Bouveresse and the French tradition


French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse PHOTO/Wikipedia

Jacques Bouveresse is perhaps best known in the Anglophone world for being among the least well-known of contemporary French thinkers. Of the same generational cohort as Badiou, Rancière, Debray and Balibar during Althusser’s reign at the École Normale Supérieure, a long-standing friend and interlocutor of Bourdieu, elected in 1995 to the chair of Philosophy of Language and Epistemology at the Collège de France, his work has been translated into Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese, but so far rather little has appeared in English. Paradoxically, one reason for this may be the antagonistic stance he has generally adopted toward his native philosophical milieu: ‘Why I am so very unFrench’ was the title beneath which he introduced his work to the Anglosphere in the 1980s.

Badiou has famously characterized the moment of postwar French philosophy as encompassing ‘a new appropriation of German thought, a vision of science as creativity, a radical political engagement and a search for new forms in art and life.’ [1] Against this, Bouveresse has looked to Austria, rather than Germany; valued mathematical logic and discounted any heroic role for science; adopted a politics of modest reformism; and eschewed the seductions of performative rhetoric in favour of clarity and precision. Yet as the dominant modes of French philosophy have changed—existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, ‘new philosophy’, neo-Kantianism—Bouveresse’s relation to it has adjusted too. An outline reconstruction of his work may help to provide a view of French philosophy—its habitus, as Bourdieu would say—from the perspective of one of its fiercest internal critics, and offer the basis for a preliminary critical assessment of his own achievements.

Born in 1940, one of nine children, on a small farm high up in the Franche-Comté near the Swiss border, Bouveresse attended a village primary school and, as a child, helped out looking after the animals. His forebears were Swiss Catholics who had relocated across the frontier to the land of their co-religionists in the sixteenth century. The family was somewhat singled out—‘glorious’ figures, according to the local sarcasm—by its education: a grandmother had received a higher diploma, an uncle was a priest, an aunt a nun. Bouveresse, rather staggeringly, had read the entire Bible at the age of seven. On his own account, his early outlook was marked by a fervent anti-militarism and an idealism so extreme it was almost a denial of his lived reality. At eleven, he plumped to enter the junior seminary at Besançon, fifteen miles away, where he acquired the habit of hard, intensive study as a defence against the misery of daily life. [2] His father, highly intelligent, had been a militant of the Catholic Young Farmers movement, an important force in this politically and religiously conservative region; dedicated to his work on the farm, he was also drawn to intellectual questions. Bouveresse recalled the two of them discussing Berkeley’s philosophy as they toiled in a field, armed with picks, dismantling a heap of pebbles. His father brought his pick down hard on a stone and asked if Jacques really thought that wasn’t real, but just a complex of sensations? Bouveresse would bring to Paris something of the same attitude towards the endeavours of philosophers that he has attributed to his father: a mixture of ironizing—‘fishing for the moon’, in his father’s phrase—with a certain respect, ‘above all, not wanting to give them an excessive importance.’ [3]

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