The Philosopher’s Mission

by Paul Nizan

It can be argued that there are two types of philosophy—or rather that there are two modes of thought which are both conventionally included under the single term, Philosophy. For the present we must accept this verbal unity as a fact, without examining the legitimacy or the propriety of the marriage. There exist two modes of thought because there are two distinct series of questions confronting the individual whose function it is to supply answers to the most general inquiry. The first series deals with our knowledge of the world; the second with the lives of men. One type of philosophy is an extension of, and a commentary on, science; the other treats those problems arising from the situations men find themselves in, with respect both to the world and to each other.

The first of these philosophies has a task that, at first glance, is clearly defined (or which it is possible to regard as clearly defined), although the exercise of this philosophy gives rise to a host of special problems involving its function, its tactics, its results, and its very existence. This philosophy strives to make sense out of the contradictory assertions of the sciences, each of which tends to go its own way. It seeks to draw up periodic balance sheets and to define with precision the ideas and techniques that develop as the scientists proceed with the construction of the edifice of knowledge. And, finally, from its observations of the practices, the experiments, the positive findings, the errors and failures, and the triumphs and setbacks of the sciences, it attempts to draw conclusions concerning the nature and functions of intelligence-in-general. Admittedly, these investigations into the sciences have a historical legitimacy: Plato, for example, carried out just such a task when he undertook to resolve the problems raised by the introduction of the concept of incommensurability. The value of this philosophical genre, which it would be best to call simply "general logic," is a matter for debate between the scientists and the philosophers. The question is purely academic and is not of immediate concern to the layman. Nor does it directly affect Philosophy, or human wisdom in general. One cannot say to M. Rey, professional philosopher, that he does not practice philosophy because he applies his thoughts to theoretical physics and grapples with the dilemmas of thermodynamics. He would reply—no doubt in a calm, rational manner—that he practices his profession as he sees fit and that no one has any right to accuse him of betraying the humanitarian mission of Philosophy, whatever that may be. Why, M. Rey might add, don’t you accuse my neighbor, who is a physician, of betraying the mission of medicine because he has failed to condemn preventive detention? Why don’t you accuse my other neighbor, who is a cobbler, of betraying the shoemaker’s craft because he is not protesting against the massacres of Indochinese peasants? And this would be a reasonable reply, which could be backed up with a number of solid arguments. M. Meyerson would probably make the same reply. One cannot accuse M. Rey and M. Meyerson of betraying their philosophical calling just because they are content to till their own plot of ground. After all, the activity they are engaged in, the kind of thinking they do, is of a purely technical character; it must be judged from a purely technical standpoint, and the only possible verdict would be that they are doing their job well or doing it poorly, just as one would say of an engineer that he is either doing his job well or doing it poorly. It may be—nay, it is likely—that M. Rey, philosopher of science, is doing a poor job: Lenin, for example, found that M. Rey was not a very good engineer. But this question is not one that has to be resolved at once. For its resolution, its implications, are of concern to the scientists: Messrs. Perrin, Langevin, Urbain, and Painlevê will have something to say on this score. These men may well have a good laugh when they think of the sorry figure science cuts in a M. Brunschvicg. I myself do not feel obligated to share their mirth.

It would not be possible to call M. Meyerson to account in the name of a more human philosophy; the quality and importance of his writings are matters that he and the scientists must settle. M. Meyerson did not declare at the beginning of his Déduction relativiste or his Identité et réalité that human destiny was the ultimate object of his philosophical inquiry. Thus he could not be accused of deliberately splitting himself in two, which would constitute a treasonable act; for, if he does present a split personality, this duality is not inherently contradictory—any more than the split personality of a chemist who is both a chemist and a Christian would be incompatible with the essence of chemistry. The questions that one is entitled to ask this chemist and M. Meyerson were not designed especially for these two men. They are indistinguishable from the general questions that one feels justified in asking any man-in-general, any bourgeois-in-general, or any Christian-in-general, regardless of his professional functions. If a person, as bourgeois or as Christian, is an enemy of mankind, this does not mean that as highly trained specialist he also, or specifically, will be an enemy of mankind. Specialists as specialists are in a very secure position; they are immune to attack. If a chemist invents an explosive, he is still only a chemist—and probably a good chemist at that. If he recommends that this explosive be used at once against unfortified towns or striking workers, he is clearly a traitor to mankind; but he remains a good chemist nonetheless he has in no way betrayed chemistry. There are really no grounds for opening a separate file on this chemist or for entering his name in a special list of traitorous chemists.

