The Watchdogs:
Bourgeois Philosophy in Action

by Paul Nizan

Philosophy-in-itself does not exist any more than the Horse-in-itself exists: there exist only different philosophies, just as there exist Arabs and Percherons, Léonais and Anglo-Normans. The various philosophies are produced by different philosophers. This equation is not so ridiculous as we have been taught to believe: as there are 36,000 different kinds of philosopher, there exist precisely as many varieties of philosophy.

Philosophy is a sort of exercise in composition whereby a mass of material, whatever its intrinsic value, is gathered together and arranged in a certain order. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as philosophical matter, but rather a certain tradition of linking together a number of assertions by means of techniques which, per se, are completely meaningless. Thus, Thomism has as much right as, let us say, Kantianism to be called a branch of Philosophy.

Philosophy can say whatever it wants: it has no eternal vocation, it is not (and has never been) univocal; indeed, it may well be the ultimate form of equivocation. Philosophy-in-general is what is left of the different philosophies when these have been emptied of all substance and nothing remains but a kind of family atmosphere, an indefinable effluvium of traditions, private understandings, and secret meanings. It is an entity composed solely of words.

However, since no entity can be constructed without some sort of logical basis, one may argue that all the different philosophies are connected by a formal unity of purpose: they all claim as their eternal right the power and the authority to issue guidelines and instructions for right living. Philosophy always ends up talking about man’s position in the universe; it always adheres strictly to the syllabus which Plato assigned it: “The object of Philosophy is man and all that it behooves his essence to undergo and act upon.”

But since there is no single order determining man’s position, nor any eternally applicable solution to the problem of man’s fate, nor one, and only one, key to the human condition, this thing called Philosophy is always completely equivocal. And the first task involved in any critique or thoroughgoing review of Philosophy is to pinpoint that which is equivocal in the term itself, as it is used today.


No mystic vocation, no theological predestination, no divine grace enjoin Philosophy to serve men’s real needs. But when young people, when sincere lovers of wisdom deem that Philosophy is the implementation of good will—the fulfillment of its promise, as it were—they are implicitly and uncritically acknowledging that this vocation, this predestination, and this effective grace exist.

But, I repeat, these things do not exist. One simply cannot pass judgment on a particular philosophy by invoking Philosophy’s grand and eternal vocation, its sublime and eternal power, as if these represented some immutable standard of excellence.

One may find that the philosophy of Bergson is repugnant, and that those of Boutroux and Leibniz were repugnant, because of elements within the works themselves; but one may not assert that these philosophies are repugnant because they represent short-lived aberrations, accidental maladies that have befallen Eternal Philosophy, which simply does not exist. It is impossible to betray a figment of the imagination. M. Maritain believed that there is such a thing as Eternal Philosophy. But those who do not engage in conversations or any other form of social intercourse with God or his learned clerks will never be able to “feel” this eternity. Rather it will seem to them that the very idea of eternity condemns every man to the physical and mental existence of a convict.

(pp. 7-9)

Why then should Philosophy be in a privileged position?

The one great postulate which supposedly guarantees its pre-eminence is that dealing with the permanence of the conditions of human thought. This postulate asserts that the world of theoretical speculation is impervious to change. The philosophers believe it. How easy it is for them to move about in this serene world! Here one could never have any of those unpleasant encounters that are always possible in a changing world. Here there exists an environment that is as homogeneous, as silent, as colorless, and as abstract as space itself, where, since the beginning of the ages, it has been possible to calmly exchange philosophical comments with one’s colleagues. Its form is fixed for all eternity. To every thinker it has looked exactly the same as it looks today. In this environment, where the temperature is constant, where storms and other natural upheavals never occur, Reason has blossomed like a solitary plant, always the same despite the variations in form (which, of course, never fooled the initiated for a moment)—just as a Platonic Idea remains exactly the same, regardless of the appearance of the diverse objects in which its essence manifests itself.

