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Why I am so very unFrench, and other essays

Jacques Bouveresse

Philosophy from an Antiphilosopher: Paul Valéry

Entrées d'index

Note de l’éditeur

Lecture given as « La philosophie d’un anti-philosophe: Paul Valéry », Zaharoff Lecture, Oxford University, 4 février 1993, and published in French by Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, 32 p. – First publication in English: Critical Inquiry, 21 (1995), p. 354-381 (translation by Christian Fournier and Sandra Laugier). – Definitive French version in Jacques Bouveresse, Essais IV. Pourquoi pas des philosophes?, Agone, 2004,

Texte intégral

Advice to writers:
The less said, the better.
(But this little piece of advice should be heard by philosophers too.)
Paul Valéry, “Entre deux mots (maux)”

  • 1 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (New York, 1989), p. 118.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 67.

1I hope you will kindly forgive me for not choosing, as I might have done, a French philosopher for today’s topic but rather a writer whom we may characterize, according to his own words, as a French antiphilosopher. Among my motives for such a choice is my long-averred fascination with authors such as Paul Valéry and, in a different way, Robert Musil, who were admirers and followers of science, that so-called foe of poetry, and harbored a passion for accuracy in things reputed a priori as the most inaccurate. In his Harvard lectures of 1985-86, Italo Calvino concludes: “Among the values I would like passed on to the next millennium, there is this above all: a literature that has absorbed the taste for mental orderliness and exactitude, the intelligence of poetry, but at the same time that of science and philosophy: an intelligence such as that of Valéry as an essayist and prose writer.”1 I hardly need to point out my total sympathy with such a wish, which I feel urgently deserves to be uttered again as this our century draws to its close. For it seems obvious to me that our present, much-beloved excess of vagueness is today much more hazardous than any possible excess of accuracy; indeed, this age never was so committed to accuracy that it could seriously be held as a threat, though it complacently claims that it was through an exaggerated love of accuracy that it was disastrously misled. This tendency to relate poetry to science and see it, in Calvino’s words, as being first and foremost a “straining toward exactitude” may naturally carry with it,2 in a more or less unavoidable fashion (as with Valéry), an explicit rejection of philosophy or, at least (as with Musil), an ironical distancing from it, since philosophy as practiced by philosophers generally lacks accuracy from an accuracy fan’s point of view, lacks in thrills for genuine poetry lovers, and is seen as doubly deficient by those attempting to unite poetry and accuracy. Still, there is certainly much more at stake in rehearsing and supporting such an essential claim as Calvino’s than in worrying exclusively over its potentially damning consequences for philosophy and focusing all of one’s efforts on something that is not, as is too commonly believed, a defense of philosophy itself (it has survived many threats and perils that were much more real than this one) but rather of the view professional philosophers commonly hold of their discipline.

1. Valéry and the philosophers’ philosophy

2On first inspection, one gets the impression that Paul Valéry’s relations with philosophy throughout his intellectual career were as plain and simple as could be. Over and over again, he claimed that he had no use for philosophy, that it did not fulfill any of his private needs or answer any question he might naturally ask. He confesses:

  • 3 Paul Valéry, “Descartes,” Œuvres, Jean Hytier (ed.), 2 vols. (Paris, 1957-60), 1:792.

I find myself within philosophy as a barbarian would within Athens: knowing full well that he is surrounded by most precious objects and that everything under his eye is worthy of respect; yet losing countenance there, feeling bored, embarrassed, and vaguely awed with a superstitious terror, with sudden flashing impulses to smash everything or set on fire all those mysterious wonders for which he does not have a model in his soul.3

3In the meantime, he grants that, even if the problems of philosophers are not those that he himself would have chosen and the difficulties which to them seem most serious and formidable are to him invisible most of the time, he would be utterly naive and arrogant to claim to be wholly immune to philosophy. As he takes the risk of introducing himself as an antiphilosopher, he knows that, whether he likes it or not, that very move is already included within philosophy:

  • 4 Id., p. 791.

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.4

Thus it is as difficult to name what exactly one is not doing when one claims not to be philosophizing as it is to name what one is doing when one decides to philosophize and even to devote one’s life to it.

4Valéry’s view is that philosophizing is exactly what we should not attempt to do, that philosophy only exists inasmuch as it is not a result of the will to philosophize. This he calls “the invisibility of true philosophy,” the paradox being that philosophical works somehow are the least likely place to look for philosophy:

  • 5 Paul Valéry, Cahiers, Judith Robinson (ed.), 2 vol. (Paris, 1974), 1:480; hereafter abbreviated C.

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.5

  • 6 C, 1:498.

Believing that philosophy is only to be found in the books of philosophers is according to Valéry even sillier than for any other subject, for philosophy is “a knowledge pursued through living alone and in which solutions result from everybody’s existence, action, reactions, and choices. — Thus is Napoleon a philosopher”.6

5Specialists in philosophy do not do anything with their philosophy, according to Valéry; and the ones doing something with theirs do not philosophize. All great men, all those that have done something significant, must have had their philosophy, which they put into practice instead of writing it:

  • 7 Paul Valéry, “Discours en l’honneur de Goethe,” Œuvres, 1:537-38.

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 – verifiedThe 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.7

  • 8 Paul Valéry, Cahiers 1894-1914, Judith Robinson-Valéry & Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri (ed.), 4 vols. (P (...)

6Beside Descartes, who is one of his intellectual heroes, although on grounds that he himself is willing to acknowledge are most likely unrelated to those of professional philosophers, Valéry’s avowed models and the people he admires are almost never philosophers in the usual sense. In an early note dating back to the years 1895-96, he writes that “of all living and well-known men, the ones I MYSELF admire are Messrs H. Poincaré, Lord Kelvin, S. Mallarmé, J.-K. Huysmans, Ed. Degas, and perhaps Mr. Cecil Rhodes. A sum total of six names.”8 Among these six can be found a mathematician, a physicist, a poet, a novelist, a painter, and an explorer, businessman, and statesman. No professional philosopher is part of the list, but one could surely say that every single author thus mentioned is a philosopher in Valéry’s sense, that a well-determined philosophy is enacted in what each of them does, which his plans, undertakings, and practice both exemplify and verify; that is, it manifests itself in the only way Valéry finds proper and essential. In his “Le Souper de Singapour” (1898), he gives out a list of famous figures that were exciting to him, which does not mean of course that he admired them all in the same proportions:

  • 9 SC, 1:422.

Individual persons I got most excited about are Stendhal, Bonaparte, Descartes, Poe, Lord Kelvin, Wagner, Rimbaud, etc., etc., Talleyrand as well, Pascal as a writer; to me, they make up an alphabet of the modes of thinking or inventing. Pack of cards.9

7The only philosopher mentioned is Descartes, and it is certainly not difficult to understand why. One of the central ideas of Valéry's philosophy, if any such thing can be safely imputed to him, is that the share of actual knowledge included within any doctrine or intellectual construction is precisely measured by the range of the power over things it grants us. First of all, Descartes appears to Valéry as the man in whom a will for self-affirmation and an absolute primacy of doing over knowing and telling were manifested at a given moment in the most exemplary way they could be, and gave rise to one of the most dramatic and radical changes that the world has ever experienced. What Valéry most admired in Descartes is his faith in the power of his own thought. He primarily sees him as an adventurer, a warlord almost, bound on a journey of world conquest, with his own self for sole provision, and eventually successful. In his “Seconde vue de Descartes,” he wrote as follows:

  • 10 Paul Valéry, “Seconde vue de Descartes,” Œuvres, 1:843-44.

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.10

8More generally, the significance of any philosopher, in Valéry's view, lies precisely in what removes him in the most radical way from the common idea of philosophy, what makes him an antiphilosopher. This is how he regards Descartes, taking only into account what he actually did, dismissing how he might have thought about what he was doing:

  • 11 C, 1:717.

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.11

Descartes’s philosophy is certainly not true, in the philosophers’ sense, yet it retains the much more remarkable advantage of having been verified by its effects.

9We could say that it is one of the many ironies of history that Descartes should have been at the source of that change which would much later result in the present state of crisis for philosophy:

  • 12 Paul Valéry, “Descartes,” Œuvres, 1:799.

