From Being to Living: A Euro-Chinese Lexicon of Thought


François Jullien, Michael Richardson & Krzysztof Fijalkowski

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    Translator’s Introduction

    In this book, François Jullien sets up a series of oppositions in order to conceptualise what he calls the écarts (divergences) between European and Chinese ways of thinking. It is important to realise that these are not dualisms, and for this reason Jullien insists on their divergent and not different character. It is not, therefore, that European thought and Chinese thought are different in kind from one another in the sense that they represent differences of sensibility that can be overcome by seeking to understand one another from the perspective of the same. A European cannot ‘understand’ China in these terms any more than a Chinese can ‘understand’ Europe: there is no ‘Chinese mind’ to be deciphered. Rather, over the course of their different histories, European thought and Chinese thought have taken divergent paths based upon concepts that were established in ancient times and continue to condition, if not determine, what it is possible to think in different contexts. In the European context, these concepts were first developed in ancient Greece, most especially in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, while Chinese ways of thinking are grounded in the various schools of its ancient philosophy (Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and so on). The distinction – the point of divergence – lies in what has been given priority: following the concerns of Plato and Aristotle, Western thinking has been overwhelmingly concerned with the question of Being, whereas Chinese thinking concerned itself principally with that of living. Jullien insists on the importance of recognising this divergence, the result of a branching off of ways of thinking that has occurred over the course of their respective histories, failing which we are in danger of reducing all thinking to a single model, which will be that of the European. The question here is whether Chinese thought, like all other divergences, is being chiselled away by processes of globalisation, reduced to a universalism under the sway of the hegemony of Western ideas.

    In exploring this complex and difficult issue, Jullien’s language can often seem opaque and it presents considerable difficulties for the translator. This is especially so for certain words which cannot easily be rendered in English. Most problematic is the distinction drawn throughout, and extensively explored in the chapter we have entitled ‘Surge versus Settled’. The words Jullien uses here are ‘essor’ and ‘étale’. Essor means, according to the Larousse, ‘an action from a bird when it takes flight; figuratively, a sudden movement, progress’. It can be translated by ‘flight, rise, development, becoming self-sufficient’. Étale means ‘what neither rises nor falls; a ship that is completely still; the moment when the tide turns’. As a verb, however, it normally means ‘to exhibit in a sale, to display, to show all one’s cards’. Translations for the first alternative are given as ‘slack, steady, becalmed’; for the second, as ‘to display, lay out, spread, show off’. In previous works, we tended to translate ‘essor’ as ‘springing up’ but here ‘surge’ appeared to us as more appropriate. This is because Jullien is in general less concerned with emergence (in the sense of a plant that starts to put forth shoots) than with the forward movement that occurs within a continuity, due to factors that have developed over time and created a sense of tension. In setting this essor against the étale, he emphasises the dynamism of this movement in opposition to what is established to such an extent that it is taken for granted and not questioned. It responds to periods of calm and achievement when we tend to become complacent. However, things have only become ‘settled’ in anticipation of the turning of the tide, as the final chapter of the Chinese book of changes, the I Ching, expresses it: not a conclusion but a moment of incompletion or transition.

    Another term that presents difficulties is modélisation, by which Jullien is referring to ideas of planning or designing which dominate policy decisions in the West: in order to set up a business, for instance, we today need a business plan worked out in detail in advance, even though everyday contingencies in the actual running of the business will inevitably make most of what is planned redundant or ineffective. Ancient Chinese thought, in contrast, emphasises ‘maturation’, by which we do not plan in advance but assess situations in the full range of their possibilities, allowing them to develop on their own terms whilst seeking to impel them towards the result we would like.

    Perhaps the most difficult of the oppositions Jullien establishes for English-language speakers to grasp is that of disponible, set up in Chapter III in opposition to ‘freedom’. Ordinarily, this word would be translated as ‘availability’, but to do so may lead to confusion, since the proliferation of mobile phones and other modes of today’s communication systems has made the idea of constantly ‘being available’ a contemporary reality. This is not the sort of availability that Jullien means, however; indeed, in some ways, it is even its very opposite since this form of availability is imposed and often leads to closure (people using their mobile phones while being oblivious to what is going on all around them). In using the word ‘disponible’, he is referring to means of remaining open to possibilities, of being responsive to everything that may happen. To exemplify this notion, Jullien refers to a novel by the French twentieth-century author André Gide, The Fruits of the Earth (1952), which concerns the adventures of a young man advised to experience the world in its fullness without being worried about the duties of family, society or nation. He should therefore be ‘available’ or receptive to the contingency of the world, open to whatever may come. To express this notion, it has therefore seemed to us more easily understandable for an English-language audience to translate this term as ‘receptive’.



    The translators would like to thank Noémi Lemoine-Blanchard for her help.

    From Being to Living

    A time comes in one’s work (a moment of life, perhaps?) when it is appropriate to start bringing its various threads together. Or we might say, have a look through our projects as a gardener does when surveying his garden to reflect on what is growing, what has taken and what hasn’t, in what state his plants are and what parts of the plot need to be reworked, what should be pulled up and replanted, and finally what its overall shape is.

    When it comes to a philosophical project, it will be a question of establishing the state of its concepts and how effective they can be.

    Concepts have taken root here where Chinese and European thought have come into contact with one another. I might alternatively express this as Chinese thought-language and European thought-language because thought, if it isn’t determined by language, nonetheless exploits its resources. The concepts I am presenting here have been conceived as a result of this encounter whilst at the same time serving to conceive it – in other words, to make it possible. The difficulty is that, as they encounter one another, these languages and thoughts must produce tools. Indeed, without these tools, there would have been no encounter – the result is therefore also its condition. For how are we to think between thoughts – that is, without continuing to be blocked from one side or the other, but in freeing oneself from one by means of the other so allowing them to interpret and borrow from one another? I shall therefore proceed by passing in turn via one and then the other, from one side but also from the other side, consequently in a lateral way, but without falling in with either of the two, qua hinc qua hac, as the Latin says, or as is said more familiarly in French, ‘cahin-caha’, or ‘haltingly’. Yes, from here to there, via zigzags and in a way that is conducted haltingly; this approach isn’t brilliant but if we are to avoid the ordinary illusion, that of laying claim to an impossible projection (of an immediate translation between these languages and thoughts), this is the only logical way if we want gradually to develop the necessary conditions from which the other may, on both sides, gradually be comprehended. Wouldn’t any other approach, right from the start, simply mean projecting the categories and biases of our own language and thinking (that remain unthought) onto this elsewhere of language and thought? Could an effective encounter then take place?

    In other words, I don’t believe it is possible for a Westerner to begin by ‘introducing’ Chinese thought directly or head-on. I don’t believe it can be summed up or that a chart could be drawn up or some handy digest made of it. We can’t even begin by giving its history. For then we would still inevitably be dependent, without being aware of the fact, on the implicit choices of our own language and thought. In the end, we’d never be able to offer anything but a more or less unfaithful facsimile of what we had already thought. A displacement hasn’t occurred; we haven’t left home. We haven’t left ‘Europe with its ancient parapets’.1 The only strategy I can therefore see by which to emerge from this aporia is to organise the confrontation step by step, laterally as I’ve said, by means of successive sideways steps, by gaps and disturbances that link together, by de- and re-categorising, link by link, going from one concept to the next, to form a lexicon progressively – in other words, as we go along.

    Hence, we will here be concerned with conceptual divergences along the fault lines of a too hastily accepted generality, rather than with concepts confident in their generality. This will enable us to open up the ‘between’ that is between these languages and thoughts. Consequently, it won’t be a matter of ‘comparing’, of seeking to identify resemblances and differences in order to characterise either thought (empty, as well as impossible, identifications), but of organising a confrontation between these languages and thoughts, by allowing a reciprocal scrutiny to be effected, from which a reflection of one through the other can result, one that takes place simultaneously on both sides. Difference arranges, in accordance with the Same and the Other, but the characteristic of divergence is to disturb. This leads to a probing, through the distance opened up, of how far such divergence can go in putting thought back in tension, thereby setting it back to work. Equally, these concepts are prospective and not retrospective: they don’t take stock of two past traditions, but – by inviting a dissidence into the heart of philosophy and, consequently, by reconfiguring the field of what is thinkable – they gradually call for thought by making good use of resources available on both sides, so once again becoming extricated from one as well as from the other. This means cost (work), but also taste, passion, drive, ‘gaiety’ (‘Gay Science’: against what is too often depressing in Sinological erudition). Having recovered its initiative, thought can once again take risks.

    A concept is a tool. Each concept forged here, being placed in relation to an other (versus the other) which appears at first sight to be its equivalent or what takes its place, might prove through divergence to be its contradiction or antonym. These concepts thereby ‘unfold’ thought – in other words, they take apart its marked and fixed ‘folds’. As a result, they no longer have a specific usage or course assigned to them that is fixed in advance. On the other hand, due to one oblique approach or another, they gradually reveal a comprehensive network of fault lines that is to be explored. This is between what is revealed to be the prominence of the subject at the heart of European thought and what the Chinese regard as something that we in Europe only know how to speak of, in a feeble and too restrictive way, as a ‘situation’. This word is too restrictive because it doesn’t truly loosen us from the perspective of the subject – an alternative will need to be constructed. These concepts are vagabonds, useful for anything – they swiftly cross the traditional fields of history, morality, politics or aesthetics, going from first philosophy to management theory. Moreover, they are theoretical and practical, or rather they begin by unmaking the opposition of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. I would argue that this means that they are strategic. By taking advantage of the resources of both languages and both systems of thought, they serve to conceive a strategy of living and thinking.

    What is the perspective that gradually emerges from this development, and what history does it reveal? A way out of the ‘question of Existence’ gradually comes into view which reveals at the same time an entry point into the thought of living by following the mesh I am spinning, thread by thread, between the thought-languages of China and Europe. For we cannot ‘leave’ (deconstruct) without entering somewhere else (to discover). How then is living to be approached when it isn’t understood in terms of how European thought, or at least most of its philosophy, has conceived it – that is, in terms of ‘being’ and therefore of knowledge? In other words, how can we arrive at ‘living’ if we allow it to be set up as an object of thought, so that it becomes that thing in which we are engaged from the outset and from which therefore we have no distance? Since it is also true that to live is the only thing to which we can aspire.


    1 An allusion to Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre [trans.].

  • Subject/Situation: On a Branching-off of Thought : Note of the Seminar 2013–2014

    1 There can be little question that if there is a legitimate point of departure to begin with, if there is a statement which, withdrawing sufficiently into itself, offers a definitive basis for thought to emerge, it would be the ‘I think therefore I am’ of Descartes. And this is so in a unique way: it implies that I think due to the fact that I doubt and that I exist due to the fact that I think – everything else follows on from this. For some, ultimately requiring neither prior history nor justification, this might act as what is established and support all possible statements through its certainty alone. For others, directly drawn to its contrary – that of a doubt pushed as far as it can reasonably and even unreasonably be taken – constitutes a fixed, set and unquestionable point, in which any evidence will find its confirmation. Thought no longer starts with ‘things’ or the ‘world’ or ‘God’, for it sets itself up as the absolute point of departure of existence, dependent only on itself. With the cogito, philosophy definitively found the soil – or, to an even greater degree, the base – from which to raise a subject, which is the ego. We shall therefore never again emerge from this ‘I think’ that was set up as a great beginning. This ‘I think’ will become, under an operative angle, the act of pure, unitary and originating ‘apperception’ accompanying all of my representations and binding them together, and from which the consciousness of self and the possibility of knowledge proceed (according to Kant). It will also open up the possibility of a history from which this consciousness of self can raise itself through the internal movement engendered by its negation, from substance to Subject and attaining becoming (Hegel).

    It amazes us when we repeat this following the defined course of philosophy. What are we to understand from it? We are surprised by one as much as by the other: whether this cogito might be credited with an absolute legitimacy and whether it might be considered a great beginning – Hegel says that Descartes is the Anfänger (‘initiator’). It will initially seem astonishing that this Cartesian cogito, which has been credited with constituting a universal evidence at the same time as it legitimately emerged from within the language and thought of Descartes, itself widened the divergence in relation to such an external thought-language as that of the Chinese, and has proved to be – symptomatically, eminently and contradictorily – singular. What happens if I cannot say ‘I exist’ in Chinese (in the absolute sense of existence) or if I haven’t semantically isolated a pure ‘thinking’ in it (at least before it was introduced by Westernisation)? Even today, we note that the beginning of the Meditations is still unread in China, may even still be universally unreadable – or in any case, not of much interest. But at the same time we can more easily see that, when it is viewed from China, the Cartesian cogito, far from appearing to be a radical beginning, a new raising of the curtain on the stage of the mind from which modern philosophy has unfolded, constitutes the materialisation of a long march of the ‘West’ whose heritage isn’t limited to a few uncleansed remains of the scholastics: it has depended so much on its conditions of possibility that have effectively served it as its great relay. Seen from afar, the offshoots that have been taken and developed by European philosophy since the time of the Greeks represent nothing more than a glorious summit.

    It isn’t just the co-origination of the Other and the self that continues to be ignored within the fold of the cogito. This is what contemporary philosophy has since loudly demanded and without which it will not be able to confer a place for the Other except subsequently and secondarily, directly from the world and its plays of interdependency, nor attribute the Other with consciousness except by inference: without it, the other cannot consequently be recognised as ‘Other’. But, from the outset, the Cartesian cogito also symbolises an evacuation which still hasn’t troubled us and that I cannot even name or begin to approach in our language except by calling it a ‘situation’ – a starting point, a first approximation, that will need to be opened, corrected, taken away from its hinges and biases and tested so as to be promoted and deployed. And wouldn’t there be a theoretical incompatibility between the two, at least initially? This would go to the point that the subject/situation might constitute a more elementary alternative whose conceptual divergences, as I shall show over the course of this essay, constitute in one way or another its arborescence, which thereby serves as the principal thread – which this time is historical – from which the earlier net is suspended.

    2 When looking back at the Cartesian cogito, Nietzsche had, however, warned us about the abuse that is to be inferred in an ‘I think’, set out solemnly as a point of departure and principle. Only I myself have actual experience of this and this is solely from the phenomenal evidence that it ‘comes to me from thought’. Nietzsche warned us about the illusion that consists in taking a pure ‘it happens’, alles was geschiet, for an activity, ein Thun – in other words, interpreting this fact as an ‘act’, and consequently setting this act out as the ‘effect’ of a ‘cause’, conferring upon it the status of the ‘author’, and even imbuing it with intentionality. From this, a creator God was born. This meant transforming the mere fact that thought comes to me as it comes, appearing– disappearing, detaching itself and linking up, intermittent and contingent, into a stable, isolable and definitive ‘I think’ – one as grandiose, as well as overrated and superfluous, as it is naïve. Yet this atavistic gesture is – as Nietzsche was able to identify – the very one of metaphysics. It consists in introducing an entity behind what is purely phenomenal, without suspecting the intrusion, which is to be set up in support of a substantive behind the verbal that would subsist in itself, therefore as substantialised, supposedly underlying and promoted as a sub-ject and thereby taking us from ‘thinking’ to ‘I think’. In this, Nietzsche the philologist glimpsed in an inspired way, and from within European thought-language, the consequences inherent in its grammar, which is exercised in a way that those who apply it are unaware of: such a promotion of the Subject proceeds from the predicative structure of our languages rooted in a doubling-up, and above all it leads to a structural doubling of the subject and an attribute like cause and effect. This is so even if such a ‘subject’ would simply be the product of our syntax. Yet to glimpse, as Nietzsche did, an operativity that has since then been left unassigned – being actualised but not to the extent of being put into ‘action’, due to being allowed to be carved out, detached and attributed, so that, as a result, the ‘subject’ comes situationally apart – will at the same time get us closer to Chinese thought-language and the difficulty we encounter in translating it into a European language. But, equally, exploding as a flash, wasn’t such a glimpse itself condemned to remain isolated in the heart of European thought since it would otherwise have to diverge from its own language?

    Modern and contemporary thought in Europe, as it thinks in language, and in its own language, is therefore still insufficiently wary about setting off from the Cartesian ‘I think’ that was established as its first subject. It is still insufficiently concerned with re-examining what it regards as the radicality of the cogito’s starting point and so to return to some absolute intuition, absolute Einsicht, prior to which it might not be possible to go back. This would hence be to posit an antepredicative ‘evidence’ in which the subject immediately apprehends itself, as a pure transcendental ego, understanding itself in a perfect and immanent presence in the self, and as such as the only possible basis of science (as Husserl says at the beginning of the Cartesian Meditations). Or, if it finally starts from a situation – what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘an open situation’ – which is always already given and, so as not to be locked into Descartes’ solipsism, recognises that the Subject belongs to its world, it still doesn’t hesitate about regressing from the ‘realism’ of things to the ‘thought’ of them, or from the transcendence of these things to the autonomy of this thought, since the affirmation of their existence ‘is always posited only from my thought’. In other words, it regresses from a consciousness of the Subject implicated in its world to the knowledge that it takes for its own existence, ‘not through statement or inference’, but by ‘direct contact with itself’ (the cogito of the Phenomenology of Perception). Sartre would sum this up in a few sweeping formulas, asserting that a truth can only exist if there is an absolute truth at its point of departure that the cogito alone gives to me, allowing me to grasp what I am without an intermediary so that consciousness attains itself whilst at the same time reaching the Other (see Existentialism is a Humanism).

