Thursday, February 16, 2012

Paul Nizan watching the watchdogs

My introduction to Paul Nizan was via his indictment of establishment philosophy, The Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order. There was one section that caught my attention at the time, which I then digitized:

Here two different types of philosophy are addressed: a purely technical philosophy, as in philosophy of science, which Nizan has no intention of opposing, and a philosophy that purports in some way to address the human condition, which Nizan indicts.

Rereading this now, I paid more attention to the text and context. An American must read the book through foreign lenses, extracting from what is dated or situation-specific that which can be learned and recalibrated to apply to our current reality.

Nizan's youthful rebellion resonates—as Sartre suggests in his Foreword to Aden, Arabie—to contemporary youth rebellions. This was a youth probably more bourgeois than any we've known, but the rebellion against the bankruptcy of bourgeois society is familiar enough, and thus Nizan's story is both relevant and limited on just those grounds.

I have extracted a few fragments from Sartre's Foreword as well as to references to Simone de Beauvoir where some combination of Sartre, Nizan, de Beauvoir, and Leibniz appears:

Returning to The Watchdogs, note that Nizan's complaint is specifically French. Nizan rebels against a specifically French generalized idealist philosophy which purports to maintain a Platonic detachment from vulgar materiality but which in fact colludes with and is supported by a grimy bourgeois reality. Related to this is the French intellectual rebellion against “humanism”, which would mean something different from what humanism concerns itself with in the anglophone world were it not for the importation of postmodernism. The French secular intellectual religion was a Cartesian hypostatization of “man”, which the left bourgeois intelligentsia of a later generation was intent to put down, a concern that ought to be irrelevant to the rest of us.

In Nizan we also find a familiar yearning to abandon the ivory tower and live a life of action fighting the bourgeois order. Toward the end of The Watchdogs we see Nizan's commitment to the French Communist Party and advocacy of the USSR, which was later to terminate with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, upon which the Communists assaulted Nizan's reputation.

In a fresh extract from this work I aim to highlight the most abstract and extensive in scope of passages illustrating Nizan's perspective:

I've made further notes on this book I hope to make publicly presentable.

Turning to Aden, Arabie, we find a comparable indictment of bourgeois society, based on disillusionment experienced in an exotic colonial locale. In addition to some interesting ruminations, Nizan's writing—in English translation—is beautiful. Here is an extract containing some interesting philosophical reflections and illustrative of Nizan's stylistic excellence:

Additional quotations and comments may be forthcoming. While I have focused on Nizan's more abstract statements, I need to emphasize that Nizan's descriptive powers should not be overlooked.

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