It seems to me that philosophy – if you will forgive my saying so on account of my ignorance – as all other human things these days, is at a critical stage in its evolution, and because of the very effect of the amazing advances of natural sciences.12

Even though Descartes made the decisive start, Valéry comes to the conclusion after comparing his case with Kant’s and Leibniz’s that the latter’s is most likely the greatest, or at any rate the philosophical project that may need the least reinterpretation in order to speak directly to the man of today:

  • 13 C, 1:485.

Leibniz, the most mathematical mind – fit to express through a coordinate system – any difficulty. Very skillful against imagination, very symbolizing. May be the most masterful looking of all three. And the most flexible.13

  • 14 C, 1:501.

10For Valéry, philosophy is characterized as “an attempt to act without sufficient means”14. He even considers that

  • 15 C, 1:605.

powerlessness is characteristic of philosophy. And this is striking – in our age of dominant power.15

11Now as he gives an absolute primacy to will and action and values a specific kind of philosophy according to the increase in power we may gain from it, one might expect a sense of proximity with Nietzsche; and this is the case from a certain perspective. But one should not mistake the philosophical glorification of power for a gain in actual power. Valéry has a phrase which I have always felt is a fine summary of Nietzsche’s case:

  • 16 C, 1:486.

Nietzsche is no food – he’s a tonic.16

It’s true he also says

  • 17 C, 1:567.

a philosophy can only be a tonic.17

  • 18 C, 1:553.

12Philosophies that may be called “explicative” are vicious in that they “use more than is needed and do not set conditions or sanctions for themselves”; and so are those that call themselves “critical,” in that they “disguise themselves under an assumed rigorousness of language.”18 Although Nietzsche seems to be more on his guard and equipped against language, he still is no exception to this rule:

  • 19 C, 1:568.

All metaphysics are a product of carelessness. For instance, we see Nietzsche, no matter how forewarned, how active against verbal ghosts, come to the will to power, although he was the one who would put the will in quotation marks, as you do with suspicious words you do not want to take responsibility for.19

Reading Nietzsche, he writes,

  • 20 C, 1:739.

I feel again, find again this feeling of emptinesswhich these mixtures of prophetism, historism, philosophism, and biology yield to me.20

  • 21 C, 1:736.
  • 22 C, 1:736.

13It is true that Valéry ascribes to Nietzsche one essential merit, namely, that he had “an utter sense of intellectual sensibility and the kind of poetry that is thus made possible.”21 It is well known that the idea that the intellect also has its feelings, its emotions and affects, that there is such a thing as a sensibility of the intellect, the possibility of a poetry and poetics of the productions of pure intellect, is, as we know, an idea that Valéry came to quite early and to which he frequently returned. But his view is that Nietzsche’s contribution was almost completely ruined by what he calls not simply his megalomania but his “megastomania.”22 Like Descartes, but on a different level, Nietzsche is only important inasmuch as he is not a philosopher:

  • 23 C, 1:647.

Nietzsche – doesn’t represent a ‘philosophy’ (and good for him) – but a composer, a compound, a ‘poet’ of the nervous system.23

14The decisive point here is that Valéry does not see in the existence of a sensibility of the intellect any opening that philosophy could exploit in order to try and get back to a stable intermediary position between science and poetry or, more generally, art. He feels that the error of philosophy is to mistake what science considers a means for an end:

  • 24 C, 2:854.

Because of the words that never are or can be ends. The most remarkable phrase is never anything but a transition, a beginning, an instrument – and, like it or not, one has to get – to the image, the act, the actual possession, or else let the philosopher accept the condition of the artist, and his system that of the symphony.24

15If philosophy could condescend simply to appear as an art of language, consciously using language as an end and dropping any claim that it is using it as a means and an instrument, it could end up being acceptable and even significant. But that is precisely what the kind of claims it makes forbids it to do. A speculative philosopher is not content with producing intellectual excitement, conceptual intoxication, illusion, and confusion:

  • 25 C, 1:519.

The sorcerer would love to move a mass, to raise the temperature of a body – without acting except within himself. But he had to settle for moving men, passions, images.25

16Valéry sees philosophy as a literary genre that cannot help but be unable to recognize and introduce itself to others as such:

  • 26 C, 1:579.

Philosophy is a literary genre that has the peculiar characteristic of never being owned as such by the people who practice it. Hence it follows that this art has remained imperfect, is still criticized in its wrong not its right object; is never taken to its own perfection, but extended out of its own field.26

  • 27 C, 1:564.

17Valéry is convinced that “there can be a technique for thinking that is comparable to the technique of verse”27 and that philosophy should limit, or rather extend, itself to mastering such a technique. But in order to do that, it should wholly give up posing as a special kind of knowledge and agree to see itself only as an art of ideas, or an “art of the word.”

  • 28 C, 1:665.

Philosophy [he tells us] is the (unwilling) art of arranging undefinable words into more or less pleasant or exciting combinations28.

  • 29 C, 1:670.

18Thus the only way to save it would be to get it to do deliberately and methodically what until now it only did unknowingly and unwillingly; and this is precisely a change it cannot agree to without giving up on all its traditional ambitions. Nietzsche is remarkable because he provides “the example of what the thing that used to be philosophy would produce once it was aware of being an art.”29 But in fact we just saw that he only presented one possibility and himself remained, all things considered, as much a philosopher and even a metaphysician as his forebears. Valéry’s problem appears plainly here: when he is able to credit a philosopher with what he considers to be a genuine poetical creation, he can only take it as a poet (strictly speaking) would. Speaking about Bergson’s vital impulse theory, he says:

  • 30 C, 1:671.

I can’t help but see that an idea such as that of vital impulse only exists through a poetic kind of imagination. But if I find myself in POETRY, then I unfold as a poet – and it is only a matter of organizing pleasure.30

19A good summary of Valéry’s view seems to me to be that he only takes language to work satisfactorily when it can be immediately and wholly converted into non-language or, on the contrary, when, as in poetry, it opposes a maximum and even total resistance to the mind that intends to go through it in order to reach something outside it.

20I will later address a question that you must already have in mind and that we are made to ask ourselves by Valéry, that is, what his own philosophy might turn out to be, that undeclared philosophy which is expressed in what he tried to do, and perhaps achieved, rather than in his general declarations about philosophy. What is important for us to understand at this point is why he takes philosophy to be irretrievably doomed to illusion and powerlessness. This is because philosophy is entirely dependent on language, more precisely on ordinary language, a dependence most of which, by contrast, the sciences have managed to shake off; a dependence that, unlike poetry, it is constitutionally kept from acknowledging and possibly from using in a positive way.

2. Science, poetry, and philosophy

21Much has been written about the purely instrumental view of theory, the positivism, verificationism, and pragmatism unambiguously asserted in those pages that Valéry dedicated to science and philosophy. He remarks that today’s physics is made to avow that:

  • 31 Paul Valéry, “Discours aux chirurgiens,” Œuvres, 1:921.

The noun electron, for instance, can only mean in positive terms the whole set of devices and actions required to produce to our senses such phenomena as we may observe.31

The rest has only, can only have, a verbal reality:

  • 32 C, 1:564.

The rule is quite simple: Where there is nothing that can be observed, nothing that can be verified –there is only, can only be, verbal games – theology, philosophy, psychology – verbal games, a few images no doubt, but which are not consciously such.32

The recent evolution in physics completely confirms, in Valéry’s view, that change in direction which increasingly tends to replace the claim of knowledge with a mere growth of power:

  • 33 C, 2:851.

The appearance of the theory of energy and of the application of statistical computations to physics marks an epoch of the mind. For these theories confirm that the claim to know the physical universe in itself has been given up, and they make manifest the resignation to replace knowledge with power. The point is no longer to enter the privacy of things but rather to limit oneself to their finite, that is, sensible and tangible – or computable – manifestations.33

22Thus do we arrive at that famous line:

  • 34 C, 2:852.

Science is the set of procedures that are always successful, inasmuch as they can be put in order and described.34

All the rest, as Valéry sometimes concludes, is literature. In order not to make his philosophy of the sciences even more disputable than it already is, we must note that he never suggests that science can only contain a collection of approved procedures or recipes. He is perfectly aware that it always contains much more than that and much more diverse things, too, without which it could not exist and from which it is not truly separable. Still he thinks that what is science proper in it reduces exactly to this.

  • 35 See C, 2:907.

