Another story of French epistemology

By studying little-known aspects of the history of French thought XXe century and authors sensitive to the diversity of modes of knowledge, Frdric Fruteau de Laclos writes a manifesto for empiricism and a call to fight against ethnocentrism.

Rehabilitating the forgotten tradition of French empiricism

Knowledge of others constitutes the culmination of the research conducted by Frédric Fruteau de Laclos since the beginning of the 2000s. Specialist in the French epistemology of XXe century, he devoted his first works to the work of Dmile Meyerson, helping to bring it out of oblivion or the denigration into which this work fell when Gaston Bachelard established himself as a dominant figure in French epistemology. This first work led her to formulate a plea for minor authors, which finds its full development here: it thus offers us to re-travel the history of French epistemology by taking less frequented paths, taking us through the works of Dmile and Ignace Meyerson, Paul Masson-Oursel, Andr Varagnac, Michel Navratil, Edmond Ortigues, Nol Mouloud, Robert Blanch, Etienne Souriau, Edmond Goblot, and those of barely better known authors like Pierre Janet or Raymond Ruyer. F. Fruteau de Laclos aims to show that these minor authors have something in common: they were sensitive to the diversity of modes of knowledge, and to the fact that the most elaborate forms of knowledge remain deeply anchored in its most spontaneous forms, in the first bodily and pre-reflexive relationships that we establish with the world.

Conversely, the dominant currents of French philosophy, such as Sartrean phenomenology, Bachelardian epistemology or the genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget, would have shared an intellectualist tendency which leads them to widen the gap between higher and lower forms of human thought. According to F. Fruteau de Laclos, the history of French epistemology, and, more broadly, the entire history of philosophy since Plato, shows a struggle between the rationalism of the great and the empiricism of the little, where rationalism always wins: in solidarity with an aristocratic conception of knowledge, rationalism would be the natural position of the authors who dominate the philosophical field, while empiricism, because it attaches to denigrated forms of knowledge, would always be relegated to the rank of minor philosophy.

Such an affirmation constitutes an invitation to the sociological study of the processes of minoritization in the history of philosophy. However, the priority of F. Fruteau de Laclos is not to analyze this process of minoritization as such, but to carry out what he calls, in psychoanalytic terms, a work ofanamnesis of epistemology (p. 107) which aims to fight against the repression suffered by individuals () declared “small” by others who consider themselves “big” (p. 421) by performing a active remembrance of the theoretical possibilities engaged in the debates of a time, not retained by contemporaries and no longer bequeathed to posterity (p. 166).

An empiricist revival of the Kantian question of the conditions of possibility of experience

This crossing of the neglected tradition of French empiricism is solidly structured, not by a chronological thread, but by a philosophical problem raised by F. Fruteau de Laclos, who thus leaves the strict position of the historian of philosophy to construct a problem and formulate a response that is unique to him, although it is based throughout on references from the authors of his corpus. This structuring problem is borrowed from Kant: under what conditions is experience possible?? The work is in fact presented as a revival of the project of transcendental analysis of Critique of pure reasonwhere Kant studied the operations which govern the constitution of a world of objects, the structuring of the diverse received in intuition.

One might be surprised by this resumption of a problem of Kantian rationalism on the part of a supporter of empiricism, but the work seeks precisely to show that it is possible to approach this question as an empiricist. Such an approach consists of refusing to answer a priori the question of the possibility of experience by invoking the immutable principles of pure reason, to study instead the concrete operations by which subjects order their experience: the work of constitution is thus recaptured as the approximate and fallible attempt of living subjects, anxious to orient themselves in their environment and to know the world around them. In the central part of the work, devoted to French psycho-philosophy, F. Fruteau de Laclos thus turns to the work of psychologists such as Pierre Janet, Albert Burloud and Michel Navratil to find an empirical study of the operations which govern the constitution of a world of objects . He continues the work started in his 2012 work, The Psychology of Philosophersand returns on this occasion to the history of the relations between psychology and phenomenology in the history of French philosophy, from the end of the 1920s to the beginning of the 1950s.