    Even if contemporary philosophy no longer dares to take the experience of the cogito for a unit of ‘eternal’ truth, as Husserl had done, it still continues to posit the ‘I think’ as an ‘evidence’ that instituted a first subject – and it is this ‘first’ that matters. ‘First’ means that, even if it is finally recognised as ‘situated’, initially implicated in a world, this subject is posited at the start of its thinking, asserting its initiative. It is essentially the power of beginning, of being an initium, an absolute point of departure for consciousness, even before having affirmed its autonomy, which henceforth becomes easy to contest. To go back to the cogito would therefore be both to return to this possible position of exception, ahead of any constituted determination, the only one actually originating in an undercurrent common to opposites. During his polemic with Foucault, Derrida recognised a truth of the cogito from before the disjunction of reason and unreason, one which would be valid ‘even if I were mad’. It is attained in its withdrawal, before the lapse into explanation and reasoning, marking the point – the ‘tip’ – of unbroachable certitude, when it excluded itself from all totalisation of what is thinkable by exceeding it and therefore escaping from any enclosure in a historically determined structure. And even if this first thought is considered to be unconscious, even if we now know that the subject is ‘at home’ in the field of the unconscious, Freud’s approach is no less Cartesian, as it returns to a similar base of the subject of certitude, even if this subject is that of the signifier, as Lacan also said, since it perpetually draws an ‘I am’, from doubt itself and from its ‘support’ – but henceforth from a ‘that thinks’ which is no longer ‘me’ (see the Four Concepts).

    3 There would indeed be no sense in hastily marking out these positions if there were no recognition of how the cogito tirelessly roots itself in them, if its many offspring cannot be seen in them, or if its ‘evidence’ contains no adherence. And this occurs no matter how exacting the process to which this cogito is then submitted might be, and no matter how much care is taken to ensure that its thinking doesn’t collapse (leaving it to become essentialised), or however we broach it with whatever means each of us has at our disposal that could more effectively define its vocation, in this stature–posture of the subject. The impossibility – if impossibility there is – would therefore not so much be to ‘think otherwise’, according to the repeated wish of philosophers in Europe, this ‘thinking’ having already been effectively instrumentalised as, I’d say, to be treated differently. How to begin thinking otherwise? How could we emerge from this fold of the cogito and from what at the same time, in its ‘I think’, it leaves unthought? Or couldn’t we perhaps simply ‘begin’, not begin by wondering how to begin, not turning the beginning into a question, or seeking an absolute at the start. We notice that Chinese thought-language has never thought – imagined – a cogito; it hasn’t examined the possibility of a beginning, or thought from an unprecedented beginning. It hasn’t begun by abstracting ‘thought’ as a pure activity from our lives. Nor, furthermore, has it detached and removed that point of emancipation of a ‘subject’ from the world. This means that it leads us back not to the cogito itself but to what is prior to the cogito, prior to its prior, prior to its beginning, and to us asking ourselves which branch it was descended from, and from what it springs up, to the point of making so great an impact that, right from the time it first appeared, we have been unable to emerge from it. This also means that it will no longer be possible to consider an ‘archaeology of the Subject’ in exactly the same way, except from such an external angle and according to the perspective that has unfolded from its advent and from within its history. Its conditions of possibility, cultural as well as theoretical, are to reflect upon it through divergence, using what, in comparison with the Chinese side, could be called its conditions of impossibility.

    It might, however, be thought that the Greeks and the Chinese were initially at one in their thinking: for them both, the thought of the world and its changes was not considered other than on the basis of its oppositions – hot–cold, high–low; isn’t this elementary? Aristotle saw this as being a common denominator in the thinking that had come before him, and Chinese thought could happily be associated with him were it not that the branching-off had already started earlier. In China, these oppositions are factors or vectors of breath-energy (of 气), forming a polarity (the well-known yin and yang), and their interaction alone is sufficient, from which the process of things follows by correlation, while for Aristotle these oppositions are modes of ‘being’ by means of states or extremities of the in-between in which changes operate. This is why Aristotle was impelled to introduce a ‘third term’ in addition to these opposites – in other words, the ‘sub-ject’ (hupokeimenon ὑποκείμενον), designating what is ‘underlying’ the change and so in this way passes from one state to the other. This ‘sub-ject’, the sub-stratum, sup-port of change, is what ‘remains beneath it’ (hupo-menôn ὑπὸ-μένων) and doesn’t change (Physics, 190a). It will be said that this is the degree zero of the European subject since the fact that it is confined to physics means that it is without an ounce, or suspicion, of subjectivity. But the fate of the European subject is nevertheless then sealed, because this clarifies it as being homologous with the subject of the sentence, from the perspective of logos, therefore on a ‘logical’ level – or isn’t it, rather, what leads to an assumption of the other? It is from this subject that everything else is affirmed by virtue of the predicate, but it is not itself affirmed by anything else and is not the predicate of another subject (Metaphysics, 1007b, 1017b, 1028b, etc.). Because the Chinese language doesn’t conjugate, it has no need to promote and set up such a syntaxical subject.

    It might be argued that Chinese and Stoic thought meet in many places: in the absolutisation of the figure of the Sage, in the consciousness of social duties, or in the appeal to conform to the order of the world. And, closer to the question of the Subject, in the moral distinction, introduced on both sides, between what depends on the self, for which one is responsible, and what doesn’t depend on it. By separating thought from Being, in advocating the embrace of the opportunity of what thereby comes from the self, the phusis, in other words by authorising a transcendence which is only a totalisation of immanence, Stoicism definitely serves as a bridge to Chinese thought – perhaps as the first bridge. In any case, the missionaries in China, failing to convert people to the gospels, strategically linked themselves with Stoic positions. But Stoicism precisely moves away from this in that it established a total exteriority of things in regard to a ‘self’ which is cut off from it: ‘things’ ‘don’t achieve a soul’, ouk haptetai tes psuches (Marcus-Aurelius, IV, 3; V, 19), not because they wouldn’t be the cause of our representations, but because they don’t ‘touch’ the upper part of the soul, its controlling part, to hegemonikon, which, in its ‘internal discourse’, is capable of abstracting any value judgement (the hupolepsis ὑπολήψις) and therefore of exempting from it, and, thereby, knowing how to ‘circumscribe themselves’ and to fix their boundaries, will then consequently be constituted as an impregnable ‘acropolis’, an inviolable retreat that nothing in the world can weaken. Yet, if we envisage the authority that constitutes this islet of personal freedom at the heart of the sequences that make up the world from the external constituted by Chinese thought, such a claim for autonomy will no longer be judged to be an integral and necessary aspect of morality – we find in China an eminently moral thinking, but one about which it is unapologetic. On the other hand, it does appear as a decisive moment in our production and promotion of the Subject, even if it isn’t recognised as such.

    What will actually bring out such an exoptic, as it can be instituted in China in reconsidering the ‘West’, whether in Aristotle or in the Stoics, is that the subject is promoted on the basis of how it detaches itself (from its situation): the situational is the background from which it is cut out, including in the heart of its own person, from which it raises itself by freeing itself from it. Unlike the Sophists for whom, according to what Aristotle said, nothing exists except everything that happens in an ‘accidental’ way (to sumbebekos), and who, satisfied with this pure phenomenality, are unconcerned about establishing a distinction between the Subject and the attribute, Aristotle lays claim to a separate status for the Subject in that it is essentially distinguishable from what is attributed to it, precisely by virtue of being situational or ‘accidental’. Socrates doesn’t reduce himself – or doesn’t identify himself – with ‘Socrates sitting down’ (Metaphysics, 1007 b). Otherwise, to instruct Clinias is to kill him, since to get rid of the ignorant Clinias is also to get rid of Clinias. A subject therefore has to be assumed as underlying the situation that is constituted from the change of everything that happens to it and which is attributed to it predicatively in the expression. It underlies it but, as such, is categorically independent of it: it is by absolutely differentiating itself from this situation that affects it that it at once affirms, from one point of view as from the other, a logic and a physics in its ontologically separated status, as a core of ‘being’, or as an ‘essence’, in ousia.

    Let us set out these concentric circles, as the Stoics described them and with which they surround the hegemonic part of the soul that is alone to be preserved (Marcus-Aurelius, XII, 3): the most external is what designates others; next comes that of the past and future, circumscribing the present; then that of the involuntary emotions; finally, closest, that of the swirling waves of events that form fate. Yet, it’s from this whole situational tissue that the principle or ‘internal guide’ entirely withdrawn into itself is isolated, like Empedocles’ sphere that is so smooth and polished that nothing external can adhere to it. The situational is what I systematically extract myself from in order to discover my initiative within myself: to strengthen and affirm, in whatever situation it might be, what my autonomy reveals. Therefore, far from being a banal detachment from the world judged to be just a little corrupting, since one is ready to participate in it, assuming its duties scrupulously, it is gaining access to what ‘alone’ is ‘sovereignly yours’, monon kuriôs son, that is the aim of such an entrenchment. If the subject hasn’t yet explicitly found its concept here, it will nevertheless cut it out in this preliminary way from everything that isn’t it, as well as digging out the peripheral trench that secures it, so that its possibility can fully emerge.

    4 In the same way, Saint Augustine contributed a decisive moment in the advent of the subject although not so much due to the fact that he was the first to formulate the cogito: if someone ‘doubts, it is because he is alive’, si dubitat, vivit; he can doubt everything else, but not the activity of his mind (De trinitate, X, 10, 14). Or again, ‘if I make a mistake, it’s because I exist’; I am therefore absolutely ‘certain’ of the fact that I ‘am’ (City of God, XI, 26). The proof is given – if it is still necessary – that even the great Cartesian beginning isn’t a beginning, or that it isn’t the first beginning in thought. More important and determining, already more Cartesian than this argument alone, is that, under the facile covering of asceticism, the ‘mind’ (mens) finds itself by looking for itself from the injunction of having to be rescued from the perceptible. What is most precursory and prescriptive in dealing with the advent of the subject is the fact that Augustine appeals to the mind in striving to ‘think’ alone (se cogitare), and that he isolates himself in his thinking. The consequence is that the mind then knows that it is ‘certain’, finding and proving its certainty through its activity alone: that, by distinguishing itself from what it knows it is not, it is directly able to discover itself as being present to the self – the subject’s bed has already been made.

    Yet China rather marks this certainty that the self has about itself, which has evidently so resolutely sustained the advent of the subject in the newness of its relation to God, by leaving it to one side. A subject – an I – found its place in Europe by being able to say ‘Thou’: ‘Thou are great, Lord…’, Magnus es domine (the first words of the Confessions of Saint Augustine). From this, in the face of this all-powerful Thou that it erects, there emerges a continuous ‘I’ of a dialogue. A relation is engaged from this system which instantly forms a tabula rasa of anything situational, retaining only its face-to-face meeting, and establishing the subject and the personal pronoun, interpolating from its ‘I’, in partnership with the absolute. Man is of course ‘miserable’ and God in his ‘mercy’ overflows him infinitely. But, even so, the one can say ‘Thou’ to the other, from the outset, and under cover of his indignity, as previously of asceticism: by opening up a one-to-one dialogue with God, he establishes a tête-à-tête with him, or of one mind to another. His ‘I’ is anchored from (in) this ‘Thou’. The transcendence of God concedes and confers (transfers) his consistency to this ‘I’ that invoked him. This means that the subject is described – and supported – by the fact that God appears in him, according to this in-vocare, as inversely, and because the two are equal, because he already recognises himself in God so that he might thereby in-voke him. ‘God’ proves to be the support of this subject (which ‘resides’ within him), at the same time as this subject that expresses ‘I’, so welcoming God, discovers himself to be God’s dwelling place (the ‘house of my soul’). From this intersected structure (‘What are you to me?’ / ‘What am I to you?’), each is placed in comparison with the other, and man sees himself raised by God into the subject of his own life, since he draws from him the condition of possibility of a Self placed in comparison with oneself. And that God (‘Thou’), making me see my truth, is what means that within this me there is a possible truth.

    Thus, from what we then also learn from this obscure history, but drawn patiently into the light by the great historians, from this fascinating history – no less complex than that, facing it, of the advent of the ’object’ – this history of the way in which Augustinian thinking about the certainty of self intersects with the Aristotelian plan of the Subject (substance) and the accident (predicate), in such a way that our acts can be considered to be the attributes of a subject and that the certainty of the self becomes a ‘subjective certainty’, certitudo subjectiva, we shall nevertheless be unable to forget what Augustine opened most decisively in thinking about the Subject under this technical history of philosophy: the discovery of an inner self that is still more internal, or ‘the most internal’, intimus – in other words, the emergence of the ‘intimate’. Or that God is said to be ‘more internal than my intimate’, interior intimo meo, reveals that the self, by becoming deeper, withdrawing itself more deeply into itself, from this innermost part of itself, it appeals to the Other and, as it opens itself to it, discovers itself in the inauguration and spawning of an existence. As a result, the physical and logical system of the Subject has mutated into an adventure of subjectivity which is no longer limited to a matter of sentiment or affect, or even of self-consciousness, but makes the Subject the summary of a fixed term, that of a singular continuation within the extant, whose narrative is the key (and the Confessions of Saint Augustine are its revelation): I am the subject of what I have, or rather of the fact that I am a possible narrative, that of a life which makes itself. Hence that, in its relation with God, this subject, in saying ‘I’, conceives of itself as the subject of its own history, as a subject of memory, and might even be able to get him to give up the most shameful and secret: ‘Thanks to Thou, I can tell my own story … ’.

    5 Yet Chinese thought-language doesn’t furnish any similar story of the advent of the subject. And this comes above all from the fact of the poverty, or non-development, of its pronominal system: since it doesn’t conjugate, not only can the subject of the verb remain implicit in it (as in the case of the infinitive in European languages) but also the indication of a self remains elementary, since it isn’t necessarily declined according to persons. ‘In the way of conducting oneself’ (xíng ji 行己), says Confucius, ‘show respect’, or ‘surmount oneself (to return to the rites)’ is a basic motto of his teaching. Often this ‘self’ is understood in opposition to the other: ‘study for yourself and not for others’, or, in a more dense way, to ‘assemble oneself’ (to contain oneself, zong ji), not to let oneself go (on the death of the prince, Analects, XIV, 43). Otherwise, to accentuate the reflective character of a verbal action, one would say (substituting 自 for 己): ‘examine oneself from within’ (nèi zì xǐng 内自省) or ‘accuse oneself’ (zì sòng 自讼), ‘ask a lot of yourself and little of others’, or, more interestingly, ‘deploy yourself’ (zì zhì自致, Analects, XIX, 17). The Chinese thus translated ‘freedom’, from the Western term, as ‘of oneself’, zì yóu 自由. Yet these uses are the most developed there is and Chinese thought-language barely goes beyond them. It is well aware of the category of the individual ( 个, 私: individuation, unlike in India, is considered to be actual), or that of the person, shēn 身, whose notion has a high moral import (‘to cultivate his person’, xiū shēn 修身; ‘amend one’s person’, shàn shēn 善身, etc.). It is even demanded that one be ‘attentive to the self’ when one is ‘alone’, in the withdrawal into one’s heart to which others have no access (shen qi du, Zhongyong, § 1). But it isn’t disengaged from support, whether ‘physical’ or ‘logical’, for the function of the ‘subject’. The term itself doesn’t exist but will be translated from the Western sense, just like that of the ‘object’.

    Hence, the ethical aspiration would not be ‘autonomy’, ‘being (to) oneself one’s (own) law’, as it was for the Stoics. It would not be Freedom conceived, in the classical thought of Europe, as the primary property of a subject. It would rather be what is inverse to it, not its contrary properly speaking but its contradiction, which is what receptivity expresses. The characteristic of freedom is to transcend the situation, any situation, but receptivity is an opening to the situation, without a projection onto it that would shackle it – to the point that the consistency of a ‘subject’ comes undone in it. The catchword of the teaching of Confucius is ‘when it is appropriate to take charge, he takes it; when it is appropriate to leave, he leaves it’. Everything depends on the situation that is encountered: it is by conforming to it, that is by moving away from any fundamental position given as a rule regarding it, that on each occasion he promotes morality. Wisdom consists in knowing how to put oneself in phase; its ethics proceeds from that point, not from rules, but from a continuous regulation. Thus, when it is said that the Master has no ‘idea’ (that he would put forward), ‘necessity’ (to which he would hold in advance), or ‘position’ (on which he would pause), nor any ‘ego’ (in which he would in the end get bogged down), this negative formulation is enough to express how much of an obstacle, when confronted with the renewal of the situation, the institution of a subject would constitute. But if all of these markers, or expected landmarks, that prop up an identity are withdrawn, then morality is able to respond to all of the possibilities of the situation, without letting any of them be lost – in other words, to unite with its universality, so as not to be drawn towards sinking not into ‘error’ (philosophy’s obsession) but into partiality.

    From what is said about some thinkers of antiquity who ‘got wind of the tao’, I will translate these formulas precisely for their resistance to translation. They are at the limit of what is translatable, not because their notions are abstruse, or even because their meaning is unclear, but simply because they aren’t secured in the Subject. Or, rather, they systematically take apart the possibility of it (we find this in the Zhuangzi, ch. 33, when speaking about Shen Dao1 and his consorts):

    Impartial and non-partisan,

    well-balanced and not having anything in particular,

    in a distinct way without [anything of a] principal,

    tending to things without duality,

    not being fond of cogitation,

    not striving to know,

    not selecting anything about things,

    still continuing with them …

    Without any grammatical subject being stated, without there therefore being a recognised function of an attribute, such formulary expressions unhitch the anchorage in a self, by dissipating its consistency and even, above all, its pertinence. Everything in it expresses, through a continual slippage, non-rupture with the world, non-excision in thought, non-choice among possibilities and the non-withdrawal of what is compossible. The term I have translated as ‘principal’ – but which is here withdrawn – is precisely the one that has served to translate the Western ‘subject’ into contemporary Chinese (zhǔ tǐ 主体), which can mean ‘director’ or ‘principal’, but also ‘welcoming’ like that accorded to a guest, the ‘object’ being what is ‘welcomed’ (kè tǐ 客体 ). ‘Welcoming’ / ‘welcomed’: we see how unwilling Chinese thought-language is to lend itself to rendering the idea of a founding excision between the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ as the basis of the neutrality of knowledge.

