BHL

by Henry on February 10, 2010

Most of our readers who are philosophers will likely be aware of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s ongoing contretemps. As the Irish Times summarizes the affair:

In his latest title, Lévy launches a scathing attack on the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”. In framing his case, Lévy – BHL to the Parisian cognoscenti – drew on the writings of the little-known 20th century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul – author of The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant , and a man Lévy has cited in lectures. The problem? Botul never existed. He was invented by a journalist from the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné 10 years ago as an elaborate joke. And since the hoax was revealed, BHL has become a laughing stock.

Scott McLemee, recently accused in these here comments sections of disgusting anti-French-playboy-philosopher-bias for his previous writings on BHL, has the lowdown on this sublime and funky work of scholarship here.

A friend who has read La vie sexuelle tells me that the author’s tongue is very conspicuously in his cheek. That BHL cited it as a serious work of scholarship would strongly suggest that he has an employee or two toiling in the erudition mines for him. If so, it is an interesting question whether the person who actually read Botul misunderstood the nature of the book—or passed along the citation as an act of sabotage. Either way, it seems like a fireable offense. (Of course, nothing like that ever happens in the academic world.)

I wondered the same thing myself when I first read about this. When we see BHL’s name on a book, are we to understand it as a brand, rather like Damien Hirst’s signature on ‘his’ spot paintings? Perhaps we can expect an authentication committee with all the accompanying controversy to begin its work after his eventual demise? Or did he indeed write all or most of it himself? There’s much entertaining speculation to be had. Readers should also betake themselves to Scott’s earlier pieces for Inside Higher Ed and The Nation (the Nation piece is a small masterpiece of the ‘the victim pinned and struggling on the wall’ genre; the IHE article has some very astute judgments from Arthur Goldhammer).

{ 73 comments }

1

kid bitzer 02.10.10 at 5:10 pm

bhl’s core audience will not become alarmed about his authenticity unless it turns out that he wore a toupee all along.

they want the hair, and they want it authentic; if he can provide that, they’ll forgive a little botulism.

2

Delicious Pundit 02.10.10 at 5:16 pm

We should have seen this coming once BHL started using Auto-Tune in his lectures.

3

Peter B. Reiner 02.10.10 at 5:29 pm

Perhaps philosophers should consider following in the footsteps of scientists who have of late adopted a convention (mostly to ward off the sorts of misdeeds that have tarnished the profession) which includes a footnote at the end of a paper indicating which of the authors conceived of the experiments, which of the authors carried out the experiments, which of the authors (merely) provided reagents or other tools, and which authors wrote the paper. Might we one day see a footnote like this: “Joe the Trainee Philosopher read the relevant literature, and John the Tenured Philosopher wrote the paper (and gets all the credit)”?

4

P O'Neill 02.10.10 at 5:36 pm

I suppose these things look even more obvious in retrospect but how did a title like Lectures to Neo-Kantians of Paraguay get past him?

5

Bill Gardner 02.10.10 at 5:43 pm

Peter @3:
I like this idea. But this works in science because division of labor is essential and accepted: Jane ran the Affymetrix chips, Joe recruited the patients, Bill did the statistics, etc. It’s OK that Joe can’t even do long division. Philosophers might want both authors to completely commit to every argument and citation.

6

ajay 02.10.10 at 5:55 pm

3: the profession that’s recently been tarnished by misdeeds of this kind isn’t so much science as history (Stephen Ambrose, etc).

7

alex 02.10.10 at 6:33 pm

This is both screamingly funny, and appallingly tragic. How many more “thinkers” taken seriously in different quarters will be revealed (or obviously were all along) half-baked clowns? Is it in the human condition to be more attracted to charlatanry than genuine wisdom? Is it, indeed, in the human condition to be able to recognise real wisdom?

8

Castorp 02.10.10 at 6:41 pm

So hilarious, it couldn’t have happened to a better person. As can be imagined, the German press is having having a lot of fun with this.

9

Bill Gardner 02.10.10 at 7:15 pm

Ajay @6:
I think that Ambrose was accused of plagiarism, which is a related but different problem. Henry is suggesting that he may have failed to credit the work of an assistant who contributed to an article by reading ‘Botul’. BHL could have carried out this wrong without stealing any of the assistant’s words. Sadly, this was and to a degree remains a pervasive problem in science.

10

Dave Maier 02.10.10 at 7:19 pm

In framing his case

Does anyone know what case that is? It’s not just “ZOMG Kant says we can’t know how things really are,” is it? Because if it is, then citing a fictional author is only the least of his fail. (He’d be on firmer ground with “Ha ha, Kant says you can’t lie, like, ever“, but still.)

