- “God is God”: Essay on the Violence of Tautological Propositions
The name Stanislas Breton (1912–2005) is probably not familiar to many US academics. A theologian and philosopher, he taught from 1970 to his retirement at the École normale supérieure in Paris. Breton was close to Althusser’s circle; some readers will recognize his name from Étienne Balibar’s references to the essay we translate below—or from references to Breton in the work of Michel de Certeau, Paul Ricoeur, and Barbara Cassin.(“‘Dieu est Dieu’” appears in a volume dedicated to Cassin and her family.)
“‘Dieu est Dieu’: Sur la violence des propositions tautologiques” (1989) is a remarkable, polemical, forcefully, and obliquely written work that stands, like much of Breton’s, where philosophical logic, political theology, and the confessional mode cross. Some of the rather subterranean links his essay has to the work of much better-known figures (Derrida, Deleuze) are briefly suggested in the notes.—Jacques Lezra
Tautological statements are by nature specious.1 It is traditionally agreed that they do not add anything to what is already known. Under both of their two recognized forms—either the mere repetition of the subject in whatever it is that one says of it (“bodies are bodies”); or the addition to a subject of a quality that makes explicit what was already the case in the subject [End Page 203] (“bodies are extended”)—their informational content is almost null. They duplicate what one already knows. This is as much as to say that they are not concerned with an authentic desire for knowledge. Nevertheless, even when their cognitive interest is less than negligible, there are statements which, without being tautologies, resemble them in similarly lacking informational value. Such, for instance, are those insignificant phrases that train-, bus-, or air-travelers venture so as to start up conversation. There is much to say about these bare words, with their family resemblance to our truisms.
Logicians have taken up, gravely, even at times with impatient gravity, the problem of “analytic propositions,” or of propositions styled “analytic.”2 I have trouble believing that their conclusions—regardless of the answers they furnish—are exhaustive. For what is in play in these turns of phrase is a communicative practice, rather than the correctness of a syntax, or a semantic reference to truth.
I will abstain, ashamed at my incompetence in the subject, from entering into the tautological character of Mathesis. I have some reason to believe that mathematicians have little interest in matters treated at the beginning of the twentieth century by adepts of the Principia Mathematica.
Let me close this parenthesis and take up the matter of religious tautologies. Here, we might find a number of variants: “God is God,” “Allah is Allah,” “Brahma is Brahma,” “I am [who] I am,” or simply “I am.” These formulas are manifestly related, even if they spring from very different contexts.3
I’ll pause on the first of these. I suspect, in fact, that it enjoys exemplary status and can thus serve as a general model. I’ll limit myself for that reason to analyzing it alone.
1. God is God. Thank you for that, I hear an intellectual say (he is always pressed, and has of course no time to spare).
I think it necessary to waste my time in the seeming emptiness of the statement. What does it say?
No, let’s correct ourselves: What does the statement mean, or wish, or want, to say [veut dire]? For here, manifestly, the statement carries a want, a terrible wishing-to: a want immanent to the “saying” itself, but also internal to the thing said, and which becomes “a true cause” to which one devotes oneself, body and soul.
These are the two sides of the question, the two wants I must examine. Let me add a preliminary note. I have no doubt that I would never have [End Page 204] returned to the problem of tautology if bombs of Middle-Eastern origin bursting here and there, in our very homes, “in one of the universe’s most noble ornaments,” as Montaigne put it—if these bombs had not called me, in their...