Philosophy and the Art of Dividing

Jean-Claude Bourdin

Questions of denomination are not really decisive in philosophy: indeed, fundamental philosophical activities, such as contemplating, grounding, thinking, communicating, or producing concepts, [3] do not lend themselves to classification. Nor does the practice of the history of philosophy, or the reading of philosophers, benefit from the identification of authors with a particular ‘trend’. Someone who decides to read Descartes, for example, expecting to find the pure source of Cartesianism may be disappointed and not learn much from the Meditationes de prima philosophia. Thus one can say that we only reach the thought of a great philosophy through the criticism of the prejudices that have concealed it and that have contributed to its (dubious) renown. Terms such as ‘idealism’, ‘materialism’, ‘realism’, and ‘spiritualism’ may end up hindering a genuine reading and understanding of the texts. We fail to come back to the texts themselves because we unnecessarily presuppose too many things: that there are ‘trends’ in (the history of) philosophy; that the variety of philosophical doctrines can be reduced to a small number of these trends; and, lastly, that this reduction can itself reveal the significance of the theses and systems belonging to these philosophies.

Hence, we should be inclined to think that apart from undertaking a classification, an inventory, or setting out with an explicitly polemical intent, such as when one accuses an opponent of having ‘fallen’ into this or that trend—in other words, for reasons that do not directly pertain to philosophy—the usage of all such text-book labels should be severely limited, or even completely dismissed as being irrelevant to the concept and spirit of philosophy.

However, I do not find this conclusion to be completely satisfactory, as it does not take into account that classifying philosophers and philosophies, as well as warning people not to ‘sink’ or ‘lapse’ into this or that philosophy, have always been part of the activity of a philosopher. It should be of some interest to recall that with Plato, philosophy in its ‘Greek beginning’ continuously drew boundaries, in the hope, precisely, of delimiting the meaning of what it is to ‘philosophize’, against the Sophist, who is to the genuine philosopher as a wolf is to a dog, [4] against Isocrates and his ‘humanist’ rhetoric, and against the epic and tragic poets. Each opposition corresponds to a moment of the determination of the philosopher according to Plato: his definition of truth, his relation to language, his position in relation to political power, his ties to human and divine law. Classifying and demarcating enables one to denounce errors and the risks of going astray, to show the point or points where a philosophical trend risks becoming its opposite (the philosopher tempted to become a Sophist, for instance) and elaborate the type of relations that philosophy maintains with non-philosophy, i.e., mathematics, poetry, amorous desire, or the multitude. The inherent question of philosophy then would be: where should one draw the right distinctions, detect the right articulations, and follow the natural joints of things . . . and of philosophizing itself?

But we must go further and see that it is at the center of Plato’s philosophy itself that we encounter, in the difficult context of how to define Being, the opposition (the gigantomachia) between the race born from the Sons of the Earth, who recognize only the existence and subsistence of bodies, and the friends of the Forms, for whom only the intelligible and immaterial realities are worthy of being called beings. [5] I will return later to the meaning of the constitution of this opposition by Plato, who appears to be closer to the friends of the Forms.

Finally, we can emphasize that the activity of internal critical delimitation is an integral part of philosophy, such that throughout its history we have regularly felt the need to reiterate classifications, inventories, and warnings. For modern philosophy, let me mention several examples: Berkeley and the opposition between materialism and immaterialism in the third Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous (1713), with its constant denunciation of modern philosophers; Leibniz, who presented his system as one combining the merits of “the greatest materialists and the greatest idealists” [6] at once (Replies to the Reflections of Bayle, 1702) but who nonetheless pointed to the danger inherent in mechanism of a materialist distortion; Kant, who presented the enterprise of the Critique of Pure Reason as the only one capable of severing “the actual roots of materialism, fatalism, atheism, free-thinking, fanaticism, and superstition, which can be injurious universally”; [7] and Hegel, finally, whose Lectures on the History of Philosophy combine historical overview, logic-systematic development, and the classification of doctrines.


3. To borrow the typology of philosophical activities presented by Deleuze and Guattari in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1991); What is Philosophy? trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

4. Cf. Plato, Sophist, 231a.

5. Cf. ibid., 246a and throughout the remainder of the dialogue.

6. G.W. Leibniz, Répliques aux réflexions de Bayle (1702), in vol. 4 of Die Philosophischen Schriften von G.W. Leibniz, ed. C.J. Gerhardt, (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1960), p. 560.

7.  Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1787), vol. 3 of Kants Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin: Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1902-), Bxxxiv; Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).

SOURCE: Bourdin, Jean-Claude “The Uncertain Materialism of Louis Althusser,” translated by Charles T. Wolfe, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal [New School for Social Research], vol. 22, no. 1, 2000, pp. 271-287. (Special issue: “The Renewal of Materialism”) Philosophy and the Art of Dividing, pp. 271-273, 285.

Note: The article begins: “What is the use of trying to describe a philosophy as ‘materialistic’ or ‘idealistic’?” Following the initial paragraph is the section excerpted above, then an analysis of Althusser’s “uncertain materialism” (UM), a.k.a. “materialism of the encounter” or “aleatory materialism”—a waste of time in my judgment though not in Bourdin’s. Bourdin contrasts Althusser’s attempt to chart a new philosophical perspective referencing an underground materialist orientation in the history of philosophy with the notion of the struggle of materialism and idealism as the fundamental issue in philosophy proffered by Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. Bourdin purports to uncover the tacit assumptions behind Engels’ assertions and finds the fundamental question of the relationship between thinking and being, posited by Engels as the essence of the idealism/materialism divide, actually stems from Hegel, and argues that idealism is the basis of Engels’ materialist position. Althusser allegedly undermines Engels by rejecting the principle of sufficient reason. I find this entire argument spurious, but I excerpted the section above to point to one way of analyzing the array of philosophical positions. —RD

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