11

andy 02.10.10 at 7:28 pm

The only thing I would object to in the Irish Times piece is the phrase “become a laughingstock.” BHL has been a laughingstock among actual thinking people for decades, yet the fool stumbles onwards, propelled by middlebrow media (French TV, L’express, Huffington Post). BHL is the king of the, as his critic Dominique Lecourt put it, “mediocracy.”

Maybe this will finally put BHL to rest. He seems to have migrated to America, where he has befuddled the star-struck “lefties” at HuffPost into publishing his drivel. As the formidable Pierre Vidal-Naquet put three decades ago, following his skillful and scathing dismemberment of BHL’s Le Testement de Dieu:

“We have passed from the Republic of Letters into the non-Republic of Media. I thought I had ‘killed’ BHL. I hadn’t. I consider that a defeat.”

12

tomslee 02.10.10 at 8:10 pm

I neither know about nor am particularly interested in BHL, but I do wonder about glass houses. I can imagine this kind of thing happening to anyone who employs one of those increasingly-popular “research assistants”, as many successful writers do (both credible and not). I understand they are pretty much the norm among authors who live in Moroccan palaces.

The principal author writes the text, the RA goes out and finds references and sources to back it up and amplify it, the references and quotes get added to the book without a lot of scrutiny by the PA. Not admirable behaviour from the PA, but not uncommon either, I would think. If an academic paper from a prestigious author had a section written by a graduate student that turned out to be blatantly wrong, would the principal author accept the blame and ridicule?

13

Jim Harrison 02.10.10 at 8:10 pm

I have hardly made a study of the man since Time Magazine first promoted him as a successor to the bad French intellectuals of the 60s, but I can’t recall an instance in which BHL was actually caught doing anything that could reasonably be called philosophy unless being a philosopher simply equals having opinions about the affairs of the day.

When he isn’t just striking poses, just what sort of philosophy does BHL espouse? I assume it is not transcendental idealism.

14

Lemuel Pitkin 02.10.10 at 8:18 pm

this works in science because division of labor is essential and accepted

A friend of mine who teaches in a high-ranked philosophy department says that for tenure purposes, papers are counted as 1/N, where N is the number of authors. So it’s very difficult to get the expected number of publications if you regularly work with coauthors.

I have no idea how common this is, but actively discouraging any division of labor in intellectual work seems … counterproductive, to me.

15

Peter B. Reiner 02.10.10 at 8:25 pm

Bill @ #5

Philosophers might want both authors to completely commit to every argument and citation.

In fact, I know of a famous instance where this is not the case. In Clark & Chalmers’ 1998 paper in Analysis introducing the extended mind thesis, they have a footnote which reads: “Authors are listed in order of degree of belief in the central thesis.” Sounds like waffling to me….

16

Lemuel Pitkin 02.10.10 at 8:27 pm

If an academic paper from a prestigious author had a section written by a graduate student that turned out to be blatantly wrong, would the principal author accept the blame and ridicule?

For many years, Larry Summers took responsibility for the notorious Africa is vastly underpolluted memo that had gone out over his signature, even though it was actually written by his subordinate Lant Pritchett. Whatever you think of Summers’ role in public life (I think it’s appalling), that was an admirable thing to do.

17

Ted 02.10.10 at 8:29 pm

Now, he is an exception to the European graveyard of culture, ideology, economics, and military might. BHL is one of the few continental Europeans who can make a splash abroad and remind us that Europe is still there grinding away.

18

Ted 02.10.10 at 8:32 pm

But once again his facility with Math, and piss-poor training in science, economics, and history – if he’s had any at all – compromises him too much for greatness to be probable.

19

Henry 02.10.10 at 8:43 pm

bq. In fact, I know of a famous instance where this is not the case. In Clark & Chalmers’ 1998 paper in Analysis introducing the extended mind thesis, they have a footnote which reads: “Authors are listed in order of degree of belief in the central thesis.” Sounds like waffling to me….

I am co-author of a soon-forthcoming piece where the authors are listed “in order of their familiarity with the intricacies of Big Ten Football.”

20

Josh 02.10.10 at 8:44 pm

That Nation piece is indeed a thing of beauty. But Scott’s sarcastic little aside to the effect that “nothing like that ever happens in the academic world” suggests that, as befits yenta-journals like IHE, those parts of “the academic world” that garner so much attention that they end up being seen as representative are the realms of Harold Bloom and Skip Gates: the kinds of Ivy League scholars whose names go out over their research assistants’ work. Most of “the academic world” does not provide research assistants to humanities scholars.