23When it replaced the metaphysical notion of cause with the notion of function and that of law with the notion of an observable and, furthermore, a merely statistical regularity, science gave up its speculations on those internal mechanisms that are responsible for the occurrence and succession of such phenomena as we observe the better to focus exclusively on its task of procuring for itself the means to describe, measure, compute, and predict their effects. Even though still allowing for a certain kind of prediction, the advent of a statistical mode of thinking means in Valéry’s view that the phenomenon cannot any longer even be said to be subjected to a preceding rule or an order of which it would be an application or a plan of which it would be the fulfillment. What used to be laws have now lost their absolute rigorousness and along with it any kind of “deep” meaning35. In the meantime, philosophy itself has remained indebted to the idea that a knowledge of the true intimate nature of things can be achieved without exploiting other resources than those of language. This is why there exists today a maximum discrepancy between scientific and philosophical aspirations and achievements.

24If we look for a statement summarizing Valéry’s view of the whole mistake of philosophy, we could say it all dwells in ignoring or overlooking what he calls the necessary transitiveness of language:

  • 36 C, 1:514.

One forgets how uniquely transitive, how exclusively temporary words are. It is assumed that a word has a meaning, and this meaning stands for a being – (that is, the way a word operates is entirely independent, specifically from my own instantaneous way of operating).36

  • 37 See C, 1:566.
  • 38 C, 1:724.

25A metaphysical illusion par excellence consists in seeking a word’s or a phrase’s deep, true meaning. When occasionally Valéry attempts to catch himself red-handed at being metaphysical, he remarks that he, too, sometimes asks himself what could be the deep meaning of such a principle as Newton’s principle of action and reaction, which is exactly meaningless.37 Philosophy, he feels, has fallen into the disastrous habit of “not considering words as linguistic problems but as problems of the essence and the thing in itself.”38 This belief in intrinsic meaning, where it is only a question of conventions we adhere to and instruments we use to a limited and determined purpose, resulted in philosophy’s illusion that it could find some interest that was superior to what actually just stands for language being changed into language, that is, in Valéry’s view, what does not mean anything, since only what is not language can provide the meaning of a language:

  • 39 C, 1:750-51.

What is “not language” are the sensations, the things, the images and the actions. Nothing more, nothing less. The rest is mere transitiveness.39

26Now Valéry understands all philosophy to be a creature of language that only works upon those purely verbal beings resulting from its refusal to comply with the demands of transitivity, that is, from its claiming it is leaving language without really having to. It is worth noting that Valéry’s list of the various elements for the sake of which language is abolished and disappears after properly fulfilling its office does not include meaning as mentioned by philosophers, for whom it generally stands as the thing that it is language’s main function to provide an inlet to and that it might very well be philosophy’s own specific task to analyze. If we care about words, we should only care about what they do, the parts they play, and not about what they (are supposed to) mean. Believing in meaning turns into a typically metaphysical entity, what Valéry finds at best to be just a purely statistical reality that can be drawn from the average of uses and effects of language: words may be said to have an average meaning, but they have no real meaning. This focusing on an assumed middle term such as meaning, the reality of which is never superior to that of those transitions which instantaneously occur in usage, is thus precisely a way to ignore the necessary convertibility of language into what is not language. Accordingly there can be no question of taking up, as an attempt at saving philosophy, that solution which would consist in leaving the realm of the factual and the verifiable to science once and for all, preserving for philosophy the realm of meaning analysis. According to Valéry, this would be a typically philosophical way of mistaking the way language operates and of granting it a significance it can by no means retain. If there is some thought, as in some contemporary philosophies, of solving the problem by saying that science deals with factual questions whereas philosophy is concerned with questions of meaning, then it implies forgetting that the meaning that is referred to is itself a typical product of philosophical illusion.

  • 40 C, 1:709.
  • 41 C, 1:610.

27Valéry tells us that all metaphysics were to blame in “making Language something other than a middle term stripped of any proper value and vanishing completely once its function is performed.”40 As a result of the unlimited growth of the need for neatness and accuracy and of the progressive shrinkage of knowledge to mere power, metaphysics, a discipline that relies for a living on exploiting the vague, the unverifiable, and whatever cannot be translated into terms of actual power, is now being cancelled. Valéry does not grant enough significance to philosophy to believe that philosophical criticism could help in any decisive way to bring about this cancellation; he thinks metaphysics is already doomed by scientific evolution, the changes it has enforced, and the kind of man to which it has given rise. Of course he is even less impressed with the idea that philosophy could in fact draw its rationale more and more from its passionate protest against an identification of knowledge with power, which it considers disastrous, and from the claim, which its representatives perceive as more indispensable and justified than ever, of a knowledge of a different type, even of a different nature, which, according to a traditional and current representation, links depth to disinterestedness and uselessness. On the much-applauded philosophy of the Hindus, which seems based more than any other on renouncing power and mastering things, he observes that it “leaves 400 million men at the mercy of one hundred thousand Englishmen, 1/4000!” and that it “only witnessed the creation of a barbaric art, a childish science, despotic manners.”41

28Concerning metaphysics, one can find many statements in Valéry’s writing that bear a striking resemblance to those that appear in the early thirties in the most polemical texts of the Vienna Circle. Valéry says again and again that metaphysical problems are insignificant, in both senses of the term. They are things that have no meaning and, even if they could admit of being solved, they are such that no consequences of any kind would follow. He says that major problems are those that can be solved to oneself, and no doubt in this sense one can say they are always solved somehow; but they cannot be stated, and they are never simply stated by those philosophers who argue them. In other words, philosophers spend most of their time arguing problems that have never been formulated and in offering answers where there never were any questions:

  • 42 C, 1:481.

All metaphysics come as a result of the misuse of words.42

  • 43 C, 1:522.

Generally a philosophical problem cannot be specified without dying away or being resolved.43

  • 44 C, 1:532.

Most problems of philosophy have no meaning; I mean it is gen­erally impossible to "ask" them precisely without destroying them.44

  • 45 C, 1:555.

In philosophy it is generally enough to factor in one decimal more for a problem to lose all meaning, all possibility.45

  • 46 C, 1:614.

Most philosophical problems] are such that they vanish when we state them.46

  • 47 C, 1:620.

Deification of the verb to be, makes up half of philosophy.47

  • 48 C, 1:689.

¾ of metaphysics merely make up one chapter of the history of the verb to be.48

  • 49 C, 1:638.

It has often been the understanding of philosophers that a question existed on the sole ground that they could not solve it.49

  • 50 C, 1:670.

The language of philosophy] has every defect of technical language without any of its qualities. Theirs is not a language of scientists, but of devotees.50

  • 51 C, 1:687.

Most of the so-called problems of metaphysics are absurd, childish – or utterly meaningless.51

29Carnap explains that a metaphysician is essentially a musician without the slightest musical talent. We have a similar utterance from Valéry:

  • 52 C, 1:512.

Philosophers – This one conveys some kind of “aesthetic” pleasure. He acts as vague vision and symphony. He is only a failed musician. This other one gives me weapons. I come out of it with new means, a strong order, devices I can use. I like this one better.52

30The reason for the powerlessness of philosophy in the final analysis, as I have said, is that it is fundamentally dependent on everyday language. In their modern form, sciences were only able to develop by creating from the ground up a language that fits their demands and their projects. But philosophy continued to use natural language as a fit tool for knowledge, although it is precisely the opposite of a meditated creation. Its present form is just the accidental result of multifarious chances and contingencies of the most various kind, and it was meant for uses and to fulfill needs that are essentially practical and by no means those philosophy intends to have it serve.

  • 53 C, 1:452. (In the original French, the significance of this passage turns on the aural pun between (...)

There would be no such thing as metaphysics, if our language were our own fabrication, our own convention made by us, for our own real needs of transmission to ourselves, of conservation and combination. For we believe words know more than we do! – contain more than we do – and even more than homo.53

31The superiority of scientific over ordinary thought is precisely that the former has made for itself an entire language of its own:

  • 54 C, 1:730.

The passage of time and the construction of the sciences give evidence enough that the need was not to explore and exploit language as given but rather to create appropriate languages with real definitions.54

  • 55 C, 1:463.

