Critique of Impure Reason

All hail the scholarship of Jean-Baptiste Botul! Scott McLemee looks into a case of philosophical fact-checking.

February 10, 2010

A few years ago, I had a telephone interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, the photogenic “New Philosopher” who at the time was staying at his palace in Morocco. Or so the person who set up the interview told me. Subsequent inquiries confirmed that this was not a joke – that BHL, as he is also known, actually does own a small palace in Morocco. Somehow this called to mind a remark of the prominent American cultural critic Mel Brooks: “It is good to be the king.”

As the interview came to an end, I asked BHL what he was working on next. He had just published a book about the killing of Daniel Pearl. It was based on a great deal of travel to Pakistan, he said; now, to please his wife, he would be staying home to write a philosophical book. He explained that this had become his wont. He cycled between jet-setting journalism and the Descartes-like (if better-funded) retreat into rigorous contemplation. BHL noted his similarity to Jean-Paul Sartre. I made certain ambiguous noises in reply.

Now, it has been estimated that Sartre wrote an average of 25 manuscript pages every day; he once referred to his brain as a machine for grinding out analyses of concepts. Whatever else one may think of BHL, he is certainly prolific. This week, he published in France both a hefty volume of his reportage and commentary called Identity Papers and a theoretical opus appearing under the title Of War in Philosophy. The latter volume seems to have created the bigger stir. It is another bid for the Sartrean mantle.

In this, he faces a great challenge, for philosophers have seldom been kind to his work. Gilles Deleuze suggested that Lévy was interesting chiefly as a symptom of mass marketing's expansion into new realms. Cornelius Castoriadis once said that the New Philosophers had been named by an act of double antiphrasis. BHL has enjoyed media prominence for a third of a century, but each volume of his philosophical speculation now carries the burden of demonstrating the existence of some steak amidst all the well-amplified sizzle.

To judge by an early report, his new book continues BHL’s combat against Hegel and Marx as founding fathers of totalitarianism. But with it, he take another step -- pushing the fight deeper into philosophical history by attacking Kant. He draws on the scholarship of Jean-Baptiste Botul, whose lectures in Paraguay after World War II demonstrated that Kant, for all his talk of reason, was quite mad. Thanks to the courage of BHL in thinking through the implications of this analysis, we shall now be able to face reality with greater lucidity.

Or we might -- if Jean-Baptiste Botul actually existed.

In fact, Botul is the pen name used for several books composed by a satirist named Frédéric Pagès. One might have guessed as much, given that the very title of the work BHL draws upon, La vie sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant, sounds like a joke. (The philosopher made Steve Carrell’s character in The Forty Year-Old Virgin look like a libertine.)

BHL has subsequently appeared on television to admit that, yes, he fell for what was, after all, a terribly elegant hoax. And in any case, the critique of Kant limned there was – whatever the author's intent – very close to his own analysis, ground out over decades of careful meditation.

Two or three conclusions follow from this episode. One is that a long career in the media spotlight -- whatever its effect on the life of the mind -- brings with it certain skills. Among them, how to brazen one's way through the worst of luck.

Another thought: There is bound to be a shake-up at the palace.

A friend who has read La vie sexuelle tells me that the author’s tongue is very conspicuously in his cheek. That BHL cited it as a serious work of scholarship would strongly suggest that he has an employee or two toiling in the erudition mines for him. If so, it is an interesting question whether the person who actually read Botul misunderstood the nature of the book -- or passed along the citation as an act of sabotage. Either way, it seems like a fireable offense. (Of course, nothing like that ever happens in the academic world.)

Finally,the incident poses an important question about intellectual history. Michel Foucault once said of Gilles Deleuze that his friend’s work was so important that one day the century might be known as Deleuzean. The convergence of judgments between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Jean-Baptiste Botul regarding Kant has important implication -- even in the United States, where BHL has, of late, been vigorously colonizing the media system. He is a regular guest on Charlie Rose, his articles appear at The Huffington Post, and Random House is publishing another of his books in a few months.

Doesn’t BHL’s prominence reveal something about the nature of the period? Are we not living, perhaps, in the age of Botulism?


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