Why Philosophize?

Why Philosophize?

Jean-François Lyotard

Translated by Andrew Brown

First published in Pourquoi philosopher? © Presses Universitaires de France, 2012
This English edition © Polity Press, 2013
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Editorial note
1  Why desire?
2  Philosophy and origin
3  On philosophical speech
4  On philosophy and action


The publisher wishes to thank Dolorès Lyotard and Corinne Enaudeau, as well as the team of the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet (especially Marie-Dominique Nobécourt Mutarelli, the Head Librarian), for their generous help in preparing this edition. Corinne Enaudeau teaches philosophy to khâgne and hypokhâgne classes at the Janson de Sailly and Henri IV lycées in Paris.

Editorial note

The translation follows a typed text preserved at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet (shelf mark JFL 291/2). This constitutes the second manuscript version of the lectures given by Jean-François Lyotard soon after they had been written. The Bibliothèque Doucet also preserves (shelf mark JFL 291/1) a first typewritten version of the same text – but one that is heavily annotated by Lyotard himself. All these annotations have been carried over, without modification or alteration, into the second typescript, so it has not been thought useful to point out the differences between the two versions. On the other hand, a few minor corrections have been made when they turned out to be necessary (punctuation mistakes, quotation marks missing); likewise, the quotations indicated by abbreviated references in the original text have been re-established. No notes have been added, so as to leave the oral character of these lectures intact.1

Corinne Enaudeau

1 I have added a minimum of notes where I felt they were necessary. [Trans. note]


Corinne Enaudeau

Philosophy does not desire wisdom or knowledge; it teaches us neither what is true nor how to behave. People will say that it wears itself out wondering what it is – and what is – in a solitude that disturbs nobody. At best, it might sometimes offer us an idea useful for the production of wealth or the dream of a completely different social system or the metaphysical opium of consolation. Philosophers, it would seem, are those crazy chatterboxes whom history carts along with it throughout its history, without profit but without any great loss either. They may well interpret the world, but they stay standing at its door and will never change it. So their discourse may be interrupted, may return to silence, without the face of the world being changed. After all, their discourse has, in the final analysis, a single thread: a strange attachment to loss, the desire not to lose the loss that undermines all human activity and separates it from itself, the desire not to let go of the lack whose dagger death sticks into life. So, in 2012, we may well ask, as Jean-François Lyotard asked in 1964: why philosophize? What reason was there, is there still, to philosophize, to plunge back down into the depths of the gaps in meaning – each time anew, in a re-found naivety that will be judged childish? Put this way, the question may appear rhetorical. It is self-referential, since its utterance actually gives the answer to the question uttered, for we have already started philosophizing when we wonder whether it’s worth the trouble to do so all over again. But it is the lot of language itself, which has to speak so as to worry about its own interruption; it is the lot of wakefulness and life, which must deny in practice the sleep and death that they are investigating. Since we speak, act and live under the threat of loss, we won’t emerge from this circle where absence makes itself present and presence is hollowed out by absence. For it is not easy to be a dumb beast, Lyotard tells us, we cannot stun ourselves with a wordless given, a perfect plenitude, a dreamless night. So we will philosophize for the simple reason that we cannot avoid doing so: ‘attest to the presence of lack by our speech’.

The man who died in 1998, leaving The Confession of Augustine unfinished, was perhaps preoccupied by nothing other than this constitutive incompleteness of meaning, which is the knife and the wound of thought, its burning sore and its viaticum. Discourse, figure declared that it refused to conclude, The Differend interrupted its succession of paragraphs with a few abrupt items on history. Each of Lyotard’s books brings a certain disjunction into its object, into its writing, into the gap between it and the other books. His conviction, as early as 1964, was that you can be inoculated with a grain of philosophy only if you let yourself be haunted by absence and find the paradoxical energy to contaminate others with it, to tell them about the ‘law of debt’, the debit that can never be paid off. His work enabled this grain to spread and grow, but in Lyotard it was accompanied by a vigorous engagement with teaching, and a political commitment in which questioning, professing, and leading the life of an activist went inseparably together. Attention to the flaw – to the lack of substantiality as much as of meaning – already presupposes that it is other people, even more than things, who make holes in language; that it is through others that unity is lacking in the social totality, through them that opposition comes to split open the unity of meaning. Without them being there to muddle arguments, thwart actions, disappoint passions, lack would never come to the real to turn it into a human world, and this world would not call on speech to reflect its lack, to philosophize. If, however, it is simply a matter of filling an empty space, philosophy can easily build a non-human world in it, a harmonious metaphysical dream. It then encloses itself within an absolute Logos, the mirage of an invisible Whole that paradoxically remains separate from what it unites. Ideology is simply this, says Lyotard – a system of ideas that is all the more easy to profess in that it is autonomous, has sublimated the lack from which it has sprung, and speaks elsewhere, beyond. This is true of all metaphysics, but also of all theory, even if it calls itself Marxist, which attempts to fill needy minds with its overflow of system. ‘To cut oneself away from practice’ doesn’t mean talking about substance instead of working for revolution, it means turning both of them into the solution, maintaining that the end is in the beginning, that meaning has always belonged to itself, that it knows where it is and where it is going. For the voice that utters this meaning can no longer capture any of the silent disunions in which, however, this meaning seeks itself. To profess – at least to profess philosophy, not faith or science – is nothing without the questions that we ask ourselves and ask others, without this shared commerce of lack in which a ‘paradoxical power of passivity’ (a recurrent theme in Lyotard’s whole work) is exercised, the power to allow the world to come into speech, to allow ourselves to be told what is lacking in the real for it to be a picture, and what is lacking in the picture for it to be real.