32A real definition must lead out of language, be “soluble through externality”: a true definition must effect “the welding of what is not language with language, independently of everything that is not perceiving and doingin general – and that which can be done again.55 One of Valéry’s mottoes is:

  • 56 C, 1:387.

We must not suffer, we must forge.56

And the first thing we should refuse to suffer is the burden of inherited and enforced languages, of a language we ourselves would not have made up, or at least that would certainly not be made up by any person today. Valéry describes himself as someone who first of all attempted to make his own language. The only languages that can constitute instruments of knowledge, that is, of power, must be artificially constructed languages; Valéry is literally fascinated by the unrivalled power of the language of mathematics that made modern science possible.

33Philosophical difficulties occur when words that have been essentially borrowed from current language begin to offer some resistance instead of merely effecting their normal function of immediate and imperceptible transition to something not verbal; in other words, they occur when instead of being a mere passage, a word turns into a stopping place and engenders a fixation:

  • 57 C, 1:760.

Almost all of “philosophy” consists of the change of one word from being a useful means, a commodity, an “expediency” – into a stimulus to stop, a resistance, a difficulty, an obstruction – that indefinitely stalls the “thinker.”57


  • 58 C, 1:59.

The only object of philosophy is to explain a dozen words we use constantly and without any difficulty. We could say it arises as soon as we bring resistances into language.58

34This is an idea that Wittgenstein developed in a different form when he said we instinctively use words from ordinary language correctly and without the slightest problem, whereas we are almost as instinctively mistaken on their usage when we undertake to describe them and even more so when we try to explain them. The essential difference is obviously that Wittgenstein thinks philosophical problems are important and require a treatment that must be difficult and intricate, whereas Valéry finds that they are unsignificant and that it ought to be possible simply to ignore them. He also talks in terms that come close to Wittgenstein’s when he observes that philosophy is a kind of mechanics that only operates with ideal elements:

  • 59 C, 1:649.

Until now, philosophy has been too pure a kind of mechanics – without heat, or friction, or any of those terms. For instance, it assumes concepts with which it speculates – that is, it takes words to have an accurate final meaning, it combines them – the way you do ideal solids in mechanics, it treats them as undeformable. Logic is a consequence of this.59

35Thus Valéry takes philosophy to rest entirely on the difference between situations in which language works in a normal transitive mode and provides effective labor and those in which, as Wittgenstein would say, it “takes a vacation.” He sometimes wonders what that man would be like who would know everything we know, in the strict sense of know, but who would lack entirely those words and notions that make up occasions and temptations to philosophize:

I quite often imagine a man who would be possessed of everything we know, in terms of accurate operations and recipes, but who would be entirely ignorant of all notions and words that do not provide clear pictures or give rise to uniform, repeatable acts. He never heard of any such thing as spirit, soul, thought, substance, liberty, will, time, space, forces, life, instincts, memory, cause, gods, or morals, or origins; in sum he knows everything that we know and doesn’t know everything that we don’t. But he doesn’t even know the names. […]

There will come a time (that is, a man) – when the words in our philosophy will appear as an odd set of antiques only scholars will know of. Thought will not be spoken of any longer.

  • 60 C, 1:573-74.

The word Beauty has already lost (almost) all philosophical use.60

36One of the formulas that Valéry uses most frequently to express his fundamental reproach against philosophers is to say that philosophy’s essential business is to pretend not to know what we know and to know what we do not. This is how Mephistopheles, in Mon Faust, describes the kind of game philosophers play with each other:

  • 61 Paul Valéry, Mon Faust (Ébauches) (Paris, 1946), p. 180; hereafter abbreviated MF.

It is enough for them to agree with one another just enough to keep their disagreement alive, which is what they live for. […] Besides, the whole game is to pretend to be ignorant of what you know and to know what you are ignorant of.61

37It is, he feels, a peculiarity of words in general, and especially of those he quotes, that they should create an impression of knowledge when there is actually no real knowledge of any kind such that a man sharing all of our ignorance could not be more ignorant were he unacquainted with the very words that we use to speak of those things we hardly know anything about. It is not, to be sure, that this kind of words is altogether useless. But Valéry thinks that in the cases where we actually use them without any kind of problem, philosophical or other, they could easily be replaced with more modest, more accurate, and much more specific designations that would be more neutral and detached from the magic and mystery with which the history of philosophy, the history of language, and also, no doubt, history itself have burdened the ones we use. For instance, instead of speaking of freedom, we could just speak of the feeling of freedom that we have to a greater or lesser degree at different times, which is the only indisputable reality standing behind that word, and we could take the same altogether deflationary approach to any word that has fed philosophical quandaries, interrogations, and speculations with its inexhaustible vagueness. Indeed, the possibility and the temptation to philosophize are always connected with the existence of terms that give the impression of an unfathomable depth and that we can never see the end of, whereas words should never have any thickness; one should always be able to finish with them instantaneously. In Valéry’s view,

  • 62 C, 1:567.

philosophical or psychological notions that are now in existence, petrified in language, must be sent to join cosmogonical ideas of old. They are historical, with all the accompanying problems.62

38Philosophy is doomed to confusion and sterility by its inability to explain single words without their turning into obstacles and resistances all the more fascinating because they seem insurmountable. Valéry writes:

  • 63 Paul Valéry, “Propos sur l’intelligence,” Oeuvres, 1:1041-42.

Truly it looks like words in motion and combination are quite a different thing from the same words inert and isolated!63

  • 64 Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (New York, 1958), p. 52.

Such a sentence could also be related to Wittgenstein’s remarks about words only having a meaning, that is, a use in the stream of language and life such that we see them as strange and incomprehensible when, as in philosophy, we extract them to consider them in themselves. Like Wittgenstein, Valéry refers on various occasions to the celebrated question that Augustine asked about time, a striking illustration of what Niels Bohr called “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition”;64 an illustration, more generally, of the relation that seems to exist between the actual workings of a word and the accurate understanding of these workings:

  • 65 Paul Valéry, “Philosophie de la danse,” Œuvres, 1:1395.

Augustine confesses that he wondered one day what Time is; and he acknowledges that he knew it well when he never thought of asking himself such a question; but as soon as he applied himself to that noun, stood still by it and isolated it from any immediate use or specific phrase, he lost himself in the crossroads of his own mind. A very profound remark.65

  • 66 C, 2:905.

39So in effect it is a matter, as Wittgenstein would say, of bringing words back from their metaphysical to their actual and ordinary use. Of course Valéry does not believe, as does the author of the Philosophical Investigations, that such a task precisely requires the intervention of philosophy and can only be performed by it. He plainly does not believe that a therapy that philosophers would take upon themselves to design and apply is necessary and useful. Nor, we should note, does he consider that scientific evolution, instrumental in making metaphysics increasingly obsolete, might also occasionally, and maybe even now, compel a return to meta­physics. Against certain physicists encouraged by the present situation of their own science to go back to metaphysics, he emphasizes the need to « give up the instinct of metaphysics,”66 to get rid not only of metaphysics but of the urge for metaphysics as well. Concerning the metaphysical arguments and controversies that took place about mathematics, for instance, he remarks that they did not seem to have anything but a negligible influence on its evolution.

40Valéry’s typically positivistic mode of speaking about science could lead us to believe that he takes it to be essentially a product of observation and (inductive) reasoning. Still he knows full well that it is not so and can say it better than anyone else:

  • 67 C, 1:838.

We owe Science to fortunate accidents, unreasonable men, absurd cravings, incongruous questionings; to lovers of difficulties, to leisure and vices; to the kind of chance that caused the discovery of glass; to poets’ imaginations.67

After listening to a lecture by Einstein, he writes:

  • 68 C, 2:875.

I am very interested at the end. – He exhibits himself as a great artist, and he is the only artist among all those scientists. He develops his uncertainty and his faith, based on the architecture (or beauty) of forms.68

Valéry always did believe in the radical unity of the operating mode of the intellect, implying that, at crucial points, poets and artists do not behave differently from scientists:

  • 69 Compare Valéry, “Introduction bibliographique,” Œuvres, 1:68.

From my youth, I was convinced that, in the liveliest phase of intellectual research, there is no difference, other than a nominal one, between the internal manipulations of the artist or poet and those of the scientist.69

However, even though science did mostly come not from reason, as is often thought, but out of the unreasonable and sometimes raving imaginings of poets, Valéry still does not think it is much indebted to philosophers’ dreams, or at least, since great philosophers may also have been and most probably were above all great scientists or poets, to their dreams as philosophers proper.