    For the principle, if that is what it is, is to ‘keep all things equal’. As true as it is that the one cannot do what the other does, so vice versa: ‘the Sky can cover, but not produce; the Earth can produce but not cover; the vast Way can embrace, but not distinguish’. By taking into account that all things and all beings have their intrinsic possibilities, but also their impossibilities, we realise that, by ‘choosing’, we cannot ‘hold everything’, therefore it is faulty; or that to ‘instruct is not to achieve’, and that the way is ‘to abandon nothing’. This is why it is said that Shen Dao ‘freed himself from knowledge’ and ‘renounced the self’ (qù jǐ 去己). He appears either as ‘fresh’, ‘light’, ‘alert’ (responsive), like water or the wind with respect to things (ling tai), so as to conform to the regulatory coherence of the way, or, always ‘changing’, he doesn’t assume responsibility, disdaining the so-called Sages, and letting himself go at will, unconstrained and without being bound by morality. He unites with the most varied situation ‘in its turns and detours’, by ridding himself of separations, and in this way he can survive by avoiding impediment. ‘Urged on, he advances’, ‘drawn, he follows’; ‘like the wind, spinning round’; ‘like the feather, whirling’: remaining in ‘completeness’, he is ‘without rejection’ and without regret; he doesn’t experience the ravages of ‘establishing a self’. In what is situational, in short, he remains in a floating state without being firmly fixed. As regards non-construction or non-imposition, as to the image, as to the sentence as it is reeled off, is it possible to go further in the non-constitution of a subject?

    It is reported that, when his wife died, the thinker Zhuangzi sat with legs apart, in the least ritual position, and sang while striking a bowl. Confronted by those who were indignant at such an attitude, he justified himself with this sentence which also goes to the limit of what is translatable and that I will try to render as closely as is possible (in other words, by adding as little as possible of what the European sentence expects: Zhuangzi, ch. 18, ‘Supreme Joy’):

    Mixed-indistinct: between (jiān 间),

    modify [modification], from which there is breath-energy (qì 气),

    breath-energy modifies (itself), from which there is form-which-activates itself (xing 形),

    form activating itself, from which there is living (shēng 生),

    today, a new modification, from which the end is dying (sǐ 死).

    An early translator (Liou Kia-hwai, published by Gallimard) rendered it like this: ‘Something receding and ungraspable is transformed into breath, the breath into form, form into life, and now we have life transforming itself into death.’ We see that this translator was – or believed he was – constrained to add a subject, as indefinite as it was, a ‘something’ (ti, ‘something’), a properly Aristotelian subject, one that is both ‘physical’, as support for the change, and ‘logical’, as the subject of the sentence around which everything else happens – so many ‘modifications’ – by virtue of the predicate and the ‘accident’. Immediately unfolding from this (for us) is the question, which is metaphysical par excellence, from which Chinese thought-language, as it remains at pure phenomenal description, is excused – to which it doesn’t, so to speak, ‘confer a subject’. But where does this something come from? What is there in the beginning? We return to our inescapable question of the Commencement or first beginning (‘Genesis’, the big bang: is a creator God needed as a great Subject? – and so on). A later translator (Jean Lévi) reconstructed this statement even further by inserting – assuming – a personal subject, Zhuangzi’s actual wife, as the subject of the sentence: ‘And then suddenly, pfft! Thanks to an ungraspable germ, she had the unbelievable luck to go from non-being to Being; and then suddenly, pfft! breath having left her, she then had the unbelievable luck to return to her primitive dwelling.’ So here once again the translation, by introducing a subject, reintroduces at the same time a theory of causality, without there being anything corresponding to it in the Chinese text (in loco of procedural propensity: ‘Thanks to an ungraspable germ’), a scene as well as a value judgement (the ‘primitive dwelling’, the ‘unbelievable luck’) and, in the in-between, the very terms of ontology: ‘Being’ and ‘non-being’. A whole European syntaxical-theoretical apparatus intercalates and is even established and settled, ordered by such a return of the Subject – apparently without the slightest suspicion that an intrusion is being committed.

    It’s true that, since Michel Foucault in his final classes opened up a new genealogy for the hermeneutics of the subject and that he especially stressed the importance of the ancient recommendation of ‘care of the self’, epimeleia heautou, in the face of the ‘Know thyself’ he especially separated so-called Greek techniques of the ‘transformation of self’ from the Cartesian evidence that gave direct access to self-certainty and therefore to philosophical truth. We’ve seen in the reminder of these ‘spiritual’ exercises a new bridge – accessible without knowing too much about it, but operative – to the thought of the Far East. And, in fact, the Chinese thinkers did consider that a ‘transformation’, huà 化, was needed to rise to wisdom. But is this a transformation ‘of the self’? Or even, is there still a ‘self’ when an actual transformation takes place? An expression from the Mencius evoking such a progressive and step-by-step transformation ends in this way: ‘great and transforming that is what we call “Sage”’ (da er hua zhi zhi wei sheng, VII, B, 25). In other words, the one who is raised from one state to the other doesn’t stop at the culminating stage of – still partial – ‘greatness’ but goes beyond it by ‘transforming that’. ‘That’, left indefinite, keeps the verb active, but it isn’t reduced to a ‘self’, which would be too ‘circumscribed’ (to pick up the Stoic term) and restrictive. For the Sage ‘makes the others happen’ at the same time as he ‘happens himself’ – inseparably, it is ordinarily said – and thereby reaches the dimension of the ‘unfathomable’ in which he is confused with (in) the infinity of the process of the world (shén 神): the ‘self’ of a subject comes apart in this ascension.

    There is, nevertheless, an aspect here by which these two thoughts of ethical transformation communicate with each other. This is the diligent work, the patient and everyday application and the discipline and repeated exercises that the Greeks called askesis and that the Chinese named gōngfu 功夫. And it is also true that the Chinese have dealt with a ‘natural’ knowledge that is immanent to the mind and unfolds as a kind of evidence of consciousness. But this evidence is, on the one hand, a moral evidence and could not serve as a criterion for a knowledge of truth in the theoretical and Cartesian sense that we have given it in Europe. And, on the other hand, even in a thinker like Wang Yangming, from the sixteenth century, who has in this respect been compared with Descartes, this immediate intuition of natural regulation (tiān lǐ 天 理) is only revealed at the level of the diversity of situations. For we know spontaneously what ‘filial piety’ is ‘in the presence of one’s father’, ‘what respect is due to the elder in the presence of one’s elder brother’, or, more generally, ‘the reaction of humanity if it is faced with the unbearable that happens to others in the presence of a child in danger of falling into a well’, and so on (Yulu, I, 8). As such situations are particular and aren’t subsumed under any comprehensive category, and as, on the other hand, it is always in relation to a given situation that such a moral intuition is immediately revealed, as an innate knowledge (liáng zhī 良知), we understand that this moral thinking challenges any apparatus of rules and commandments that could conceal this diversity. There’s no generalising and codifying intermediary that might be able to interpose between the immediate apprehension in the mind of the natural regulation and the diversity of cases encountered calling upon it, hic et nunc, to manifest itself. In China, it is from such a typology of situations (as we already see in Mencius) that the typology of virtues is conceived, and not from what would be the qualities or properties of a subject.

    6 In presenting subject and situation as two rival concepts, as I am here inclined to do, it will be understood how that of the situation has remained underdeveloped in Europe under the ascendant reign of the subject. This is why the situation has not gained autonomy, but has remained under the domination of the other that has maintained it under its protection or within its sphere. If we return to the term itself, we can already measure what it implicitly imposes. For this term, in its basis, is only locative (situated ‘in’) at the same time as it is already attributive: the situation is only understood in relation to the subject that is situated there and which sovereignly transcends it. And when (in the seventeenth century) meaning is abstracted from it, the term which comments upon it, ‘circumstance’, does not come from this centring of the Subject, but on the contrary accentuates the purely environmental character (circum: ‘around’) of what the subject, for its part, thereby keeps strictly separated. Alone, such a particular idiom, ‘to be in a situation of’ (for example, in a situation of refusal) discreetly opens a breach in this citadel of the Subject, turns the situation, under its cover, into orders, and gives a glimpse of another possibility of the notion in which it is the situation itself that would be the source of the effect, revealing a potential of itself. Yet it is such a thread which will have to be drawn upon in order to gain a sense of the Chinese conception of what I have until now only been able to call thus, too economically, ‘situation’, and to begin to broaden it.

    ‘Circum-stance’ – let’s pause on this word since situation, as the dictionary makes clear, is a ‘set of circumstances’. According to the composition of this word, it is therefore something that ‘occurs around’ or ‘surrounds’. Yet it is a European term: peri-stasis περί-στασις, in Greek; Um-stand, in German. But occurring ‘around’ what, if not the perspective that a subject projects of itself over the world, and ‘around’ which the ‘situation’ is envisaged? Such is the last of the cases in Latin, the ablative, in which what isn’t constructed from the statement in relation and determined reaction of an object, possession or attribution is crammed pell-mell into a single and last bundle. Yet language, in fact, thinks – it thinks, articulates and ‘folds’ thought up, prior to what we think. Isn’t what is implied here the Stoic represention of an insularity of the subject in the midst of the world, taken out as it is into its autonomy, ‘around’ which there ‘occur’ – like waves continually renewing themselves, and pounding against the rock – the tumultuous eddies of ‘circum-stances’? Due to the fact that it must rigorously ‘circumscribe’ itself so as to possess itself, it is against this that it also measures and can experience itself. Or, rather, didn’t Stoicism only make use of this image, but an image that is a lot more than an image, since it fashions the way language has constructed its morphology? So, let’s consider a language such as Chinese that is without morphology, and therefore without declension, and whose system of prepositions has remained rudimentary. What can still remain of this plan of a subject from the outset prescribing the situation and dominating its initiative, even when it must tragically succumb to it?

    Has European thought ever emerged from this submission of the situation to the subject? Jean-Paul Sartre was the first person, or at least the one best known in Europe, to propose a concept of situation, but far from opening out the cultural biases implied in this representation, he did so in order to confirm and ratify them. Above all, he improved on the attributive character of the situation envisaged in the dependency of the subject, according simply to the perspective of its pour soi, by virtue of an aid, or rather a shackle: ‘my position in the midst of the world is defined by the relation between the instrumental utility or adversity in the realities which surround me […], this is what we mean by the situation’ (Sartre, 1989: 548). Repeating the concentric circles of Stoicism in his own terms (for him: my place, my past, my surroundings, my fellows, my death), he doesn’t leave behind this circularity of ‘circum-stance’. Still less does he envisage that a situation might, he said, be ‘considered from outside’ – the formula, which is not made explicit, nevertheless reveals what thought from the outset formed an obstruction to and closed itself off against. And then, if the concept of the situation remains primordial as far as he is concerned, it is because he is the one who effects the mediation between the subject (alias its freedom) and the given (or between the ‘pour soi’ of the subject and the necessity to ‘be-in- the-world’, and so on) – in other words, its factuality.

    The situation is the always-singular face that the contingency of things offers to my project so as to go beyond it by making it the ‘aim’, from which I promote myself precisely as a subject. Hence, the ‘situation’ outlines its ‘limits’ by its effect of concretion. The subject’s choice and what it has to confront is determined from this. We have therefore not come out of the Western dramaturgy of a Subject with which everything begins. Or, rather, it’s the ‘situation’ that henceforth serves it as its staging and theatre. The fact that, in the summary of Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre envisages the concept of situation directly after having reaffirmed the ‘absolute truth’ of the cogito as the only possible basis of thought is sufficient to show that, from one to the other, the logic is effectively that of a single block and a continuous thought.

    7 Yet the most ancient book of China, the fundamental book of its thought, the Oracle of Change, the Yi-jing or I Ching, which in the beginning was not a book but an operative (manipulative) tool, conceived from a combination of superimposed lines and consisting of figures, radically modifies this approach, offering thought a new possibility. This system of hexagrams (sixty-four in total) allows us to examine many cases of the process of things, from which follows a typology of situations envisaged in their own structure and not dependent on a subject. For example, the hexagrams for Surge and Decline (11 and 12) don’t deal with a subject experiencing a surge or a decline, but with what constitutes the very logic of a surge and a decline by illuminating their coherence. When factors are opposed but at the same time complementary (yin and yang), ‘communicating’ together and cooperating, a surge results from it. Three yang lines below, three yin lines above symbolically configure the situation amounting to prosperity: the yang propensity, which is that of Heaven, being to ascend, while that of the yin, the ‘Earth’, being to descend, these two factors and vectors of energy, established in relation to one another, meet at the height of their intensity, generating activation – a surge being verified as much in nature (the surge of spring: when the flow enters interaction) as in politics when the prince (yang) and the people (yin), instead of each remaining apart from one another, draw closer and collaborate. The hexagram of Decline is the opposite: the yang, in the upper part of the hexagram, is apt to withdraw into its height, while the yin, in the lower part of the hexagram, withdraws into its lowliness, and so the factors dissociate themselves: the flows retract in order to hibernate, or the prince withdraws to his palace, the people into their poverty. It is from this secession that the energy of the whole of reality goes into decline.

    A second point of divergence from our conception of the situation perceived within the perspective of the subject will be inferred: the Chinese Oracle of Change considers what we call ‘situation’ not by way of circumstances that ‘surround’ this point of view of the subject, but from an internal tension occurring between factors as they enter into correlation. It is from this tension alone that a situation emerges by itself or, expressed differently – for we have to pause on this phenomenon and think about it – a situation is outlined as soon as the tension has been organised. Expressed differently again, a situation occurs and is configured from the emergence of a polarity, and this is true whatever its register. A polarity exists between the energies of yin and yang in nature, or between masculine and feminine, between government and governed, between parent and child, between adversary and associate, and so on, in the heart of society. If, in this way, Chinese thought approaches what we call a situation, it is, in fact, because it has viewed the whole of reality in terms of opposed complementaries (in the form of yin and yang) engaging in an interaction (or, more precisely, an ‘affective interaction’ as the Chinese says: xiàng gǎn 相感): there is no Heaven or Earth considered apart from one another, as isolated instances, but it is from the relation and the exchange tying them together that the whole process of things proceeds.

    The third divergence finally results from the preceding ones: a situation is always, from the outset, in transformation – and this is why the Oracle of Change is called a classic of change, yi-jing. It is a ‘classic’ not because it is enduring, but because it is always in process. Against what the other semantic component of ‘circum-stance’ assumes, in that it is not only ‘around’ but, moreover, that it ‘stays’ in a stable (stare) way, no bringing into tension could of itself be stable and precipitate an evolution. A situation doesn’t belong to the register of Being, any more than it does to that of ‘becoming’, which is still referred to Being (becoming and processivity will have to be distinguished), which is where the difficulty of grasping it in European terms arises, but it is always in ‘modification’ (biàn 变). Thus, each hexagram of the Oracle of Change generally names a situation that is shown more precisely in its unfolding, from low to high, or from one stage to the next, from its first to its sixth line. For example, the characters for Surge and Decline have the same departure point (a conjectural entanglement, like ‘tangled roots’); the second line of the Surge then brings into view a solid ‘backing’ from which one can ‘completely embrace’, and the third warns that the Surge is threatened before even reaching its highest point (‘there is no flat ground which will not be followed by a slope’). While the fifth finally marks the point that culminates in ascension (the marriage of a ‘young girl’), the sixth and last marks the exhaustion of the surge and its equalisation (‘the high wall falls into a ditch’). Conversely, the upper lines of the Decline mark the gradual ending of the decline: a ‘clarification’ appears (fourth line); we then once again find something to ‘hang on to’ (fifth line); we then (finally) see ourselves passing from the obstruction of the decline to the ‘joy’ of prosperity (sixth line). At the same time as they are opposed, the two figures link up as they transform themselves. It will therefore be necessary to learn to detect how the decline is already at work at the time of the surge and how the factors of a renewal are already, in the half-light, being reconstituted at the time of the decline.

    A new definition of the situation can thus be deduced from this notional triangle which no longer makes it simply a ‘site’: of a situation which might no longer be dominated by the subject (1), nor reduced to the circumstantial (2), nor left immobilised and fixed (3). To break free of this dependent concept that the ‘situation’ has continued to be in Europe, we shall thus think that a situation is by itself an implication of factors or instances entering into correlation (1), from which a tension unfolds (2), and from which an evolution follows (3). It is this bringing into tension that makes a situation emerge and that confers it with a unity (‘a’ situation) at the same time as any situation is oriented by its propensity, whose favourable or unfavourable direction (‘magnificent’ or ‘fatal’) remains to be detected. Hence, the Oracle of Change proposes one notion, ‘moment-position’, shí-wèi 时位, from which it will be worthwhile to erect a concept to conceive of a situation which is that of the processes themselves. Each line of each hexagram occupies a ‘position’ at the heart of the hexagram at the same time as it marks a ‘moment’ of its evolution. There are only moments-situations weaving the world, or the world is actually this ‘totality’ of what happens, forming a ‘case’ – or of which each occasion is a ‘case’: alles, was der Fall ist.