This is how Lyotard taught, telling his students and listeners that they would learn nothing from him unless they learned to unlearn, as he said again at Nanterre in 1984 (in a lecture published in The post-modern explained to children). But in1964, at the age of forty, he himself already had to start unlearning what he thought he had learnt, to break away from an activist orthodoxy that had indeed taught him to unlearn metaphysics, but had taught him to hope for revolution and, with it, a resolution to history. Letting go of revolutionary teleology without losing the loss that, however crushed, was attested in it – the absolute lack or ‘general wrong’ known as exploitation – meant knowing that he would need to speak the ambiguous language of yes and no, presence and absence, in other words to correct Marxism with Freud, historical materialism with the ambivalence of the drives, social reconciliation with the uncertainty of desire. In short, he would need to restore to Marx’s voice the strength of which Hegelian totalization had deprived it, the strength to express separation: the separation of society from itself, the separation of world from mind, of reality from meaning. But also, in Freud’s view, the separation of love from its object, of one sex from the other, of childhood from language. All these divisions were labelled ‘oppositions’ in1964: in Discourse, figure, they would be shunted off in favour of ‘differences’ and later radicalized as irreducible ‘differends’: the differend between employees and capital, as ever, but also – albeit in a very different way – between Judaism and Christianity. ‘Childhood’ would remain the name Lyotard used to re-think, for over thirty years, the exposure to a brutal emotion that saps language and yet demands it.

For now, in 1964, he needed to start over again without knowing quite how to begin, since childhood is, within man, what ‘throws him off course [son dé-cours] […] the possibility or risk of being adrift’ (in the words of 1984). Lyotard began his ‘Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud’ (‘Drifting away from Marx and Freud’) at the point he had reached, ‘mid-course’ (en cours), in the middle of his path and the middle of his philosophy course, between the Sorbonne where he taught, ‘Socialisme ou barbarie’ and later ‘Pouvoir ouvrier’ where he was still active (for a short period), his short introductory book on phenomenology in the encyclopaedic ‘Que Sais-Je?’ series published in 1954, Lacan’s seminar where he learnt to read Freud, and Culioli’s seminar where he gained a grounding in linguistics. It was from amidst all of this that he tried to make audible to his students the loss of unity, and to hollow out, in himself as in them, a sense of mourning for lost completeness and a place in which to anchor the philosopher’s responsibility.

Philosophical discourse is driven by a contradictory passion. For its desire to possess itself in an absolutely isolated state comes with the wish not to possess itself, to remain a language immersed in the world and dependent on its deficiency. To teach philosophy means to put this ambiguity to work. But the operation would have a disappointing, didactic effect – disappointing because didactic – only if the ‘course’ of and in philosophy is mid-course, if it begins in the middle, at the point where the interlocutors have arrived with their history and their questions. So it is an extra-curricular course, a course outside any preparatory genealogy, a course that is neither in the world (from which the question separates it) nor outside the world (in a speech spoken already elsewhere), but to the world, in that distance where, as Lyotard says, we allow ourselves to be penetrated by the thing at the same time as we keep it at a distance so as to be able to judge it. Without this ‘passibility’ (a term he used in 1987) to the world, to the human world, that is, to its tenaciously present lack, teaching is merely a display of glittering jewellery, no doubt admirable but with nothing really at issue in it. This issue presupposes a tension between desire and responsibility. ‘Philosophy has no particular desire […] it is desire that has philosophy in the same way that it has absolutely anyone’ – apart from the fact, adds Lyotard, that it turns round on this impulse that takes hold of it, and all human activity with it. But if it is satisfied by this reflection on desire, thought will have still have missed its debt.

For Lyotard in 1964, philosophy was still a praxis, just as psychoanalysis was, for Freud, also a clinical activity. The important thing was what social life lacked, not to reconcile itself with itself but to justify itself. The ‘absolute lack’, whose structure Marx revealed and called the ‘proletariat’, could indeed be intolerable but it did not indicate ‘what society really desired’, contrary to what official Marxism claimed. So we needed to give the opacity of this desire its due, and to sojourn in its silence; we had to endeavour to make explicit the latent, tacit meaning already there, hanging around in the relations between human beings. If Lyotard devotes the last of the four lectures to ‘philosophy and action’, this is because philosophical responsibility toward the lack is inseparable from the political debt toward the world: responsibility and debt together maintain the wager of converting silence into speech, passivity into action.