  • 70 C, 2:1069.
  • 71 C, 2:1078.
  • 72 C, 2:1069.
  • 73 See C, 2:1076.
  • 74 C, 2:1113.

41If one wonders what the difference between philosophy and poetry consists of and why the latter stands higher, the answer could be that in poetry language works precisely in a wholly and consciously transitive fashion and does not claim that it allows us to pass into anything but language. Thus are also explained the very strict formal constraints that poetry, quite unlike philosophy, must put upon itself; for, when efforts are reduced and resistances void, “speech ceases to be felt and can no longer enforce its laws – just as effortless acts and motions are performed rhythmlessly.”70 The characteristic of prose is “that it is annulled at the very moment we understand it,”71 whereas verse – which according to Valéry “must have a magical character or else does not exist”72 – whenever it is very beautiful, is something that you would not even think of understanding and that no longer stands as a sign but rather as a fact.73 Normally, the only point of the sensible part of language is to introduce the part that was thought; we can hardly perceive it, and it nullifies itself right away. Whenever some resistance, and specifically some difficulty in understanding, occurs, this has the opposite effect of bringing a slowing down and delay that “enhance the perception of the sensible part and the production of its values and resonances.”74 In a lecture on aesthetic invention, Valéry says that the ordinary use of language essentially deals with aesthetic values in language as slowing factors in about the same way that mechanics deals with forces of friction:

  • 75 Paul Valéry, Invention (Paris, 1938), p. 149.

Language is a practical instrument; further, it is so closely connected with the “self” to whom it expresses in the shortest possible way all its own states that its aesthetic virtues (sound values, rhythms, visual and metaphoric echoes, and so on) are constantly neglected and made imperceptible. We come to regard them as we do friction in mechanics.75

  • 76 Ibid.
  • 77 C, 2:1125.
  • 78 C, 2:1105; compare C, 2:1125.
  • 79 C, 2:1108.
  • 80 C, 2:1105.

42This situation can be summed up by saying that “everything verbal is temporary. Every language is a means. Poetry tries to make it an end.”76 Thus poetry is the art in which language itself acquires the greatest level of perceptibility, and the physicality of language and its capacities for psychic echoes become at least as important as meaning inasmuch as meaning is what could equally be expressed in x different ways. Speaking of Mallarmé, Valéry even said: “All lines are insignificant, or else they are not lines.”77 But, in his view, one would be mistaken if one thought that the predominance of poetry over philosophy rests in its being more fit to communicate a higher form of knowledge, for its purpose can only be in fact to produce arousal, or to act, as he puts it, upon the “nerves of the mind” and to create a state of bewitchment with no reference to actuality.78 Therefore, he says, poetry in our time might well be just a relic,79 “poetry alone cannot be enough for any mind with some power”80 – which must be one of the reasons why he decided at a given moment, during his famous night in Genoa (autumn 1892), to give it up entirely (although not so finally, since he would renege on this decision many years later).

3. Saying and making

43In his L’Homme et la coquille, Valéry records that what we know about the things of life is insignificant in comparison to what we know about the inorganic world; and he accounts for this difference with the fact that our powers over the inorganic world are immeasurably greater than those we have managed to gain over the organic. Now, he says,

  • 81 Paul Valéry, L’Homme et la coquille (Paris, 1937), p. 73; hereafter abbreviated H.

I fail to see any other measure of knowledge than the actual power it endows me with. I only know that which I can make.81

He writes in his Cahiers:

  • 82 C, 1:512.

The idea of making and being made is inseparable from the human mind – thus it always produces it, thus it is almost always mistaken in introducing it. The idea is only legitimate in a very small field; yet it is so important, so organic, that it will still declare itself every time.82

  • 83 C, 1:573.
  • 84 See C, 1:511.
  • 85 See C, 1:588.
  • 86 C, 1:641.

44Our idea of understanding is wholly determined by our idea of making, so much so that to understand what we have not made essentially means to be able to make it again or to change it; and our idea of making is always more or less inspired by the idea of a conscious and voluntary act. But this idea, which produced the idea of causality, is anthropomorphic (a point of agreement between Valéry and Nietzsche) and so can only apply in very limited circumstances. We must be particularly suspicious of facts that we see as immediate answers to an act, a purpose, and a goal; facts awaken more suspicion as they increasingly agree with what Valéry calls “our craziness for meanings,”83 as they are not insignificant enough. Valéry’s view of science implies that the split between facts, on the one hand, and value and meaning, on the other, should always (as much as possible) be rigorously maintained. He takes why to be anthropomorphic, as opposed to how, which is not;84 yet he also sometimes remarks that why, how, and so forth are still analyses of an act and thus human, too human, hence they cannot be made to apply to what is not man.85 If anthropomorphism were to be made explicit so that it became a coherent and avowed system, we would realize that “all explanation is an anthropomorphism. And how could it be otherwise? We only argue over the dose.”86

45It is true, as Valéry remarks in Mon Faust, that

  • 87 MF, p. 237.

nature sometimes amuses itself by playing the artist, by making believe that it can work with its hands, according to an idea.87

Conversely, men sometimes labor with their hands, ideas, and plans in order to shape within a lifetime what it takes nature thousands of centuries to turn out without the slightest interference of any thought.

  • 88 H, p. 51-52.

[When I look at how it is made and how I might somehow go about making it,] the formal unity and integrity of a shell forces upon me the idea of an idea mastering the execution, a preexisting idea quite distinct from the work itself and which keeps, watches, and dominates as it is being executed, on the other hand, by the successive application of my forces.88

  • 89 H, p. 67.

46Once I have understood how I could somehow make one object of this kind, it may be said I have understood this object and thus wholly exhausted the problem that I had set myself. Any attempt to move further on would change the object I am seeking to understand and thus take me, according to Valéry, from explaining the shell to explaining myself. This is the point where his idea of nature as a generating or productive power intervenes as the thing to which we attribute the power to produce “all that we cannot make although we see it as having been made.”89 Anything that can be referred neither to man thinking and acting nor to the generating power that is nature, we attribute to chance. Chance occurs to explain away what is remarkable in that sense, namely, what could not be produced in the same way as the rest. But to speak of something remarkable is by itself to introduce someone to do the remarking, and it is essentially this one who provides all that is remarkable there. Hence Valéry’s motto:

  • 90 H, p. 68.

Chance does nothing in this world – except get itself noticed.90

  • 91 H, p. 74.
  • 92 C, 1:654.

47Things that live, reproduce, and die represent a challenge to the mind of man “because it is rigorously limited, in its representation of things, by its awareness of its own means of external action, and the mode in which action proceeds from it, without any need for it to know the workings of the action.”91 We can make things, and we only really understand what we can or could make. Yet this obviously does not imply that we best understand what is making in ourselves and how it is done. Rather the reverse holds. Valéry points out that “the word create is readily used about ill-defined artifacts that […] have no apparent model”,92 about things, in other words, works of art in particular, that are made without our having any determined idea of how they are made. Just like a shell, a work of art is the thing that was made about which asking either “Who made it?” or “To what purpose was it made?” does not really make sense. In his Cahiers, Valéry writes:

  • 93 C, 1:693.

A man may ‘know what he is doing’; but he can know neither that which does nor what does what he is doing. The fortuitous gives him birth, makes up his life, marries him off, gives him his thoughts, and kills him.93

In L’Homme et la coquille, he remarks that, in fact, it is not more ridiculous to wonder who made the shell than it is to wonder who made this or that poetical or musical work:

  • 94 H, pp. 46-49.

After all, this is quite as vain and naive a problem as it is to argue over what made a nice work of music or poetry; whether it was born to us from the Muse, or came from Fortune, or ripened after a much protracted effort? When we say someone wrote it, that his name was Mozart or Virgil, we do not say much: it does not live in the mind, for what creates in ourselves does not have a name; we thus write off every man but one from the matter – and the whole untouched riddle is tightly locked up in his private mystery.94

48One can say that such a work as I am discussing here is a product of genius. But genius is really the last thing that could take up the position of author in the descriptive pattern for an action. For this could well be the most impersonal, least individual thing there is in ourselves:

  • 95 C, 1:548.

