Luc Ferry’s quest for salvation

by Dave Maier

It's very difficult to write a good introduction to philosophy. Put in too much technical detail and it reads like a textbook, irrelevant to all but sophomores; but leave too much out and it's just a self-help book. Luc Ferry is a French philosopher whose recent essay in this genre, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, is our subject today.

Ferry bookFerry's book is generally successful in walking that fine line. He keeps the details to a minimum, leaving room for plenty of argument, much of it eloquent and forceful. He leaves no doubt about where he thinks his explorations lead, and what their consequences are for contemporary life. As he himself argues, philosophy must address its readers in this direct and personal way if it is not to devolve into pointless academic speculation, a fate shared, he thinks, by too much contemporary philosophy. Even if that subtitle promises more than it can deliver (more accurate, if more unwieldy, might be A Philosophical Guide to Philosophical Guides to Living), Ferry's book provides an excellent background for further investigation and debate.

Ferry's explanatory scheme is necessarily compact, but for his purposes it works very well. The philosophy of each major era in the history of Western thought addresses three related questions: in Kant's famous formulation, they are 1) What can I know? 2) What must I do? 3) What may I hope? Kant's own system is built around his answer to the first question, which inaugurates the “critical philosophy” that brought us irrevocably into the modern period. In contrast, Ferry centers on the third question as the one driving the whole endeavor.

A human being […] is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable. And, naturally enough, he is inclined to turn first of all to those religions which promise 'salvation'.

That promise, though, is worthless if we don't believe it. Where religion demands faith, philosophers – arrogantly so, from the religious perspective – accept only what can be shown by reason. Philosophical “salvation” is thus intimately connected to what Ferry calls theoria, an investigation into not only how things are in the world, but also the means by which we know this (or what Ferry is careful not to call “metaphysics” and “epistemology” respectively). More practically, we also want to know how to deal with other people, and what our mutual obligations are (which includes the question of what “obligations” are in the first place). The key to understanding each era, in Ferry's view, is to see how it deals with these three questions.

Not surprisingly, Ferry begins his story in ancient Greece. However, while Plato and Aristotle were the philosophical titans of the ancient world, Ferry ignores them almost completely in order to concentrate instead on Stoicism. This is a clever move, for several reasons. First, Plato and Aristotle are way too complicated to explain in a book like this. Second, Stoics focused on the question of salvation, and draw admirably clear lines between it and the other two aspects of philosophical thought, again fitting nicely into Ferry's picture.

Furthermore, Stoics endorse the same broad picture of reality as do their more complicated predecessors. Behind the flux of sense-impressions, and of perishable physical objects, there lies a transcendent order discoverable by reason. To discover this ideal order, or “kosmos“, is to see its perfection. Getting reality right is thus a moral imperative. Consequently, Stoics famously advocate apatheia, a conscious detachment from the pleasurable or painful aspects of our experience. We are to act only according to the dictates of reason (i.e., the full-blooded classical conception, not the purely instrumental modern version).

Just as Stoic theoria demands that we see the world as it is, so does Stoic salvation consist in accepting that reality (or what Nietzsche will later call amor fati: love of fate). For example, it is a fact that each of us will die. More generally, everything we value — people and things as well as experiences — is transient. Stoics conclude that overcoming the fear of death and pain of loss requires the same detachment as does their ethics. As Ferry stresses, though, here detachment does not mean indifference. Ethically we are required to follow the dictates of reason when we act, rather than the pleasure or pain the action brings us; yet the Stoic sages love their friends even while knowing they will die. (Similarly, in the Eastern context it is only the “unenlightened Buddha” who spurns friendship as mere worldly attachment.)

Christianity dominated Western thought for a good 1500 years. Histories of philosophy, however, tend to cram the millenium-plus after the Hellenistic period into a box labeled “medieval philosophy,” which can often (when we're in a hurry to get to Descartes and Kant) amount simply to a quick look at Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274). Ferry rightly decries this tendency.

This is not just for historical reasons. Ferry acknowledges the attractiveness of the traditional Christian picture, especially with respect to salvation. Why struggle with the Stoic to reconcile ourselves to loss and death when Christianity assures us we can be with our loved ones forever? Ferry's own answer is common among contemporary philosophers (more so, that is, than among the general public): that he doesn't believe it. This is not simply for familiar reasons of lack of evidence. Theoretically (although again our foreshortened perspective hurts us here), it is quite a leap, as divine principles go, from the classical Greek logos to the personal deity of the ancient Hebrews, and Ferry is not alone in wondering how exactly this graft is supposed to work, a subject of no small disagreement among adherents themselves.

