Teaching Philosophy: The Venture Is Well Worth While

When you conceive of the heavens, of their substance and location and mode of being, you need not send forth your thoughts across many thousands of miles. […] For the true heaven is everywhere, even in the very place where you stand and move.[1]

1When I received the invitation to participate in this issue of the Journal of the CIPH, I was rather enthusiastic at first, but this was tempered by apprehensions: how can I discuss teaching on the basis of my own approach? How can my words be any different from what several other teachers, professors and inspectors have already said? So it was a challenge. In accepting to write these few pages, I dared to take it up. Writing represents a risk of confronting oneself and the readers, but it is also an opportunity, by being a way to distance oneself from one’s teaching practice, to take the objective look that analysis requires, and thus to give rise to new questions, opening doors to remediations or innovations. What then lies at the basis of this approach to teaching? How can we awaken the desire to philosophize in today’s young high school students? What needs to change in our methods? So many questions that call on (appellent) and recall (rappellent) the necessary bonds that are forged between the teacher and their class, between the teacher and each student, between the teacher and philosophy as a "discipline." This relationship, understood in this threefold dimension, is therefore not a unilateral relationship of authority and oversight, measured by the yardstick of acquired knowledge or the mastery of language, as one might think at first. It is first and foremost a human relationship because it participates in the challenge of thinking, speaking and being. Before anything else, isn’t teaching philosophy to seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds experiencing philosophy with them, in a community of thought, in a mutual search for meaning, in a heuristic that opens human horizons? Because an adventure of thought is at stake, where the fruitful initiation of dialogue presupposes the attentiveness and benevolence of the person listening. In this article, I will therefore try and shed light on two themes that, in my opinion, are fundamental to teaching philosophy. The first are the words that venture to question and respond, and consequently, the art of dialogue that is at the heart of a philosophy course as I see it. The second is culture that, with its many fields of meaning, presupposes trajectories of potential co-births allowing young people to assimilate the founding texts, thoughts and values of humanism, and thus read their present in the light of this past they share with all humanity. The identity that takes form is not merely a product of an external approach that stops at the personality, but is also and especially a product of the search for "oneself," for what constitutes our innermost identity and thereby allows for the search for signification as the orientation of one’s existence. Building, dwelling and thinking are three verbs that join the quest of this "thinking," like "speaking" and "being" – where we are all encouraged to become those "shepherds of Being" as Heidegger reminds us. [3] Because the first principle of what "is" is Being. And thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the essence of man: "It does not make or cause the relation. Thinking brings this relation to Being solely as something handed over to it from Being. Such offering consists in the fact that in thinking Being comes to language. Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells." [4] Imparting this philosophical logos during every class means setting out on the road to a disappropriation: of certainties and superficial lifestyles, thus returning to the native soil of the human as a thinking and meditating being. A way of thinking that tries patience and requires an effort at attentiveness, that dares to cut itself off from smartphones, skimming and overexcitement, is perhaps a "contrary" way of thinking that dares to see philosophy as surprise at the most precarious, at the simplest, on the ground and in the sky, in the humus of a human condition, in the closeness to one’s freedom – an opening that frees us and avoids affiliations. But how can philosophy classes become the vector for a liberation of this kind?

2When I attended Francis Wolff’s preparatory classes for the agrégation exam at the École normale supérieure, Wolff, who was a music lover, liked to say: "Philosophizing means singing like a castrato: with a child’s voice and an adult’s technique." Philosophizing means questioning the world with a childlike voice ("Why?", as children never tire of asking) but through the use of a method (conceptualizing, asserting, constructing).

3Isn’t this a demonstration of the philosopher’s "stubborn rigor" [5] – to open meaning, to question, to put the uniqueness of their thought at risk? For philosophy is not a cumulative field of knowledge. Every philosopher must reinvent it every time. Every philosopher works on a unique corpus. Philosophy calls forth a function in each student that links reason to emotion. This function of integral apprehension, like music to some degree, escapes naming: it draws on an unknown and complete reality that confronts the student with the complexity of the real, with its equivocality. The student becomes a "philosopher" once something "awakens" them (a question, a text, an image…), solicits them regarding the modern world, changes them in their way of comprehending their perception of the world. This "awakening" then becomes a factor of enthusiasm, of exaltation, of the "gay science" (the joyous search for what asks us questions, making something "new" out of the old).

Opening Meaning, Questioning

Nani gigantum humeris insidentes.
We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants.
Bernard of Chartres (12th century).

4If we define philosophy as a desire for a temperate life, how are we to understand this "temperance"? How can this word resonate in the ears of high school students worried about the baccalauréat, [6] their grades, and Parcoursup? [7] At first glance, philosophy is a school subject like any other, a weighted [8] discipline. However, it is important not to reduce it to that level if the philosophy class in terminale is meant to be something other than a series of "lectures" for the acquisition of encyclopedic "knowledge," where students dutifully prepare index cards on authors for the final exam. The class is not merely the space-time of a "body of knowledge" in the form of a discipline, but also the "realm outside time" of a freedom to think. So I do not judge philosophy classes by the yardstick of what is laid down in a directive from the Ministry of Education, but by the humble, daily activity of listening to the students and vice-versa. The class is therefore not the self-contained site of a "professorial" discourse, but rather a melting pot of surprises, awakenings and transformations. In other words, it is an "investigation workshop" where we stop looking at our watches in order to listen to the authors’ voices, to give them back their "flesh" in a way, by entering into a dialogue with them. Having our students discover them means first of all that the students bear those authors within themselves, dwell within those authors, and are therefore attentive to them like the voices of friends: Plato, Descartes, Pascal, Nietzsche… so many companions on the road to a contemplative life where nothing is given in advance, where what seems obvious deconstructs itself, where certainties are shattered. The philosophy class can thus become a "breeding ground," a "workshop for the living word" where the letter embodies itself in the mind, where the trying experience of a debate becomes possible through the opening of meaning, questioning and reflection. But I do not consider them separately, dissociated from each other: I see them together, as an "original aspect" that inheres to the philosophy class, and even almost like a "challenge" brought into existence during every class.

