In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Relearning the Art of Paying Attention: A Conversation
  • Martin Savransky (bio) and Isabelle Stengers (bio)

I. Philosophy as a Provocation of Thought

Martin Savransky (MS):

The first question I wanted to ask you has to do with the manner in which you do philosophy, in the sense that the concepts that you create, develop and experiment with, always resist the temptation to tell others what to do. In fact, at the very beginning of your “The Cosmopolitical Proposal” (994), you begin with a question that I think resonates with this. You write: “How can we present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought?” So what I wanted to ask you is, how would you characterize the importance of this challenge of creating concepts that provoke thought, rather than instruct others on how to think?

Isabelle Stengers (IS):

Well, probably you never know why you do what you do as you do it. I mean, it may be that others are better placed to answer this. But to me, this cannot be disentangled from the reason I did become something called “a philosopher.” In fact, at the beginning, I did not even know about philosophy. When I left chemistry, I knew that in chemistry there were “good questions,” concerned with advancing knowledge, and any other question would not be considered serious. And to me, philosophy was just the place where I could learn to craft my own questioning path, a place where nobody could tell me “but this is not philosophy!” just as I had been told “but this is not science!”

Now, the wish to craft your own path may be very dangerous if you entertain the ambition to instruct others! It is all the more dangerous if, as an ex-scientist, you feel that you have a “mission,” that what you are to craft is what is lacking either to scientists or to philosophers, or even to both. Happily, I rather felt as a “refugee” having to learn what my new country enabled me to become. And it is when I discovered the texts of Deleuze, first, and then of Whitehead, that I experienced questions that provoke thought rather than demand answers; or, in other words, that I experienced philosophy as an adventure that I did not know existed. It was no longer a matter of asking “my questions” but of engaging with [End Page 130] questions that get me. [Laughs.] And my loyalty as a philosopher is to such questions.

So, if I dislike it when the concepts I create end up being used with a kind of authority that makes them an answer without the insistence of a thought-provoking question, it’s simply because the reason I became a philosopher was precisely to resist that! [Laughs.] This is also the reason why I don’t usually spend a lot of my time criticizing others, because that is still to engage in a certain kind of authoritative gesture. You cannot criticize such ways of doing philosophy without, in fact, entering into the same kind of game. For me, it is better to just avoid them. Or else, to attack, but then it is because you feel something ugly is entering the world and you need to put this threatening ugliness into words. For instance, I feel that there is something ugly in the current Anthropocene fashion, when suddenly the trouble with the climate is turned into an academic opportunity.

But mostly, I try to never separate a proposition from the problematic path from which it resulted, situating it in an open-ended story, not concluding it. In a way, I am continuing an experience I had when I was very young. I always felt stories were too short, or too poor. What happens then? The first response was to feel sad, alone in an environment that was too easily satisfied. But now I ask: who is killing those stories? How do they kill them? In this way, you may criticize the operation of authority but from the point of view of what it is doing. So, it is a pragmatics of making stories more risky, interesting, shareable...