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  • Law / Loi
  • Wilda Anderson (bio)

Un Français qui arrive à Londres trouve leschoses bien changées en philosophie commedans tout le reste. Il a laissé le monde plein;il le trouve vide. À Paris, on voit l’universcomposé de tourbillons de matière subtile;à Londres, on ne voit rien de cela. Cheznous, c’est la pression de la lune qui causele flux de la mer; chez les Anglais, c’est lamer qui gravite vers la lune, de façon que,quand vous croyez que la lune devrait nousdonner marée haute, ces Messieurs croientqu’on doit avoir marée basse. … Chez voscartésiens, tout se fait par une impulsionqu’on ne comprend guère; chez M. Newton,c’est par une attraction dont on ne connaîtpas mieux la cause. À Paris, vous vous figurezla terre faite comme un melon; à Londres,elle est aplatie des deux côtés. La lumière,pour un cartésien, existe dans l’air; pour unnewtonien, elle vient du soleil en six minuteset demie. … L’essence même des choses atotalement changé.

—Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques 14, ¶1, 2 [End Page 757]

This paper is a purely speculative proposal intended to stage a problematic. The context of this conference on French as a language of research is ideal for investigating how one can unpack the difference it makes to think creatively about the same problem in one language as opposed to another; in this case, French versus English.

One site in which this problem was articulated and debated was in the conceptual and cultural sources of the secularization of the world in early modern Europe. This is of course an old, hoary question with a long tradition behind it, so let us reduce it in the following strategic way: how was it possible for the reigning vision of the world to be modified such that what was perceived as reality, which had formerly been understood through a fundamentally theological grid, became our modern fundamentally materialist point of view?

A first provisional term is to define reality as different from the real: reality then, as I am going to use the word here, is not what is, but is a set of interlocking definitions that determine what one can perceive about what is. This interlocking set only operates in a valid way when it is shared by the larger culture; otherwise, the person seeing the world through it is either considered insane or incomprehensible.1 I am trying to focus on perceiving rather than on the thinking that proceeds from that perceiving. So for example, the political and institutional justifications and arguments of the French Enlightenment thinkers and their heirs can usefully be construed as rationalizations (i.e., the bringing into rationality) through which they turn to their advantage a debate whose goals were essentially other. This is because the shift from the theological worldview had essentially taken place and their reality is different. The materialist image of the world as a deterministic clockwork could in fact be seen to be a product of an anachronistic hijacking of the issue. Yet the question remains, in spite of the analyses of philosophical monuments like Koyré, Foucault, Paul Hazard or Thomas Kuhn: how did they get there?2 Of course, the question is, is it even possible not only to locate the inflection points that modify for a culture what they define as the real, but also to explain how these inflection points are generated and what the mechanisms are behind their effects? How do you identify these inflection points, and [End Page 758] what kind of analysis of them would be productive? Happily, there are possible shortcuts: first, the Enlightenment philosophers themselves often enough make clear the thinkers or ideas that they consider to have been crucial to their reality shift. Second, it helps to reduce the enormous issue of (Kuhnian) paradigm or (Foucauldian) epistémè to a small subset of concepts which can be characterized perhaps in the Saussurian distinction between langage understood as the vocabulary spoken and langue which implies all the interlocking definitions of those words, especially as they embody the...


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