5In this "realm outside the time" of watches, the point is not to leave the material world behind but rather to come back to it in order to question it more thoroughly on its connection with the mind. Actually, isn’t it our duty to dwell within this matter of which we humans are made, of which language is made? In this almost carnal, or incarnate, dimension of words, our whole human adventure is expressed: from the questioning to the answers, from contemplation to speculation, these are just some of the paths that we forge together, with our voices – as in a chorus, where the philosophers of yesterday are no longer our "distant acquaintances" (lointains) but rather our "neighbors" (prochains). How can we make our way toward thought if not by taking the risk of venturing beyond our certainties, our truisms, our habits? We lead our students along this steep trail, the twilit footpath of a birth into this life of the mind whose immensity they discover in themselves, like a promise.

6Reconnecting with that promise during every class is a challenge made to the teacher and the students. And it is also a "venture" that "is well worth while," to borrow Socrates’s phrase in Plato’s Phaedo, when he discusses immortality, [9] thus considering, as in the Symposium, the call and the response at the same time, in other words the "foundation" of the living dialogue where our human brotherhood participates in the life of the mind, in the birth of ideas, in the opening of meaning. The whole meaning of contemplation is here, in my view: far from being a fixed stare at its target, it becomes an "eye that listens," a voice that is fleshed out by the flesh of the voices that came before it, and a polished, fertile attentiveness. Isn’t the whole issue at stake in the Symposium one of "dying" to prejudice so as to be born into loving contemplation? Here, Love is "midway betwixt wisdom and ignorance," [10] always on the road, questioning, seeking, contemplating and discussing: the presence of beauty and the mystery of absence, just so many "signs" that call on our students to think. A student in terminale L[11] told me that reading the Symposium had allowed him to understand the meaning of desire in a different way. He no longer reduced it to just the quest for a material object: instead, he felt the force of its metaphysical aspect resonate within him, an aspect that transcended the mere sensations of the body in order to connect them with a level of profound intimacy – perhaps that of the soul.

7So it truly is a "venture" to journey on the roads of thought, for nothing is settled in advance there, and as a result we come up against the unknown part of ourselves and others, as well as the strangeness of a real that escapes us. But this venture is worthwhile in that it lets us discover the infinite horizons of the mind that are constantly opening. This, perhaps, is the desire that we teachers try to awaken in our students: the desire to question this directly perceived real, to examine who we are, who the other is, what our destination is. So the moment I cross the threshold of my classroom, I get the strong feeling that philosophy is deeply erotic, for it elicits something unknown within us, and this unknown constantly deepens, making us "strangers" to ourselves in a way, revealing us to ourselves as "seekers of meaning." This is why I am not just interested in presenting philosophy "lessons," but more importantly in having "encounters" with my students: encountering questions and letting them encounter you, questions awakened in the heart like a fire that ignites and sets the classroom’s "hearth" alight, like that of Rembrandt’s philosopher [12] – where something like alchemy seems to be at play, a transition, a transformation. What and who are transformed here? Our words, our language, as well as our capacity for listening, but also and consequently ourselves insofar as we go through an experience by grasping the meaning of what we say and hear, insofar as these texts we are reading by venerable authors speak to us, echo our innermost questions. One day a high school student said to me that Descartes’s letter to Princess Elisabeth [13] had allowed him to sense how happiness did not consist merely of a chance out of nowhere, a stroke of luck, but that it could also be shaped with intelligence and willpower, with rules of life that allow us to bring order to the confusion of our experiences and our emotions. This letter from René Descartes changed this student’s life by awakening deep questions within him, by encouraging him to think, to return to himself and to reflect. He said to me: "These words of Descartes’s have changed something in me: they made me understand that happiness didn’t depend on circumstances but on one’s inner standards. With this philosopher, I saw my life in a different light – this phrase that moved me deeply led me to set off on other paths of existence:’It is also not necessary that our reason never be mistaken. It suffices that our conscience testifies that we have never lacked resolution and virtue to execute all the things that we have judged to be the best. Thus, virtue alone is sufficient to render us content in this life.’ I had always thought that’virtue’ was for old people and teachers, but I finally understood that it was that force we have to stand tall and maintain our resolution." [14] For this student, these were not words from the past, outdated texts, but living words that spoke to him, giving him the ability to find his bearings within thought and become "generous." [15] So this student of the 21st century, alongside the philosopher of the 17th, could admit that "the greatest felicity of man depends on this right usage of reason and, by consequence, that the study that serves in acquiring it is the most useful occupation that one can have, as it is also without doubt the most agreeable and the most sweet." [16] The act of feeling the joy of thinking, of discovering oneself as a thinking subject, awakened this student to the most intimate part of himself, this melting pot of the mind where the soul and the body are no longer alienated from each other, but resonate together in the radiance of the tentative, the splendor of incarnation. Once thought is no longer just an academic exercise and becomes "one’s own" thought, inhabited from within, it transfigures the person who thinks and the world they live in. Thus it is no longer so much the order of the world that must be "changed," but one’s desires. [17] Here, the student’s wonder is to feel and experience a sense of discernment, of judgment: to head for the best, to contemplate the world not in order to remain still, fascinated by images, but with the aim of acting, and of increasing his power to act.