    In relation to this, the Oracle of Change, by freeing the situational from the control of the subject, responds to its operatory vocation: scrutinising and detecting how the consultant, by manipulating it, can interfere at the heart of this play of factors, to collaborate with it and take advantage of it. This results in a function that is both ethical and strategic and reveals the situation no longer as a limit posed at the initiative of my freedom, as in Sartrian confrontation, but as a resource of a potential with which it is wise to learn to manoeuvre, by making it a partner: the art of operating effectively (by and in a process) is substituted for the ‘engagement’ (of the Subject). This occurs in such a way that no situation is actually negative: since, at the time of settling, I remain vigilant in relation to what already threatens it, and, during the time of decline, I remain confident in scrutinising how the decline is also drawn to transform itself, therefore of itself to decline, to be transformed into a new settling. But – here is the principal lesson (notably emphasised by Wang Fuzhi) – I can’t decipher such indications of renewal from my past reading, which now becomes redundant, otherwise this renewal isn’t new. The lesson is to be thought about: I must elaborate a new grid of reading to perceive the new. For I can’t let my reading of the situation become fossilised any more than a situation can be fixed. If the penultimate hexagram of the book, where all the lines are in their place, where everything is in order (odd lines in odd places, even lines in even places and so on), is that of ‘After the crossing’, the final hexagram of the Oracle of Change, an inverse hexagram, in which no line is in its place, is that of ‘Before the crossing’: history is never ended, and I must realise the new coherence of what thereby continually makes its way afresh.

    8 Hence the situation, as moment-position, is be to thought about not as what ‘surrounds’, in however tenuously ‘stable’ a way, the ‘circum’-‘stance’, but as a conjuncture, in other words a conjunction of instances or factors exerting together a reciprocal ‘encouragement’ that is constantly being renewed and from which an evolution continually unfolds. Hence also that the Oracle of Change, whose primary rationale is divination, isn’t devoted to forecasting or constructing hypotheses that would be projected onto the future, but represents a diagnostic, as an examination of the undertaking of the relation of forces and in which the transformation to come is always already ‘primed’ (the notion of 幾). The same thing applies in the specifically strategic literature of the ‘Arts of War’: the first operation recommended is, as we have already learned, not projection (to construct a plan of operations expected), but detection, at once of evaluation and calculation (the ancient sense of jì 计). It is a matter of revealing, even in an embryonic state, the strong points and the weak points, the ‘gaps’ and the ‘solid parts’, between oneself and the adversary. According to the five basic factors (the ‘way’ or moral conditions, the ‘sky’ or climatic conditions, the ‘earth’ or topographic conditions, the quality of the command and finally that of the management and organisation), it is necessary to ‘compare in such a way as to evaluate so as to scrutinise the disposition’, xiào zhī yǐ ji ér suǒ qí qíng 校之以 计而索其情. Disposition (a way of translating 情) is as valid from a subjective as from an objective point of view, concerned as much with the affective disposition as the disposition on the ground (gin-qíng 感情 and qíng-kuang 情况). This is actually the term to be promoted in order to think about the internal layout of factors and forces in presence that will have an effect on the results (and they are as much moral as they are military, psychological or physical), and not only in war, integrating in this way from the outset every point of view of the subject. In the same way, one of the basic notions of this Art of War (xíng 形, Sunzi, ch. 4) expresses the configuration as it is actualised (the term is verbal as well as nominal) and in which the ‘potential’ to be located is to be inscribed and invested.

    What I have therefore been led to translate as ‘the potential of situation’ (shi 势) consequently reveals the notion of ‘circum-stance’ that is its exact inverse, or better still its contradiction. This can be verified in Clausewitz, who was the first – even if a late – great thinker about war in Europe and who, as one might expect, envisaged strategy not from an antagonistic disposition, but from the position of the subject, therefore in terms of a projected modelisation or design (an ‘absolute’, model, war, as opposed to a real war) – and he did so even to the point of noting in it the bankruptcy of any strategy (since war never happens on the ground as it had been planned). He conceived the circumstance precisely as what always threatens to thwart any plan that is conceived in advance and is only partly agreed upon. The circumstance, unforeseeable and undesignable as it is (the Austerlitz ‘fog’) is what, intervening between the plan and its realisation, deflects it and leads to its becoming bogged down. Such is the ‘friction’ (of circumstances) that shackles its application. The potential of situation is then the perfect reversal of this negative. Due to the fact that I am not designing, and therefore not projecting onto it – in other words, that I don’t consider the situation according to the plan conceived from the initiative of a subject-self – I am all the better able constantly to detect in a direct way what, in the configuration as it is evolving, can be more and more advantageously exploited. This sentence from Sunzi should be closely read: ‘evaluating the advantage in such a way as to adopt it, I create from it a potential of situation that will assist the external conditions’ (计利以听, 乃为之势, 以佐其外, ch. 1). It is said in what follows that the potential of situation therefore comes from ‘taking advantage of what is profitable in order to govern the change’ (因利而制权). It is thus about detecting the favourable factors at the heart of the situation encountered, no matter how trivial they may be, and not by following what I have designed, that I learn how to let myself be carried along by these conveying factors, gradually inflecting this antagonistic disposition so that it becomes a favourable incline from which the effects will then powerfully rush down (ibid., ch. 5).

    It is therefore not by chance that, from ancient times, China has conceived a strategic thinking of which we have no equivalent in Europe. As Clausewitz said, but only in recognising why strategy is doomed to fail, it is because war is a phenomenon that lives and reacts. In other words, war originally takes place between two, between the partner-adversary, one of whom (the adversary) isn’t second in relation to the initiative of a subject. And war is always only the outcome, which is not able to deviate from the correlation at work in the configuration involved. Yet, by constructing a plan that is to be projected onto the situation, rather than by inflecting it in a procedural way so that the effect rushes down due to the incline, I am always taking the evolution of the adverse position into account only after the event and I am condemned not to be able to consider it other than ‘circumstantially’. If China has therefore conceived a strategic thinking that is unique in the world, it is because war cannot be thought except in terms of polarity and China has conceived everything as a polarity in which one end doesn’t come after the other, but is conceived from it. It was therefore at ease in thinking about the phenomenon and without being burdened with the point of view of the conceiving and desiring Subject, according to its classical determinations in Europe. This subject conceives ‘with a view to what is best’ (the imperative that is projected by understanding) and is then intent on following it through with an effort of will, and in spite of the ‘friction’ that is sustained by circumstances, so as to bring this ideal into reality. This ‘bringing’ assumes a heroic forcing and it is one that cannot avoid the fact that the outcome, even if we refine the calculation of probabilities, always ultimately arises from chance and luck, which Sunzi excluded and which are as fascinating as in a ‘card game’ (it was Clausewitz who made this association). If the conduct of war deconstructs the representation of the ‘subject’ and the ‘circumstantial’ which is its correlative in an exemplary way, by revealing them as being both abstract and arbitrary, it’s therefore because it leads to thinking about the conditions of a mastery that might be of a different kind and in which the self must put itself in phase with what isn’t the self instead of withdrawing from it. It is where the subject therefore remains in the hollow of the configuration of things, and dextrously winds itself into them, rather than imposing itself right from the start.

    9 Even so, would nothing be gained by detaching this ‘subject’ from the play of continuous interactions forming the constantly evolving configuration of what we call the ‘world’, and by establishing this at the beginning, in a point of emergence, as an initial term? Or, what is that resource which causes the subject to come forth when considering the one that constitutes what we in Europe have inadequately called ‘situation’? Such a subject shouldn’t be confused with the claims of the ‘individual’ when faced with the collective, this degree of individuation being more or less marked according to the time and place, but having today to demand more and more insistently such a place for the individual, in the shape of its enfranchisement, that it amputates its own possibilities as it disregards the Other (the noble Kierkegaardian or Nietzschean exigency having fallen in such a sad way into individualism). Nor should this subject-self be confused with the status of the ‘person’, a judicial, ethical or political status, the person being thereby presented as a source of indefeasible rights at the same time as having defined duties, from which follows the range of so many responsibilities to be recognised and assumed. The promotion of the subject responds to another demand and is to be re-thought separately – indeed, in a certain rupture with its past elaboration. It doesn’t arise so much from the appropriation and circumscription of a ‘self’, as Stoicism would have it, nor from the affirmation of an identity, assuming some permanence to this self, ‘under’ the change, as Aristotle demanded. It doesn’t even bear so much on how the beginning of thought’s self-justification might be founded in a consciousness of self, as in the great act of the cogito testing its evidence. Having so constantly compared the ‘subject’ with the ‘situation’ – or the ‘I’ with its implication in the ‘world’ – makes it appear that its legitimation is of another order: that of an ex-istence that discovers itself in it, precisely due to its capacity to extract itself from it, and which finds expression in this power of confrontation.

    As the European language most strongly makes it understood, the subject doesn’t simply draw its legitimacy initially from the ‘case’ erected by language – the ‘subject-case’ – which the word makes emerge every time as a position. The fact that an ‘I’ gains expression opposite a ‘you’ (of the Other), or by reference to a ‘him’ (of the world), frees – or deploys – a ‘subject’, and any ‘configuration’, which is opposite to it, becomes secondary to it. The subject is thus what doesn’t belong completely to the world while it isn’t being authorised by anywhere else. It finds its niche in this play of dispositions or configurations that form the world. We finally realise – something that forms our modernity (because modernity really exists) – that this ‘outside the world’, ektos tou kosmou, of metaphysics doesn’t come from ‘beyond’ or over there, in the place it had been hastily and conveniently lodged – or perhaps is so only in a symbolic way. In other words, that there is no transcendence of the Elsewhere. And, indeed, is any transcendence possible except in this ‘I’ which expresses itself? The subject opens the only legitimate transcendence, because it alone is effective, because it alone is active in the here and now. For once the subject says ‘I’, it right away opens up a weak point (creates a divergence) in the whole unlimited play of the world – while death is the cessation of this ‘I’, its resorption into silence, and a position of subject has vanished for ever. But each time that an ‘I’ is repeated in the world, without needing this to be that of an ‘I think’, or when this aims at knowledge, an initiative is taken, a fresh perspective emerges, a new pathway is revealed in existing, and the narrative of ‘a life’ (the generic title of the modern novel) can begin.


    1 Shen Dao (c. 350 – c. 275 BCE), a Legalist theoretician [trans.].

    Afterword: From Divergence to the Common

    To philosophise is to diverge

    To diverge is not only to leave, to separate, to open up a withdrawal, to abandon the ways and themes of common conversation and even to become dissident. It is equally, in opening an elsewhere, to risk going where no path is marked out, where the ground has become uncertain, where the even and settled light, the light known by everyone, no longer penetrates as it did before. Can we hope to perceive something else from this withdrawal and through this retreat, according to a childhood dream that still persists, or at least to perceive in a different way? ‘And I’ve sometimes seen what man thought he saw … ’ (Rimbaud) – it is certain, in any case, that here we will face a solitude it would be impossible to avoid. Not a casual and more or less anecdotal solitude, but a solitude that is inevitable and constitutive as a principle, which arises from what began one day through dissociation, by and in thought, and that will no longer be effaceable. Perhaps through this divergence we have even started to become inaudible, and we shall need to make a lot of effort afterwards to get back to ordinary language, to reconnect with the habitus and conventions and hope to make ourselves heard once again so that, by lavishing so many pledges of good will, it will be believed that we have cast away at least a little of its strangeness.

    Is this the heart – the factum and even the fatum – of any path of thought, or is it really only the case for philosophy? What seems certain is that philosophy made this its first act, to establish it as its point of entry, and that it draws its will from this resolution. This is its threshold. Parmenides, the father of philosophy – or in any case the first to have been made a ‘father’ so that ‘parricide’ could then be committed by diverging from him – posited it expressly as a condition of departure and point of access. The path sought and into which one ventured, that of ‘law and justice’, was accused of being ‘apart from people’, ‘off the beaten track’, ap’ anthrôpon ektos patou. The formula is even insistent in its intensification. It says both that one has to separate oneself from others and that one must emerge from the common rut, from the path that has already been cleared, from the patos. It is only by leaving this unreliable field of ‘opinions’, doxai, that we will be able to raise ourselves to the ‘unshakeable heart of truth’. Or perhaps it will be necessary to go back still further into this genealogy of divergence from which the philosopher would come? Perhaps the first philosopher is actually Ulysses, the Ulysses of the Odyssey who, in his drifting, wandered from one unknown place to another, running from divergence to divergence, before ‘returning’. He diverged from the very milieu of his companions while staying close to them: enjoining them to stop up their ears while attaching himself naked to the ship’s mast to expose himself alone, wanting (or being able) only to be alone when the dangerous revelation came.

    To diverge from the language and culture in which one was born, at one moment, in that place and surroundings, and in that context where one started to open one’s eyes, to discover and learn and to form and constitute oneself into a ‘subject’, and to do so through a deliberate – or I’d say strategic – choice, as I did when going from Europe to China, is therefore, all in all, only to reiterate the very gesture of philosophy, its first act, but to do so afresh, by exacerbating its conditions so that in consequence there is nothing really anecdotal or ‘exotic’ about it. It is to retrace the steps of Ulysses, but by systematically making use of the possibilities and ambition of this divergence. It is, de facto, to emerge from the history of European philosophy, to extract oneself all at once from its debates and notions and to break with its filiation. But to what extent aren’t we always beginning to philosophise in Europe by going back into the history of the question, carried along by something that isn’t just etymology? Right from the start, it means breaking not only with its great philosophemes like ‘being’, ‘God’, ‘Truth’, ‘Freedom’ and so on, but also, more radically, with the language in which they have been articulated, extracted as one suddenly finds oneself from the Indo-European and its family atmosphere – from its family site. To diverge from European philosophy by way of the Chinese elsewhere – this elsewhere of language as also, for such a long time, of History, the two extremities of the great continent, China and Europe, having spent so long before meeting, at least as far as thought is concerned – is therefore to diverge from what has already been thought and sedimented in Europe (from which the bed of thought is formed, and which is therefore no longer being thought about; from what within it is so well assimilated, integrated and accredited that it makes us forget those choices that have been hidden away and the concealed biases, no matter what suspicions of philosophy have followed and have come to constitute ‘evidence’), therefore that one no longer thinks about: that one no longer thinks of thinking about.

    But if I say that such a choice of divergence (by way of China) only exemplifies the inveterate gesture of philosophy, it is really because this work is already valid, in itself, in all respects, as on any scale. It is what is at work within the very history of philosophy and that renews it: each philosopher becomes a real philosopher to the extent that he separates himself from those coming before him or, to make the point more precisely, opens up a divergence in relation to them. This is even what is already valued with respect to oneself: to philosophise is nothing but mercilessly to distance oneself from what has been one’s own thinking, detaching oneself from what one has already thought to progress into what one’s thinking will become. This work of separation has nothing in common with any itching of originality but is established well beforehand, as an act of departure from what will subsequently be fixed as a critical operation, devoted to refutation, by which every philosophy is designated, or by which it frees itself and institutes itself. Whether each philosopher, according to the well-known phrase, will ‘say no’ to the one who came before or, as has been said time and again since (see Foucault or Deleuze), that to philosophise is ‘to think otherwise’, this is merely the consequence of it.

    If to philosophise therefore means primarily and repeatedly to inscribe a break, to introduce a distance, to provoke an effect of dissociation and to engage a dissidence, it is because such a break, by being widened (and the more it widens), opens up fresh access to what is unthought. But if I insist on this primary gesture, it is also because I am wondering whether it may today be under threat – or perhaps it is already out of date? Today, it is constantly announced that, thanks to the convenience of the Internet deploying its all-embracing network and connecting everyone in ‘real time’, and thus also because of the indefinite multiplication of data, intelligence has now become collective, in such a way that we will think ‘together’ and no longer as each one of us in our own way. Today when, even when it comes to research in the ‘human sciences’ (very inappropriately when it comes to philosophy), it is endlessly repeated that any work can only be conducted, and validated, within a team, and that the figure of the solitary seeker is to be condemned, I wonder if a thought that diverges will even be tolerated? Yet, at the same time, to protest against ‘unique thought’ has become an all-pervasive theme, itself repeated to the point of tedium ... But will we be able to take heed of this if we are no longer able to leave it, to begin a withdrawal, to abandon established questions (those that appear to be obvious), to dissociate ourselves; or, to put it in a positive way, if we do not know how to open up, to explore a way into, the place where the terrain is no longer recognised, whose path is no longer taken (and is the path even still there?), and where the common light no longer penetrates, if we do not know how one evening to leave, to leave alone (disengaged and disconnected), facing the solitude and moving away to who knows where? This is what to ‘diverge’ really means.

    The well-known unknown

    But what should that from which philosopy each time diverges as it finds a new departure generally be called? What must it tear itself away from because thought sinks in it from the outset? It could be called, following Hegel and Nietzsche, who treated it in unison, although each in their own way, the ‘well-known’. We need to take apart this illusion: what is close at hand and familiar, Nietzsche said, gives the irresistible impression of being what is most easily accessible, although this well-known is only the reflection of those of our beliefs and mental habits that have become fixed. ‘What they call the known’ is the ‘habitual’, yet this habitual is what is precisely most difficult to know, in other words to consider as a problem: as an unknown, far away and external thing, and it is what needs to be discovered instead of being taken for granted. Or, as Hegel said, the well-known is precisely ‘unknown because it is well-known’, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt (see the Preface to the Phenomenology). Actually, it is not even ‘recognised’, er-kannt, due to the fact that it thereby causes us from the start to tip into the security of what we think we know, without even beginning to think it: to think that there is something there to be thought. Similarly, seeing in it only a support to enable us to go further, we hasten to stride over it.

