The philosopher and the comedian



Preface to the book by Franklin de Matos – a tribute from the site's editors to the philosopher and professor at USP, who passed away yesterday

The reader of this book (which is further proof of the rigor and vigor of eighteenth-century philosophy studies at USP), when reading its pages, will be taken on two journeys, one of which is completely unexpected. He hopes, of course, to be taken to the 18th century and, there, guided to learn the main features of his mental geography. What you may not expect is to be abruptly returned to the present, with more questions and concerns than you suspected.

In fact, the interest of The philosopher and the comedian. The most evident is his, let’s say, “philological” interest. There are more than 30 writings that correspond to many other exercises in cartography, delimitation, tracing the lines that separate and unite at the same time, in the works of various eighteenth-century authors (but mainly Denis Diderot and, later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau). , the literary genres of philosophy and belles-lettres.

The interest of the “philological” enterprise is itself evident, as it is clear that philosophy and what we today call literature intersect in the 18th century in a very different way than today. And don't tell me that the works of Jean-Paul Sartre (which, alongside his great “treatise” on “Being and Nothingness“, wrote novels and plays) follow the same code as those of Denis Diderot, who also has novelistic and dramaturgical philosophical works.

The slightest oversight opens the door to anachronism, a risk that better-equipped minds cannot escape, such as Louis Althusser, who projected a post-Mallarmaic opposition between theory and literature into the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or the idea of ​​the “literary absolute” generated by German romanticism.

To begin with, the philosophers were far from being university professors and the philosophy It had nothing of a technical discipline. Furthermore, novelistic fiction had an essentially ambiguous status, even because it did not even have its place clearly defined in the domain of belles-lettres, still delimited “roughly” according to the Aristotelian canon.

Ultimately, everything happens as if the categories of contemporary thought, or our way of producing and consuming culture, made us blind in the face of the works of the 18th century. The proof, among a thousand others, is found in Robert Darnton's writings on the libertine novel of the 17th century, in which he shows how writing and reading codes differed from ours and involved a curious relationship with philosophy.

The tapestry metaphor

Not long ago, commenting on a book by Pierre Hadot, I insisted on the virtues of “estrangement” or scenery provided by the most classical philology and its importance for the resumption of thought. He then highlighted the metaphor used by this historian to define the problems posed by the philosophical texts of Antiquity for the contemporary reader. To the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius might not give the impression of being poorly composed? The metaphor is that of the tapestry that, at a glance, seems to mean nothing; but which, from another perspective, reveals a well-structured landscape or the significant expression of a human face.

The distance that separates us from the writing and reading codes of the 18th century is not as great as that between the 20th century university student and the writings of the Roman Emperor. But how enormous is this distance of just two centuries! Robert Darnton notes, for example, this immense distance, commenting on the variation in the semantic field of the word “philosophy” during this “intermezzo“, as well as the difference between our reception of novelistic fiction and that reserved for readers in the Age of Enlightenment.

He emphasizes (see “Sex gives you food for thought”, in Libertines and libertarians, Companhia das Letras) that, in the 18th century, the expression “philosophical books” had a very different meaning from the one we attribute to it today, which could even apply to university theses devoted to perfectly scholastic and abstract themes (in the sense that Hegel attributes to this last word).

In that century, just 250 years ago, this expression meant, for publishers, booksellers, writers and readers, “illegal merchandise, whether irreligious, seditious or obscene”. The meaning of the adjective “philosophical” referred above all to subversion and transgression, in the same way that “freedom” could mean (more than that, it was obvious to the book buyer) lasciviousness. But this meaning did not conflict, but rather colluded, with the oldest idea of ​​“libertism” from the previous century, that is, simply, with the idea or ideal of free thought.

These are the reasons why we should celebrate (and not regret, as our author suggests) the “excessively didactic” tone that Franklin de Matos recognizes in some of his writings, closely linked, according to him, to his activity as a teacher. In this case, we are never excessively didactic: no one, in fact, ignores how important the simplest didactic rules are in teaching another language. The maximum of alertness or didacticism is still very little given the lack of awareness of the historicity of philosophy, literature and, let's say frankly and shamelessly, of the human being or, if you prefer, of forms of life and language games.