8With the class in terminale, the student discovers the "vocations" of philosophy as a set of calls addressed to them so that their humanity may flourish, so that they may become a person, so that their own words come into being, through and in their voice that they alone embody. This is the doorway to the adventure of thought, to speculation, and the challenge of an upheaval, a conversion: body and soul resonate together in this search that is like an investigation leading back to its finitude, to the humble condition of the incarnated human being. How then can the student find their style as a "philosopher-investigator" except by first bringing their aspects together, in the quest for their voice that will lead the way to new perspectives?

Discovering one’s Voice in the Intervoice: the Incarnation of the Student

9The student in terminale thus discovers that philosophy, far from building systems, opens avenues, investigates, liberates pathways of existence through doubt, through critical questioning that queries directly perceived reality like a skeptical probe. This is why the philosophy class is not a relationship of "seated" bodies, but of listening beings, attentive to words. This class is in keeping with the profound dynamics of dialogue: it calls upon a disposition of being and thinking – like a musician who gets ready to play an instrument positions their body in the presence of it, adjusting to its form, its size, its weight: so many "dispositions" that interact with each other in a state of attentiveness where the student becomes entirely available, takes their time, and puts down their phone. Consequently this disposition, as an availability of oneself to words, is already a response to the call from thought, the response to being these "shepherds of Being," this search for meaning [18] that is carried out in a shared praxis where the word "workshop" finds its raison d’être: an alchemy takes place. For it is the responsibility of all the "members" of this workshop to participate in this transformation of lead into gold, in other words to go through the experience of a thought like an embodied "intervoice," a living and stimulating dialogue leading the way to a hope for co-birth. It is a joint project that paradoxically requisitions our "simplest," most "naked" aspects, beyond the walls we have constructed: this simplicity is something like a breath, a respiration that grounds someone in the depths of the intimate, in this melting pot where they can draw on the strength to contemplate and to act. But what then is this melting pot? How does it constitute our safest abode? And how can we convey to our students the desire to seek it out, to return to it like an inner landscape in which we dwell?

10My fellow philosophy teachers all talk about the problem of the students’ "concentration," but I think it is urgent to rethink the meaning of this "concentration" and the way to apprehend it. This is an ethical question: it crosses the boundaries of standardized and academic discourses to become a commitment for the philosophy class – the ordeal of remaining attentive for long periods, where concentrating does not just mean trying to remain focused on an exercise in order to get a good grade, but above all remaining centered on oneself. In this way, the exercise no longer has the character of an external constraint, but becomes a necessity, a free decision emanating from within, a philosophical posture, or a way of "philosophically dwelling in the world": an availability to what is new, which is also an availability to what is contingent.

From Constraint to Necessity: "Philosophically Dwelling in the World"?

11Just as Heidegger had already asked the question for poets, on the basis of the line from Hölderlin ("…poetically man dwells…"), we may ask it today for philosophers from the moment we start teaching philosophy: let’s not hand down any knowledge, let’s examine what seems obvious, let’s question images (both visual and aural) – refusing "voluntary servitude" and oblivious glances – let’s try to "break the shell to get at the kernel." [19] The poet and the philosopher follow different pathways, to be sure, but in both cases the search is stoked by the fire of thought. This search has nothing to do with "residing": it is to be seen as a voyage, for there is a kind of nomadism that is inherent to thought. How can we reconcile this with the verb "dwell" without immediately betraying it? Isn’t dwelling incompatible with philosophy? This is a question we are entitled to ask once we dwell within our certainties as often as "the seated men" in Rimbaud’s poem do. [20] But we could understand the verb "dwell" in a different way here: it wouldn’t mean settling down somewhere, but rather being present to thought like we are present to what compels us in our innermost being.

12What could "philosophically dwelling in the world" mean to a young person today except exerting that force of resistance, daring the gesture of dissidence, and consequently taking the leap into thought: a small leap, admittedly, philosophical crumbs, perhaps – but "crumbs" that change everything, and that change the student above all in their relationship to themselves and to others, and in their power to grasp the real. Philosophically dwelling in the world then leads to a new dimension: one of "wonder," in other words a capacity to touch and be touched – a power to contemplate as much as to act. If the "old familiar opinions" lose their foundations, this is because the students in terminale rediscover that childlike spirit buried deep within them, by way of wonder – the surprise at the "why" that dwells within thought.

