Poor BHL. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy–who some people just love to hate–was fingered as a fraud yesterday (on French TV, nonetheless) when he referenced a fictional philosopher in order to defend his recent book on Immanuel Kant. According to The Times Levy had not checked his sources before writing the book and was blissfully unaware that Jean-Baptiste Botul was actually a fictional character and worse, an elaborate literary joke. Come on BHL, there’s Google! Or Wikepedia? Or, I don’t know, a library! From the Times:
When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.
There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank.
There were clues. One supposed work by Botul — from which BHL quoted — was entitled The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. The philosopher’s school is known as Botulism and subscribes to his theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” — the Metaphysics of the Flabby. Botul even has a Wikipedia entry that explains that he is a “fictional French philosopher”.
Now, let’s see. Bring on the predicable lectures on how French philosophy is populated by a bunch of wannabee avant-garde hipters who take great delight in spouting forth a bunch of nonsense! At least nobody called BHL the “Black Forest Babbler!”
“Bring on the predicable lectures on how French philosophy is populated by a bunch of wannabee avant-garde hipters who take great delight in spouting forth a bunch of nonsense!”
No, no. Bring on the hilarious responses to the lectures!
Good point! Let’s not forget about the defenders, but still, let’s just agree that each promise equal amounts of hilarity on their own merit.
Hilarity serves no master.
ah, but perhaps all this is merely to distract from the sound arguments that BHL has put forth, as BHL himself has alluded to. since when is a humorist prevented from making some good points?
Look, gentlemen – “Botul the fictional philosopher” has the same ontological status as “Kant the actual philosopher” – if you suggest otherwise, you are simply pushing your ontological agenda of human-centered-ness on “fictional objects” – if the fictional philosopher made a good point about Kant, why not cite him? People cite fictional characters, don’t they? Be ashamed of your “real person” anthropocentrism, be very ashamed!
I’m so ashamed. I can’t believe that everyone except you and BHL missed the point, namely, that there is some sort of brutal ontological struggle between fictional philosophers and real philosophers. Brilliant.
Not just between fictional and real philosophers, but also between human-centered jerks like myself and the objects that are tired of being oppressed by their horrible masters. They are only speaking through their objectological prophets so far, but soon they will rise up and kick our anthropological asses. Before you know it, this keyboard, for example, will adlakuw0[efasdlfahsd,ncoal@#$@(*$@#)%.
My favorite part of the article is this imitation of Harman’s favorite argument against critics:
i’m with you on this one Mikhail. i mean really, if a fictional character can quote a real person it seems simply insane to deny a “real ” person the right to quote a fictional character. heck, philosophers have never been shy of resorting to literary and artistic creations to advance and/or prove their points, especially late in their careers. and we all know jealousy is the main argument against any strong philosophical opinion, so until one can logically defeat it philosophy will always be lagging behind the hard sciences, let alone the art and literary worlds…
Curiously enough, I decided to use just one dialogue by Plato this time around (read Gorgias for three weeks, is fun) – most of that kind of “you’re just jealous of us” argumentations is what people like Polus threw against Socrates. It’s almost a philosophical classic move: a) I state that objects are flubby, b) I state that you are full of shit, c) I state that you are just jealous of my lonely friendless existence in the middle of East Jesus land, d) Touché
In the catalog of unlikely book titles, “The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant” has to rank right near the top. This could be a fun parlor game . . .
I am going to read that book for sure. It’s only 93 pages and I’m sure its sales are going through the roof:
P.S. Someone needs to translate it into English! It could coincide with the final release of some objectological manifesto…
To be serious for a second, I don’t think that gaffe is that he used a fictional philosopher per se, it’s just embarrassing that he didn’t check his sources, but he’s right in his response – if the fictional philosopher wrote something that’s interesting, it’s as good as if it was written by a non-fictional philosopher. Someone wrote it, and in this case they were under a pseudonym or whatever.
It is much more embarrassing when people write rubbish under their own name – like this one blogger wrote this whole post about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, basing his whole point on a misreading of the table of content. Remember that? No one said anything. And I’m sure if I wasn’t lazy, I could still find that post. Shit like that happens all the time, it’s just that no one is famous enough to be caught and exposed.
It would certainly be worrying if a secondary text on Kant or, say, Heidegger or Latour, turned out to be an elaborate hoax.
I don’t know – this story makes me this about what really constitutes a “hoax” – Is it when you intentionally makes things up in order to create an illusion of scholarship to fool (or entertain) others? What if you take yourself and your philosophy so seriously, you really do believe you are creating something new and exciting when in fact you’re not? It seems to also matter if your “hoax” is peer-reviewed and approved or it’s some sort of “mavericky” shit you do and “no one understands you.” Can you be an unintentional charlatan, a delusional trickster?
For things like the SOKAL hoax (maybe Botulism too), I think it goes beyond fooling and entertaining. The perpetrator is trying to “prove” a serious point: “These guys have their heads so far up their asses with their indecipherable ass-whisperings that they wouldn’t be able to tell if I just generated deliberately ridiculous prose”.