21

bianca steele 02.10.10 at 9:11 pm

Journalists do often get research assistants, though. It makes sense for factual or archival research and similar things. But even if it’s improbable to think James Fallows, say, or David Brooks, is influenced by his research assistants (could noticeable trends in the latter’s thinking be tracked to the influence of Reihan Salam and the other assistants he’s had over the years), when it comes to writers who are presumably giving their personally considered opinions, I’m not sure I want to read the opinion of a “boss” as opposed to an independent thinker.

22

novakant 02.10.10 at 9:15 pm

uhm, the nouveaux philosophes were old hat 30 years ago, so why all the outrage?

23

bianca steele 02.10.10 at 9:16 pm

And in other cases, if name scholars are publishing books that were largely done by their students or assistants, they would seem to be using their influence to allow the assistants to avoid the stronger scrutiny a younger, less established scholar would attract, so I end up thinking less of the end product. (This doesn’t come up in science because there are set procedures for how to gather data and how to interpret the results.)

24

alkali 02.10.10 at 9:33 pm

Query: Is the general outline of Kant’s biography sufficienly well known among philosophers that the title The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant should be recognized as an obvious goof, along the lines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Favorite Party Jokes?

25

kth 02.10.10 at 10:09 pm

Two items:

1. Leon Wieseltier loves him some ‘BHL’; quelle surprise there.

2. In the HuffPost, ‘BHL’ weighs in on the France-Ireland World Cup controversy: We Must Replay The Match. The item title is especially funny if read in the voice of a French philosophe made somber and weary by man’s inhumanity to man.

26

aaron_m 02.10.10 at 10:20 pm

Don’t leave me hanging like this, what does Jean-Baptiste Botul have to say about Kant?

27

Gene O'Grady 02.10.10 at 10:48 pm

In answer to number 24, given that all my knowledge of Kant comes from a survey course taken my senior year in high school (1964-5) and I knew that much about Kant’s biography, the answer is “yes.”

28

andy 02.10.10 at 11:20 pm

Yes, there have been any number of long-running rumors and jokes implying that Kant died a virgin.

There was a particularly good one that, alas, I can never quite remember, that made a homophonic pun off his last name and a certain rude word for the female sex.

29

Stan Kalmikoff 02.10.10 at 11:42 pm

30

Jackmormon 02.11.10 at 12:03 am

The sex life of Immanuel Kant would either have to be a joke—or a clever-clever inside elbow jab, directing the cognoscenti towards a Lacanian analysis or some such.

31

lgm 02.11.10 at 12:03 am

Some French philosophers are interesting and silly (e.g. Foucault — Catholic confessional as a form of pornography), some are dull and silly (e.g. Derrida). How did any of them get any credibility?

32

Stan Kalmikoff 02.11.10 at 12:38 am

Lgm is boring and silly.

33

Colin Danby 02.11.10 at 12:47 am

My university library has a solemn entry for the book with LC subjects listed as “Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804 — Sexual behavior and Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804 — Relations with women.” So you could imagine an unwary student thinking it a proper source though, re #24, not if you actually read it.

Yep, I’m surprised we made it even to 30 comments before some idiot generalized this into an attack on all French philosophers.

34

ben 02.11.10 at 12:48 am

I lay claim to your society tomorrow afternoon. ‘Yes, yes I will be there’, I hear you say. Good, then, I will expect you, and then my clock will be wound as well.” (Ak 10:39)

35

Delicious Pundit 02.11.10 at 1:08 am

I am co-author of a soon-forthcoming piece where the authors are listed “in order of their familiarity with the intricacies of Big Ten Football.”

So, after spending hours trapped in a jargon-filled presentation of something no one cares about, you turn off Michigan State-Purdue and concentrate on academic work.

For some reason this reminds me of the passage in Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times where one of his professors at Ohio State imitates a choo-choo to keep a football star from failing. The year, I believe, was 1917.

36

Jackmormon 02.11.10 at 1:16 am

According to the Library of Congress online catalog, there is a subject category for “Kant,Immanuel, 1704-1824–Relations with women,” but as of yet, no category for “Kant,Immanuel, 1704-1824–Sexual behavior.” Perhaps the online catalog lags behind the field research, as it were.

37

john c. halasz 02.11.10 at 1:57 am

“Kant,Immanuel, 1704-1824—Sexual behavior.”