13"Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy." [21] This is by no means childish nonsense, or identifying "wonder" with stupefaction. In the eyes of Socrates, wonder does not mean an emotion immobilizing the mind, but one opening it, awakening it to its life, its force, its wings: "I know that I know nothing." Here, neither defeat nor pretentiousness, but openness to the great human adventure of thought, to the quest for truth: a quest that requires both patience and contemplativeness, an "attitude" that has nothing to do with rote learning and is the ripe fruit of hope. In the words that emerge from deep, intimate silence, through those words that are received and given, the dialogue between us becomes possible and this possibility is the wonder we can wonder about at every moment, once it takes place. It is an event shattering the daily world of our habits and comforts: an event in which each student may participate, into which they may be uplifted in the philosophical and poetic sense of the term – in other words to be born to themselves, to their thought, to what makes and will make them a free person. Philosophy appears with this wonder: it recounts this love of life, of others, faith in humanity, an impulse of the embodied soul. And it is also the whole meaning of the word "love" contained in "philo-sophia". For wonder does not take on the aspect of a doctrine, much less that of knowledge. It is a "sophia" that makes us fall in love and that loves us – and this is because it loves us the first time we fall in love with it. In fact, we rediscover that love within us like a burning desire for truth and life, like the quest for a path of existence in and through the life of the body and the mind.

14For me as a teacher, it was the wonder of practicing the Socratic method, of accompanying seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds toward the discovery of inner subjectivity, of a more subtle universe contained within what is here, immediately given; perhaps a quantum reality, or other physical laws that encourage the restructuring of metaphysics on the basis of wonder: the sharing of the unheard-of, where the universal reconnects with the particular. The face of a student who opens up, blossoms, discovers beauty and seeks truth is an inexhaustible source of wonder for a teacher. When the eye listens, it discovers the unheard-of in the student, the wonder of their particular life. Through this loving gaze upon each of my students, I learned how to fill myself with wonder, by carefully listening to the unique vibration of their features, through the specific tone of a voice, the form and the force of each of their thoughts. As they filled with wonder, so did I: and so our humanity grew, together, and we discovered the art of a philosophy that defies the world of productivity, of profit, of money. Something subtle came to be: a co-birth, a co-naissance. [22] The philosophy class opens a space-time that is out of the ordinary, where together, and individually, we enter into exchanges, develop our thought, sharpening the attentiveness that is intrinsic to its birth. We open ourselves to the adventure of a solitude that never means isolation but rather call and response to other solitudes in the immense human chorus, in the ark of those living on this earth, in life itself. For the teacher is not there to say what must be done or even to indicate a path already trodden, but to get out of the student’s way, so that they may find their own – the path by which they may breathe, grow, flourish. It is the sense of accomplishment of a free person, freed from readymade images, who lives amid representations without "subscribing" to them, in other words without allowing themselves to be dominated by them.

15Letting oneself be transformed, revitalized, means opening that secret door of the philosophy class and crossing the threshold into thought, the giddiness of that thought that transports us beyond ourselves, in the infinite space of inner depths where we discover the immensity of the sky of ideas, in the native land of the soul. The student then loses themselves in the Word, which invites them to return to the region of the intimate, to the secret of a philosophical adventure in the land of Otherness. Teaching philosophy is then as much a form of resistance as a form of dissidence: agreeing to be present in this world, accepting it while committing oneself to transforming it. It is not one against the other, but one by the other and with the other. This is the position of Socrates, who "has a way of obeying which is a way of resisting," [23] for "[i]f the philosopher were a rebel, it would be less shocking." [24] This strange attitude, on the fringes or "from the wrong end," sheds light on the philosophical position. It is an attitude shared by the teacher who, in their philosophy class, has the courage to think, to awaken to thought, refusing diktats and clichés: the courage of truth. Perhaps this resistance and this dissidence are themselves specific to philosophy.

16If philosophizing means opening meaning, questioning, freely examining everything we claimed to know, then it truly is a stimulating adventure, that transforms our desires and makes our possibilities manifest. It "lends wings." Socrates compared himself to a bothersome and disruptive stinging horsefly. Something like vertigo, perhaps, but which provides an opening to the depths of the self and the world, for a demanding, seeking mind: "For to philosophize is to seek, and this is to imply that there are things to see and to say." [25] Against a "thought in retreat or in reply," where "[e]ach of us is expiating for his youth," where "ideas cease to develop and live" and "fall to the level of justifications and pretexts," [26] Merleau-Ponty exhorts us to get back in touch with the passion of philosophizing, to impart it to the young people in our classes, and thereby to defy "gloomy passion" that "take[s] the place of certitude" [27] in order to rediscover the "historical meaning" that "is immanent in the interhuman event, and is as fragile as this event." [28] Teaching is therefore no longer "delivering knowledge," much less "certainties" and still less "dogmas," but really awakening the consciousnesses of adolescents to the spark of thought, opening them to what is problematic, leading them onto the paths of doubt – toward the force of emancipatory questioning, to the joining of things and words:


We are misidentified – for we ourselves keep growing, changing, shedding old hides; we still shed our skins every spring; we become increasingly younger, more future-oriented, taller, stronger; we drive our roots ever more powerfully into the depths […] [I]t’s hard to understand, like all life! – not in one place, but everywhere; not in one direction, but upwards and outwards and inwards and downwards equally; our energy drives trunk, branches, and roots all at once; we are no longer free to do anything individual, to be anything individual… This is our lot, as I have said: we grow in height; and even if this should be our dark fate – for we dwell ever closer to the lightning! – well, we do not honour it less on that account; it remains that which we do not want to share, to impart: the dark fate of height, our fate. [29]

18Daring to be confronted with the equivocity of language, philosophy introduces the young people in our terminale classes to the permanent requirement of inventiveness, creation, and the movement of words: beyond all systematicity, then, expression assumes its full role as a fruitful operator of discourse and a pathway to the possible discovery of oneself. When put to the test of dialogue, with themselves and with others, the students experience an exploring body and mind, devoted to things and to the world, to a realm of the senses that penetrates even the most individual aspects of themselves, right into the depths of the intimate where their relationship with being is forged.