    It is said, with a wisdom that is on the whole commonplace, that we should not simply be surprised by what no longer surprises us, which is also referred to as the familiar. But that thought, all thought, at the same time as it becomes implanted (by the very fact that it has become implanted), is deactivated. It gets bogged down in (or rather due to) the very thing that has instituted it: as soon as it has become our representation of things, Hegel said that the mind believes it has finished with it. Worse still, it believes, with no further distrust, that it can be used as a tool. This means that the mind henceforth treats what has ‘immediately’ come to be imposed on thought as common categories and that it suspects neither its genesis nor what it contains that is unthought. In passing, Hegel opened up from such categories a list of terms that had become static, those around which European thought then did no more than turn – but, as is said, ‘turn in a circle’ and, therefore, to do so rather in vain. These are the couplings of ‘subject’ and ‘object’, ‘God’ and ‘nature’, or ‘understanding’ when faced with ‘sensibility’, and so on. The discourse of philosophy is then able to come and go between these terms as often as it likes and without any longer knowing how to move them. They have become pillars between which the ‘movement’ of thought circulates, but it no longer shakes them and does no more than evolve at the level of their ‘surface’, Oberfläche, each person believing that he is then able on every occasion to verify them directly from their representation and apart from their relevance because he doesn’t have any distance from which to question them.

    Yet how can we hope to have control over this well-known unknown, which has become immoveable, since it is from this that we think? If European thought is fundamentally marked at the intersection of these terms – ‘terms’ also meaning a place to stop – what obliqueness, or rather what cunning, is to be found in order to start ‘prising’ ourselves away from them? To go to China, to find an elsewhere of thought, is a strategy the mind needs in order no longer to submit. For what we find there is a thought as elaborate as ‘ours’ (in Europe), but without there being any suspicion of influence or contamination between them: it is an elsewhere that doesn’t belong to the system of alphabetical composition, and one whose writing responds to the other possibility, which is ideographic rather than phonetic. It is an elsewhere which has not spoken about ‘being’ and has therefore not conceived of the ‘question’ of Being and has not had to posit (or prove) the existence of ‘God’, and which, without having disregarded the divine, has not had to ‘deal with God’, which has not made ‘truth’ the pledge and the criterion of thought, which has not developed a thinking about the subject whose first attribute would be freedom, and so on. This is the strategic choice that I made in finally trying to diverge myself from this well-known unknown. But what relation exists between all of these pillars we see of ‘Being’, ‘God’, ‘Truth’, ‘Freedom’, and what edifice do they support? Without our being aware of it, won’t all of our thoughts be consigned to the same boat?

    Divergence versus difference

    Yet it will first of all be necessary, in order to approach the question, to set out a fundamental distinction, without which the undertaking would be futile – an undertaking which one suspects would immediately be exposed to both turmoil and criticisms from all of those who refuse to move even slightly from what is ‘well known’ in thinking. Indeed, it is the notion of difference that is ordinarily invoked between these two ways of thinking – that is the Chinese and the European. Will this be enough? Or won’t it straightaway betray the oblique strategy that I’ve made a start in putting forward, due to the perspective it requires and notwithstanding the banality of its use? If I’ve spoken of ‘diverging’, it is because divergence isn’t difference. What is the ‘difference’ between divergence and difference? Further on, I will put the ‘divergence’ between them to work. In order to make a start let’s therefore say that, if divergence and difference both have separation in common, difference marks a distinction, while divergence opens a distance. Hence, difference is classificatory (in operating through resemblance and difference) at the same time as being identificatory. According to Aristotle, it is by going ‘from difference to difference’, and doing so as far as the final difference, that the essence (definition) of the thing is reached. In contrast, divergence is a figure. It isn’t identificatory but exploratory, or I’ll call it heuristic: the question is thus no longer what the thing ‘is’ in its singularity, due to its difference(s), but ‘how far’ the divergence takes it as it overflows the norm. Not being classificatory, the divergent is therefore a figure that produces not an arrangement, as difference does (difference is really the tool of typologies), but what I’d conversely say is a disarrangement (as the French say: to ‘create a divergence’, when speaking about language or behaviour). In this sense, divergence is opposed to what is expected, to what is ordinary and conventional – or let’s now say to what is ‘well known’.

    From this, it will be deduced that, while difference serves description, proceeding through analysis (already the diairesis tôn eidôn διαίρεσις τῶν εἴδων of the Ancients), divergence initiates prospection. Divergence envisages – it ‘sounds out’ – the extent to which other paths can be opened up, and while a difference determines itself (which marks its limit), a divergence explores. Yet from this difference of operations, we can distinguish the advantage that can respectively be derived from them. The operation of difference, as it arises from a neighbouring genre in which it distinguishes one species among others, serves to establish a characteristic from this specificity, while that of divergence, through the evident distance, holds in tension what it has separated. But what does it mean to ‘hold in tension’? In the case of difference, once it has been recognised, each of the terms that have been distinguished are enough, since they are and remain flatly in their place, wedded to their specificity, while in the case of divergence each of the separated terms remains open to the other through the distance – the gulf – that appears: instead of each of the separated terms remaining in their en-soi, finding their essence in it, as in difference, it is by measuring themselves against the other, by remaining, so to speak, (sus)pended from it, that the divergence is appreciated. It is through the other, in accordance with it, that this ‘through’ is grasped by a divergence that remains active.

    This enables us to understand why the fate of difference is linked to thinking about identity. In fact, it arises from it in a double sense: when it began, it assumed a common genus, identified as such, whose specification it marks, and in its aim or its destination, upon its arrival, it leads to the isolation of an identity, fixing its essence as a thing – in other words, giving it its definition. That such a difference would henceforth be presented as initial, as linguistic minimalism has already done for some time now, and even that it no longer has to be coupled with resemblance (the linguistics of this, as we know, having nothing more to do), the fact remains that the determination of such a difference is still sustained, and both founded and justified, by a concern with identification. The fact that one element would no longer have existence except in the name of a difference, or that it would no longer be isolated from the property other than by the establishment of differences – and no longer the inverse, as the classical schema (of metaphysics) would have liked – doesn’t preclude the fact that, in this structure or system, the relation of difference, henceforth placed ab initio, still has the function of characterising or specifying – it knows no other end than knowledge. Confronted with this, divergence allows us to emerge from this perspective based on identity. It reveals what I would describe in an overflowing of identity as ‘fertility’, which allows us to abandon the point of view of knowledge so as to be understood as a resource of thought.

    The fertility that is uncovered by divergence is in fact twofold. First of all, the fact that the inclines of the divergence continue to be turned towards one another, being maintained in a reciprocal apprehension instead of each of them having withdrawn into their own specificity, means that they work between themselves as they find out about one another through each other. Since they do not find an essence in themselves, they contemplate each other only through their relation. In other words, if the divergence is working, or if it operates, it is in the distance it brings into focus and which resists any future closure: the divergence opens a between as it places what has been separated in tension. The divergence isn’t analytical, as difference is, but, by widening (the more it widens), the divergence is an intensive. If difference also establishes a relation, then each of its terms goes on its way alone and it isn’t aware of the fertility of this between which is what generates intensity. Divergence, on the other hand, releases possibilities about which one wonders, amazed and intrigued, how far they might go. They overflow from what was previously envisaged and even from what could be imagined. Pushing the boundary markings aside, they unbolt the known and conventional, and throw the ‘well-known’ into confusion. They push back the frontiers of the explored and identified, and in consequence of the resources to be prospected, open more widely the range of capacities. In what diverges, and the more it diverges, a confrontation of limits, and perhaps a setting free – or in other words, an adventure – are uncovered.

    It will thus be understood that divergence and difference differ not by their object but by the perspective they assume or, I would say, by their ethic: difference demands care and rigour in its determination, while divergence calls for audacity in its exploration–exploitation. The one scrutinises, the other probes – even here, after having begun to show how they differ, I am setting the divergence between them to work. Thus, by virtue of difference, I can analyse some particular feature with a comparatist aim, from which I will make a criterion of classification in order to determine specificities. I can equally well turn the same feature to account by way of divergence – but the ‘feature’ has regrettably already slipped towards differential description – to envisage what fresh branching out it opens and therefore what possibilities are to be discovered in it, one effect of which (the effect) is to be drawn indefinitely. In both cases, it is the same ‘fact’: for example, the European language conjugates, the Chinese doesn’t. But in one case I perceive a discriminating–identifying character from the angle of difference allowing the linguistic facts to be described and distributed into a system and then to arrange the languages as a family. In the other, I perceive under the angle of divergence a possibility that enables me continually to measure the resources it releases, regarding the possibility diverged (and reciprocally) in the conception-expression of thought. Thanks to this, I especially see that Chinese poetry can remain in an indefinite processual time without projecting a subject but by enhancing the correlative dimension of what is stated, and so on.

    Let’s therefore learn to suspect ‘synonyms’ like those of divergence and difference so as to see how they have oriented thought differently due to the implied perspective, and to such a point that they will finally need to be placed in opposition, being reversed so as to form them as antonyms. Let’s therefore look again, as an example or a lesson to be learned, reading them on a broader scale, at the categories of ‘evil’ and ‘negative’ which I once examined and which are ordinarily designated as the same thing (suffering, death, war: ‘misfortune’), but to reverse them into opposites. Evil – let’s recall the theodicies – does this under the angle of interiority (of a subject) and the negative, conversely, under that of functionality (of the great process of things). Therefore evil, in forming a concept, does so under the angle of singularity (individual fate), exclusion (evil struggling with good), dramatic narration (this struggle entails a history), an enigmatic questioning (pointing to the tormenting ‘why’) and finally leading to protest (the complaint made to the rebellious Job), while the concept of the negative occurs under the angle of universality (comprehensive ‘harmony’), integration (‘everything is needed to make a world’), ‘logical’ description (explaining the ‘how’ of this syntax of ‘everything’) and finally touches on Stoic acceptance (by com-prehension of the fact that you can’t have one without the other) and so on. According to one or the other point of view engaged and forming an option, under its apparent synonyms, without even having been measured, you seek a way out that will liberate us from evil in salvation (the Saint) or you attain wisdom by becoming ‘comprehensive’ (from the ‘indissociability of the negative’). Yet ‘point of view’ here means a tool – a tool we have produced, not which relativises (relativising comes from comparing), but which operates behind the scenes and, without being perceived, opens a gap: according to how you make one or the other work, and doing so in its own terms, your life slips into the opposite, from one side or the other.

    Yet the same thing can be said from the points of view of divergence and difference: difference, by determining, closes the horizon, ending at the final difference that forms the definition; on the other hand, divergence, through the tension making it work, opens out onto infinite possiblility. And so if we go back to the history of philosophy, I won’t think about why Aristotle’s thought differs from that of Plato (such a way of thinking, which catalogues the differences, as though they were items, is sterile in advance), but about where his thought diverges from that of Plato, to reveal, through this act of committed and never extinguished dissidence, a new means of access to what is unthought. If these two tools are therefore legitimate, each according to how it is used, it is because difference, by identifying, serves knowing, while divergence, overflowing identities, serves thinking. Yet to say that we know through difference but think through divergence is also to verify that, of these two activities of the mind, the first is logically transitive, assuming an object, while the second, through its native intransitivity (that of the ‘I think’, cogito), by taking apart the enclosure of any object, maintains thought as it proceeds. Or let’s say that, if difference is a tool of science (I have indicated it for linguistics and will also verify it for anthropology), philosophy is devoted to proceeding through divergence so as always to push the limit of what is thinkable farther back, and to do so by diverging from what is already thought.

    Defend the fertilities and not the identities of cultures

    I hope already to have said enough about the divergence opened by divergence, and the disturbance this concept effects, to have sufficiently shown its advantages for it to be understood why I treat cultural diversity in terms of divergence and not of difference, and promote it as a principle. This is above all because the fate of difference is linked to identity, an old pairing for philosophy, and here this is at both ends, or by two means which equally form a barrier. If difference is understood in relation to a known genre within which it marks a specification, we will find it rather awkward in this case to specify this unitary term or this common – ‘next’ – genre from which the differences between cultures will arise. Will it be called ‘Humankind’ or ‘human nature’? These are rags that no longer conceal anything and are at best based simply on convenient convention since one would really be perplexed at how to fix a credible content to them. What else can be projected as preceding cultural differences, from which they could then proceed in the same way that a fan is unfolded? Could we avoid turning them into ideological constructions without which these cultural differences would, however, be unable to find anything to rest on? Moreover, when we speak of them as ‘common ground’, as Jean-François Billeter did when he criticised me (‘When we depart from common ground, differences appear by themselves …’), it is just another naïve way of naming this great X that he too cannot do without since it is enclosed (entangled) in this register of ‘difference’ from which he has no means of extricating himself.

    What’s more, if we sort things out with this antiquated, reassuring and consequently recurrent – even frightfully tenacious – representation of the first One and of monism, it can easily be seen that the characteristic of the cultural, at whatever level it is considered, is to be plural at the same time as singular, or, to express it in a contrary way, that we need to take apart its convenient, but indelibly mythological, representation according to which an initial cultural unity–identity would then be diversified, as if through a curse (the Tower of Babel), or at least by complication (as it proliferated). The diversity of languages, which is not at all a later phenomenon, proves this. I’d prefer to say that the characteristic of the cultural is to unfold in this tension – or divergence – between the plural and the unitary, that is taken in a double movement of hetero- and homogenisation, brought to the point of both merging and differentiatiating, and to disidentify and reidentify itself, to conform and resist – in short, that there is no dominant culture without there also being a dissident culture, and so on. Indeed, what is the origin of the ‘cultural’ if it doesn’t arise precisely from this tension of the diverse putting it to work, and therefore also continually transmuting it?

    Just as (common) cultural identity cannot therefore be presented as coming before difference, so it cannot be presented as coming after it (which would be specific). If the peculiarity of difference is that it results in a characteristic identity, forming its definition, this can only betray the very nature of the cultural which is incessantly in the process of transforming itself (as the Chinese term wén-huà 文化, ‘culture–transformation’, rightly says, forming a pair). Indeed, a culture which no longer transforms itself, which therefore allows itself to be identified in distinctive features, would be a dead culture (as we speak of a dead language) and would find its place only in a museum. We need therefore, once and for all, to rid ourselves of the idea that we can construct cultural ‘identities’ or ‘characteristics’, and that we can do so by means of ‘differences’. We only have to look at Huntington’s celebrated book (celebrated for its conformism) to see the danger – which is not only theoretical but also (primarily) political. Not only will exceptions always be found to these typological generalities that distribute cultures in the form of a table, but also it is even always the ‘exceptional’, what is out of the common (out of the frame) which, because it is singular (that is, it opens a divergence) and makes it work, is its most significant element, and therefore the most worthy of interest. Let’s recall that, having once wanted to define a European cultural identity as an introduction to its constitution (is Europe ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’? – and so on), this (inevitably) had to fail. This is because the divergence and tension between the two (religion and secularity) are significant for Europe and have allowed it to advance. Therefore, we need to abandon this impossible characterisation. The failure to create Europe, as a logical result, followed on from this.

    If the idea of cultural identity, including that of ‘multiple’ cultural identities which is currently being advanced to evade this difficulty, coupled as it is with difference, therefore represents an impasse (which is inherent to it), it doesn’t mean we will be reduced to resignation or historical passivity. All that is necessary is to abandon this contaminating language of Being, on which the ‘id’ ‘entity’ rests, like the idem of the entity, and that still requires us to think in terms of stability (which is contradicted by cultural mutation) and homogeneity (according to the myth of a ‘pure’ culture) – which has still been insufficiently thought about and criticised. In other words, it will be wise to think of the cultural in terms not of differences (so defining an essence) but of divergences opening out onto so many resources – that is, in terms of fertility. Thus, I won’t preserve a French or European cultural identity when it is understood in terms of belonging (as though I possess ‘my’ culture), but of ‘French’ or ‘European’ cultural fertilities – which means the ones that have unfolded in France or Europe, in one or another milieu (culture always developing within a certain ‘milieu’, as Nietzsche recognised), but are now available to all. I will return to this, and want all the more to preserve and deploy it since the two go actively hand in hand both to ‘defend’ and ‘illustrate’, according to the terms of use, what we must now resist about the absorbent flattening generated by global standardisation. And, closer to home, most of all to defend (illustrate) this resource of the diversity of languages (and this especially applies in Europe) whose divergences contribute to thinking.

    In spite of the manifest fragility apparent within the idea of cultural identity, I believe that what has lent it a basis in a subterranean, but also disproportionate, way is attached to its equivocal nature and notably to what we are often led to confuse with the (psychological) principle of identification – and it has thrived from this amalgamation. Yet if identification can be legitimate as a process in the formation of the subject (the child grows up by identifying with its father), cultural identity for its part is excessively adorned with such a legitimacy that folds it into a supposedly stable collective belonging that is even affirmed as long-lasting (‘identification’), and that is authorised by the recognition of differences from which a subject would be constituted and prevail, and which would characterise it. On the other hand, the concepts of divergence and fertility, opposed to those of difference and identity, free us in an advantageous way from asking ourselves the always suspect question about Origin, that of the ‘next type’, whether this is called ‘human nature’ or ‘common ground’, with which the discourse of Difference unfortunately has to burden itself in order to justify itself. A divergence can only be conceived in relation to what it diverges from, so its legitimacy is only attached to the tension of the opposition that opens it up and reveals it, without leading us to assume and identify a common antecedent. In the perspective for which I am arguing, the only question that remains relevant is the manner in which humans discover and think about themselves, beginning with all of the divergences that constitute cultural diversity in proportion to their history. This is what I have called human self-reflection, substituting it for ‘knowledge about human nature’ (where would that come from?), the only effective exploration by which to grasp what is ‘human’ – a term taken here in its literal sense, but in an indefinitely open way – in the multiplicity of its adventure, at the same time as what constitutes the community of its fate.