The material world is what it is, and its reality—to the extent that it cannot be measured by scientific standards, to the extent that it is untouched by man—antedates all theoretical speculation and has always been independent of the metamorphoses of thought. The discovery of elliptical motion had no effect on the reality of the heavenly bodies; nevertheless, a system of thought which did not go beyond circular motion could not embrace the same material world as one which was able to incorporate the ellipse. The world that is the object of Philosophy is a structure built by technology, science, and action. The continuous modification of this representable universe makes it impossible for Kant to reply to Leibniz phrase by phrase and word by word. The tremendous differences which separate the contemporary world of one philosophy from that of another make it impossible for the philosophers to assign uniform meanings to the various expressions associated with thought-in-general; there is, in fact, only a limited number of invariable elements which might give them the illusion that all philosophers inhabit the same permanent universe. Only by means of some clever philosophical formula which has not yet been developed will it be possible to pass from one system to the next with any degree of critical rigor. Indeed, in the final analysis, it may be impossible for a philosopher to reply to anyone but his own contemporaries.*

The function of the history of Philosophy is to do justice to the past by treating it as a conglomeration of real modifications in the conditions of thought—not as an abstraction whereby it is possible to place Kant and Spinoza on the same plane as Plato and to speak of the Platonism of Spinoza or the Kantianism of Plato. The key to explicating the philosophers lies in the changes occurring in the human world and in the medium in which the intelligence operates. The facts of human life govern the relations between thought and its objects; the evolution of human groups governs the evolution of the earth and of the heavens; the development of the entire spectrum of technological, political, and social activities is the real mainspring of what the thinkers call the motion of the mind. Thus, it will be necessary to seek the causes underlying this thing called Philosophy, as well as the effects that flow from these causes, outside of the philosophical realm itself. It will also be necessary to find out why the contemporary philosophers maintain that such an inquiry is not truly philosophical.*

* See Note A. [Marx on Feuerbach]

* See Note B. [On Kant]

(pp. 25-27)

When one hears that Philosophy is still talking about relationships and proportions, phenomena and realities, vital impulses and numens, immanence and transcendence, contingency and freedom, souls and bodies; when one hears M. Brunschvicg, who is the greatest exponent of this kind of thinking, give a series of lectures on the technique of the transition to the absolute, one fails to see how these bacilli of the mind, these grotesque fruits of the contemplative process, could possibly enable the common herd—whom we, ever willing to oblige, would summon to the lecture hall—to understand their daughters’ tuberculosis, their wives’ fits of anger, their military service with all its humiliations, their work, their unemployment, their vacations, the wars, the strikes, the stinking corruption of their parliaments, or the insolence of the authorities. One fails to see what this Philosophy without substance, this Philosophy without rhyme or reason, is driving at.

The philosophers appear not to know how men are constructed; they appear to be unfamiliar with the things men eat, the houses in which they live, the clothing they wear, the manner in which they die, the women they love, the work they perform; with the things they do on weekends, the way in which they nurse their illnesses, their weekly schedules, their incomes, the newspapers and books they read, the spectacles designed for their entertainment, their films, their songs, their proverbs. This astonishing ignorance does not disturb the leisurely course of Philosophy in the least. The philosophers do not feel drawn toward the earth, they are lighter than the angels; they do not possess the weight that attracts us to other living beings; they never feel the need to go among men. And this is all part of a tradition I despise that goes back to Descartes:

“Whereas in this great city in which I find myself, where no man but me is not engaged in trade, everyone is so concerned with his own profit that I could remain here all my life without ever being noticed by anyone. Every day, amid the confusion of great crowds of people, I go for a stroll and have as much freedom and peace of mind as you could enjoy on your tree-lined promenades; and I do not view the men I see here any differently than I would the trees that are found in your woods or the animals which graze there. Even the noise of their frantic coming and going does not trouble my reveries any more than would that of a stream.” [1]

[1] Letter to Guez de Balzac, Amsterdam, May 5, 1631.

(pp. 28-29; note, p. 38)

Some philosophers are satisfied; others are not.

Epicurus, for example, was not really content, nor was Spinoza; and Rousseau was not at all easy to please. Leibniz, on the other hand, thought that the world was in rather good shape. M. Brunschvicg is not discontented either.

The reason for this, as I said before, is that underneath all philosophers are human beings. Some of them may have good reasons for feeling that the world is a comfortable place, whereas others may never succeed in getting used to it. The former adjust to the world and see no point in trying to change it; they do not like the latter, who cannot accept the world as it is and want to change it. That is why M. Brunschvicg does not like Marx.