The fact is that we are separated from the 18th century by revolutions at all levels: not only the French and Industrial Revolutions, but also the Copernican revolution operated by Kantian criticism. It is true that Kant's philosophy is, in some way, the culmination of Enlightenment, but it is no less certain that, with it, the field of idealism, romanticism and all positivism opens up. This revolution also transformed the relationship between philosophy and other literary genres, as well as the code of writing and reading.

It is this discontinuity that we become aware of when reading Franklin de Matos's essays. Discontinuity that stands out against the background of “long duration” or the continuity of the history of philosophy as a whole in the only essay in the book that takes us far from the 17th and 18th centuries. I refer to the essay “Plato’s Archenemy”, in which the book Preface to Plato, by Eric Havelock (Journal of Reviews, nº 28, of 12/07/97). The theme highlighted in the book is still that of the relationship between philosophy and poetry, but now seen in its auroral form, that is, at the moment when philosophy begins to demarcate itself from what will later be called literature: in a word, Plato versus Homer .

What is still highlighted here is the difference between writing and reading codes or, better yet, the first formulation of a writing and reading code, as opposed to the oral transmission of tradition or paideia, with its memorization, declamation and listening codes. How can we understand Plato without being aware of this difference? Unexpected problems abound, and our author does not fail to highlight some difficulties in Eric Havelock's interpretation.

Let us give the floor to Franklin de Matos: “Eric Havelock's interpretation indissolubly ties Plato's work to the written text and maintains that the origin of philosophy should not be thought of as a passage from myth to reason, but as a replacement of the oral by the written. The reading is debatable, especially if estimated based on the results of studies that emphasize precisely the philosopher's 'unwritten doctrines' (…). The 'Preface' does not even allude to the texts in which Plato defends oral teaching; Wouldn't it be reasonable, however, to expect his work to reproduce the same tension between the written and the oral that defines his Greek mentality of time, according to Havelock?

This question seems to address the issue well, placing Plato's interpretation in the right middle ground between the opposing readings of Havelock (privilege of writing, repression of the oral) and Derrida (privilege of “logocentrism”, repression of writing). Perhaps, with this tension between the written and oral, what we have would be an understanding of philosophical discourse as an “art of living (or dying)” that would have disappeared in the dawn of modern philosophy, after animating Western culture from its origins to the end of the Middle Ages.

Return to the present

But this long philological journey through the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as this brief foray into the 4th century BC, is followed, as I said at the beginning, by a surprising return to the present: an examination of what we could call the first traces of what would become the new figure of philosophy (and its relations with literature) that would be implemented, with the Copernican revolution, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It is, so to speak, a turnaround in which the “philological” gaze, as if by a boomerang effect, metamorphoses into a properly “philosophical” gaze.

Indeed, what is being pursued in The philosopher and the comedian, in the examination of the practice and theory of theater in Denis Diderot, as well as his theory of “sensibility” or his writings on painting, Rousseau's criticism of theater and his conception of language, if not the groping movement through which, at the same time, During the 18th century, a new philosophical discipline began to be built, aesthetics, which, in the 19th century, began to share the central core of philosophy itself with logic?

One of the essential moments of this genesis is the discovery, by Diderot, before Kant, of the heterogeneity between the sensible and the intelligible; discovery of autonomy or, paradoxically, of the “intelligibility proper to the sensitive” (if we can express ourselves that way). Plagiarizing Denis Diderot himself: “Ah, Madame, that the philosophie of the aveugles is different from the other!” (“Ah, my lady, how different the philosophy of the blind is from ours!”).

Another moment (or another aspect of it) is the discovery, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of the pre-eminence of music over painting or the privilege of hearing over vision (anticipating, in this point, Friedrich Nietzsche). It is quite a new figure of the subject (the bourgeois individual, the sovereign subject of the judgment of taste, but also, with Rousseau, the active subject of judgment, understood as constitutive) that is thus being outlined, little by little, and that would end up assuming the profile of I think (I think) Kantian. We witnessed there the progressive opening of space whose horizons would be definitively traced in the College of Judgment Critique.

