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Reviewed by:
  • Montaigne: les formes du monde et de l’esprit
  • George Hoffmann
Montaigne: les formes du monde et de l’esprit. By Philippe Desan. (En toutes lettres). Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2008. 219 pp. Pb €16.00.

Organized into short thematic chapters, this significant study identifies a crux in Montaigne’s thinking: the claim to distinguish form from content. Departing from an Aristotelian framework in which ‘form’ imposed apprehensibility and intelligibility on brute matter, Montaigne depicts ‘form’ in human affairs as volatile and highly unstable. Rather than structuring the intersection of the material and immaterial realms as it had for Aristotle, form plays a purely phenomenological and markedly provisional role in the Essais, closer to the status it received in Epicurean physics, where it counted merely as the transitory effect of random aggregations of atoms. Desan covers numerous examples of this disengagement from universal, permanent forms, examples in which form reveals itself as contingent and incapable of being generalized. They include proper names (improperly extended in reputations), bodies (dissected to produce mistakenly universal lessons on anatomy), philosophers’ faces (which betray the temperamental and particular origins of their thought), landscapes and topographies (speciously stretched into territories and cosmographies), opinions (wrongly applied as prejudice or dogma), ethical choices (promoted as rules for living, or even instituted as laws), and beliefs (erected into religions). Rather than merely [End Page 338] present these as yet more instances of Montaigne’s scepticism, Desan includes doubt in this list as well; instead of constructing an alternative to thinking about and by forms, doubt remains conditioned by the same arbitrary, singular factors as any other type of mental apprehension. Montaigne’s scepticism thus lies closer to a heuristic attitude than to an intellectual approach or to the philosophical position that one usually infers from ‘scepticism’. Finally, in a deeply intriguing chapter, Desan suggests that Montaigne apprehends his own writing as an occasional, accidental form by analogy with the Epicurean notion of the clinamen, or random swerve that joins atoms (elementa, in Latin, designated both atoms and the alphabet). From this surprising sequence of analyses emerges one constant: Montaigne’s radical refusal to generalize from his own judgements in the moment. In keeping with Montaigne’s own project, rather than reify a timeless ‘author’ via the juxtaposition and conflation of various passages from the Essais, Desan scrupulously distinguishes between the different ‘Montaignes’ of the work through articulating his writing career into a succession of distinct phases. Happily, Desan combines scholarly approaches usually kept distinct, social and economic history with intellectual and philosophical history, which makes him keenly suited to examining the interface between the material and immaterial worlds implied in the concept of ‘form’. Montaigne has recently begun to gain more recognition as a philosopher worthy of attention; this lucid study identifies why such attention makes sense, at the same time as it warns why we must qualify and nuance attempts to treat Montaigne as a philosopher. Montaigne, as Desan aptly reminds us, worked hard to limit his personal speculations to their particular time and place. He would have been aghast at the idea of expanding them into a ‘philosophy’.

George Hoffmann
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 338-339
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-15
Open Access
No
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