C’est dommage! It would make for a great on-line porn video! Perhaps starring,- (dare I hope?)-, BHL.

38

jacob 02.11.10 at 2:05 am

39

jacob 02.11.10 at 2:07 am

Preview fail.
The intent was to link to http://xkcd.com/305/ (apropos 36)

40

Adam Kotsko 02.11.10 at 2:15 am

I eagerly await Maureen Dowd’s column on this in six to eight weeks.

41

marcel 02.11.10 at 2:33 am

Or did he indeed write all or most of it himself?

Huh. I’ve always thought that it was Frank Bacon, though I could probably make a good case for Chris Marlowe or Eddie de Vere.

42

novakant 02.11.10 at 7:20 am

Henry James apparently had no sex life whatsoever – yet he knew a thing or two about relationships in general and women in particular…

43

Jim Flannery 02.11.10 at 7:50 am

Really, you could see this coming when, in that series of essays about America in The Atlantic, he described the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz as “desert.” Seriously, WTF? Did somebody go to California for him?

44

Timothy Scriven 02.11.10 at 7:59 am

”Query: Is the general outline of Kant’s biography sufficienly well known among philosophers that the title The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant should be recognized as an obvious goof, along the lines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Favorite Party Jokes?”

Yes.

45

peter 02.11.10 at 9:00 am

novakant @ 41: “Henry James apparently had no sex life whatsoever – yet he knew a thing or two about relationships in general and women in particular…”

No. He knew about the experiences of rich, expatriate Americans in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, not relationships in general nor even women in particular. What he knew he knew better and more profoundly than anyone else then writing, but what he knew he hid in the most obscure, verbose, roundabout prose that only a philosopher could admire. Beware: James’s writing, like that of Turgenev, will suck all the oxygen out of your life.

46

ajay 02.11.10 at 9:37 am

24 suggests a possible series – along the lines of the Impossible Topics suggested by the characters in “Foucault’s Pendulum”, such as Nomadic Town Planning, Mayan Palaeography, etc.

A Military Biography of Bertrand Russell, perhaps.

47

alex 02.11.10 at 11:36 am

John Stuart Mill – Adventures in Tyranny?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Big Book of Childrearing?
[unintentional authorial irony alert - of course he actually wrote one...]

Voltaire’s Catholicism, a spiritual biography?

Slavoj Zizek, a modest labourer in the fields of truth?

48

socialrepublican 02.11.10 at 12:19 pm

Ayn Rand’s reflections on Humility?

49

bouillaud 02.11.10 at 12:21 pm

As a French academic, I can confirm that very few persons in the academic profession at large sees BHL as a serious guy from the point of view of philosophy. He is the perfect illustration of the “intellectuel médiatique” for the last 30 years. Libraries are full of books and articles explaining the reality of his deeds, but it won’t change nothing so long he remains a very good client for TV shows and so on. Even now, this little problem of taking Botul’s writings on Kant seriously will not change his long-standing happy carrier. He has been seen actually laughing about this problem so to say in the much viewed talk-show of Canal+. As long as he is not ashamed and can let the show going on, no one will be ashamed for him!

50

dsquared 02.11.10 at 12:43 pm

The Unpublished Sayings of JK Galbraith.

51

alex 02.11.10 at 1:56 pm

@49: clearly in this world one need not be cleverer than anyone except a TV presenter… if only that were a difficult task, but then it would be a different world…

52

ajay 02.11.10 at 2:58 pm

50: very Borgesian. A book which is inaccurate and obsolete as soon as it’s published…

How about “The Quotable Kant”?
“The Table Talk of Nikola Tesla”?
“The Complete Godel”?

53

Gareth Rees 02.11.10 at 3:15 pm

What’s supposed to be impossible about Mayan palaeography? The Catholic Church didn’t manage to destroy all the codices.

54

alkali 02.11.10 at 3:18 pm

@28: Yes, there have been any number of long-running rumors and jokes implying that Kant died a virgin. There was a particularly good one that, alas, I can never quite remember, that made a homophonic pun off his last name and a certain rude word for the female sex.

I was actually told this joke while tending a bar at Harvard, which provoked my earlier query. The punchline is that “among his achievements, Kant can’t count …”

55

ajay 02.11.10 at 3:57 pm

53: I thought that the surviving codices were all fairly recent – ie post-conquest? Mea culpa if not. Change it to “Khoisan palaeography” or something.

56

Dave Maier 02.11.10 at 4:08 pm

I like “The Complete Gödel,” but the idea that Kant isn’t quotable suffers, on this particular webpage at least, from certain similarly self-referential difficulties (look up top).