    These concepts of divergence, resource and fertility keep us in the sole register of exploration and exploitation and so they don’t lead us to assume a belonging or claim to be ‘founded’ in some ontology. Following this scouring, the only question that still remains is to what extent can these divergences open up and clear a path and be deployed, revealing fresh horizons and making new possibilities appear? To what extent can these resources or the fertilities that follow on from them prosper? They can also be left to reabsorb and waste away this faculty of divergence and adventure, so letting it fall into equalisation and collective levelling, that comfort of thought that is said to be ‘unique’ – the media which complain about it are all the proof we need. Such resources or fertilities can also be lost, neglected and left underdeveloped. As evidence, we might wonder whether the ‘elegance’ that was once deployed in France has been lost for ever? But at the same time as resources are neglected here, they can be redeployed elsewhere: it is hardly the natives who are today most worried about the French language. What also makes this concept of the inventive (prospective) divergence releasing fertility so valuable is that, in occuring locally (in the ‘milieu’), but without being blocked into some form of belonging, it sticks solely to the capacity of effect – in other words, it is maintained by what is effective. Consequently, too, the characteristic of such a resource, as I have said, is that it is receptive: whoever activates it deploys it; it isn’t so much ‘exportable’, as without ties. The ‘French’ or ‘European’ fecundities I would defend – to distinguish them from ‘values’ – are not concerned with adhesion but are just as much at the disposal of everyone, outside of France as well as outside of Europe. Even so, this doesn’t decree them as universal, in the way that has so often been required of ‘our’ values. We don’t have to ‘extol’ resources.

    This enables us to see the aporia to which the cultural discourse of Difference is condemned, and consequently how it is trapped and therefore mired in an empty dilemma, that of the reflection called ‘inter’-‘cultural’, without knowing how to assume an intensive ‘between’. Either cultural difference is presented as second, with cultural identity in consequence being first, that of a ‘human nature’ or ‘common ground’, and we inevitably lapse into a facile universalism, one that would be unable to hide its ethnocentrism. This means that we have missed the opportunity or the resource constituted by cultural diversity and will have remained in its initial categories which we project onto the rest of the world as being self-evident, and therefore we don’t start to take them apart and disturb ourselves. Or else, inversely, cultural difference is presented as first, and a cultural identity characteristic of each culture follows from it, as though it possessed a unitary character: we then lapse into a lazy relativism – in other words, ‘culturalism’. Each culture is then enclosed in its bubble, forming a world, and it is essentialised through its differences. These two positions, one just as much as the other, are politically dangerous. This is because the first option can only engender a ‘soft’ intercultural and latent dialogue, in which the dia of dia-logue is blurred, distorted or deactivated, while the second exacerbates and hardens positions, rendering them antagonistic from the outset (the much-heralded ‘culture clash’): at best, the dialogue is not latent but simulated. They are both equally sterile. In the first case, the encounter is artificial and doesn’t have an effect; in the second, the very possibility of the encounter is straightaway withdrawn.

    There is therefore an impasse on both sides. But are these really ‘two’ sides, or doesn’t the reversal of one into the other keep us in a comparable immobility? In neither case has anything of the Other been encountered, nothing of one’s own representations has moved – nothing has happened. We can’t expect to be able to release the bolt from this system which has been blocked in its false alternative. No adjustments can be expected in its respect or compromises be sought. Or rather this, being tinkered with every day, advances nothing and produces nothing, as is constantly being noted: the ‘dialogue’ of cultures remains a public relations exercise in power shifts, a pretext for ‘good will’ if it doesn’t disguise a Will to power. The need to break – or, I’d argue, to diverge from – these old moulds which keep us enclosed in Difference can therefore hardly be denied. If at last we want to give the ‘dialogue of cultures’ its historic opportunity, it will need to be understood in a literal sense, in a strong sense, so as to recover the virtues in the two components of the word – that is, both the dia and the logos in the fertile tension occurring between them: this dia which precisely expresses the divergence, along with the possibility of a path through (and a dialogue is a lot richer, as we have known from the time of the Greeks, when a divergence is at stake) and this logos that expresses the only effective commonality, which is that of the intelligible. It is a commonality that is no longer projected from the start, that is neither hypothetical nor hypostased as is inevitably the case for any identity presented as a principle, as ‘human nature’ or ‘common ground’, but which is also to be produced and is itself alone in constituting the community of the human, is alone in being able to be put forward: to propose that the commonality of what is human is the intelligible consequently means that this commonality is not definitively given, nor is it completed, but that it arises from our responsibility to deploy it through the dia-logue of cultures.

    Not to compare but to reflect

    This is why I don’t compare. To compare is to single out resemblances and differences and to arrange them according to the Same and the Other, to characterise one in relation to the other and establish their respective identities. Between cultures, either the accent is placed on resemblance and then lapses into the comfort of an indefinite assimilation, being unable to lead to anything but a tautology (‘everything is in everything’, ‘man is man’, and so on). Or else primacy is given to difference and cultural diversity that are then mutated into being rival entities: we speak of ‘China’ or the ‘West’, as though these are possible abstractions or great Subjects – what I’d call ‘forming worlds’, practically theoretical monsters.

    I’m doing something else. Instead of comparing, I organise interfaces between Chinese and European thoughts such that, through divergence, one will be drawn to examine oneself in the other, and reciprocally (when I speak of ‘Chinese thought’ I simply mean thought expressed in the Chinese language, while ‘European thought’ is what is expressed in a European language). Before China and Europe historically began to encounter one another, this opposition wasn’t given; it had to be constructed. ‘Through divergence’, or via divergence, consequently means that I have located – or detected – divergences between these two expressions of thought and set them to work, divergences such as those between one philosopher and another in the heart of the history of philosophy (this is even what forms it) and indeed at the heart of thought itself, the means by which thought is thought. But are these divergences all of the same nature? They are of such a nature, in this case, in accordance with the given exteriority of these thoughts (I haven’t yet used the word ‘alterity’), that each can themselves be grasped, in the encounter with the other, in what they don’t know about themselves (what I’d call ‘contemplating’), and can probe what they haven’t thought about, hence stimulating (themselves in) thought. I thus speak of the ‘unthought’ to continue this starting point of the lexicon, in order to begin from what I think and in the same way from what I don’t think: the buried biases of my thinking, conveyed as evidence (alias ‘natural light’), and thus in the same way that I cannot think. But such an unthought isn’t to be understood in a purely negative way: it is the condition of possibility of my thought at the same time as it is its limit. It is what it doesn’t think about in and of itself (in both of these senses) at the same time as being the source of its fertility – in other words, the fold of its inventiveness.

    The virtue of divergence is that it opens out a retreat in thinking, and this retreat, through the distance it establishes, is revelatory – above all of what is well-known unknown because it conceals its unthought. I will therefore propose this as a general rule that goes beyond the framework of cultural studies: the characteristic of the divergence, its fertility, is that it allows a movement back into thought by operating a disadhesion at the same time as it modifies the perspective, introducing a shift. But such a divergence is only effectively possible – and this is why the intercultural is instructive for philosophy on this point – upon the encounter with the other. In other words, one doesn’t invent (doesn’t imagine) the conditions of one’s defamiliarisation: we only leave our language by learning another and we only leave our thinking by entering into that of another. We don’t emerge from our thought all alone, proprio motu. We can ‘doubt’ as much as we want, and even practise a hyperbolic doubt just as Descartes did, but we still only doubt what we believe or ‘see’ as doubtful (for example, in the classical age, whether or not I have a ‘soul’ or whether God ‘exists’). But we don’t doubt what we aren’t aware could be doubted, what – without our knowing – is essential to our thought, and that we can only perceive through divergence. From within our language, we don’t know where the borders of our language are or how it ‘bends’ thought. From within our own language, we don’t know what language we are speaking and that forms our thinking. From within our thought, we don’t know how it is already configured.

    What results, in return, from this effect of retreat, disadhesion and distance that are authorised by divergence is what I will call an effect of ‘grasping’, or ‘seizing’, what cannot be seized, and above all of what cannot be defined, or, if it can be from within one’s language and thought in which the possessive, the ‘one’s’, expresses not a belonging but a dependency, as I have said, it is only with a great deal more difficulty. This applies especially in relation to those notions and representations in which we think and whose contours we don’t see since language forces us to inhabit them from within. This is the case first and foremost in what I started to form as Europe’s symbolic quadrilateral (Being-God-Truth-Freedom) and which I have had a great deal of difficulty in undoing from within what has become ‘Europe’ and from my language and thought. For a distance from them – or, more accurately, an indifference (to be distinguished, of course, from a critique), to which I’ll return – can’t be invented. And yet, ‘by passing through’ a thought-language like that of the Chinese from the outside, they may be (re)outlined from a distance and they then appear as one configuration among other possibilities – in other words, this brings attention to the edges or borders so they may be cut out and, being detached from the ground of what is thinkable, can be ‘approached’.

    It needs to be added in relation to this exoptic that seeing from outside (as when returning from China to Europe), or from a distance, by taking a step back, isn’t to see in a broad or rough way. It is to bring out more clearly, under the effect of the cutting out or ‘encircling’ that has become possible, what is so present, significant, diffuse and pervasive that, when we regard it from close up, we no longer discern it. Or, if I remain temporarily in this field of the visual, with perhaps a convenient even if not the most adequate representation, I will say that this milieu or bath into which language (every language) places us – and all of the unsuspected options it conveys – gains relief only through superimposition (of visions as well of conceptions). And if I add that a change of scenery can’t be invented, it’s because it is something quite different from writing the Persian Letters or ‘spending time in China’. In the first case, the fictitious exteriority underlines and reveals, but it does so on the basis of what one already (re)cognises. It doesn’t trouble us because it doesn’t de-configure. But when one goes away from Europe to reside within Chinese thought-language one finds oneself immersed in what one doesn’t expect, in a strangeness (and above all a destitution) from which one has great difficulty in returning, and from which one may not even ever return.

    In short, it is a question, when passing through a China that has been selected as a place of possible exteriority, not of comparing, or even contrasting, but of organising, displaying or ‘showing’ (in the experimental sense), what becomes a device for reflection. I mean here ‘reflection’ in its literal as well as figurative sense, in its transitive as well as intransitive use, for it will be necessary to make this play of optics and perspectives serve an emancipated deployment of thought. Just as a mirror reflects an image, a ‘thought-language’ is reflected in the other as it intently looks at itself within what it doesn’t perceive about itself and reveals, underlying the prejudice Descartes sought to chase away, what can be called its pre- notioned (pre-categorised and pre-questioned) – in other words, its unthought. And when I then speak, being unable to dissociate the two terms of a thought-language, since Descartes did not realise that he was thinking in language, I don’t assume that language determines thought, but I do consider that thought exploits the resources of its language – that is, its fertilities. Hence also that reflection is then understood in not knowing given objects (saying ‘I reflect’ as one says ‘I think’): thought, effecting a return to itself in the encounter with the other, can reflect, in the gap in between- languages between-thoughts, in a suddenly clearer (less bogged-down) way, without it already needing to know ‘about what’ or to have formed a theme or question to which it would be attached, and then to dream about a new point of departure – farther back (more authentically Cartesian perhaps?) – in its ‘meditation’.

    From the anthropology of differences to a philosophy of divergence

    The response to this will be that there is a discipline that has precisely made cultural diversity its vocation, which treats it with authority in terms of differences and resemblances, aiming to establish specificities and continually comparing, drawing up and tabulating systems from case studies by defining criteria and taxons and, by isolating elements, determining the stable forms of their combinations – in short, this discipline, which has found such conditions of possibility, is anthropology. It has, for more than a century, made its way and proved its validity. And it is true that it has succeeded in effecting a decentring of Western thought due to the fact that it no longer conceives of a starting point in its own – that is, the European – culture as anything but one possibility among others. It therefore has the merit, as it seeks to constitute itself as a science, of having elaborated its methods and constructed its methods. What need is there for another path?

    Anthropology can certainly be reproached for having produced excessive generalities. When Philippe Descola, in what is nevertheless a very beautiful book, established that the opposition of ‘interiority’ and ‘physicality’ crosses all cultures equally, he certainly furnished a commonality of the intelligible, but is this what is most significant in relation to the Chinese culture that is my concern? It has rather conceived of the whole of reality – but this term is already a dreadful option – according to the coupling of ‘physicality’ and ‘operativity’, 体and yòng用, giving priority as it does so to the procedural character of what it has traditionally named the ‘way’, tào道. One might also wonder what escapes this tabulation which it is unable to explain due to the very fact that its taxonomic logic prefers structure to History: if one arranges Greek and Chinese cultures according to the same classification of ‘analogism’, as Descola does, it may then become difficult to know how to give a sufficient account of the reasons for which, from this common analogism, European culture alone gave birth to modern ‘naturalism’. We shall also wonder about the means by which anthropology, as it grapples with cultures external to Europe, has known (been able) to unmake the categories of European thought, and how far it has gone. Has it so far projected (I leave the question unresolved) what its own theoretical expectation would be in its schematisation of modes of ‘objectification’ of the ‘world’? Has it taken sufficient account of the divergence of languages? (Or does it still speak too simply in the folds of European thought-language?) In particular, if it now appears to be at ease in classifying its typologies of cultures taken from the four corners of the earth, whose implicit, but so very complex (so much more complex?), structure it reconstructs, this being the reason it is so appropriately forged, how – in other words, to what point of its own theoretical elaboration – does it integrate the cultures, ‘for example’ the Chinese, so deployed (as well as explained, textualised, monumentalised and so on)? There’s a singularity in its recognition (and an abundance, in return, as to its minorities). But as far as I am concerned this isn’t what is essential.

    In my view, it is necessary to open another path, one that is philosophical, to take charge of cultural diversity – one that would be parallel to what anthropology offers yet without being in rivalry with it. This is because anthropology deliberately aims at knowledge. In comparing the incomparable, according to Marcel Detienne’s excellent programmatic title (2008) – in other words, by working through resemblance and difference – by establishing its criteria from the outset as well as by constructing typologies, anthropology places itself straightaway under the vocation and authority of science, being above all devoted to determination. That’s why it barely lingers on the experience of destitution that constitutes entry into another thought: it seeks rather to straddle it. Consequently, it doesn’t devote itself to the disturbing effect of divergence and wants to see this as difference, in its resultant form or as a tabular ‘display’ that would henceforth find a place in its typology, which is itself constructed as a panoply. In contrast, a philosophical approach finds value in remaining on the threshold and exploring it, acknowledging a difficulty that defeats the idea of any knowledge, in this intent scrutiny of the other whose reciprocity – reactivity – in relation to itself it experiences for as long as it can: that’s to say, in a concern, Unruhe, that maintains open reflection. Or rather, if the anthropologist places himself within this disturbance, accepting this insecurity which draws him less to know than to think, doesn’t he become (or doesn’t he remain) a philosopher?

    What consequently openly separates the anthropological and philosophical projects when it comes to cultural diversity is that the first is drawn to conceive of a finite number of possibilities. Determining criteria of classification from which its taxonomic enterprise follows, anthropology elaborates a system of cases which can be infinitely complex, giving rise to excessively varied combinations, but that as a principle is nevertheless limited. The net it casts over the multiple ways of ‘inhabiting the world’, as shimmering and variegated as this diversity may be, is enclosed within a frame which, once fixed, is maintained by its parameters and cannot be unmade. This diversity is a diversification, these cases so many variations, because any exploration of the structure carries a logic of completion with it due to the template it uses. Philippe Descola (2005) makes this demarcation and surveying of forms of relation to the world in conjunction with their commensurability a key to his programme.

    So, once we consider this diversity of cultures from the perspective of divergence rather than difference, of an exploratory disarrangement rather than a determining arrangement, this diversity of the cultural is not only in principle infinite but it also finds its vocation, even more, in this infinity. For the characteristic of ‘divergence’ is to allow itself neither norms nor bounds, that it works in every respect as on any scale, no matter how disruptive it is, and it undermines any enterprise of framing, homogenisation and ratification. Instead of letting itself settle down in a fixed scene, it constantly contradicts any taxonomic enterprise and overflows any assignment. If these divergences, as I pursue them between Chinese and European cultures, link and work in turn, at once weaving together and branching out, and going so far as to form coherences that can take the form of theoretical alternatives, then, far from knowing a limit, their proliferation will nonetheless be indefinitely amplified, serving as support for inquiry, and it is therefore as inexhaustible as are questions in philosophy.

    The two enterprises must be separated as to their destination. Anthropology inventories the diversity of cultures and puts them in order so as to know the possibilities that belong to humanity as it has developed over the course of its history, and without leaving them to be further subsumed within a unitary schema or destiny, even if it might be that of ‘man’ as an absolutely first limit and that was believed to be isolatable. In so doing, it has the merit of breaking with the universality that was so often projected by Bossuet’s religion as well as by classical philosophy, only accepting relative, indeed concurrent, categories and refusing any global Narrative. So the case I am pleading for a philosophical approach is for this very reason unable to renounce the exigency of the universal. This is so even when it sets itself the task, as it puts divergences to work, of tearing apart thought as much as it can, not only to extend the thinkable outside of the field that has been marked out, but even more so to stretch thought from within, in opening up a dissidence that causes it to react in order that it might be able to reactivate it, and to do so with a view to shaking up all normative thought, and even all conceptualisation that rests within its set purposes. It should, of course, be understood that it will no longer act from universality to the totalising – actually totalitarian – claims of ‘universalism’, which we hope is now dead, but from a universal that has a converse vocation, a universal that is in rebellion since it is never satisfied, but, on the contrary, is intent upon reopening all acquired totality and serving as a ‘regulatory’ – initiatory – idea (in the Kantian sense) so as to push back the horizon of demarcation and to deploy commonality ever more completely.