Ferry's main gripe, though, as a philosopher, remains the replacement, in religion, of rational argument with faith in revealed truth. Still, he argues that there remains a role for Christian philosophy. Theoretically, he thinks the best we can do is a dry scholasticism; but ethics is another matter. Ferry credits Christianity with the overthrow of ancient social hierarchies in favor of the universal equality and dignity of humanity. We judge people (ideally anyway) by their freely willed actions, not by their natural gifts or social standing, and (again ideally) we see all humanity as part of a single community. Each of these (somewhat differently construed) is an important component of the subsequent modern picture – which is why we tend to take them for granted. Ferry has more to say about Christian salvation and the concept of love, but let's jump ahead to modernity.

In the modern period, Ferry tells us, “man found himself for the first time alone, deprived of the support of both kosmos and God,” giving modern thought a characteristically humanist cast. Everything, it seemed, needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Theoretically, we move from varying conceptions of divine order to the full-scale rejection of transcendent metaphysics. (Interestingly, Ferry connects scientific experimental method not to Humean empiricism but to the “active” conception of cognition he finds in Kantian idealism.) This epistemological focus gives modern philosophy a characteristically skeptical cast, which will become increasingly important as the era reaches maturity (as we'll see below).

Luc-Ferry-007Ferry sees the key to modern ethics in Rousseau's idea that humanity's uniqueness rests in our “perfectibility”. Unlike animals, who are determined by their nature, we are free to transcend it, in whatever way we see fit. This freedom opens us up to praise and blame, as judged by universal criteria. For example, Kant's analysis of human freedom is meant to demonstrate the universal ethical value of disinterested action. Politically, this idea can be just as oppressive as liberatory: Rousseau's conception of the “general will” led just as much to the Terror as to the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Even when successful, however, political utopia cannot suffice for personal salvation, especially when measured against the rejected supernatural promises. Some modern conceptions of salvation are mere “idols” – nationalism, communism, even the truths of science; more promisingly, though, Ferry sees a proto-cosmopolitan “enlarged thought” emerging from the chrysalis of Rousseauvian “perfectibility”. We “partake of a greater humanity” when we, for example, learn a new language. Why something like this could amount to “salvation” he leaves for his discussion of the future. Between then and now, though, lies a shadow.

Its fundamentally skeptical nature notwithstanding, modernity reached too high. Rigorous demonstrations of universal principles, whether philosophical, ethical, or whatever – not to mention the cultural “idols” of modern ideology – inevitably came themselves under skeptical attack, which extended to the very ideas of humanism and rationalism at the heart of the modern self-image. Postmodernity, which Ferry takes to have “arrived at its zenith” with Nietzsche, is the Enlightenment critical spirit turned doomsday machine.

Ferry tries very hard to be fair to Nietzsche, and he repeatedly stresses how compelling he finds Nietzsche's critique of modernity's idols, but he also finds that (his version of) Nietzsche is too single-mindedly destructive to provide the “guide to living” Ferry seeks, his version of philosophical salvation amounting only to the same basic picture as Stoicism: acceptance of things as they are. Ferry's discussion is subtle and impassioned, and I dare not risk an abridgment here. I urge you to read it for yourself.

I will say that this construal of the relation of modernity and postmodernity, while useful, is not without its risks. It's certainly right that postmodern skepticism has its roots in Kant's quintessentially modern “critical turn”, a connection we lose if “postmodernity” is simply the next chapter in our story (and thus a different one). On the other hand, we might want to leave room for the idea that (strange as it may sound) skepticism about the self-image of a characteristically skeptical age might not really count as the sort of full-on skeptical nihilism it sounds like at first. If you're skeptical about skepticism, then presumably you think we actually know some things, or better, that not everything worth knowing needs – or can survive – rigorous theoretical demonstration. Alternative conceptions of postmodernity take their cue not from the skepticism they share with their target, but instead with its charactistically self-referential (and thus, admittedly, characteristically vertiginous, but not thereby skeptical) nature.