On the other hand, the second type of philosophy is at present in a situation totally inconsistent with its basic character: this philosophy, or mode of thought, has assigned itself the task of making an assessment of human life. That is its express purpose, and its practitioners are aware of their goal. Its reason for being is to find the guiding principle of life on earth. It has been searching for this principle since time immemorial, and it is still looking. It is never content to formulate mere existential judgments. It claims that it is expressing the will of humanity. It decrees what men should want (if they are to fulfill their destiny), or, at least, what it wants men to achieve. The sciences provide this philosophy with the limits of the possible; they define the radius of action of the human will and the possible points at which this will could be put into operation. But there is no real continuity, no logically necessary transition, between science—which never seeks or requires anything but its own continuous progress—and this philosophy, which is always supposed to desire something or to inform or to advise, this ambitious philosophy which is forever proclaiming that its task is to work for the good of man.

But neither M. Rabaud nor M. Perrin nor M. d’Ocagne nor M. Meyerson, has ever proclaimed that this is his task and his function. When M. Langevin takes a position on the issue of war, when he speaks of the urgent need to put an end to war, it would be wrong to say that he is doing so as a physicist or, to put it more vaguely, as a scholar. He is speaking only as a private citizen. When Professor Einstein announces that he will refuse to contribute to any war effort, without even bothering to inquire whether his country is right or wrong, he is speaking as a man, not as the author of the theory of relativity. It is naive and truly bourgeois to believe that the protests of M. Langevin and M. Einstein have more value than the protest of some anonymous individual simply because the two physicists are in a more delicate position. The fact of the matter is that the protest of a Langevin or an Einstein is far more offensive to the bourgeoisie, which does not like to see its greatest men renounce the values it believes in and holds dear. But the exponents of the second type of philosophy hold to a certain conception of their particular mission, of the special mission that goes with the accomplishment of the aims of their speciality. This conception has a history of its own and a significance for our times, both of which must be described and evaluated. M. Brunschvicg realizes that, as a philosopher and not as a private citizen, he has a certain obligation to fulfill and that there are certain models he should emulate. As he himself has said: "The heroes of the spiritual life are those who, without referring to obsolete models or anachronistic precedents, have projected lines of intelligence and truth which are destined to create a moral universe, in the same way as they have already created the material universe of gravitation and electricity."

If I understand him correctly, this statement is an expression of pride in, and consciousness of, a mission. It implies that Philosophy is guiding the world in the direction of its noblest destiny, and that the common people have every reason to be grateful to the philosophers, who create universes for them.

Thus, one must judge what the philosophers are now doing in relation to this conception—which they readily acknowledge and firmly believe in—of a humanitarian mission that is independent of all geographical and temporal conditions, as well as of any special interests. By doing so, one will find out what scholars are really like; one will discover their real intentions and their obnoxious nature; and one will see why it has at last become both desirable and possible that they be replaced.

SOURCE: Nizan, Paul. The Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order, translated by Paul Fittingoff (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), pp. 30-35. Original publication 1960.

See also:

Schalk, David L. “Professors as Watchdogs: Paul Nizan’s Theory of the Intellectual and Politics,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 1, January - March 1973, pp. 79-96.

Misio de la Filozofo de Paul Nizan
(same text in Esperanto)

The Watchdogs: Bourgeois Philosophy in Action (Excerpts)
by Paul Nizan

Philosophy in Aden
by Paul Nizan

Le Matérialisme Antique
par Paul Nizan

John-Paul Sartre on Paul Nizan

Paul Nizan & Baruch Spinoza

Howard L. Parsons on the Role of the Philosopher

Jeff Schmidt on Ideology and Professionals

Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy by R. Dumain

Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Paul Nizan @ Reason & Society

Paul Nizan @ Ĝirafo

Paul Nizan @ Marxists Internet Archive

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