Sunday, June 12, 2005

to flowers

"Our philosophy teachers remain the flower of our secondary education. But while listening to the flower, let us maintain a place for the leaves, such as a teacher of history for example."

—Albert Thibaudet, history and geography teacher, ENS, 1927 (found in Moi's biography of Simone de Beauvoir)

In short, one wonders if those snobby Frenchwen wouldn't sometimes be better philosophers if only they were not so OBTEOTOV (or EWTSOTOV). But that's a petty, translation-insensitive complaint finally, let's face it. Here's a bit more context (describing the discours exam, again from the book with the bizarre subtitle):
In Tristes tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss gives a scathing critique of the inevitable tripartite pattern of thought favoured by the agregation examiners:

"I started to learn that every problem, whether serious or trivial, can be settled once and for all by always applying the same method, which consists in opposing two traditional views of the question, to introduce the first by appealing to common sense, then to destroy it by means of the second, and finally to pack them both off, thanks to a third view which reveals the equally partial nature of the two others. By a trick of vocabulary both of these have now been reduced to complementary aspects of the same thing: form and contents, container and contained, being and appearance, continuity and discontinuity, essence and existence and so on. Such exercises quickly become purely verbal, based on the art of the pun which replaces thought [...] Five years at the Sorbonne amounted to no more than learning this kind of gymnastics [...] I prided myself on beind able to construct in ten minutes a solidly dialectical framework for an hour's lecture on the respective merits of buses and trams." (pp.52-3)

This systmem has not changed much since the 1920s.


The ideological superiority surrounding ENS in the 1920s and 1930s was similar to that surrounding philosophy at the time. Philosophy was seen as the queen of the disciplines, the undisputed champion in the pecking order of academic subjects. It was assumed that only the most intelligent students could cope with the intellectual demands of this regal pursuit. To a certain extent, the prestige of the ENS and that of philosophy overlapped and intertwined. The philosopher supposedly had access to the highest of human realms, that of the spirit, and as such could properly consider himself an elite being. But so could the students at the ENS. Logically and in practice, the philosophy students at the school, such as Sartre, Nizan and Merleau-Ponty, represented the creme de la creme of French student life... (Moi, 52-57)

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