At this moment, a grumpy reader could interrupt me and ask: “But what is this gift that leaves us on the threshold of the 19th century? And what is the strictly philosophical question that would return us to our current perplexities?” To which I could respond: “But that is precisely it, or would not the current philosophical debate, when it is alive, essentially be an attempt to reestablish the cut that the thought of our century inflicted on the Kantian system, breaking its unstable unity, throwing for spaces opposite aesthetics (in both senses of the word: theory of sensitivity and doctrine of the judgment of taste) and analytics?

Such, at least, is the diagnosis of the current situation of philosophy made by Claude Imbert (which I willingly subscribe to) or of the tension that currently opposes the traditions of analytical philosophy and phenomenology”. Dissatisfied, my interlocutor could insist: “Come on! But how would the question about the limits between philosophy and literature be relevant in analytical and phenomenological projects of critical restoration of the unity of reason? Do we not remain, with it, outside of philosophy and within the sphere of theory or literary criticism?”

Such a somewhat hostile question does not embarrass me, but rather helps me in my task of presenting the meaning of The philosopher and the comedian. Let's leave aside phenomenology, which would make my task much easier, but which, unfortunately, is not currently benefiting from the prestige of intellectual fashions, the “single ideology” or the inertia of institutions. But it doesn't hurt to remember the richness of the exchanges between phenomenology and literature (which Merleau-Ponty defined as “philosophy of the sensible”), visible, for example, in the work of Michel Butor, translator into French of the beautiful book by Aaron Gurwitsch (a disciple of Husserl ), professor at Brandeis University, regarding the Field theory of consciousness” and author of some of the best works in new Roman, in which the narrator is replaced by a descriptive and impersonal consciousness.

The task of philosophy

Let us, therefore, stick with the fashion that still prevails in Brazil and limit ourselves to the question of philosophy from an analytical point of view, its best and its worst. What I mean is that, whether you move in the direction of Wittgenstein or in the direction of dead logical empiricism, it will always be true that the task of philosophy will be to determine the limits between different uses of language.

If you are a positivist, everything is resolved in a simple way: language only has a significant use as a description of states of affairs (like science) and the other uses are, at most, objects of “psychological explanation”: poetry and metaphysics are expressions of empirical figures of the psychological subject or animal organism. Beyond the localized knowable, literature and metaphysics suffer drastic disqualification and aesthetics ceases to have philosophical interest.

The curious thing is that such reductionism was born from reading Wittgenstein. That, however, since the Tractatus and throughout his work, he always insisted that what matters is exactly what is called ethics, aesthetics or metaphysics. Therefore, for the best representative of analytical philosophy, what is important is precisely to think about what unites and what separates (the critical line) logic and aesthetics. Instead of proposing an “emotional-expressivist” theory of literary language (as in The meaning of meaning, by Richards, who the author of Tractatus considered an indecent book), Wittgenstein states that “if someone wants to write philosophy, they need to do it poetically”.

This is not about “literacy”; For our philosopher, the border that separates and unites philosophy and poetry is more important than the one that absolutely separates philosophy from science (science, that is, according to the Tractatus, that which really has no importance or value, either for life or for thought). Which curiously takes us back to Antiquity: it is for the same reasons that Plato disqualifies and that Wittgenstein values ​​poetry. Philosophy (with the “matheme” and against the “poem”, in the case of Plato and with the “poem” and against the “matheme”, in the other) has no meaning other than as “therapy” or as purification of the soul. Theory, in itself, if it does not transfigure life, is worthless.

Franklin de Matos's philological investigation, which leads us, in an ascending manner, from our present to the past of philosophy, ends up making us descend back to our present with this single and two-faced question: “What is literature? What is philosophy?” We can only formulate it correctly, in the present, if we can understand the thousand different ways in which it has been answered in the past.

It is for these reasons that I can close these considerations by responding, finally, to the grumpy reader that I have invented in the meantime: “Yes, dear reader, this book, which you hold in your hands at this moment, is quite a philosophical book, although in a sense different, for better or for worse, from what this expression had in the 18th century”.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was Professor Emeritus at USP and full professor of philosophy at UFScar. Author, among other books, of Error, illusion, madness: essays (Publisher 34).


Franklin de Matos. The philosopher and the comedian: essays on literature and philosophy in Illustration. Belo Horizonte, Editora UFMG, 2008, 268 pages. []

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