To want to relate one’s thoughts on
the creation of knowledge, without being regarded as belonging
to the privileged groups “entitled”
to do so, may seem rather presumptuous. Yet in a sense philosophy
is dying for lack of contact with one of its most vital aspects – scientific
creation. For thousands of years there was no arbitrary separation
between Literature, Arts and Sciences, and it was only after the
rise of the middle classes, once the old aristocracy lost power,
that independent disciplines were created, jealously guarding their
Auguste Comte’s classification system took this to ridiculous
lengths, culminating in today’s pervasive positivism. Around
this floats a fog of vague thinking that relies on portmanteau
words that mean everything and nothing, and which, like Humpty
Dumpty, everyone takes to mean just what they want.
The paragraphs that follow were written in the early 1980s.
Pessimistic as they are, they would be even more so if I wrote
them today. The loss of Humanities from French secondary education
has meant the disappearance of a collective memory, in a way
that is probably more catastrophic and irreversible than the
loss of memory in China after the ten-year Cultural Revolution.
Because of this, I am anxious to stress that what follows owes
everything to the long line of thinkers and writers who came
before us, and to make myself clear, I would like to quote Blaise
Certain authors, speaking of their works, say: "My
book," "My commentary," "My history," etc.
They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their
own and always have "My house" on their tongue. They
would do better to say: "Our book," "Our commentary,"
"Our history," etc., because there is in them usually
more of other people's than their own. Pensées, 43
I would also like to emphasise the influence of the library
of the Ecole Normale
Supérieure in Paris, where Lucien
Herr (1864-1926) played such an important role, in the formation
of these thoughts.
Those fragments of the thoughts of the philosophers of Antiquity
that have come down to us have been analysed in painstaking detail
in numerous scholarly works. But despite their number, and perhaps
because of their erudition, they have rarely left the dusty shelves
of the great libraries, except perhaps sometimes to become cultural
clichés. We need to look more closely at what it is that
enables us to produce the pervasive knowledge that makes our
cultures so successful (and so dangerous). To do this, I feel
it is essential to go back over these ancient pages and to seek
out the origins of our way of seeing and understanding the world.
It is said that knowing how (savoir-faire) comes before knowing
in the sense of understanding (savoir), but this often just means
that what is deepest in us is forgotten, and thus unconscious:
the memory of thousands of years of history during which the
great and still unanswered questions were asked for the first
time. Today we talk a great deal about the philosophers of Antiquity,
and especially the Greek philosophers, but in the middle class
wisdom that has its roots in the late nineteenth century educated
upper-middle classes, culture is regarded as “what is left
when we have forgotten all else”. Or, what comes to the
same thing, we talk, or comment on the basis of hearsay, without
going back to the sources, which are ultimately disregarded (1).
Reading dictionaries, those memorials to our reference system,
will soon prove this. The same compulsive superficiality encourages
the belief that skimming is reading, and pull-quotes are the
booksellers’ latest success story.
Anything that requires time or thought is regarded as erudite,
pretentious, or too complex. But refusing to take the trouble
to think has its consequences. For thousands of years after writing
was first discovered, mankind invested the written word with
an almost sacred dimension, and the time necessarily devoted
to understanding a text formed part of the value of the text
itself. It was an essential factor that allowed every reader
to play a part in “constructing”
the content of the text, and, over the centuries, enriching it.
In a civilisation dominated by the visual image, which encourages
the most automatic of human behaviours, we need to restore to
the written word its role in support of thought, criticism and
the construction of ideas.
I hope I will be forgiven for beginning just by borrowing some
fragments of the overview that scholars have put together to
record some of the opinions (δοξαι)
of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. It is of course very
difficult, perhaps impossible, to classify the various authors
I refer to here. So I have organised them rather arbitrarily
as follows, grouping them according to similarities in the method
or content of their thinking. There will be five main groups:
the Milesian physicists (the Ionian school and its offshoots),
Pythagorean esotericism, Poetic or oracular thought, the Eleatic
School, and finally Atomism. I might equally well have separated
out the writings of Parmenides, Heraclitus or Empedocles, noting
the relationships between their favourite subjects, and cutting
thematically across the strata of various schools of thought.
But it seems to me that, despite their slightly arbitrary character,
the groupings I have chosen enable us to form a better idea of
the methodical and productive approach that prevailed, establishing
a context that encouraged the development of knowledge, and,
after the industrial revolution, the takeover of the world by
a single living species: mankind.
… it has been clear to us and to the distinguished
philosophers before us who are not our co-linguists, that no
man by the diligence of his quest has attained the truth, i.e.,
that which the truth deserves, nor have the (philosophers as
a) whole comprehended it. Rather, each of them either has not
attained any truth or has attained something small in relation
to what the truth deserves. When, though, the little which
each one of them who has acquired the truth is collected, something
of great worth is assembled from this. (2).
It has been the tradition for several thousand years to comment
on the knowledge created by those who have gone before us, gradually
enriching it. As I hope will become clear, the central theme
of this essay is that over the course of history, rewriting produces
variations on ancient themes, which change little by little until
they make way for real emergent creations. To comment on ancient
texts is not merely to provide a learned or amusing gloss, but
to ask fundamental questions, relevant to all of us, in a different
cultural context, transforming them into new questions. With
this appropriately modest approach, I hope that new light cast
will offer the reader a new and different way of seeing, and
thus encourage him or her to play a personal role in the continuing
creation of knowledge.
1. Note that I do not escape this unfortunate trend. My memory
made me think that I got the history
of the Delphic Boat straight, whereas it was the Ship of Theseus.
Metaphysics: A translation of Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi’s
“On First Philosophy” (fi al-Falsafah al-Ula) with
introduction and commentary by Alfred L. Ivry; State University
of New York Press, Albany, 1974; p57; ISBN 0873950925.