    The question that philosophy now asks about the diversity of cultures is no longer that of their categorical distribution and possible ordering, but rather what the concurrent ways ‘of inhabiting the world and giving meaning to it’ are. This is to speak of it in the still properly European – not sufficiently extraverted – terms favoured by anthropologists, today enlightening the experience of any subject and promoting it as a subject. Can they therefore contribute to the edification as well as to the description of its existence? In other words, what resources do they constitute, precisely thanks to their divergences, that today would open up and deploy my intelligence of ‘things’ or of ‘life’? At the same time that it ceaselessly draws out the distant and the heterogeneous, the properly absurd, the perspective would then be trans-cultural and trans-historical. Just as no philosopher would abandon engaging thinkers as distant as Plato and Nietzsche in dialogue when he has elaborated a theoretical plan that makes their encounter possible, it is now appropriate to respond to the expectation of our times by bringing Western and Chinese thinkers into a dialogue. But there can be no doubt that if the indifference that separates them is to be overcome, at least as far as the past is concerned, as much in language as in history, which is more difficult confidently to cross than ‘difference’ would lead us to believe, even more will conception and mediation – in other words, philosophical elaboration – be required.

    To philosophise from outside

    If, as a young Hellenist, I chose to leave Europe and go to China at a time when it was actually the least open to dialogue (it was at the extreme end of Maoism), it was precisely for the purpose of diverging myself and approaching philosophy from without (not to risk remaining confined within it). I no longer wanted to go back into the history of questions, or even to know what the questions were (would they still be matters of ‘being’, ‘truth’ and so on?). I also wanted to experience a suspension in thought (each person has his epoché, mine had to be every bit as existential), a suspension such that I no longer knew what resembles or doesn’t resemble, what does or doesn’t differ, what earlier landmarks suddenly waver to the point that I began to be amazed at what my language makes me say and think, so as no longer to be a prisoner (or perhaps a dupe?) of a game (or of an ‘I’) I had not chosen. We commonly say that we are the ‘inheritors’ of the Greeks in Europe (or that philosophy is ‘a Greek thing’, as has been tirelessly repeated since Hegel) – we offer it up as evidence to reassure ourselves by the filiation that it immediately gives us, but what do we really know about this? What do we know about it, given that we don’t have sufficient perspective – and therefore also sufficient ‘grasp’ – to be able to probe it? In addition, to learn what was then still considered to be a ‘rare language’, a very closed, not to say frankly exotic, ‘speciality’ (‘sinology’), was actually not to be able (or need) to specialise. It was – once again, but inevitably – to have a foolish need ‘for everything’ in this destitution (this ‘everything’ which would be the characteristic of philosophy: aesthetics, morality, politics and so on) to begin to ‘orient’ oneself within thought.

    I smile a little when I think back to this choice made at the age of 20. The choice was to this extent constructed, justified, hyper-motivated (perhaps garrulously) at the same time as it was empty. I knew nothing about China, but that was precisely what tempted me: the effect of a tabula rasa, of a ‘blank page’ (but not one within History – I wasn’t a ‘Maoist’), the hope of a fresh departure – not to let oneself be ‘trapped’ was a catchphrase of the time. To attack philosophy from the reverse side or from the back, don’t allow yourself to get caught in what might perhaps in itself be a rut or an ‘atavism’ (something Nietzsche’s work warned me against). (Greek) philosophy claimed to think ‘everything’ through what it constructed from oppositions (already in Parmenides–Heraclitus: immobile Being in the face of ‘everything flows’, and so on), to deploy all of the possibilities of thought; but does it know alongside what it is passing, alongside what it passes without thinking about it? This occurs in such a way that all of its deployments to come would always be just ‘unfoldings’… Was there a strategy able to provide a way out of it? I use the word ‘strategy’ and not method, because what is unthought in it cannot be attacked frontally, unlike a ‘prejudice’ which occurs in the terminal state of the judgement – otherwise it would already be being thought about. As I’ve said, it needs indirectness, obliqueness and detour, along with a looking-back (a looking back that doesn’t come later, because that would mean not looking back at all: we specialise or ‘sinise’) – walk like a crab, I’m told: a constant coming and going.

    In passing through China, there is a particular indirectness in returning to what has been one of the most outstanding operations of the thought of the 1960s and 1970s in France: the operation of ‘cutting’, set out as a first axiom (as Saint Paul already did … ), between a Before and an After, at the heart of so-called Western thought from which ‘Modernity’ would proceed. This was a cut that we know, according to some thinkers (Koyré, Kojève, Barthes, Lacan … ), is either absolutised or relativised, more historicised or structuralised, established in a more universal or local way, considered as ‘major’ or not, ‘synchronous’ or not, and so on (according to terms I have taken from Jean-Claude Milner). Either we make this with a single action between the ancient episteme and modern science, therefore from the learning that, close to being mathematicised, is a matter of exactitude and measure (from the ‘finite world’ to the ‘infinite universe’: its synthetic and symbolic name is Galileo), or, conversely, it is fragmented into multiple cuts whose arrangements are consequently complex and about which we are no longer even sure if they are homologous and coincident (where Foucault sets to work). But is this a question of a single heterogeneity existing between the ‘discourses’, of the only possible caesura that allows for a break in the continuous ‘synonymy’ by which thought occurs, always slipping homologically and no longer offering a hold from which to glimpse and separate (which is something quite different from refuting), now, and, in so doing even avoiding thinking – and something against which René Char and Foucault have called for a revolt?

    Yet ‘passing through China’ – according to this leitmotiv henceforth forming a programme – was another way of bringing into focus a discontinuity from which to recover a hold over thought, to ‘reflect on it’, by putting it in tension with itself instead of abandoning it to the somnolence of synonyms, to the nullity of commonplaces brought by a universal that would lazily be given from the outset (and not something to be produced in the way I would call for) from an already formed (and uncritical) humanism that is constantly being repainted and refenced. But the ‘cutting’ wasn’t really one, or in any case wasn’t a break, but rather the effect of a parallelism between two ways of thinking that had developed over more than two millennia without their knowing or observing each other; today it is necessary to organise their encounter – putting them ‘face to face’ – finally to put them in each other’s presence. Yet suddenly it’s here that, under the effect of this encounter, indirectly through this heterotopia, the very notion of a ‘cut’, with which Europe has chosen to make its first articulation (according to its great myth of Revolution), around which it had believed until now it was able to coil itself so as then to unfold its ‘meaning’ more effectively, would at once lose its assurance, and that the contrary terms of ‘tradition’, spurned by Foucault, would strangely recover a justification. It is within a culture that one is attentive to its effects of rupture, that thought looks back with passion on its discontinuities so as to promote and invent itself. But from the outside, as from China looking back to Europe, these are really the effects of coherence (of what I was evoking symbolically by this initial preserve of Being, God, Truth, Freedom), of persistence and tenacity (not to be confused with an ahistoricity) which, concealed as they were beneath this rupturism, rose back up to the surface.

    Consequently, the task is to organise this parallelism given in History in a theoretical relation that itself takes the form of a possible alternative in thought: to construct this influx of countless, unclassifiable and unintegratable divergences which begin to appear on reflection and branch out when, after coming from Europe, we begin to study Chinese thought in logic and discover that this is a non-logical logic – in other words, one that would no longer be preconducted by the logos. So as not to betray it from the outset in a European language, I’d start by calling non ‘logical’ logic, which may be contrasted with the ontological logic which came to us from the Greeks, a ‘Taoist’ coherence – according to the catchword, a unifying and crucible term of Chinese thought that is ordinarily left untranslated. ‘Coherence’, since I have posited a common principle of the intelligible and that this is the term I think most directly serves as a bridge between the two ( 理 in Chinese), from the start overflowing those of ‘reason’ and ‘truth’ that are too strongly marked in European thought’s corner. This is a coherence that doesn’t respond to the question of essence or that of ‘what is it?’ (‘quiddity’), doesn’t have to be reconstructed at an abstract level, or that of pattern or ideality (the eidos); and that is no longer being extended by finality (both an end and a goal, a télos, those of teleology, or of ‘entelechy’), deduced and declining the consequences (the importance of 则 in its linking up with function), but without separating itself from the processual nature of things or having to construct a set of hypotheses and so on.

    Yet how can such coherence be expressed other than by remaining within our terms (but in order to refuse them), other than by withdrawal, lack and negativity? A place will only gradually be found for coherence in our language and spirit by means of progressive accommodation, by surreptitiously and, step by step, cracking it so as to introduce it, patiently, tirelessly, by unwriting and rewriting, by deviating and reformulating, by nudging them so that they link up and do so through a slow acculturation. But this will be without expectation of a flash of brilliance or of a forced entry, without immediately hoping for a great synthetic presentation, through a revelation, of ‘what’ the ‘other’ would be (of what Chinese thought would thus be when expressed in European terms). How could such a presentation be possible since my language would need to ‘get used to it’ – in other words, also little by little to divest itself, move everything out and rearrange things? In consequence, this could only be done by small moves and successive shifts letting something thread its way in from the outside and so beginning to open up, accommodate and amalgamate – that is, by a sequence of organised drifts that will gradually be able to blend my language, beginning with a process of decategorising and unfolding it. Failing this, it would risk turning this external thought into nothing but a fac-simile of ours and so stay within its comfort zone.

    Can we deconstruct from within and how far can this go? Wouldn’t ‘deconstruction’, if I keep to this historic term of contemporary philosophy, itself have gained something by seeking for this outside which is no longer that of the Hebrew thought that has traditionally served as a counter-point, or fold, within philosophy when it wanted to free itself from the Greeks, to undo its closure and externalise itself? If the conceptual apparatus according to which thought is ruled and which is finally being recognised as ‘Western’ is, from a ‘historical’ point of view, that of ‘logocentrism’, which also takes the form of ‘phonocentrism’, as Derrida was right to suspect, would it not be instructive to enquire more closely into what Chinese thought can uncover for us in reverse? Its writing is constituted in such a marked way as it diverged from orality (as the sinologist Léon Vandermeersch has convincingly shown), in which the notion of ‘trace’ also soon became significant, at once de-excluding and leading to a ‘transformation’ (jì huà 迹化), and so on. And, in fact, that the voice, such a subtle element of the logos, might have favoured a metaphysics of presence will be verified a contrario by how this chain of interdependent oppositions from which European onto-theology has prospered has come undone in China. In Chinese thought, in which no ‘being’ other than a predicative one is isolated, the gap between presence and absence not having been determined, the relation of representation has not developed very much (at the semiotic, aesthetic but also political level), the image is also spoken of as a phenomenon (the same term of xiàng 象), and even the opposition between essence and appearance has not served as a fold for thought. On the other hand, it leaves us in this amazement that we’ll indefinitely need time to return to: how could a metaphysical thought therefore be possible? Isn’t it the ‘Greeks’ who are strange?

    Thinking with Chinese thought

    Will something different be possible one day? Will we be able to write something more than a ‘History of Chinese thought’, as has been done over and again during this past century in imitation of the history of European philosophy? Will it be possible to do this without even wondering whether the method of historicity is the same on both sides, and without from the start borrowing Western philosophical categories that are now globalised (‘metaphysics’, ‘aesthetics’, ‘ontology’, etc.) in a non-critical way? Or else they are then compared: X and Y, Wang Yangming and Descartes. The ‘differences’ and ‘resemblances’ are tabulated from the start as one is subjected to the thought-language of the other, whether this is done in China or the West, as if language were transparent, as if the intervention of translation was neutral and did not relegate or add anything, and consequently without elaborating mediations, therefore also without constructing any relation to draw out a commonality of what is intelligible and that would allow for the possibility of dialogue. It will be understood that, as far as I am concerned – or rather according to what I have done – Chinese thought isn’t just an immense but still insufficiently prospected territory of thought, providing a large drawer of index cards and erudition, but can also serve as a theoretical operator. This is what I call thinking with Chinese thought: keeping it company, an always active company, even when I don’t mention it – in other words, to lavish its infinite resources in such a way as to lead me, or rather to provoke me, to think.

    If we don’t address this propedeutic questioning – or let’s call it this initiating problematic – if we don’t resolve to take account of these initial difficulties so as to think about how to construct the possible objects of a Sinological knowledge which would not just be based on erudition or repetition (of Chinese knowledge) under the illusion that these objects would be given in advance, if we don’t consider the conditions of such a scrutiny before we start to ‘compare’, then we can increase indefinitely its information but will find ourselves always condemned, unknowingly, to forced assimilation, embarked upon an equivalence or synonymy between languages that is always too quickly accorded. We shall still be giving in to the ease of translating 法 as ‘law’, without wondering what a law is when it doesn’t respond to any idea of justice and serves only as an oppressive apparatus aiming to maintain, among the so-called Chinese ‘jurists’ of Antiquity, an authoritarian – not to say totalitarian – order; or to translate xìn 信 by ‘sincerity’, without wondering what such sincerity can be when it means sticking to what one has said rather than saying what one thinks – in other words, conducting oneself in a reliable way. Or to translate one or another term (zhì 志, 意, …) by ‘ideal’, without questioning the conditions of possibility of such ideality in China since the dividing in two of the ‘ideal’ in relation to the ‘real’ isn’t emphasised. Can we neglect so many divergences when they contribute to thinking – or rather compel it, in what I’ve been referring to as ‘provoking’ it. For more than a century, ‘philosophy’ has been translated into Chinese, and now in a fixed and canonical way, by something like ‘clarity-application’ (‘study- imitation’, xué 学), this last term being the first character of the Analects of Confucius and expressing the importance of walking in the steps of one’s masters. From the very beginning, desire, or the insolent and impudent Erôs, is lost. In Greece, eros called for rupture and provoked the philosopher. In the Chinese term, his place is taken by a diligence which is inseparable from the ritual and internal investment that is required in order to conform with it – in other words, it is the exact opposite. Under the translation, in the shelter of established equivalence, the hidden misunderstanding remains intact. Is it even suspected?

    Desire – this, of course, is where everything starts. A disagreement that has sometimes arisen between myself and sinologists is probably based (no reason why it should be hidden or kept among those things that aren’t said) on the fact that we don’t place our desire in the same spot. My desire ‘for China’ isn’t due to admiration, fascination or any dream of assimilation or Sinisation – which I am happy to acknowledge as possible motivations – but a desire which, by passing through China, looks to it for support that would enable me to dissociate myself from my language and once more to begin again to philosophise in a plainer – and more radical? – way. We shouldn’t in fact ignore our subjective forms of investment, any more than we should the difference in the speed with which we think and that causes us to dare, circulate and operate in thought in diverse ways – as they say, arguments about ‘ideas’, when they don’t come about due to fear or the jealous and primary desire for elimination, relate above all to these divergences of ethos. Otherwise, at the risk of not understanding why we conceptualise – haven’t I said so often enough? – we don’t have to scorn history, or that philosophy, rather than making way for philology, on the contrary clarifies it.

    To take context into account, as sinologists are right forcefully to demand, doesn’t at all prevent promoting the concept – in other words, the very instrument of philosophy. To forge a concept based on Chinese thought (like those I have elaborated here: propensity, potential of the situation, receptivity and so on) is not at all to ‘essentialise’ Chinese thought. It isn’t to neglect its historic transformation, or even to privilege the long term, but to undertake, from a certain coherence that one perceives as being at work in Chinese texts, to form a concept that can then assume its generality for itself. To ‘essentialise’ sterilises, but what I do in contrast is to activate such a coherence by reflecting on it. In order words, the generality I produce is appropriate to the concept becoming an instrument of ‘reflection’, in the two senses I earlier indicated, and not that of a ‘Chinese thought’ which would be identified with it and so become mummified. Instead of abandoning it to mere occurrence, leaving it buried and confined to the narrowness of its reference, the captive of a single path, it is an abstraction which promotes, makes explicit, utilises this coherence and makes it work by deploying the possibilities and making it a tool of thought (of all thought).

    Two things will also need to be distinguished. On the one hand, we have what would be an excessive generalisation made in ignorance of the distinctions between schools and options at the heart of Chinese thought. This still organises discussions according to certain periods of its history when it became philosophical (at Jixia, in antiquity, or during the Song era) without carrying out the work of refutation as the Greeks did in such an outstanding and principled way. On the other hand, there is what I understand by a ‘ground of understanding’ of thought. As Zhuangzi, one of the greatest thinkers in ancient China, stated: ‘in any discussion, there is what is unquestioned’ (or, in any disputatio, there is the undisputed, zài biàn zhě yǒu bù biàn 在辩者有不辩). Therefore, I shall call this unquestioned or undisputed – or, better, undisputable – the ground of understanding, at once ground and source, which is not properly unthought but remains implicit and a condition of any clarification, in what thinkers understand among themselves, without even analysing it, and from which they can discuss with and refute one another. These ground(s) of understanding hold true just as much on the Greek side (and for the whole development of European philosophy). They are what they share in confidence and adherence, what aren’t questioned, even among sceptics, and above all they touch upon this element or common bath that the logos and its choice of truth has constituted (to doubt, denounce or abandon it isn’t to cut oneself off from it), and that it will be all the easier to explore – from the outside and through divergence – for the fact that the Chinese thought has from the start led us out of it.

