Bertrand Vergely : “What’s philosophy?”
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Here is the first lecture in the first series, entitled “What’s philosophy?”
It was given by Bertrand Vergely as part of the “Port-Royal Mondays” on September 29, 2014, and organized by

Excerpt in French:

English translation:

Greetings to all of you. I am very proud, very honored, and very happy to be here to launch this series of lectures on philosophy, on the relationship between philosophy and theology, and on what we can call, religion, a term which is often poorly defined.

So I’ve planned around 10 lectures in this series. Today, I’m going to talk about philosophy, then about metaphysics, theology, science, and then I’ll talk about God. And then I would like to go back to the proofs of the existence of God, that is, the ontological proof, which is the cosmological proof, the physico-theological proof. And then I will talk about the death of God. And about the relationship that can exist between Christ and philosophy.

So today, we are going to look at the question of philosophy. What is philosophy? To talk about philosophy, I’ll take a step back, and I’ll talk about an experience that I think is fundamental in philosophy, and that allows us to understand what thinking means.

Nietzsche repeatedly said that philosophy is a lifestyle. This lifestyle is life with thinking. But you will tell me, what is thinking? I believe that in order to understand thinking, it is necessary to start from Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, where he defines the four degrees of knowledge, four degrees to understand what thinking is.

The first degree of knowledge, Plato tells us, is in the realm of sensible impressions, of appearances. Said as is, that does not mean much, it’s a little abstract. But if we translate what Plato means, we realize that sensible impressions, or appearances, refer to thoughts, that is, to the images that arise from external stimuli which imprint themselves in us. We close our eyes, and we are full of thoughts. We are in a hubbub of thoughts. We are in a mental chaos, we are bombarded by impressions. And thinking means having images, and also to send impressions. Our first experience of thinking is impressionistic. Things make impressions on us, and we pass on theses impressions. When someone tells us, what do you think about this? we say, well, I like it, or I don’t like it, this is what I feel, and we pass on our impressions.

Of course, it is not grandiose, but it is the beginning of thinking. And all thoughts begin with impressions. In his Ethics, Spinoza calls that hearsay. I heard about it. I see, I hear about it. It’s pretty much what we see on television, what we listen to on the radio. We listen to the rumor of the world, which gives us a certain number of impressions.

The second stage of thinking is already much more elaborate, Plato calls it the stage of belief, pistis. What is a belief? I think that a belief is a representative mental system, an image we have of the world, an image based on our interests, our experiences, our imagination, our desires, and our imagination. Everyone has beliefs, everyone has developed a certain mental system. Societies have beliefs, representations, myths, images, which make it possible to structure their imagination. They believe in a certain number of images that they have developed about the world. This belief makes it possible to give coherence to existence, and allows human beings to function, as a human being is someone who needs to have an image of the world to be able to go through existence.

The third level of thinking is the rigorous image that one may have of the world, depending on sciences, especially on the scientific method. What does characterize science? What characterizes science is the method. It is the fact that when scientists think, they are not in the realm of beliefs, but in the method, that is to say, they put forward rigorous thoughts, because these thoughts either follow each other in a deductive process, or have been verified through an experimental protocol.

The essence of science is not to have impressions, nor to develop a subjective image of the world according to the interests of human beings. The essence of science is to speak according to a method. And to say things that that have been deduced or verified by this method.

For Plato, these ae the preliminary stages of reflection. But it isn’t yet thinking in the strongest sense of the word. Why? Because to access thinking in the strong sense of the word, we must go beyond impressions, beliefs or science.

So, I will say what Plato says in his own language, and then I will translate into mine. For Plato, true knowledge does not consist in expressing, or in producing a rigorous discourse from what exists. True knowledge is what happens when one grasps “the thing itself”, as Husserl and phenomenology would say, that is to say, what really characterizes a thing. Here, we are in the realm essence, we are in essentiality. We say something through which what is, is what it is. Plato calls it identity. Identity refers to the specificity of a thing, to what makes it what it is and nothing else. It refers to its unique character. And we can say that when we refine and purify knowledge, starting from impressions, then beliefs, and then a methodical knowledge, at one point, by dint of hard work, we ultimately manage to grasp the essence of something.

What makes the essence of something? Its specificity, of course. But beyond specificity, there is something quite amazing, what we could call the constants. A thing obeys constants. Why? Because there are constants in the universe. There is a fundamental identity of the universe. What is this fundamental identity in the universe? This fundamental identity in the universe is what we can call the most astonishing point of the experience of human thinking. This essential point in the universe doesn’t pertain to intellectual knowledge, but to ethics. If a thing is what it is and has an identity, it is because there is a fundamental identity in the universe, and this fundamental identity in the universe pertains to justice and to what Plato calls the Good. If a thing is what it is, it is because there is something in the universe that thinks it is good for the universe to exist, and for each thing to be what it is.

The whole lecture is here in French.

English translation upcoming

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About the Author

Emma Cazabonne

Emma Cazabonne

Beside an anthology on Cistercian texts, Emma Cazabonne has translated and published articles on Cistercian spirituality, the Middle Ages, and Orthodoxy. She converted to Orthodoxy in 2008. Her husband is an Orthodox priest. If you are interested in having your book translated into French, she can be contacted here Newsletter

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