‘This is a cautionary tale about a deception so delicious yet so serious that it causes us to reconsider the impact of the public intellectual on our culture’
Who would nowadays think of consulting a philosopher about a matter of life and death? Intellectuals in general have lost much of their prestige, but our own admiration for the philosopher-kings of this dwindling caste has evaporated. Just why this has happened was illuminated last month in a postmodern take on the old fairy-tale about the emperor’s new clothes.
On to the stage came Bernard-Henri Lévy, the very model of a modern major generalist. Debonair and lightly tanned as ever, the great French public intellectual-at-large was touring the TV studios to promote his latest book, De la Guerre en Philosophie (roughly, “Philosophy Wars”). Whatever BHL — or “Bernadette”, as he is irreverently known to those not captivated by his charisma — does, he does in style.
This time, he was attempting to cut down to size no mere contemporary, but one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Immanuel Kant. For centuries, the author of the Critique of Pure Reason had been revered as the seminal thinker of the Enlightenment. According to Lévy, however, it was time to acknowledge the truth: that Kant was a fraud, an “abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”. As the source of German idealism, Kant was responsible for Hegel and Marx and ultimately for the failure of European intellectuals to resist totalitarianism. Lévy based his debunking of the creator of the Categorical Imperative on an obscure 20th-century philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, who had launched a devastating critique of Kant in a series of hitherto little-known lectures to the “neo-Kantians of Paraguay”.
The nature of philosophy is to assume that things are not what they seem. Here, a philosophical debate turned into a cautionary tale about the deceptiveness of appearances so delicious and yet so serious that it causes us to reconsider the impact we allow public intellectuals to have on our contemporary culture.
For the voice Lévy quoted as authoritative was an invention. The journalist Frédéric Pagès of the satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné had penned a number of tongue-in-cheek pieces under the nom de plume Botul. Among his articles was La Vie Sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant. That title alone ought to have been a clue that Botul was not quite what he seemed. As BHL must have known, Kant was a plain, pigeon-chested professor who remained a lifelong bachelor and never travelled more than a few miles from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), where he was born. Sex played little part in his life and even less in his work.
The writer who exposed the fact that BHL had been duped was Aude Lancelin of Le Nouvel Observateur. It added to the hilarity that Ms Lancelin was a quarter of a century younger than Lévy, who is almost as celebrated for his regular appearances in Paris Match with his glamorous third wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, as he is for his philosophising. It was fitting that a young woman should be the one to point out that the emperor was wearing no designer suit.
The embarrassment was exquisite. Lévy had “encountered the fake philosophy, swallowed it whole and regurgitated it”, as one commentator noted. The spectacle sparked a storm of posts on the web poking fun at him. Lévy admitted that he had been fooled, but his response still revealed vanity rather than contrition: “Hats off for this invented but more real than real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pagès or Mr Anyman, seems always to be in harmony with my idea.”
This storm in a bol de café had everything: the humiliation of an ageing Left Bank superstar with an idiosyncratic way with ideas and a hairstyle to match; the schadenfreude of poorer, less talented members of the intelligentsia; and the reinforcement of the myth that some intellectuals spend their lives drifting from café to café, sunning themselves in the last pale rays of the 1960s, only to be distracted by wine, women and a job that requires little more than marketing the phenomenology of one’s own life.
What is the lesson to be learned from this? Philosophers ought to be neither self-obsessed, pompous buffoons who take themselves more seriously than their research, nor corduroy-clad hermits, at least if they want to make a tangible impact, however small, on their main subject: our knowledge of ourselves. The fact that far more ludicrous real philosophies than “Botulism” are taken seriously in academic circles doesn’t show that philosophy is a waste of time, but rather that it is one of the few fields in our culture where free debates are being held — at times at the expense of reason.
It was Kant himself who got the balance right. He argued that using reason without applying it to experience will lead only to illusions, while experience will be merely subjective (hence unreliable) unless it is interpreted by reason.
The fusty old “fake” turned out to be wiser than his critic.
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