No one could ever be persuaded to believe that, in order to adapt to the world—regardless of the age in which one happens to be living—it is enough to examine it and interpret it comme il faut. That would presuppose the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient God and some sort of table of eternal punishments and eternal rewards. Until now, God has been indispensable if one’s object was to convince people that opinions originate in freedom of judgment, or that freedom itself is the fruit of right thinking. However, I despise the philosophy of the oppressors because I myself have felt the weight of oppression; and it seems to me that the ability to adjust to oppression is much less a triumph of some mysterious inner power of free judgment than a mutilation of human life. But then, adjusting to oppression has always been easier for the oppressor than for the oppressed.

(p. 44)

On the other hand, it may well be that their failure to consider these difficult questions is deliberate and does not stem merely from their ignorance and lack of information. It may be that they are afraid of being dragged into dangerous waters; that they prefer their present tranquillity to the turbulence that ensues when the mind is put to work for truly noble ends. They are very timid about certain things. They do not dare go forth and confront problems which might threaten them in some way or other—problems which might prove intractable to their intellectual powers—in the places where such problems arise. And yet they sense that these problems do exist, somewhere; no doubt in those parts of the city where philosophers do not customarily reside, or in those countries where their special brand of wisdom is not taught. M. Benda, who evaluates his confrères from the sanctuary of his eternity (which is, perhaps, less suspect than theirs) knows that the philosophers dread dangerous thoughts. Emmanuel Berl knows it too. For we are living in one of those dense periods of history when truly human thoughts affect much more than thought itself. In times like these, whoever dares to think humanly is thinking dangerously, because any human thought calls in question the entire social order that is crushing our lives.

The bourgeois philosophers, the guardians of bourgeois thought, are forced to eschew all concrete problems because such problems are disturbing; at the same time, because they must inspire confidence, they continue to assure us that they are capable of solving these problems. Of course, the philosophers could justify their refusal to deal with these dangerous subjects by declaring them irreducible, not amenable to intellectual manipulation; they might feel compelled to acknowledge the inevitability of the misfortunes which befall men and create so many problems. Justice, minus hard labor; Liberty, minus prostitution and chains. But how could they ever accept this insoluble residue of intellectually forbidden questions? Such impotence would signal the death of their Reason, the extinction of their Mind’s power. Thus it is impossible for them to confess that they have been stymied by any issue, however trivial. Although obliged to keep silent, they constantly assure us that they are not keeping silent. They draw a thick curtain around concrete reality, all the while declaring that the important thing is to possess a general method which will enable any man who has mastered it to solve all problems and comprehend all of concrete reality. But not right away. Some day. After he has studied all the sciences and digested all of human history. At the very moment of his death. It takes many years and considerable effort to develop this method to master it; so much reading and textual criticism, innumerable prolegomena and intellectual exercises. As a result, the right moment to put it into practice never comes; the right moment to attack the problem is always deferred because further preparation is required; and, in the end, one is left with nothing but a Platonic affirmation of the powers of the method and of the secrets of Reason. The philosophers all dream of discovering some mysterious science of sciences, the key to the universe. (How reckless it was of Descartes to have dared to put his method into practice!) They are almost as pure as M. Teste, whose strength lies in his steadfast refusal to move from thought to action. They are simply incapable of broaching any dangerous subject, of launching a direct attack on a particular human problem, a particular situation—a problem which must be resolved, or a situation which must be remedied, right here and right now. They love Freedom in the abstract and they have fashioned a whole metaphysics of Freedom; but, like blushing virgins, they avert their eyes from the real world, the world where the destruction of Freedom is proceeding apace. They transfer all conflicts to a world so pure, a celestial region so thoroughly disinfected, that there is absolutely no danger that any one of them will dirty his hands. And they call this asepsis Philosophy.

(pp. 61-63)

The different philosophies should be treated simply as events; and one does not customarily call an event to account on theological grounds. It is pointless to praise this or that philosopher as a saint, or to condemn him as a sinner, according to whether he embraces the party of mankind or deserts it. This would imply that one has not yet abandoned the ancient idea of sin, of that Original Sin which presumably did not have to be committed (since, as everyone well knows, the mind is free). I view M. Bergson as a threat, but not as a sinner; I regard him as a being whose impact must be measured with precision. If I say that he stands with the bourgeoisie against the rest of mankind, this does not mean that I regard him as an enemy, a parasite, any more than I would take Koch’s bacillus to be an agent of the Devil. If we wish to find out how and why the bourgeois produce their inhuman philosophies, we shall only begin to understand what is going on when we have learned to treat their thinkers as so many objects, not letting ourselves be tormented by the idea of their free will. If I think about the moral conscience of M. Brunschvicg, then I am thinking like M. Brunschvicg. In other words, he has defeated me: I am thinking in bourgeois terms just when I wanted to think in human terms. From now on it is forbidden to worry about the timeless elements in M. Bergson’s character or the diverse intelligible symbols that M. Fauconnet might have chosen. Kant and our catechisms must be quickly erased from our minds.