Again, though, Ferry isn't simply decrying the evils of nihilism, or trying to give us the definitive reading of Nietzsche; he's just trying to flesh out his conviction that the contemporary Nietzscheanism of such politically radical soixante-huitards as Deleuze and Foucault is too nihilistic to be effective in combating the world's actual ills. (In earlier writings Ferry fills in the obvious gap: an argument to show that Deleuze et al are simply going over the same nihilistic ground as their much more subtle ancestor (spoiler: that argument fails miserably)). If Ferry's own proposals indeed take us beyond whatever it is in modernism we don't like, without leaving us mired in a irremediably decontructive bog, then we shouldn't care what counts as “postmodernism” and what does not. On the other hand we lose the good, constructive ideas in Nietzsche and Deleuze if we've already tossed them out as nihilistic rubbish, whatever label we apply to them.

So what now? Well, if we don't like anything we've seen so far we better try something else:

[F]or whoever is not a believer, for whoever refuses to content themselves with fantasies of a return to a golden age, or confine themselves to philosophizing with a hammer [a reference to Nietzsche's self-description], it is necessary to take up the challenge of a wisdom or a spirituality that is post-Nietzschean.

That last bit is important. Ferry does not wish simply to find something for philosophy to do, some intellectual projects safe from skeptical attack. That might be okay for theoria, but Ferry is not willing to abandon our traditional quest for salvation. We need, he thinks, to rescue humanism not only from transcendentalism and deconstruction, but also from something missing from the above list: materialism.

Ferry argues that by restricting “wisdom” to natural science, materialism in this sense is too reductive to leave room for the post-postmodern humanist ideals he favors. Ferry's materialist exemplar is André Comte-Sponville, to whom he attributes the idea, based on “one of the numerous versions of amor fati,” that hope for the future is a manifestation not of virtue but instead of “frustration and impotence.” Instead we are to “seize the day” – whether that day be pleasant or painful. But in the latter case this cannot work: “What meaning can the imperative of amor fati have confronted with the fact of Auschwitz?”

This is a little quick – and of course the ad Auschwitz argument has just as often been used against humanism itself as against its critics – but our interest here lies in the provocative form of Ferry's conclusion: “I prefer to commit myself to the path of a humanism which has the courage fully to take on the problem of transcendence.” Here, unfortunately, we encounter the frustrating aspect of this sort of book. Just when things were getting interesting, when we really need a careful treatment, Ferry is forced to settle for a quick sketch.

The problem with materialism, again, was that it limits our horizons to what is actual or demonstrable, where Ferry himself yearns to transcend those horizons. Yet we cannot return to outdated conceptions of transcendence. We need a domesticated version, which Ferry calls “horizonal transcendence” or “transcendence within immanence” (as borrowed from Husserl). And Ferry's defense of the necessity of such a thing is quite eloquent and indeed compelling. But when we think about it we see that this is simply obvious: if traditional transcendence is too much, and no transcendence (= immanence) is not enough, where else could we possibly go but some suitably modified version of transcendence? What else is there?

Here the nitty-gritty details are all-important – but not possibly included in a book of this kind. Ferry's image of the horizon is an excellent one as images go. But how exactly does it go? Gadamerian Horizontverschmelzung? Davidsonian interpretation? Wittgensteinian forms of life? Or are these things themselves (as Deleuzoguattarian rhizomes presumably are) too “postmodern”? Too late, the book is ending. Figure it out for yourself.

Yet Ferry does leave us with at least an intelligible sketch. His conceptions of ethical life and earthly salvation are clearly connected, as promised, to his theoretical endorsement of “horizonal transcendence.” Such transcendence need not be demonstrated, but manifests iteslf in my life, in my experiences of love and beauty. So do the ideas of a common humanity and universal justice (“I am not at all persuaded by the argument that I merely choose ethical values, that I decide for example to be anti-racist: the truth is rather that I cannot think otherwise”). As for salvation, Ferry returns here to the Kantian conception of “enlarged thought” mentioned above, hoping to fit it better into his post-postmodern picture than it did in modernity. No longer simply the critical imperative to see things from different points of view, it encapsulates an entire conception of life's meaning: a realization of one's own nature through identification with another.

So that's the task. Now if there were only a philosophical guide to help us live this way…