19"Where am I, therefore, I who think" – to borrow Michel Serres’s lovely question in his book Éloge de la philosophie en langue française [In Praise of Philosophy in the French Language] [30] – would then be the unanswered question that the student would ask themselves, if it is true that thought is both what assures me of my existence here and now and what allows me to take leave of the place and the moment where I am confined in order to imagine myself elsewhere, in the utopian space of the concept. But this question also leads the apprentice philosopher – the student – to devise a kind of geography of the mind where ideas are like maps that make it possible to find one’s way around the labyrinth of existence. Reading Descartes, they see that the method is neither simple nor obvious: it is not a matter of following a straight line to chart one’s course. The person who envisions a solution of that sort has never been lost in a forest, or in life. In starting to learn philosophy, the student discovers that they must risk getting lost in that "forest" of ideas in order to put their thinking to the test, to look into their beliefs, to dare to criticize. But how can we still get lost when we are all connected and monitored? How can we recount history and make society when the digital revolution tears us away from belonging to a collective and to a land? [31]

Rediscovering the Art of the Socratic Method: A Challenge for the Philosophy Teacher

20The moment, the eternity as a constantly renewed today in the existential, in shared intimacy, is what comes to the surface in the Other – at whom I look, who looks at me. In the opening where distance and closeness take effect, our voices hear each other and we become seers – not of some external "beyond," but of an infinite within the finite itself – of a real discovered in what is most fragile, what is most helpless. The presence of the fellow human, the student, shifts the existential to the edges of being itself: in the glow of the commonplace, the everyday – that which does not engage us at first, but which nevertheless appears as a glimpse of the unheard-of. This fellow human, this student that is so singular, their radiant face and voice, I listen to them like discreet breaths, resonant, becoming, flourishing. A pathway opens. The student is its intimate traveler. Once, I would have accompanied them. Perhaps. (Measure of our days, of our lives where the slightest gesture, the slightest word calls for our vigilance – like a tenderness of the soul. Attentiveness manifests itself there, like an unintrusive gaze that protects the seed, this knowledge in which we are reborn to the intimacy of our existences, to our capacity of other within the same. Child).

21In this ark of teaching where words allow one to be reborn to the intimacy of the self, the student is my fellow human who rises to their freedom as a man, as a woman. You, student, neighbor – in nearness and farness, you appear in the firmament of a space-time, in this class – through which a unique world comes to be, I call you every time. And you come. You take a chance on this hour when philosophy permeates us, carries us away, converts us. The audacity of trust. Spark of eternal youth – this truth that is given by stepping back. And in the aura of your adventure, in the intimacy of intimate presence, a difference comes to light, an indeterminate deepening: hope. You, dear student, you are called upon to dwell in it, to experience it, to impart it through philosophy, art, science – through faith in existence – fruit of our first encounter with That which is so close to our heart, known as friend, as brother: yes. This little, seemingly unimportant word, bears within it a whole world of sensation, the immense promise of youth, hope found anew. It is the reverse side of refusals and rejections. It is the place of love – neither feigned nor preached nor declaimed – the love that does not put on airs, does not go too far, does not walk away. The love that loves in secrecy. We could also call it "charity," or "grace." It is the only one left. If truth be told.

22Conversing with the inner Word, together we may share this infinite conversation where the trajectory of our lives subtly takes shape – burgeoning, intermittent, poetic and philosophical lives once we offer them; once we have the courage to give up any kind of belonging, influence, worldliness. In this detachment, something happens: the event of an encounter. The impulse of a presence refusing the morass of habit, a presence that opens when that which is fragile cracks and splinters: frail words where our voices come together – simple, touching, trembling in this becoming that we build together, humbly. In the light of the invisible. (When the teacher recedes, like the sea, they make way, open space, give time. They love).

23As a result, ethics is no longer projected, superimposed, it is no longer a matter of constructions, representations and prescriptions – it is the product of the fracture, the wound even, of our deepest vulnerability as a human – an inherent thorn in being, a "cutting in the flesh," a presence that wounds and heals – and always dispenses with establishing a moral order – a presence that makes the rebirth of one’s fellow human possible at any time – a vibrantly alive presence like a mother’s womb, a presence that forgives, always looks on benevolently, student. In that presence, yes, we are intimates. For only there can the attentive, non-prescriptive attitude be experienced, the attitude that enables diligent behavior – modest dress, free from codifications. By not claiming any "ought," any "must-be" that is hard to justify, this presence alone promotes the student’s ability to ex-ist, the power to "stand outside" aloofness and totalities, the virtue of the subject overflowing toward the infinite at work within the finite – an infinite that pulls away from anonymity, from the relations of power and self-interest – an infinite that founds a new firmament. The eternal may then appear today amidst the way of our lives. (Maintaining the intimate, "holding it between" [entre-tenant], we are those who overstep a quantum world). Presence is no longer relative. It is relation in the depths of the intimate – unheard-of tonality, fruitfulness of the infinite, power of philosophy:


There is no formula for how much a spirit needs for its nourishment; but if it has a taste for independence, for quick coming and going, for wandering, perhaps for adventures of which only the swiftest are capable, it would rather live free with little food than unfree and stuffed. It is not fat but the greatest possible suppleness and strength that a good dancer wants from his nourishment – and I wouldn’t know what the spirit of a philosopher might more want to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, and finally also his only piety, his "service of God." [32]

25Presence becomes presencing: it creates a break and, as a result, an event – the discreet break-in that discovers, behind a veil, the little trifles or crumbs of reality. Its beauty. As long as I am thinking of the Other, I separate from myself, but as myself; this thought of the Other (to the Other) belongs to me: it evolves as I wish. But when the Other presences, and we look at each other, something entirely different happens, something radically new: something other than "nothing" (a nothing that is a world – infinite promise of the encounter). Yes, a wavering is produced that means that I no longer belong to myself – which intercedes well before what constitutes my consciousness, further inside me (than "me"). In the depths of the intimate. In the unheard-of. This reconfigures the traditional antagonism whipped up between presence and duration. As long as that tension is active, as long as we notice each other, such a presence is real and has not been suppressed. But once each person retreats (se retranche), reconnects themselves (se rebranche) on their side, no longer letting themselves overflow, presence then gets bogged down and becomes "opaque." That light of intimate presence is made possible by the overflowing of both "selves": a spark that surprises, shifts and transcends, to lead us to the other shore – an unknown, unspoiled and enduring highland – at the moment consciousness is rediscovered as the eternity of our human identity. (Spark of intimate presence – softness of the intimate that calls for the vigilance of thought, its trust as well, which maintains the "a-tense-iveness" (l’a-tension) [33] of the dialogue, the debate, of the philosophical discussion.) In the tensional between that gently opens, letting the power structures that barricade subjects pass through, emancipating oneself from them, something comes to us from the innermost part of the Other, encounters itself within the Other, not through sudden agitation, but in placid clearheadedness, without however being deduced or constructed. No, presence is not relative: in the opening of human relations, in the spark of life itself, it reveals the infinitely precious aspect of existential possibility insofar as I cannot measure it in myself, in the narrowness of my ego, but in the encounter with the infinity of the Other. Pure image of the unique, eternal, living truth. The patience of teaching, of letting things come, of not prompting speech, of not rushing it but to really be patient for it the way one seeks treasure, without seeking something as if we knew in advance – but nothing like this real that comes to us, in the uncertainty of the hours, the classes, the words that are exchanged – a real that is experienced through faith in the student, through trust in the spark – in the attentiveness that creates patience, that makes us patients of philosophy, making us available, in proximity to thought. No haste here, but a lively, enduring expectancy that dares to be unadorned: seeking nothing, but being open to reminiscence, being ready to receive, like a child, the idea that will come into being.

26The Socratic method of the philosophy class then undoes all our haste, our precipitation. It makes us poor: both teachers and students are well and truly stripped of our own forces, our reassuring certainties, our insincerities. The exercise of thought is humble, silent: it thus becomes the passage of intelligence into the breach, into the "little," into the hollow: the thinnest unfolds itself within this space like the string of an unknown instrument that lets us hear the unheard-of like the "silent inner conversation of the soul with itself" (Plato), [34] as with all those that are connected to it. A wonder of the school, the skolè that gives "time" back to its patience, its silence, its freedom. Like lead transforming into gold in the alchemist’s crucible, the student’s answer itself becomes true speech once it has braved the "fire" of the spark: the questioning, the doubt, the wonder when faced with what refuses to be totally understood, known, possessed, and which always urges us to seek, to commit ourselves to the adventure of thought, of love: Eros-philosopher. A banquet [35] where the individual is invited to the table of God Himself. Not in the "most high" of an inaccessible universe, but in the very recesses of their humanity, in the depths of their incarnated soul.


Love maintains the breach
Makes the spark shine between us
Vigilance where the Other is
Freed from their otherness –
Continuous dehiscence, silence –
The encounter – its ripe fruit.
An illuminated lamp.

Watchfully, the teacher listens. They stand on a threshold they do not cross. They are the servant that prepares the table, invites people to eat, without worrying about the quantity, but rather the quality of this incomparably delicious food once it rises out of the crucible of poverty. Gold emerges from this stock. It has dared to lose its leaden rind. It has risked losing in order to win attentiveness, this great treasure – this miraculous gem that, once we have had our fill, makes us hungry for something else: freedom.

28"For an adolescent, capable of grasping this truth and generous enough to desire this fruit above all others, studies could have their fullest spiritual effect, quite apart from any particular religious belief." [36] It is the joy of being, of awakening to a critical consciousness, to reflection, to the astonishment of thaumazein. When the question leads the student to experience our presence as that of the other, they grow and their growth gives them hope. They believe in progress again; they trust and build, dwelling in the world like they dwell in themselves. An interiority that invigorates them, makes them grow wings. Toward the future.

29(The breach is then truly decisive: it is the matrix where the joint human project, thought, is in continual gestation).

30In the face of the absolute of being, which totalizes the concept, the infinite discovers itself in relation to the other – even before it does so in the universe of science – and in the intimacy of the subject. This is a subject that is no longer the Aristotelian substratum (a substance, which remains, which underlies changes), or the logical subject (a medium of attributes underlying the expression), but a personal, singular subject: an "I" as speech act and no longer as utterance, an "I" whose singularity from then on creates the absolute by asserting the transcendence of a freedom. Such a subject will no longer be reduced to a set of cognitive-affective faculties, but will deploy itself inwardly: promise of another "being" than the being "thrown before" and obstructing the gaze: a being that is both infinite and ambiguous, where the intimate unfolds and urges one on a journey.

