Critique of Impure Reason

Via Henry Farrell, Scott McLemee in Inside Higher Ed:

Whatever else one may think of BHL [Bernard-Henri Lévy], he is certainly prolific. This week, he published in France both a hefty volume of his reportage and commentary called Identity Papers and a theoretical opus appearing under the title Of War in Philosophy. The latter volume seems to have created the bigger stir. It is another bid for the Sartrean mantle.

In this, he faces a great challenge, for philosophers have seldom been kind to his work. Gilles Deleuze suggested that Lévy was interesting chiefly as a symptom of mass marketing's expansion into new realms. Cornelius Castoriadis once said that the New Philosophers had been named by an act of double antiphrasis. BHL has enjoyed media prominence for a third of a century, but each volume of his philosophical speculation now carries the burden of demonstrating the existence of some steak amidst all the well-amplified sizzle.

To judge by an early report, his new book continues BHL’s combat against Hegel and Marx as founding fathers of totalitarianism. But with it, he take another step — pushing the fight deeper into philosophical history by attacking Kant. He draws on the scholarship of Jean-Baptiste Botul, whose lectures in Paraguay after World War II demonstrated that Kant, for all his talk of reason, was quite mad. Thanks to the courage of BHL in thinking through the implications of this analysis, we shall now be able to face reality with greater lucidity.

Or we might — if Jean-Baptiste Botul actually existed.

In fact, Botul is the pen name used for several books composed by a satirist named Frédéric Pagès. One might have guessed as much, given that the very title of the work BHL draws upon, La vie sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant, sounds like a joke. (The philosopher made Steve Carrell’s character in The Forty Year-Old Virgin look like a libertine.)

BHL has subsequently appeared on television to admit that, yes, he fell for what was, after all, a terribly elegant hoax. And in any case, the critique of Kant limned there was – whatever the author's intent – very close to his own analysis, ground out over decades of careful meditation.