Contents Disappointed Utopia 5. Thought in Motion

Thinking and writing

Writing for these philosophers was not seen as a simple or transparent medium for transmitting or conveying thought, but rather as an intersubjective space in which thought took place, and could be seen by others to take place. “To think is to think within the coordinates of a historically formed language. Language organizes our perceptions,” I heard someone say in a lecture on Descartes. Another declared in writing, “Thought passes by the work of language upon language. Not that one should confound philosophy, literature or poetry; but, since philosophy inhabits a language or is inhabited by one, one must put concepts to the test in and by writing” (Vermeren 2011:20).

Figure 43:  The view from a doctoral student’s desk.
Figure 43: The view from a doctoral student’s desk.

Writing, nevertheless, was not a straightforward or easy activity. Commonly, it was a struggle.

The classical image, the philosopher who rests his chin on his hand and writes something well-formed, intensely, just like that. Well, let me tell you, I’m really not capable of that. Meaning that something starts to happen when I start writing. And I think that, when you rest your chin on your hand, in reality, you aren’t really reasoning in organized sentences, but really just in big blocks. And there you are, what will thus permit you to write, departing from these large-scale blocks, when you actually try to write, you find that what you had been conceiving as luminous, that in fact it raises problems. What I mean is that, linked to writing itself, there’s a necessarily analytic component, which brings you to see that what you thought was simple, well then, it’s not as simple as that, because you come up against such and such an obstacle, and so on.
(Interview with senior professor, March 9, 2010)
The only time when a presentation wasn’t good, was when someone hadn’t written their presentation. For a thesis, thought can only happen in writing, otherwise it’s not really interesting.
(Conversation with doctoral student, May 2010)
Writing, it’s more about clarifying, clarifying yourself to yourself, than about finding the moment for a thought that would have already existed. To put it differently, there is no thought except in the moment of writing. In any case, I can assure you that it’s that way for me.
(Interview with senior professor, June 9, 2010)

Writing on these accounts is the only way that thoughts become fully-formed; thought and writing are not identical but they develop in tandem. And thought/writing, on this account, pass by way of an eerie dynamic of incorporation and externalization, a process where “something starts to happen” that surpasses your point of departure. In this, a moment of individual subjectivity was part of the disciplinary norm. The imperative to think in the first person was transmitted explicitly, in introductory courses on philosophical method.

The professor spoke to the class. One person started out by writing: “Plato was a Greek philosopher, from such and such a century, in such and such a city…” But we’re not on Wikipedia. It’s your writing. You should begin with a scene of speaking, a first sentence that leads into the heart of your remarks. It’s not archaeology, this isn’t a text found in a museum. The idea isn’t to have a relationship of exteriority to the text… You’re free to use any rhetorical style you like. Play between direct and indirect discourse. But you are supposed to enter into a subject.
(Later:) Doing philosophy means reading, reading, reading, writing, reading, talking a bit to people around you… [Writing means working with] the drafts of ideas that you’re within, and which are called ‘thought.’
[Fieldnotes, October 26, 2009]

The “heart” of philosophical inquiry thus centered on encouraging the students to read, write and think in the first person. Writing in an overly objectifying style, with too much focus on general historical background, was construed as not philosophical but archaeological, museological, overly encyclopedic. “You’re not writing philology,” the professor added at one point. It is scarcely surprising that the formation of philosophical identity happened through contradistinction to other humanistic disciplines.[1]

The same professor told me in an interview that the writing process eventually would lead you to something like a flash of deepened insight.

When someone starts doing the work of a doctoral dissertation, like the one that you’ll do, where there are fields, readings, that are going to unfold a whole question — at a given moment, this chain of thought inevitably confronts an interrogation that we could call its fully philosophical sense. And at a given moment, there’s the mark that the problem is considered in all its force. I mean, without depending on a knowledge, or an epistemology. At a given moment, voilà, the subject of this work must let their thought come up against philosophical interrogations, whether from the past or the present, in all their — their power [toute leur puissance, quoi]. And often, this is when the thesis is finished. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult, because they must already have a lot of stuff done, they have to start again from the foundations… They have to say: I myself, I’m in dialogue with a great philosopher, with certain great texts. And this is difficult.

The “craft” view of philosophy, where you slowly make your way through a large body of literature, thus went alongside a demand for a rupture in established knowledge, a moment of theoretical “confrontation” with a philosophical problem that finally is “considered in all its force,” all its “power.”

Figure 44:  A doctoral student’s bookshelf.
Figure 44: A doctoral student’s bookshelf.

While this confrontation might be something you could do alone at your desk, it was also a highly social activity, premised on dialogue and a community of interlocutors. Sometimes these philosophers even envisioned their work as a critique of philosophical individualism. For instance, in a 1993 announcement for the Department’s book series at Editions Harmattan, La philosophie en commun (philosophy in common), the editors Douailler, Poulain and Vermeren wrote:

Too exclusively nourished by the solitary life of thought, the exercise of reflection has often led philosophers into a frenzied individualism, reinforced by the cult of writing. And the quarrels engendered by the worship of originality have too readily supplanted all theoretical debate.

What then did philosophical writing look like when it was not solitary, when it was highly social, even gregarious? Here ethnography can become illuminating.

  1. The embrace of the first person was also a reaction against the historical focus of much French philosophy pedagogy. François Châtelet wrote in his memoirs, “As a student, I cheerfully mocked my friends who, as pure historians of philosophy, were content to think the thoughts of others” (Châtelet and Akoun 1977).  ↩

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