Isn’t ‘genius,’ that seeming climax of individuality, the most detached operation, nobody’s voice, the rare result of a perfect transparency, of an extrafaithful orientation, of an equality of data and outputs?95

49It can be said of Valéry that he was literally obsessed with not doing anything, even (and, in a way, most of all) poetically, without trying always to know what he was doing; he thus gave absolute priority to making over creating (in the usual sense of that word), to thought, work, methods, and well-controlled and consciously applied technique over mere spontaneity, insight, and inspiration. At some point he got to be less interested in poetry than in the very thing that is made within a poem, the thing at work in its genesis, those “more significant investigations” that poetry is a performance and an application of. One may easily imagine the problem posed for him by the fact that the phrase “knowing what one is doing” only makes sense in fact when it is taken as a whole and cannot mean either knowing who does within oneself or knowing exactly what is done by that which is doing. We could as well say that the paradox of Valéry lies entirely in his characteristic combination of an extreme voluntarism with an absolute fatalism applied both to intellectual productions and to life in general.

  • 96 C, 1:693.

I am a fatalist [he writes]. I believe our ideas only play a ridiculously slight part in ‘events,’ even in cases that we see as the most governed by them.96

50On one hand, we have to set for ourselves the rule that we must only accept what we chose or might have chosen; on the other hand, we do not know whether the ideas of choosing and making, even when applied to our thoughts and actions, are not mere anthropomorphisms and thus really just as deceptive as when we transfer them to other beings. It may be that chance, after giving us birth and giving us our thoughts, also gives us our will, or what we believe to be such, and our actions, including those of our mind. Isn’t the most original thing we make, and apparently the one best suited to the mere idea of making, the very thing we make the least? According to a well-known and much-quoted saying of Valéry,

  • 97 Paul Valéry, “Difficulté de définir la simulation,” Nouvelle revue française 28 (May 1927): 620.

It takes two to invent. One to make up combinations, the other to choose, to recognize what he wants as well as what matters to him from among all the communications of the first one.97

51But strictly speaking, neither of these two characters (nor the two of them together) can be said to be us. What invents within ourselves is certainly not the person; but neither does it seem to be the self, quite a different thing from the person, in Valéry’s view. In his thoughts about the problem of invention in mathematics, Henri Poincaré emphasizes the fact that the subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self. It is not a purely automatic one, it is endowed with judgment, discernment, and tact. It can choose and guess:

  • 98 Henri Poincaré, “L’Invention mathématique,” Science et méthode (Paris, 1909), p. 56.

Yes, it is a better guesser than the conscious self, since it succeeds where the other one had failed. To put it briefly, isn’t the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?98

  • 99 Paul Valéry, Invention (Paris, 1938), p. 156.

Yet when Hadamard, who quotes this passage, explains that scientist and artist both achieve a specific mixture of logic and chance “that cooperate as soon as one direction is stamped on the subconscious,” Valéry answers: “I don’t know what the subconscious is.”99

  • 100 MF, p. 156.

52At times, in Mon Faust, Valéry seems to reach the disillusioned conclusion that, where there is a will to think, there is no actual making and, inversely, that where there is something actually made, there is no thinking. “Thinking – says Mephistopheles – that’s what they do when not doing anything.”100 And, in Act IV, the character of the Solitary wonders whether it is not essentially through a deficiency of the mind that nature deemed it necessary to endow man with the remnant of a mind. Unlike animals, we suffer from a surfeit of mind compared to the actual means we have, which explains our unschooled and immoderate curiosity and our pretensions at understanding and knowing more than we are able to, that is, among other things, philosophy:

  • 101 C, 1:602.

Animals are those beings which have just as much mind as they have means. Which makes them fair and measured and always worthy of their acts (except the ones that bear some resemblance to man and seem agitated, obtrusive, lewd, and nosey.101

The Solitary explains to Faust that he too believed for a long time that the mind was on top of everything, but that he finally realized he’d practically never used it in any way:

  • 102 MF, p. 204-5.

All my bits of knowledge, my reasonings, clarities, and curiosities were only playing either a lamentable part or no part at all in the decisions or actions that mattered most to me. … Every significant thing affects, depresses, or suppresses thinking; and that’s even how you can tell it is significant. … Think, think! … Thinking spoils pleasure and exacerbates pain.102

53In his “Discours aux chirurgiens,” Valéry had dwelt on what we might call the functional part of our predominant ignorance of the workings of our bodies, the fact that

  • 103 Paul Valéry, “Discours aux chirurgiens,” Œuvres, 1:916.

our ignorance of our own economics is playing a positive part in the performance of certain of our functions that are hardly or not at all compatible with a clear conscience of their play; which scarcely admit of a division between being and knowing, which only respond to arousal with an act in the case of there being no intellectual attention or almost none.103

But we might wonder why it ought to be otherwise with the workings of our mind. Could we not suppose that it too does not fulfill its function effectively unless consciousness, will, and intellectual attention, which are supposed for Valéry to make up the essential core of all that the mind does, are all but nullified or even utterly missing, in other words, unless the mind is working as it were with utter absentmindedness? Valéry claims that he is all the more interested in the idea of making, rather than the idea of the work made, where that which is making is not some one:

  • 104 C, 1:302.

The idea of the making of the poem or of the works arouses me, intoxicates me more than any work – and all the more so (nota bene) when this imagination grows more independent from the person and persona of the maker. It’s not someone who makes.104

  • 105 MF, p. 31.

54But as seen earlier, the idea of making is originally connected with that of someone making something and making it to some determinate purpose; and it cannot be fully dissociated from this without its meaning becoming utterly problematic. Faust indicates to Lust that one should not say “The spirit bloweth where it listeth” but rather “The spirit bloweth where it mayeth, what it mayeth.”105 In his Cahiers, Valéry writes:

  • 106 C, 1:821.

Everybody’s mind begetteth what it can and what it has need of at a given time. Even contradiction.106

  • 107 Paul Valéry, Letter to André Lebey, Œuvres, 2:1488.

Applied to himself, this will result in the famous final statement of the Cahiers: “After all, I did what I could.” Valéry’s intellectual and moral persona is summed up in his contempt for what he must have been and (even more so) seemed to be and his praising to the heavens what he was able to do, which is the only possible excuse for what he was. “I have such a rotten opinion – he wrote to André Lebey – of what an a ... h ... I am. Say I did what I could.”107 But who exactly is the “I” in this “I did” and this “I could”?

  • 108 C, 1:924.
  • 109 C, 1:993.
  • 110 Paul Valéry, “Mauvaises pensées et autres,” Œuvres, 2:870.

55Valéry adamantly refuses to phrase what he thought, imagined, and tried in the form of a philosophical paper because it would give the deceptive appearance of objective consistency to what was just the outcome of chances, accidents, individual automatisms, and various helter-skelter conditions and circumstances that answered only to some personal need. Therefore when talking about his own work, he tends to place that term in quotation marks. On the other hand, however, he can be said to be a perfect example of a full-fledged “constructivist,” of a man concerned first and foremost with building and the building of his own self, with accepting nothing that is merely “given” and not produced by himself, which is the most radical attempt one may think of to reassert the absolute primacy of the maker over what makes him, to render inactive and indifferent the past and the contingent circumstances that made the individual what he is, and finally to turn chance into some form of necessity. Valéry remarks that the mind is chance, even in a certain way Chance itself. But, at the same time, a mind at work has to be the declared, steadfast, and relentless enemy of chance. “The whole power of the spirit is based – he notes on the countless chances of thought.”108 But the mind inheres in the ability to turn those chances into something that is the antithesis of chance. “To put that defect, that disorder, that unexpected, that refuse, that nothing, that ruggedness, that coincidence, that slip of the tongue […] into their opposites’ service,”109 such is the program. The great mind is thus first and foremost a kind of gambler who plays for big stakes and who, for reasons that we don’t know and that he doesn’t know either, wins more frequently than anyone else. We could say that "intelligence [...] is to be lucky at the game of associations and fortunate memories.110 Thus reflection is indeed a way of denying the laws of chance and of stubbornly betting on what is most improbable:

  • 111 C, 1:924.

The mind is playing a damn fast game, and it’s one thousand to one that the event holds good. No chance, no reflection. To reflect is to insist on gambling on the same color, the same horse, the same number.111

  • 112 C, 1:924.

