More Fodder

February 9, 2010

People seem to love tales of philosophers who make laughing-stocks of themselves, so here’s a brand new one. Looks like Barnard-Herni Lévy has really stepped in it this time.

When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.

There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank.

There were clues. One supposed work by Botul — from which BHL quoted — was entitled The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. The philosopher’s school is known as Botulism and subscribes to his theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” — the Metaphysics of the Flabby. Botul even has a Wikipedia entry that explains that he is a “fictional French philosopher”.

But Mr Lévy, a leader among the nouveaux philosophes school of the 1970s, was unaware. In On War in Philosophy, he writes that Botul had proved once and for all “just after the Second World War, in his series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”.

I’m not about to defend Lévy, as I haven’t seen the text in question and it does sound fantastically ridiculous, but there is something to be said about the method of citation in philosophy. Generally speaking, we cite not because we want to conjure the great wisdom of a given hot-shot philosopher, but rather because we want to refer our readers to a given line of argument.

Again, Lévy’s position strikes me as manifestly stupid — I’ve got a strain of Kant running through me, fwiw — but I think there’s a general difference in approach. Citations should be understood more like hot-links to interesting side-notes than as page references to the book of knowledge.

At any rate, harde-har-har. Philosophers are idiots.


  1. You describe him as a philospher, yet you say nothing about his taste in clothing and hats. Color me confused.

  2. I wonder what exactly Levy meant in his quote at the end of the article: ‘It’s the role of the philosopher to land blows.’ In the battle against falsity-lovers? The inauthentic? The apathetic? The bored? The man? Anyone in the way?

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