Some Thoughts of Paul Valéry on Philosophy

I don't feel comfortable inside philosophy. We agree it is unavoidable, and no word may be uttered without some tribute being rendered to it. How could that be prevented, since it is itself unable to vouch for what it is? It is all but meaningless to assert, as is often the case, that we all philosophize unconsciously, since the very person engaging in it could not precisely account for what he is doing.

“Descartes,” Oeuvres, ed. Jean Hytier, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957‑60), 1: 791.

Philosophy is imperceptible. It never dwells in the writings of philosophers—we feel it in every human work that does not deal with philosophy, and as soon as the author wants to philosophize, it vanishes. It appears in man's uniting with any specific topic or aim. It disappears as soon as man wants to pursue it.—Which is demonstrated by the professional philosophers one day glimpsing Philosophy on some unexpected occasion. Well, they wanted to continue—when they had already passed out of its conditions.

Cahiers, ed. Judith Robinson, 2 vols. (Paris, 1974), 1: 480.

The greatest philosophical error is to count as philosophers only philosophers proper when every man of some greatness must have shaped their own philosophy; and the reason for their not technically uttering or specifying it in the technical language of acknowledged philosophy may be their feeling that their philosophy was all the more philosophically true when it remained unstated. True, that is, used and applied—verified . . . .

The general idea of things and man and Problems that had shaped itself in Caesar, Leonardo, and Galileo, . . . an idea that was quite certainly related to their works and objects and observations, must have had the cost, range, function, intensity, and hidden usefulness of a thought that was tried by the demands and adventures of their particular genius. Descartes knew this well.

“Discours en l'honneur de Goethe,” Oeuvres, 1: 537‑38.

The foremost character of this life change, which consists in organizing it according to numbers and size, is objectivity, impersonality, as unadulterated as possible, so much so that to us moderns the true, precisely connected with our power for acting on nature, seems increasingly to be contrasted with what our imagination and feelings would like to be true. Yet, . . . at the source of this prodigious change of the human world, we find one Self, the strong and reckless figure of Descartes, whose philosophy we may set less value on than our view of his magnificent and memorable Self.

“Seconde vue de Descartes,” Oeuvres, 1: 843‑44.

Descartes—as an antiphilosopher—since in everything he would think of applications. The purpose of his Cogito is to have done once and for all with philosophy. His God is a fundamental assumption that sweeps away obstacles. Then his real great ideas: a universe that is completely representable in mathematical terms, which constrains him to the then novel idea of conservation—since his system of total unity of reference had to be expressed through an equation—hence the idea of the form Product, MV—error but—truth.

Cahiers, ed. Judith Robinson, 2 vols. (Paris, 1974), 1: 717.

For an overview of Paul Valéry’s ideas on philosophy and antiphilosophy, and his affinities with neopositivism and Wittgenstein, see:

Bouveresse, Jacques; Fournier, Christian [trans]; Laugier, Sandra [trans]. “Philosophy from an Antiphilosopher: Paul Valéry,” Critical Inquiry, vol, 21, no. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 354-381.

For a perspective uncontaminated by analytical philosophy, see:

Adorno, Theodor W. "Valéry's Deviations," in Notes to Literature; Volume One, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 137-173. See quote.

Adorno on Paul Valéry & Cartesian Rationalism & Irrationalism in French Philosophy

Paul Valéry, Jacques Bouveresse, Theodor Adorno
(“Studies in a Dying Culture” blog, 11 December 2007)

Adorno on Wittgenstein & the Dialectical Essence of Philosophy

Descartes & Marxism: Selected Bibliography

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

History of Philosophy: Special Perspectives: Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide


Paul Valéry Studies - Newcastle upon Tyne

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