56Chance is therefore the indispensable material with which the mind makes up non-chance. But for chance there would be no non-chance and no “reason.” “Mighty is he – Valéry says – who shakes and casts the dice.”112 But the gambler’s only merit is that he attempts risky bets, not that he sometimes is lucky enough to win them against all odds. A so-called superior thinker ought therefore to be as humble as a great gambler whom luck smiles on more than it does on others. Doing what one can is no doubt, as the saying goes, giving luck a hand as much as possible, although luck will be luck, and you can never tell exactly what kind of a hand you gave it, nor how you might have deserved it.

4. Does Valéry have a philosophy?

57I began by mentioning that one might wonder what could have been Valéry’s philosophy, in the sense that he would be willing to recognize or even to claim one; what is on his mind, which is distinctly not philosophers’ philosophy, when he goes about, as he will time and again, talking about “my philosophy”? He writes comparing the way a professional philosopher such as Bergson built his philosophy with the way he made his own:

Bergson tells me yesterday that he had cleared off everything by 1890 – and started making himself a system by studying memory and gathering data on amnesia, which he regards as the reality of the matter.

  • 113 C, 1:594.

I inwardly noted that I set myself to my own philosophy two years later (in 1892) – and did not need to clear everything off, since I had nothing to clear away in the first place. And, for my method, I just trusted my way of seeing mental things – since I felt a sort of repulsion to records.113

58Valéry went on repeating that philosophy was essentially a matter of form and of shaping, which is among other things a way of excluding that it could be a science or should imitate a scientific model:

  • 114 Paul Valéry, “Pensée et art français,” Œuvres, 2:1055.

It is absolutely not science and may have to sever any unconditional tie with science. To be an ancilla scientice is no better than to be an ancilla theologice. If I say it is a matter of form, I mean that if I look for an order and expression that sum up and compose for me the whole of my inward and outward private experience, that’s my philosophy, and that’s looking for a form. I am not claiming I am right, which would not make any sense any way. I am saying that, in my present attempt, this dauntless formula of mine allows me to consider that the form in question is one among those of which a certain language is capable, and that the being who speaks this language and speaks it to himself may neither outrun its means nor escape the innuendoes and associations the aforesaid language insinuates into him.114

59The following, written in 1927, is how Valéry describes what has been his great idea:

  • 115 C, 1:425.

The idea I had was to conceive of an artificial language based on the reality of thought, a pure language, a system of signs – that would make explicit all modes of representation – that would stand in relation to a natural language as C[artesian] did to the g[eometry] of the Greeks, that would exclude a belief in meanings of terms in themselves, stipulating the compositions of complex terms, defining and listing all modes of composition.115

60The goal he aimed at was to build up a system of representation (and not of explanation, as he takes care to point out) of mental workings that would only rely on pure observations (that is, made by himself) as opposed to records, even scientific ones, and that would be spelled out in a pure language (that is, explicitly made for that purpose). Certainly, the analysis of the workings of the mind must be a field of inquiry that philosophy may pride itself in having contributed to most significantly. Valéry, however, convinced himself very early that there was nothing to expect from philosophy in that respect for two main reasons: first, the unvarying impurity and notorious scarcity of the observational materials that it used; second, philosophy’s subjection to words and concepts of ordinary language, a tool that was never thought of for the task in question and as little adapted as possible to representing mental phenomena and processes:

  • 116 C, 1:657.

I am trying to find which words or phrases I would have used or made up to phrase to myself my own perceptions of mental things if I had not been acquainted with abstract slang – words like knowledge, consciousness, mind, etc. All those terms (and most others) are just time-hallowed […] expedients. They are more fit for crudely understanding other people than oneself.116

  • 117 SC, 1:147.

Philosophical words are far too vague to capture thought in its details, they cannot form into reasonings of the true logic of man. Thus ‘abstraction’ can be applied to a million quite different mental phenomena.117

  • 118 SC, 1:247.

Language is not a likeness of thought, it does not know actual mental phenomena – just a simplified and very remote view of such phenomena. One cannot go back from language to thought, except by way of probabilities.118

  • 119 SC, 1:148.

Philosophy always appointed itself the Science of sciences. But as one reviews philosophy, one is surprised at the absence of any precise solution and practical hint at the nature of intellectual facts. It shows nothing of the actual processes of thought. It never gives any recipe for using one’s thought, for grasping everything that happens there, or for foreseeing the outcomes of a daydream, a meditation, a computation.119

61Valéry’s very early fascination with (and what one might no doubt call unrequited love for) mathematics comes from its being in his view the plainest example (and obviously the one most at odds with philosophy) of a field of study in which “I know” never outgrows, in fact always stays even with, “I can.” All notions being used in it are either undefinable and explicitly introduced as such, or defined in such a way that they come down to a set of operations to perform and determined acts to make. Thus it is no accident that the language of (pure) mathematics is the most immediate and truest medium for the activity and thus the very nature of the mind:

  • 120 SC, 1:80.

I set down the following: Mathematical science as detached from such applications as geometry, written arithmetic, etc., and pared down to algebra, that is, to the analysis of the changes of a purely differential being, that is made up of homogeneous elements – is the truest record of the mind’s properties of grouping, disjoining, and varying.120

  • 121 C, 1:846.

62His Cahiers are strewn with attempts at a more or less elaborate and convincing mathematical model for mental facts. The idea that Valéry has in mind and that grounds what he calls his “system” could be summarized as follows: a search for a “hidden mathematics” of what is called the “properties of the mind”121 that wholly relies on the idea of transformation, a view of the mind as a whole in all its manifestations – knowledge, perception, consciousness, and so on – and without taking their contents into account, as a system in transformation, to determine the set of transformations of which it is capable as well as the fixed values they preserve and which characterize the set in question.

63I hardly need to mention that, when Valéry discusses such subjects as analysing the workings of his mind or a “crisis of the mind” or a “politics of the mind,” he does not intend to concede anything to metaphysics.

  • 122 Paul Valéry, “La Politique de l’esprit,” Œuvres, 1:1022.

With this name of the mind, I do not intend in the least a metaphysical entity; I quite simply mean here a. power of transformation we can isolate, distinguish from all others, as we consider certain effects around us, certain modifications of our environment that we can only attribute to an action that is very different from that of nature’s known energies; for on the contrary, it consists in opposing to each other those energies granted us, or else in joining them.122

64To someone who, as Valéry would describe himself, only cares for function and functioning, there can be no question of speculating on the true nature of the mind and of choosing between two metaphysical options, such as spiritualism and materialism. Still Valéry thinks that if a choice were required, it would most likely be in favor of materialism, the position most obviously unavoidable for an accurate mind from a methodological point of view. Of these two creeds, spiritualism happens to be the one with the least mind in it and the one most contrary to the demands of the mind, and this because it puts fewer constraints on itself and encounters fewer resistances. Therefore, because the degree of credibility is always proportionate to the resistance and because it is necessary to build up resistances, spiritualism is the least credible:

  • 123 C, 1:550.

Spiritualism and materialism retain only a historical interest. Still, if I had to choose today between these two colors, I am convinced that the more one cares for “dignity of the mind,” the more one would have to decide for the latter. Spiritualism says what it likes, whereas the other solemnly swears to explain and holds itself to very strict conditions and tests: indeed so strict that people have abandoned it for that very reason.123

  • 124 C, 1:630; compare C, 1:763.
  • 125 See C, 1:684.

65He explains this in a 1928 talk with Teilhard de Chardin.124 The renewed popularity of spiritualism seems to him mostly a reflection of laxity and sloth of mind; but he abstains from the polemics against it because he is convinced, not unlike Mach, that the words matter and mind as they are generally used are themselves metaphysical and have lost any kind of sense nowadays, when we no more know what we mean in saying matter than in saying mind and we have gone so far as to discover freedom in what is called matter.125 I do not know if I have succeeded in offering you a tolerable notion of something we might want to call, with his approval, Valéry’s philosophy. True, I have already clearly overstepped the limitations of what he will allow to a philosopher reading his works, since, in his view, philosophy ought only to exist in an inchoate state and philosophers never can or never will show it to us that way:

  • 126 C, 1:625.

The value of any philosophy only lies in its infancy; it will become laughable if one tries to make it full and ripe.126

  • 127 See C, 1:843.