But unfortunately I keep running into the reality of M. Bergson and the massive corpus of his philosophy, objects as solid as the pieces of furniture I run into while walking around at night. M. Bergson has prevented me from getting to my destination as quickly and as safely as I had hoped. And so I insist that M. Bergson should henceforth be judged as an obstacle, and not as the Spirit of Evil might be judged by some priest. Shall we ever be delivered from these Christians, with their confessionals and sins and examinations of conscience?

If attacked in this way, M. Brunschvicg could reply that such criticism is unfair, that he should be judged solely on the basis of his intentions (which are pure), his intellectual probity (which is considerable), and his objectivity (which is infinite). And, as a matter of fact, M. Gabriel Marcel (who is not a Brunschvicgian), while applauding me for denouncing “the essential poverty,” “the utter vacuousness, from both the metaphysical and the human standpoint,” of the philosophical teachings of the Sorbonne, has sharply reproved me for "directing the most heinous personal attacks against Léon Brunschvicg, whose probity and profound objectivity could never seriously be called in question.” But M. Marcel and his confrères must understand that these personal virtues, these magnanimous intentions, are—to put it bluntly—extraneous considerations. Their presence in no way alters the essential character of the function M. Brunschvicg is discharging. There is no reason why I should share the philosophers’ illusions concerning the true significance of their work. At the present time the only important consideration is the effect of their writings, the impact of their philosophical productions; and their power to influence others does not emanate from their inner selves.

(pp. 72-74)

But it so happens that the intelligence is the only element in man’s nature which is capable of developing by and for itself. Because the bourgeois has been so completely cut off from reality, his mind, functioning autonomously, has invented an infinity of games to distract itself The bourgeois intellect has grown like a cancer. Since the bourgeois could not live or act in truly human fashion, he has had to find something inside himself, something which, in spite of everything, would allow him to maintain the fiction that he was alive. During the period when he was engaged in the struggle for power, the bourgeois got along very well without his soul. The establishment of his existence, an abstraction, was the culmination of a series of real events and real battles; the revolution which established his supremacy was achieved through action, violent action, not through the manipulation of ideas. However, the bourgeois now installed in the world which his fathers won for him is quite ready to believe that his class achieved power solely through the force of the truth that was in his ancestors.* The 14th of July—like Easter and Palm Sunday and Christmas—is, to him, merely the symbol of a particular time of year: it marks the opening of the vacation season. But at a certain point he became conscious of his own emptiness. He began to miss his Christian soul—although he could not and would not try to win it back, because by doing so he would have fallen into the clutches of a Church which supported the enemies of his class. But he found something better. Indeed, the mainspring of all bourgeois philosophy has always been the desire to find an adequate substitute for this soul: Kant, by replacing spiritual substance with the abstract power of the “Cogito,” secured for the bourgeoisie all the benefits and all the prestige attached to the Christian soul. The soul, daughter of God and servant of grace, gave up her place to secular Reason and bequeathed to the latter her antique grandeur. Owing to the peculiar qualities of the soul, the creature in whom it resided was inclined to be modest and humble in the presence of God and his priests, a posture which was incompatible with bourgeois pride. But when the ancient powers of the soul were transformed into the absolutely autonomous power of the mind—the mind that exists in each man—the solitary bourgeois discovered within himself an essential dignity, as it were, which elevated him to the throne vacated by God. He could now rejoice and take pride in the fact that he possessed something that was his alone. He had now become the law-giver in the realm of the mind, as he already was in the realms of law and economics. His solitude was dispelled forever by this pride, by the application of its power and by the myriad combinations of ideas which it produced. M. Brunschvicg, the philosopher of the sciences, painstakingly constructs system after system, every one a monument to this power and its eternal dignity. Every bourgeois is proud that he can feel, inside him, the pulsations of a mind capable of creating Newtonian physics and the general theory of relativity. Every bourgeois considers himself one of the elect.*