57

alex 02.11.10 at 4:23 pm

@53, 55, aren’t you mixing up Maya and Aztecs? The Mayan civilisation, in its pyramid-building stage, disappeared long before the conquistadors rolled in. Meanwhile, according to Wikipedia, they are “noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas”, so maybe the original query stands in another form… [unless you've been editing that page?]

58

Gareth Rees 02.11.10 at 4:25 pm

The Dresden codex is thought to be 11th or 12th-century, but even discounting the codices, you could still carry out palaeography on the inscriptions, many of which are signed.

59

Phersu 02.11.10 at 4:44 pm

In 1999, the over-rated essayist Alain Minc published a book, Spinoza : un roman juif. Some parts were plagiarized but there was also an act of “sabotage” from the shadow writers (philosophy students from Ecole Normale supérieure de Lyon): the book quoted a fake letter the students had created.

Of course, the whole scandal had no effect at all on the sophist’s career. He is now one of Sarkozy’s advisers.

60

deliasmith 02.11.10 at 5:27 pm

Old but good:

‘My Struggle’ by Martin Amis

61

jakethe snake 02.11.10 at 5:47 pm

@Peter
It is good to know that someone finds James as impenetrable as I do.
I had a very conservatice English professor who sang his praises at
every opportunity, while I was never able to force my way more than
a half a dozen pages into “Portrait of a Lady” or even “The Turn of the Screw”.
And there is always Wells’ summation of James . “An intellect so pure and refined, that no idea
can exist there.”

62

Colin Danby 02.11.10 at 7:26 pm

Over at _Edge of the American West_ I just learned about the academic career of Franz Bibfeldt, who has a nice Wikipedia entry.

63

Don't Quote Me on That 02.11.10 at 7:47 pm

“Ossian: New Translation”
“Nostradamus: Recollections”
“George Eliot: His Life and Times”

64

Gene O'Grady 02.11.10 at 8:01 pm

Mayan paleography is not just codex based, there’s also a lot of inscriptions on stone using the same or a similar script.

65

novakant 02.11.10 at 9:55 pm

@45

Henry James wrote about the world he knew best, I don’t see how that limited his insight into the human psyche and relationships. I’m presuming that at a fundamental level we’re all structured quite similarly in this regard, but that is not such an outrageous assumption.

As for the language, I agree that he is one of the most difficult authors and can certainly understand how some readers might be put off by it. But his language is difficult for the simple reason that the emotional processes within the human mind are endlessly complex. Any attempts to make these processes easier to grasp by putting them into neat little boxes with labels on them are necessarily reductionist and inadequate. And since Henry James tried to do justice to their complexity, his language is necessarily opaque, ambiguous and hard to penetrate – but that’s a feature, not a bug ;).

66

vivian 02.12.10 at 1:46 am

“The Essential Friedrich Nietzsche”
(I feel so guilty now)

67

lgm 02.12.10 at 5:40 am

jakethe snake, try Washington Square. It’s shorter. It gets interesting about halfway through when the daughter defies the dad. The dad’s reaction is (to me) surprising and well told.

68

mitchell porter 02.12.10 at 6:45 am

Botul himself has now blogged about the affair: http://botul.free.fr/

69

ajay 02.12.10 at 9:54 am

“The Conscience of a Conservative”

70

Chris Armstrong 02.12.10 at 4:38 pm

@ novakant, 65 – So to faithfully relate the complexities of human thought, emotion and interaction you have to write sentences like Henry James? In the fields of music and literature and popular culture, we are SO lucky that is not true! Do you really think it is, though?

71

daelm 02.13.10 at 11:19 am

66 is hilarious, and i also feel guilty for saying that. :)

72

novakant 02.13.10 at 2:44 pm

@70

Well, I’m certainly not saying that Henry James’ use of language is the only way to go, even though I think that his attempts at capturing such complexities are daring, fascinating and masterful. More generally speaking, I do indeed think that to do our inner worlds justice one has to employ language in a very careful and thoughtful way in order to avoid the pitfalls of facile reductionism and cliché. And within the realm of literature this will necessarily result in works that are very complex and difficult to read. Of course, one can stick to a simplistic use of language, to stereotypes, clichés and ideologies and conversely tailor one’s inner life accordingly, but I personally would find that immensely unsatisfactory.

73

JoB 02.13.10 at 6:59 pm

“A Deconstruction of the Public Life of J.D. Salinger.”

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