Sunday, May 4, 2008

School Days

"I was studying philosophy with a view to sitting the agrégation competitive examination … It was in this class that I first began to learn that every problem, whether serious or trifling, may be solved by the application of an always identical method, which consists in contrasting two traditional views of the question; the first is introduced by means of a justification on common-sense grounds, then the justification is destroyed with the help of the second view; finally, both are dismissed as being equally inadequate, thanks to a third view which reveals the incomplete character of the first two; these are now reduced by verbal artifice to complementary aspects of one and the same reality: form and subject-matter, container and content, being and appearance, continuity and discontinuity, essence and existence, etc. Such an exercise soon becomes purely verbal, depending, as it does, on a certain skill in punning, which replaces thought: assonance, similarity in sound and ambiguity gradually come to form the basis of those brilliantly ingenious intellectual shifts which are thought to be the sign of sound philosophizing.

"Five years of study at the Sorbonne boiled down to acquiring skill in this form of mental gymnastics, the dangers of which are nevertheless obvious. In the first place, the technique by which intellectual balance is maintained is so simple that it can be applied in the case of any problem … I was confident that, at ten minutes' notice, I could knock together an hour's lecture with a sound dialectical framework, on the respective superiority of buses and trams. Not only does this method provide a key to open any lock; it also leads one to suppose that the rich possibilities of thought can be reduced to a single, always identical pattern, at the cost of a few rudimentary adjustments. It is rather as if music could be reduced to a single melody, once the musician has realized that his melody can be read either in the treble or the bass clef. In this sense, our philosophical training exercised the intelligence but had a dessicating effect on the mind. …

"After years of this training, I now find myself intimately convinced of a few unsophisticated beliefs, not very different from those I held at the age of fifteen. Perhaps I see more clearly the inadequacy of these intellectual tools; at least they have an instrumental value which makes them suitable for the service I require of them. I am in no danger of being deceived by their internal complexity, nor of losing sight of their practical purpose through becoming absorbed in the contemplation of their wonderful elaborateness."

— Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 51-52