But the great, anonymous mass of human beings who undoubtedly have a real need for a philosophy—that is, for a consistent world-view and a body of guiding principles and clearly defined aims—this mass which needs a set of powerful intellectual tools to carry out the directives of their philosophy, is effectively deprived by the bourgeoisie of any ideological material which might prove relevant to their existences. Instead, they are offered nothing more than an updated version of the bourgeoisie's own multi-purpose philosophy, which, it is claimed, possesses universal validity and is applicable to all types of men and to every possible variation of the human condition. But this extravagant claim is utterly hollow.

For, in truth, this great mass of men who desperately need to understand what is going on, who desperately need to learn how to find their way in a world where they have always been the passive victims of violence and calamity, is barred from the domain of Philosophy itself. By its very nature, contemporary philosophy is reserved for a limited number of initiates. It can be mastered only if one has successfully completed a long series of courses, research projects, apprenticeships, and examinations. At each step along the way the young man who has taken up the challenge is warned of the lengthiness, the complexity, and the arduousness of the tasks which lie ahead. Philosophy is one of the loftiest peaks of that culture which the bourgeoisie has reserved for its own children. A body of wisdom stuffed with the accumulated waste matter of history, a body of wisdom burdened with all the erudition and all the deadwood of history, a body of wisdom whose scientific disguise must be carefully adjusted with every advance in scientific knowledge, is not something that can be learned in a day. It requires that abundant leisure and those long years of academic training which are available only to the sons of the bourgeoisie.

* See Note L. [On idealism and realism.]

* See Note M. [On the link between bourgeois “Reason” and religion.]

(pp. 83-85)

The philosophies produced by the bourgeoisie in power, when the spiritual hegemony of bourgeois thought has been established, are incomplete philosophies. They pay no attention whatsoever to the reality of poverty or the reality of servitude—one more reason why they are useful only to the oppressors.

But it must be emphasized that there is no law of Philosophy which requires that philosophers fight for real freedom and real material abundance for real men. Such a law is nothing but a figment of the imagination; it was never decreed by any god or promulgated by any mind. From this it follows that there exists no inexorable dialectic, no irresistible chain of reasoning, to compel today’s thinkers to take up this crucial struggle in the name of some absolute moral imperative of Philosophy. When we consider Philosophy from a historical, evolutionary standpoint (when we put it in perspective, as M. Brunschvicg would say), it is clear that there is no intrinsic necessity, no intrinsically necessary principle in Philosophy that commands its practitioners to wage such a struggle. But there does exist—there has always existed an unvarying set of extrinsic motives which have controlled, and will continue to control, the successive stages of Philosophy’s development. These extrinsic motives may accelerate this development or retard it, deflect it onto another path or completely reverse its course.

There is nothing absurd, nothing intrinsically irrational (that is, contradictory to fundamental principles) in the fact that Philosophy should choose poverty over material abundance, servitude over freedom. At the Societé Française de Philosophie, in the course of a symposium on the functions of Reason, a certain philosopher was so naive as to declare: “Reason will never be shocked by the fact that a society is divided into rulers and ruled, rich and poor.” [13]

Indeed, no outrage could ever offend Reason, that dream-ridden machine whose sole function is to understand and explain, not to decide or choose. If we experience an outrage in all its horrifying reality, we know immediately that this outrage is not directed against Reason; we know that it is directed against other faculties and needs than those of Reason, against other people than the learned clockmakers who serve Reason. There is no secret definition of Philosophy which contains within itself the key to all the relationships between Philosophy’s development, its values, and its consequences—no definition as complete as that of the triangle, for instance, which contains the key to all the properties of this figure and automatically excludes all possible absurdities (that the sum of the angles of a triangle is not equal to two right angles, for example). Philosophy, however, is nothing but a mass of historical contradictions. Philosophy is not a figure standing in the denuded space of geometry.

(pp. 92-93)

The hidden motives of the philosophers’ retreat from reality are perhaps not what is most important. The first thing to be considered in any critique is the practical significance of their ideas: that is, whether these ideas are inimical to the interests of mankind (as in the case of Leibniz) or in their favor (as in the case of Epicurus or Marx).

(p. 99)

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

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