And anthropology?

By opening a work entitled Knowledge of others, which represents a Dogon mask on its cover and insists on the back cover on the need to move away from ethnocentrism, one might expect to read a work of anthropology of knowledge, which strives to explore the diversity of forms of knowledge throughout the world. However, until now we have only talked about French philosophy and psychology. To understand the place of the anthropology of knowledge in this work, it is necessary to restore the connection made by F. Fruteau de Laclos between two major divisions which have been established within knowledge: the Bachelardian epistemological division, which separates, within Western knowledge, scientific knowledge and prescientific knowledge; And the Great Sharing which separates Western science from the forms of knowledge observed in other human societies (p. 35). The expression of knowledge of others therefore brings together certain forms of Western knowledge which are discredited as pre-scientific or irrational, and all non-Western knowledge which was linked to the latter, a rapprochement which we see for example at work in the reception of the work of Lvy-Bruhl on primitive thought by authors like Abel Rey or Gaston Bachelard.

In the first part of his work, F. Fruteau de Laclos thus undertakes work to rehabilitate non-Western forms of knowledge.

This part opens with a presentation of the epistemological work of ethnologist Jacqueline Roumegure-Eberhardt on Bantu myths and initiation rites, work that F. Fruteau de Laclos had made it possible to (re)discover in a special issue of the journal Socio-Anthropology. To deepen his reflection on the diversity of forms of thought, he focuses on the particular case of philosophy and the question of whether philosophy has been done outside the West. To do this, it recreates a fascinating controversy between Paulin Hountondji, Mamouss Diagne and Koffi Niamkey, who seek to clarify whether it is possible, and in what sense, to speak of African philosophy. This controversy leads to show both the limits of the position adopted by authors like Deleuze and Guattari, who conclude the geophilosophy of What is philosophy? by the affirmation according to which there cannot be a true philosophy outside the West, and the limits of the position which, since the work of Father Tempels on Bantu Philosophy, seek to show that African philosophy does exist, by passing all Bantu cultural productions through the mill of Western categories. By showing this double collection of ethnophilosophy, F. Fruteau de Laclos gives the full measure of the task of the anthropology of knowledge: to recognize the legitimacy of forms of thought and knowledge originating from other countries or other periods than ours, without failing to recognize their specificity.

What diversity of human knowledge?

At the end of this journey, a tension seems to emerge between the two objectives that F. Fruteau de Laclos sets for himself in this work: that of fighting against ethnocentrism by becoming sensitive to the diversity of forms of knowledge, which is particularly affirmed in the first part devoted to anthropology, and that of developing an empiricist theory of knowledge, which is at the heart of the following parts centered on French epistemology and psycho-philosophy. We can indeed ask ourselves the question of the articulation between these two parts of the work, and, more profoundly, that of the compatibility between their respective objectives. Indeed, in the passages where he underlines the rooting of all forms of knowledge in the immediate physiological relationship that individuals have with the world that surrounds them, F. Fruteau de Laclos gives few indications on the way in which, starting from this common ground of sensitive experience, could develop forms of knowledge that differ radically from one culture to another. He indicates a path to explore by suggesting, following Andr Varagnac, that this diversity is the result of a “dialectic” of man and his living environment (p. 169): it would thus be a question of making the diversity of forms of thought flow from the diversity of the relationships that human societies establish with the environment in which they evolve, drawing inspiration from the possibilism of Vidal de la Blache (p. 168) . Without prejudging the fruitfulness of this line of research, we can consider that it is accompanied by a weakened conception of the diversity of human knowledge compared to what was claimed in the first part of the work, which put at the forefront the fight against ethnocentrism: rather than assuming that there exists an irreducible diversity of forms of knowledge, it seems here that human knowledge is conceived as fundamentally one, and diversified only by the environments in which human societies evolve. It thus seems to us that the work of F. Fruteau de Laclos is structured by a tension between the desire to escape from ethnocentrism and the desire to develop a unified theory of knowledge, and that the exploration of this tension constitutes one of the fundamental issues of this philosophical study. of knowledge of others.