    I also understand that an objection has been raised, and has even become increasingly proclaimed, against the enterprise on which I have embarked. It is argued that the time for such work has now passed. The page has been turned; the war, in other words, is over. There is no longer a ‘Chinese’ or a ‘European’ philosophy, due to the fact of the globalisation in which we are engaged, but we now have a common world philosophy which can be discussed at conferences and debates that occur today across the four corners of the globe and take place in the same language, or at least about the same questions and using the same planetary concepts. From now on, no matter where we come from, we find ourselves in the same modernity, and the language in which it is spoken is of no consequence: we now have to think that modernity. This is shown by the fact that cultural differences which up to the present gave consistency to the diversity of culture, differences that were very marked until recently, are gradually in the process of vanishing and even, through a sudden change of rhythm and scale, have recently broken down. And, as everyone knows, this is due to the fact that the globalisation of exchange has been completed and that technical standardisation, especially when it comes to communication, has ended up being planetised, carrying off the standardisation of ways of living, and therefore of thought, along with it. We now only have common global problems, which have become so much more crucial for their new scale (the ‘planet’, governance, globalisation and so on): philosophers of the world, unite in order to have your say!

    Who doesn’t remember precisely the boredom and long yawns that inexorably greet these forums with completely accredited, established and stamped notions, with questions that are now agreed to be the vital questions of the world? When a question is established and so easily distributed among the panel, it is already relinquished. And when I say it is ‘boring’, I’m not designating one rather depressing psychic state among others, but a demobilisation that descends over thought, leaving it with only the semblance of flight (as the university well knows). Consequently, there is nothing to stimulate one’s desire, unless it be due to the narcissism of the same ‘small differences’ that minutely assert positions and are alone in provoking discussion. Yet wouldn’t such boredom (of issues and topics) threaten the ‘world’ thinking ‘to come’ that you describe? Or we then clutch at the most recent novelty in thought, the latest authority, the ‘scoop’, the next thing (forming a happening: Walter Benjamin, deconstruction, Badiou and so on), but which, introduced as if into a market, soon becomes no more than a fashion and gets reabsorbed into the conventions unless precisely some divergence, appearing unhoped-for from somewhere, suddenly cuts into this lethargy to give a glimpse of a possible way out of the designated ground, a path which goes somewhere else, into the most shaded, tangled, unlocatable areas and along which we don’t know where we are going – Holzweg – but along which thought is again brought into question (into tension).

    I shall respond to all those whose discourse will lay claim to modernity by hypostasing or erecting it into a great historic subject, even when we are at a point when history is becoming unique, which means that, by doing this, they are also extolling a globality which, under this uniqueness and its apparent unanimity, is just as abstract. Indeed, if there is a European modernity, worked by its representation of the cut, itself developed under the tutelary myth of Revolution and generated by an increasingly sharper critical function, this cutting edge of the negative that for two centuries European thought has more and more radically turned against itself, which is what constitutes its historical singularity – such a modernity is then exported to (imposed upon) China (at the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the Opium wars, unequal treaties and concessions), theoretical globalisation thereby having started in an oppressed and dismembered China. There is, therefore, a Before and an After. Concerning this before, the relation of European and Chinese thought-languages is still to be constructed, the work is to be done – or in any case to be pursued. Otherwise, there would be a risk of maintaining a dangerous misunderstanding, a forced synonymy, between these heritages, that would still consider the thought of classical China, the one from before the encounter with the West, only through Western categorisations that were introduced after the event (with everything this ‘after the event’, nachträglich, suggests of reconfiguration). This had two consequences. On the Chinese side, it favoured culturalism and claims for a national ‘essence’ (‘Sinicity’) in reaction to this coating it sustained as soon as it (or any of the other cultures of the world) no longer recognised itself under these Western categories that have now become globalised. On the European side, it has favoured the reversal of the earlier ethnocentrism into a facile exoticism that assumes that ‘Far Eastern’ thought, which is no longer translated but misrepresented, would directly respond to our questions and in our language, and could of itself constitute a way out of what would be revealed, in comparison, to be our top-heavy dualisms – I’d especially designate the fantasies and trade in Zen and the ‘happiness according to Confucius’.

    On the other hand, and touching on the after, on the future of modernity–globality, can the scene that begins to appear really be the one that has been set out for us on a basis of questions and notions which would first of all be common (I insist on this ‘first of all’)? Would we finally arrive at this unrivalled – and universal – table of judgements and categories that Kant thought he could establish as he went beyond Aristotle, but which, considering it was also in his language (his Latin-German), he too was unable to reach? This is already to make the endurance of Babel and the diversity of languages into so many cheap goods. If (as long as) we do not converse in only one language, pidgin English or globish, if we still speak-think in Chinese or, to express this in a general way, in more than one language, we still won’t speak (think) exactly the same thing from the outset – some divergence continues, not in a residual way, but as fertile and subversive. This is so even if one is bilingual (in this case, one self-translates). The diversity of languages will be maintained not in a secondary way, even if these divergences appear at first glance reduced, but principally and radically in the tension of the divergence that confers thinking.

    We’ll have to go back once again to this blade that lies between divergence and difference and make use of its sharp edge. If differences between cultures are today blurred, with the resemblances still crossing over due to world uniformisation, and if cultures are therefore impelled to lose some of the identitarian characteristics that were attributed to them too fixedly and in an essentialising way, and to do so in a way that I believe would be propitious, it is very different for divergence, whose destiny cannot be associated with this decline. For, since it is agile, divergence, at whatever level or in whatever way it occurs, opens a breach in the conformism or atavism of thought – and so why would we deprive ourselves of the resource that, as if through an indentation, indefinitely brings to the surface the divergences located between the language-thoughts throughout the world, those that reveal other possibilities and open up a reflection that won’t close up again? Such divergences between languages are the only angle from which to begin to get a glimpse – which can only be oblique – of the means by which we think. They are therefore the levers by which to recover a surge in thinking by shaking off its lethargy and cracking open its complacent adhesions or its too swiftly acquired commonality. They offer a way of inscribing resistance towards the boredom of a consensus which, in not finding a way to confront itself, is prone towards becoming planetary and pandemic.

    To promote commonality from divergences

    It may seem that, if divergence is worked in thought, or if one starts by ‘diverging’ rather than by considering the divergence to be a cultural residue pleading to be absorbed, then humanity will appear to become dissociated: by its divergence, it would introduce a dissensus and form an obstacle to the common. Wouldn’t the formula be dangerous, perilous and ideologically risky (or, more bluntly, reactionary?). Yet I maintain that precisely the opposite is the case. The common is not the similar. This has to be said and said again in this age of facile uniformisation and forced assimilation, and presented as a principle. Braque argued the case for art: ‘Trouillebert resembles Corot, but they have nothing in common.’ Let’s recognise the radicalness of this formula and take it as a warning: not only is resemblance not an indication of commonality, but it presents an obstacle to it. Not only does it not favour it, but it checks its possibility. In resemblance, the common not only remains at the surface level, as a kind of veneer, and doesn’t work, but this similarity also dispenses with enquiry into it by loosening and dissolving its demand (as a concept, resemblance is even more lazy and inert than difference). Yet this can be understood in the most general way, as well as at the political level. I shall therefore propose it as a statement of departure: it is only by making divergences work that we can promote the common.

    Let’s distinguish two forms of the common: the common that is given to us and in which we discover ourselves (what might be called ‘natural’: from the family to the ‘nation’ – in other words, what we accept by being ‘born’, in living and in the cosmos … ); and the common we produce, or promote, as properly cultural and political. As such, the common signifies the inclusive sharing of what is inside, but one that becomes exclusive when the limit of this inside turns back into a frontier and banishes what is outside of it (as in communautarianism1). Differently from the universal, which is prescriptive, implying a necessity as a matter of principle, an a priori or logical necessity, that of the universal of science which Kant claimed to transfer to ethics, the common is established (and recognises itself) in its first sense, and is chosen or promoted in the second sense. We see this in the common of the City, in which the Greeks really perceived the founding concept of the political. But how is this common produced? Not by similitude, for this would be only repetition and cloning, but precisely by divergence which, by beginning to open up reflexivity and making it work, leading both of the separate sides to overflow as they enter into tension with the other, produces or promotes the common. I say by divergence, for this ‘by’ expresses the path followed even more than the cause or the means – in other words, proceeding through divergences and going beyond them – but this doesn’t equate with abandonment: the common doesn’t leave divergences behind, nor does it abandon them as being expired. On the contrary, to the extent to which these divergences are active, the common is intensive. Otherwise, it is only a coating of platitudes, like our ‘commonplaces’.

    It will therefore be necessary to gain access to the common – the proof of this, and in an exemplary way, being the commonality of the concept. Yet this commonality of the concept will be all the richer (more fruitful and active) in no longer being – flatly and calmly – a generality, but will be seen to be stimulated, called upon and provoked, by this open divergence that is even becoming gaping. This common will no longer just be a matter of a recoating (subsumption) but, through the evident divergence, will be tightened like a bow stretched by its extremities. In my recent enquiry into landscape, I was impelled as a resource to make use of two great cultures of landscape in the world – the only two, those of the Chinese and of the European, which have developed independently of one another and were for such a long time unaware of each other’s existence. By establishing them in a relation, I tried to produce a fresh concept of landscape. This was a concept that – through the widening divergence between them in this respect, which is no less than the one, to the point of forming an alternative, between opposing perspectives about living (in China) and seeing (in Europe) – became both a challenge and something like an injunction. There would really have to be a commonality of the intelligible, whether approached under the term of ‘landscape’, which is detached from the ‘land’, or what the Chinese still today call ‘mountain(s)-water(s)’, shān- shuǐ 山水, maintaining these as a correlated term. Therefore, instead of being content to think of each of these cultures of landscape separately, or as one of them covering over the other – the European prevailing over the Chinese due to the success of its conception of ‘nature’, that has become ‘physical’ – the concept of landscape, thereby placed in tension, commanded a reconfiguration that is all the more radical in that it needs to be open to this diversity, even to this opposition – but without breaking it.

    A net of divergences: from the question of Being to the thought of living

    But what form can this work in progress that has been initiated between the thought-languages of China and Europe take if any comprehensive introduction is distrusted when it is immediately seen to include one within the frameworks of the other and would from the outset miss the between of their divergence in which the common is promoted? Or what mode of deployment – dare I speak of progress? – would not immediately be susceptible to folding back into a projected ideological construction? Each opposition selectively organised here, each conceptual divergence set out, crossing one thread over the other, is simply a mesh. Yet a mesh is a loop which keeps any between from coming through; it is only an intersection whose logic is then strictly additive. One mesh calls for another in its wake; consistency results only from this sequence. A certain number of meshes are also needed to make a net, or let’s say that, as I work, my successive essays simply constitute one chapter at a time. The word I use is net and not system. A system assumes a closure and it imposes an internal organisation consisting of parts whose assembly is so well ordered, according to its Stoic concept, that no element within it is even slightly displaceable. In our modernity, and since German Romanticism and Nietzsche, the archipelago and the fragment – in other words, a dispersal of impossible totality – have been preferred to this. Yet a net doesn’t depend upon one or another logic; it increases indefinitely, going from one mesh to the next, solely from the intersections that it operates and re-operates by passing through and prolonging. A net only exists through its texture and the network that it gradually causes to appear, and yet doesn’t depend on a structure. Conceptual divergences follow one another, link up with one another, respond to one another and communicate together, but they raise no architecture; still less can they represent worlds.

    And yet what is a net for? Like the fisherman’s net, it is used to catch, and what I have proposed to catch, by weaving this problematic net stretched between the thought-languages of China and Europe, is their unthought. But a net consequently has another use. By catching and containing, it assumes a shape that corresponds with what is collected in it – it holds together as it configures itself. It is left to move in a flexible way because it is spaced out, meshed and pierced; it doesn’t enclose but envelops, remaining light, like a hairnet as it holds hair together. Yet what this net woven from conceptual divergences gradually and progressively configures keeps together, mesh by mesh, in a reticulated way – in the way that this gathering, one without any frame, retains its flexibility and receptivity – and is revealed after the event to be a way out of the ‘question of Being’, a clearing, or rather a disengagement from ‘ontology’, both from the ‘ontology of Being and of the subject’. This departure can be done only on the way, step by step, in proportion to this weaving and its progress. Can an effective way out of ontology only be organised by being projected and constructed – even by ‘de-constructing’ it?

    We know that this departure from ontology, which from Heidegger to Levinas and Derrida has been one of the great vocations of philosophy in the twentieth century, is always threatened with contradiction: we might be doing everything to get out of the question of Being, but as we do so we are still in the language of ‘being’. In other words, we continue to speak the language of ontology at the very moment we are challenging it most firmly, or we continue to speak the language of ‘presence’ at the very moment we claim to be deconstructing it irreparably (remember Derrida to Levinas in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ in Derrida, 1978: 79–153, and Levinas to Derrida in return in ‘Wholly Otherwise’; see Levinas, 1996: 55–62). For in what other language could it actually be expressed while remaining in Europe? Or how to ‘come out’ if one can’t go in? – to enter an elsewhere that is neither preconceived nor premeditated? Isn’t the Judaic elsewhere itself too inscribed in Europe, equally forming Europe, to be an elsewhere to the extent of being troubling or defamiliarising? But also in the encounter with Chinese thought-language, this departure from ontology can then only be done by small shifts, as I have warned, in a way that is already first of all local, through successive divergences, mesh by mesh; by translation, de-translation and re-translation; de- and re-categorisation – in other words, by progressive, patient and modest accommodation, by ‘weaving’ and without some trumpeted Revelation.

    Yet, what will we already have entered if we emerge from the question of Being? This emergence from ontology is not discovered all at once, but mesh by mesh, by passing from one divergence to the next, through successive attempts, and is, if considered universally and retrospectively, by a turning-back, a way out of the ‘question of Being’, the Seinsfrage, that is at the same time an entry into the thought of living. The question of ‘being’ or the thought of ‘living’ is the principal articulation, or generic alternative, that will enable us to perceive this net, in filigree, mesh by mesh. But isn’t ‘living’ itself too elementary and indefinite to allow us to think in this way with respect to Being, or how to approach it? In order to elaborate the question and make a start, let’s say that if ‘to exist’ is an originating term of theology and belongs to metaphysics, according to that initial interrogation that projects us out of the world, then the question is raised: ‘Why do I exist?’ And if, on the other hand, ‘life’ or ‘living’ above all reflect the biological – in other words, only its metabolic renewal – living will start to be defined and limited so that it won’t slip into the one any more than it will be reduced to the other. Hence that living, between the two, is fundamentally an ethical category – or I would even say that it is strategic before being ethical. The question is to attain living, or, as I said earlier, to gain access to the common. Or, as everyone in Europe recalls in their own way, but as an injunction or a pious wish, not fully but implicitly, indirectly, as an aside and without being able to make it the very object of one’s thinking: ‘Don’t forget to live!’ said Goethe (Gedenke zu leben); or ‘we must try to live’ (the last strophe of Valéry’s ‘Cimetière marin’); or ‘Learn finally to live’ (Derrida’s last interview). But what does it mean to gain access to ‘living’? And why is it always kept until the end?

    This does not mean that, by entering into one thought, we are abandoning the other one. What does ‘coming out of’ actually mean? It isn’t to flee; nor is it a renunciation. What I understand by a passing through China is contrary to a certain messianic conception according to which the way out of ontology would be the object of an expectation and a hope that would mark such an emergence from the ‘question of being’ as a liberation. This question of Being, from its determination of the truth as well as its consequent erection of an ideality, has notably opened up the possibility of both an unparalleled scientific development and an ethical and political construction. In particular, in touching upon the question of Being, can we abandon its force of enigma and invention? Or let’s consider things reciprocally: Chinese thought, as it comes out of its ‘Taoist’ thinking upon meeting the ontological thinking of Europe, also experienced a liberation (and, above all, a release from its ‘royal way’ – in other words, in fact, from its autocratic regulation). It is therefore not a matter of abandoning one way of thinking for another, or of arranging one way of thinking under the other, any more than it is of putting the European under the Chinese, through a reversal of past alienation – in other words, by converting to one or the other side – but of envisaging these ways of thinking in terms of their respective resources, or of what I’d call their fertility.

    When I try to develop the coherences of Chinese thought (and I must do so with all the more commitment in relation to a Western public which, in a general way, doesn’t know it – or if it does, it is only at second or third hand – in other words, according to an uncontrolled doxa that inclines towards fantasising), it is really the opposite of exoticism. This means that, notwithstanding the illusion generated, it is not a matter of rejecting or devaluing European coherences reshaped in relation through this open alternative. It is rather a matter of rediscovering them from the outside in their inventiveness so as to regain them at once in their singularity and in their possibilities. Indeed, nothing is more fraudulent than that false ideological currency which, under the cover of Orientalism and the appeal to live, has caused its trade in happiness to prosper in the West in a way that constitutes only a flaccid thinking, and not at all an other or a counter- thought, still less another possibility of thinking. If, finally (just as from the outset), I recommend the form of ‘divergence’, of the tension it sets up and maintains and in which it keeps us engaged and functioning, but in a way that never ends and that doesn’t give in to the facility of any conclusion or reconciliation, it is because it constantly puts reason back to work but without ever disqualifying it and so, by appealing to our freedom, it re-establishes choice in thinking.


    1 Communautarisme: this term is to an extent a French equivalent of ‘identity politics’, although with a stronger sense of identification, implying that one identifies more strongly with an immediate community than with the greater society, and often to the exclusion of other groups [trans.].


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