31So the profound mutation, the one that the Hebraic tradition had undertaken, will indeed come to be from the thinking of the other, insofar as they are not "being": the other presents themselves there as the "you" in relation to whom the human subject is thrown open. The infinity of the other and the infinity of God, which always flow over me: intimate presence, opaque presence. And the overflow of the self that is induced by the intimate through the presence of the other in one’s innermost being is not tantamount to its abolition. On the contrary, it is its resurrection. A resurrection in and through the opening of a freedom where each person, overflowing with themselves through the other, discovers the immense promise of becoming themselves, in their humanity, in their freedom as a subject. The advent of being oneself as another transcends all our representations: a spark of the intimate so discreet and modest that it needs no mystery and does without miracles. Instead, it dwells within the fragile, the impoverished, the precarious – the filament retrieved from a secret fragment, the immemorial realm of words that risked a withdrawal, an opening, an encounter. (The truth of withdrawal activating its presence in its relation to the fellow human and their immutable mystery):


We who are new, nameless, hard to understand; we premature births of an as yet unproved future – for a new end, we also need a new means, namely, a new health that is stronger, craftier, tougher, bolder, and more cheerful than any previous health. […] And now, after being on our way in this manner for a long time, we argonauts of the ideal – braver, perhaps, than is prudent and often suffering shipwreck and damage but, to repeat, healthier than one would like to admit, dangerously healthy; ever again healthy – it seems to us as if, in reward, we face an as yet undiscovered land the boundaries of which no one has yet surveyed, beyond all the lands and corners of the ideal heretofore, a world so over-rich in what is beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine that our curiosity and our thirst to possess it have veered beyond control […] Another ideal runs before us, a peculiar, seductive, dangerous ideal to which we wouldn’t want to persuade anyone, since we don’t readily concede the right to it to anyone: the ideal of a spirit that plays naively, i.e. not deliberately but from overflowing abundance and power, with everything that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine; a spirit which has gone so far that the highest thing which the common people quite understandably accepts as its measure of value would signify for it danger, decay, debasement, or at any rate recreation, blindness, temporary self-oblivion: the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence […]. [37]

33The teacher is then just as much called upon by their student as the student calls upon them, in the attitude of a voice that listens, to live by that "ideal" that Nietzsche describes to us: the ideal of a laughing spirit that dares to endanger itself and "revalue" values. Therefore philosophizing does not mean making history: it is not saying what has been said or getting bogged down in beliefs. It simply means using one’s capacity for reminiscence, seeking to temporalize the atemporal through chance encounters, to discover the paradigmatic event that, in various forms, constantly presents itself as the event of a geminate reason, of a thought seeking and finding itself in the mirror of another thought. It is Socrates learning from Alcibiades how the pedagogical relation reverses itself, when the disciple becomes the master of his master: it is a founding experience that is always starting over. The philosophy teacher thus becomes the humble witness of what may happen in atemporal temporality, a mere "smuggler" of ideas: a dehiscence that calls for the germination of a "gay science."