66Valéry's motto might be: “Look what I tried to do and you’ll see what kind of a philosopher I was.” He says of his philosophy (while putting the word in quotation marks, of course) that it is not explicative but operative,127 which means that the only way we can hope to understand it is by seeing it operate. Inasmuch as he thinks claims of perfected knowledge and total explanation are essential to philosophy, he is convinced that his own, whose only place is exactly at the farthest remove from such an idea, is all but exactly the opposite of what professional philosophers call a “philosophy.” Thus the Cahiers a text about which one may wonder at how little read and used it generally is by professional philosophers – has to be the first and most likely place to inquire for the answer to the question I asked.

67You may have wondered why, though I am supposed to be a professional philosopher, I thought it worthwhile to pay so much attention to what would be immediately regarded as insufferable, injurious, and nonsensical talk by any French philosopher with some sense of the dignity and significance of his discipline, were it not for its being written by such a prestigious author as Paul Valéry. In truth I should probably confess in these final lines that much of my interest in (or weakness for) Valéry’s thought might well be originally grounded in my response to French (or maybe more specifically Parisian) philosophy of the 1960s, as I felt it was richly deserving of some of Valéry’s most abusive opinions. Besides, one of the most striking paradoxes in Valéry’s situation is that his refusal of the very principle of philosophy did not prevent him from becoming one of the most useful sources for those quotes that provide a starting point for the exercise still imposed on French high school students under the name of dissertation philosophique, an exercise he himself regarded as certainly one of the most pointless and absurd that was ever conceived. This kind of irony, however, is almost a constitutive dimension of Valéry’s persona and behavior. His radical skepticism regarding all myths, creeds, institutions, and social rites that rest, as could be said of philosophy itself, on the purely fiduciary currency of vague ideas was only equaled by his remarkable willingness to make himself available as a participant in this game or farce when circumstances required it. To go back to more serious business, I want to point out that he was not totally mistaken when he remarked:

  • 128 C, 1:637.

In spite of itself, all of philosophy is progressively compelled to put itself under the protection of the aesthetic or rather the faultless appearance of Play. – Philosophers being the last to find out about this.128

68Clearly in the interval many philosophers seem to have found this out, and they even pictured it as a capital discovery; still, this does not necessarily imply that philosophical productions have become aesthetically more convincing or that the game has therefore really become more exciting. You will kindly excuse me if I conclude on the subject of Valéry with a wicked thought. Again, this one could almost have been written by Wittgenstein, with whom Valéry shares, as I said earlier, the idea that philosophical problems are essentially of linguistic origin, though certainly not the conviction that they are interesting and significant, and to whom he is at times so close but at the same time, through his habit of openly scorning the difficulties and torments of philosophers, so far removed:

  • 129 Valéry, “Mauvaises pensées et autres,” Œuvres, 2:871.

As for the questions that rack metaphysics and conscience (and that would constitute the dignity of man, if some attention were paid to those who cultivate and train them as in cages), they are worth no more than the movements of animals that are locked up and endlessly walk back and forth and back and forth until they drop from exhaustion. A thinker is in a cage and moves indefinitely between four words.129


1 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (New York, 1989), p. 118.

2 Ibid., p. 67.

3 Paul Valéry, “Descartes,” Œuvres, Jean Hytier (ed.), 2 vols. (Paris, 1957-60), 1:792.

4 Id., p. 791.

5 Paul Valéry, Cahiers, Judith Robinson (ed.), 2 vol. (Paris, 1974), 1:480; hereafter abbreviated C.

6 C, 1:498.

7 Paul Valéry, “Discours en l’honneur de Goethe,” Œuvres, 1:537-38.

8 Paul Valéry, Cahiers 1894-1914, Judith Robinson-Valéry & Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri (ed.), 4 vols. (Paris, 1987-92), 1:204; hereafter abbreviated SC.

9 SC, 1:422.

10 Paul Valéry, “Seconde vue de Descartes,” Œuvres, 1:843-44.

11 C, 1:717.

12 Paul Valéry, “Descartes,” Œuvres, 1:799.

13 C, 1:485.

14 C, 1:501.

15 C, 1:605.

16 C, 1:486.

17 C, 1:567.

18 C, 1:553.

19 C, 1:568.

20 C, 1:739.

21 C, 1:736.

22 C, 1:736.

23 C, 1:647.

24 C, 2:854.

25 C, 1:519.

26 C, 1:579.

27 C, 1:564.

28 C, 1:665.

29 C, 1:670.

30 C, 1:671.

31 Paul Valéry, “Discours aux chirurgiens,” Œuvres, 1:921.

32 C, 1:564.

33 C, 2:851.

34 C, 2:852.

35 See C, 2:907.

36 C, 1:514.

37 See C, 1:566.

38 C, 1:724.

39 C, 1:750-51.

40 C, 1:709.

41 C, 1:610.

42 C, 1:481.

43 C, 1:522.

44 C, 1:532.

45 C, 1:555.

46 C, 1:614.

47 C, 1:620.

48 C, 1:689.

49 C, 1:638.

50 C, 1:670.

51 C, 1:687.

52 C, 1:512.

53 C, 1:452. (In the original French, the significance of this passage turns on the aural pun between mots [words] and homo. – Trans.)

54 C, 1:730.

55 C, 1:463.

56 C, 1:387.

57 C, 1:760.

58 C, 1:59.

59 C, 1:649.

60 C, 1:573-74.

61 Paul Valéry, Mon Faust (Ébauches) (Paris, 1946), p. 180; hereafter abbreviated MF.

62 C, 1:567.

63 Paul Valéry, “Propos sur l’intelligence,” Oeuvres, 1:1041-42.

64 Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (New York, 1958), p. 52.

65 Paul Valéry, “Philosophie de la danse,” Œuvres, 1:1395.

66 C, 2:905.

67 C, 1:838.

68 C, 2:875.

69 Compare Valéry, “Introduction bibliographique,” Œuvres, 1:68.

70 C, 2:1069.

71 C, 2:1078.

72 C, 2:1069.

73 See C, 2:1076.

74 C, 2:1113.

75 Paul Valéry, Invention (Paris, 1938), p. 149.

76 Ibid.

77 C, 2:1125.

78 C, 2:1105; compare C, 2:1125.

79 C, 2:1108.

80 C, 2:1105.

81 Paul Valéry, L’Homme et la coquille (Paris, 1937), p. 73; hereafter abbreviated H.

82 C, 1:512.

83 C, 1:573.

84 See C, 1:511.

85 See C, 1:588.

86 C, 1:641.

87 MF, p. 237.

88 H, p. 51-52.

89 H, p. 67.

90 H, p. 68.

91 H, p. 74.

92 C, 1:654.

93 C, 1:693.

94 H, pp. 46-49.

95 C, 1:548.

96 C, 1:693.

97 Paul Valéry, “Difficulté de définir la simulation,” Nouvelle revue française 28 (May 1927): 620.

98 Henri Poincaré, “L’Invention mathématique,” Science et méthode (Paris, 1909), p. 56.

99 Paul Valéry, Invention (Paris, 1938), p. 156.

100 MF, p. 156.

101 C, 1:602.

102 MF, p. 204-5.

103 Paul Valéry, “Discours aux chirurgiens,” Œuvres, 1:916.

104 C, 1:302.

105 MF, p. 31.

106 C, 1:821.

107 Paul Valéry, Letter to André Lebey, Œuvres, 2:1488.

108 C, 1:924.

109 C, 1:993.

110 Paul Valéry, “Mauvaises pensées et autres,” Œuvres, 2:870.

111 C, 1:924.

112 C, 1:924.

113 C, 1:594.

114 Paul Valéry, “Pensée et art français,” Œuvres, 2:1055.

115 C, 1:425.

116 C, 1:657.

117 SC, 1:147.

118 SC, 1:247.

119 SC, 1:148.

120 SC, 1:80.

121 C, 1:846.

122 Paul Valéry, “La Politique de l’esprit,” Œuvres, 1:1022.

123 C, 1:550.

124 C, 1:630; compare C, 1:763.

125 See C, 1:684.

126 C, 1:625.

127 See C, 1:843.

128 C, 1:637.

129 Valéry, “Mauvaises pensées et autres,” Œuvres, 2:871.

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