people will want to accompany us. But we think that this is where philosophy is, is where it dies. That is probably the best definition we could give to philosophy as a practice, although it does no mean very much.

And right are the philosophers that criticize the concept of philosophical practice, claiming that philosophy is nothing but a practice. However multiple and contradictory are the forms that this practice can take. Even though the truth of the matter is that academic philosophers reject philosophical practice because it challenges the self and questions the person, having little if no respect for it.

But let us leave this at the momentarily concluding point of stating that the essence of philosophical practice is to do what is left to be undone, whatever we have done. Quite an unlivable regulatory idea! It must be philosophical… No one can do this… Definitely…


IMG_1373They calculate a lot to procure themselves happiness. Sometimes they succeed and are satisfied. Alas, all these speculations make them unhappy.


IMG_1423Thus the heroes survived the flood. Did they have a pure heart or knew well how to swim?


IMG_1323I am who I am. But do not set your eyes on me. As everything sacred, I am fragile.


IMG_0772We do not speak the same language. It is no doubt the best reason to speak. Or to avoid each other.


IMG_0808Things work until the moment they do not work any more. Let’s take advantage of it.


IMG_0629Relationships always end up badly.  Either with break up or with death.



They have no soul. They are proud of it. Their illness stands forth as identity and status.