  • [1]
    Jacob Boehme, Aurora (Morgen Röte im auffgang, 1612), trans. Andrew Weeks (Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2013), 555.
  • [2]
    Terminale is the final year in French secondary schools, equivalent to senior year in US high schools or the upper sixth form in British and other Commonwealth schools. [translator’s note].
  • [3]
    "Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being." Martin Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism," trans. Frank A. Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 245.
  • [4]
    Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism," 217.
  • [5]
    Leonardo de Vinci, Leonardo’s Notebooks: Writing and Art of the Great Master, ed. and trans. H. Anna Suh (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2005), 402.
  • [6]
    The final exam that French high school students must pass in order to obtain their diploma [translator’s note].
  • [7]
    Parcoursup is an online system devised by the French ministry of education that enables graduating high school students (and others) to apply for undergraduate places in French universities. Its implementation has been accompanied by controversy [translator’s note].
  • [8]
    The weight (coefficient) – the relative importance in the overall result – that philosophy has in the baccalauréat was, for example, 7 in the Literary orientation of the baccalauréat général, while in the baccalauréat professionnel (essentially a vocational orientation) there are no questions on philosophy [translator’s note].
  • [9]
    Plato, "Phaedo," in I: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1953), 391, 393 (114d).
  • [10]
    Plato, "Symposium," in III: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias, trans. W. R. M. Lamb (Cambridge MA / London: Harvard University Press, 1925), 181 (203e).
  • [11]
    Terminale littéraire was the final year for those students in the Literary orientation of the baccalauréat général. These orientations were abolished at the end of the 2018-2019 school year in favor of a more flexible system allowing students to choose three disciplines for their bac alongside mandatory subjects [translator’s note].
  • [12]
    Philosopher in Meditation (1632) is the traditional though unauthenticated title of a painting attributed to Rembrandt, which hangs in the Louvre. On the canvas, a staircase is associated with meditation, with the world of ideas, which rises into the shadows. The journey toward knowledge therefore takes place step by step, leading to the unknown, to the limits of knowledge. An enigmatic small door heightens this mystery. The staircase thus highlights the thought process that the Philosopher’s introspection requires, by way of a mise-en-abyme. As a pictorial space, the room in which the scene unfolds resembles a mental space.
  • [13]
    René Descartes, "Descartes To Elisabeth, Egmond, 4 August 1645," in The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, ed. and trans. Lisa Shapiro (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 97-99.
  • [14]
    A student in terminale S3, during the 2018-2019 school year. [Terminale S3 was a scientific orientation of the baccalauréat général, specializing in mathematics, abolished in the abovementioned reforms that went into effect starting in the 2019-2020 school year – translator’s note].
  • [15]
    In the Cartesian sense of the term – and the philosopher makes it the very virtue of freedom: "Thus I believe that true generosity, which causes a person’s self-esteem to be as great as it may legitimately be, has only two components. The first consists in his knowing that nothing truly belongs to him but this freedom to dispose his volitions, and that he ought to be praised or blamed for no other reason than his using this freedom well or badly. The second consists in his feeling within himself a firm and constant resolution to use it well – that is, never to lack the will to undertake and carry out whatever he judges to be best. To do that is to pursue virtue in a perfect manner." Descartes, Traité des Passions de l’âme, article 153 ["The Passions of the Soul," in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge / New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 384].
  • [16]
    Descartes, "Descartes To Elisabeth, Egmond, 4 August 1645," 99.
  • [17]
    See Descartes, "Part Three," in A Discourse on the Method, trans. Ian Maclean (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23.
  • [18]
    "Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. […] [M]an is the being whose Being as ek-sistence consists in his dwelling in the nearness of Being. Man is the neighbor of Being." Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism," 245. "But in order that we today may attain to the dimension of the truth of Being in order to ponder it, we should first of all make clear how Being concerns man and how it claims him. Such an essential experience happens to us when it dawns on us that man is in that he ek-sists." Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism," 233.
  • [19]
    Meister Eckhart, "Sermon Eighty-Three," in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, ed. and trans. Maurice O’C. Walshe (New York: Crossroad, 2009), 409.
  • [20]
    Arthur Rimbaud, "The Seated Men" ("Les Assis"), in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago / London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 127 [translator’s note].
  • [21]
    Plato, "Theaetetus," in II: Theaetetus, Sophist, trans. Harold N. Fowler (New York: Putnam; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1921), 55 (54d). See Aristotle, Metaphysics: "For it was because of wonder that men both now and originally began to philosophize." [Aristotle, "Book Alpha," in Metaphysics, trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London / New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), 9 – translator’s note]
  • [22]
    Play on words between "naissance" (birth) and "connaissance" (knowledge) [translator’s note].
  • [23]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), 41 ["In Praise of Philosophy," trans. John Wild and James Edie, in In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 36]. "When Socrates refuses to flee, it is not that he recognizes the tribunal. It is that he may be in a better position to challenge it. […] Everything that Socrates does is ordered around the secret principle that one is annoyed if he does not comprehend. Always to blame by excess or default, always more simple and yet less abstract than the others, more flexible and less accommodating, he makes them ill at ease, and inflicts upon them the unpardonable offense of making them doubt themselves. […] The same philosophy obliges him to appear before the judges and also makes him different from them. The same freedom which brings him among them frees him from their prejudices." (Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 40-41) ["In Praise of Philosophy," 36-37].
  • [24]
    Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 39 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 34]. The philosopher’s opposition is not aggressive. "Hence the rebellious gentleness, the pensive engagement, the intangible presence which disquiet those who are with him. As Bergson said of Ravaisson in a tone so personal that one imagines him to be speaking of himself:’He was the kind of man who does not even offer sufficient resistance for one to flatter himself that he has ever seen him give way.’ " (Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 38 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 33]). See Cynthia Fleury, La Fin du courage (Paris: Fayard, 2010), 50-53. According to Fleury, there is no courage without fear, without wondering about the risk to be taken, about the meaning of the action to be carried out. When the student is confronted with that fear of thinking and they overcome it, they get a sense of their own courage.
  • [25]
    Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 45 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 41].
  • [26]
    Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 45 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 41].
  • [27]
    Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 45 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 42].
  • [28]
    Merleau-Ponty, Éloge de la philosophie, 53 ["In Praise of Philosophy," 51].
  • [29]
    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), § 371, 236.
  • [30]
    Michel Serres, Éloge de la philosophie en langue française (Paris: Fayard, 1995).
  • [31]
    From Hermès to Petite Poucette by way of Le Contrat naturel, Michel Serres enlightens us on these questions, and shows us that "losing oneself" consists precisely in being unable to maintain a steady course. [Of the books by Serres that are mentioned, only Le Contrat naturel has been translated in full into English. See The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995). A selection from the five volumes of Hermès has been published in English as Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josué V. Harari and David F Bell, trans. Harari, Bell, Susan Willey, Suzanne Guerlac, Marilyn Sides, Mark Anderson, and Lawrence Schehr (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) – translator’s note]
  • [32]
    Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 381, 246.
  • [33]
    Play on words between l’attention (attention, attentiveness) and tension, which are pronounced similarly in French as in English [translator’s note].
  • [34]
    Plato, "Sophist," in II: Theaetetus, Sophist, 441 (263e) [translator’s note].
  • [35]
    Plato’s dialogue Symposium, referenced earlier in the text, is known as Le Banquet in French [translator’s note].
  • [36]
    Simone Weil, L’Attente de Dieu (Paris: La Colombe, 1950), 80 [Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 115-116].
  • [37]
    Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 382, 246-247.