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Why Philosophize?

Jean Francois Lyotard


As you know, philosophers are in the habit of starting their courses with an examination of the question 'what is philosophy?' Every year, in all the institutions where it is taught as an established subject, the people responsible for philosophy ask themselves 'well, where is it? what kind of thing is it?'

Among the class of actes manques, Freud includes not being able to put your hands on something that you know you have put away somewhere. The opening lecture of philosophers, a lecture they give again and again, is just like an acte manque. Philosophy misses itself {la philoso­phic se manque elle-meme), it is out of order, we set off to look for it from scratch, we are forever

forgetting it, forgetting where it is. It appears and it disappears; it conceals itself. An acte manque, too, is the concealment of an object or a situation from consciousness, an interruption in the weft of everyday life, a discontinuity.

When we ask ourselves not 'what is philoso­phy?' but 'why philosophize?', we are emphasizing how discontinuous with itself philosophy is -how it is possible for philosophy to be absent. For most people, for most of you, philosophy is absent from their preoccupations, their studies, their lives. And for the philosopher himself, even if philosophy constantly needs to be recalled and re-established, this is because it sinks, because it slips between his fingers, because it goes under. So why philosophize rather than not philoso­phize? The interrogative adverb pourquoi? (why?) at least designates in the word pour {for) from which it is made a number of nuances of com­plement or attribute; but these nuances are all engulfed in the same hole, the hole drilled by the interrogative value of the adverb. This endows the thing under question with a surprising status: this thing might not be what it is, or might not be tout court. 'Pourquoi bears within itself the anni­hilation of what it is questioning. In this question

we find the real presence of the thing that is being questioned (we take philosophy to be a fact, a reality) and its possible absence, we find both the life and death of philosophy, we have it and we do not have it.

Well, perhaps the secret of philosophy's existence lies precisely in this contradictory, contrasting situation. To grasp this potential rela­tionship between the act of philosophizing and the 'presence-absence' structure, it will be useful to examine, even if only rapidly, what desire is. After all, in philosophy there is philein, to love, to be in love, to desire.

I would like to suggest just two themes that concern desire:

(i) We have fallen into the habit - as has phi­losophy itself, insofar as it accepts a certain way of asking questions — of examining a problem such as desire from the point of view of subject and object, the point of view of the duality between what desires and what is desired. As a result, the question of desire soon becomes the question of knowing whether it is the desirable that arouses desire or the complete opposite, with desire creat­ing the desirable - whether you fall in love with a woman because she is lovable, or whether she

is lovable because you have fallen in love with her. We need to realize that this way of asking the question falls within the category of causal­ity (the desirable would be the cause of desire, or vice versa), that it belongs to a dualist vision of things (on the one side there is the subject, and on the other the object, each endowed with its respective properties), and that it thereby makes any serious approach to the question impossible. Desire does not establish a relationship between a cause and an effect, of whatever kind they may be; desire, rather, is the movement of something that goes out toward the other as toward some­thing that it itself lacks. This means that the other (the object, if you like - but is it the apparently desired object that is actually desired?) is present to what desires, and is present in the form of absence. That which desires has got what it lacks, without which it would not desire it, and yet it does not have it, it does not know it, otherwise it would not desire it either. So, going back to the concepts of subject and object, the movement of desire makes the apparent object appear as something that is already there in desire without however being there 'in flesh and blood', and the apparent subject appears as something indefinite,

incomplete, which needs the other to define it, to complete it, something that is defined by the other, by absence. So on both sides there is the same contradictory but symmetrical structure: in the 'subject', the absence of what is desired, its lack, at the centre of its own presence, a cer­tain non-being in the being which desires, and in the 'object' a presence, the presence to the desirer (memory, hope) against a background of absence, since the object is there as desired and ipso facto as possessed.

(2) From this stems our second theme. The essence of desire resides in this structure that combines presence and absence. The combina­tion is not accidental. It is because what is present is absent from itself, or the absent present, that desire exists. Desire is really raised into being, set up by the absence of presence, or vice versa; something that is there is not there and wants to be there, wants to coincide with itself, to realize itself, and desire is simply that force that holds presence and absence together without mixing them up….