WHY PHILOSOPHY? FRANÇOIS JULLIEN
interview and portrait by olivier zahm
TRANSLATION BY STEVEN B. KENNEDY
OLIVIER ZAHM — The question is as simple as it is broad: why philosophy? What can philosophy do for us today, in 2022, during a period of generalized confusion, political chaos, and nihilism?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Every era has its uncertainties, but now uncertainty is the reigning ambiance. In the face of that, philosophy today is in retreat, faced with books about the business of happiness and personal development, books that aren’t really books but rather recipes for life. It’s an avalanche of flimsy, insubstantial thought.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Has philosophy given up on the domain of the living?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, philosophy of Greek origin has focused on thinking about being, the search for truth and knowledge, and the shadow world of pure ideas, and has ignored the question of living.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it that living can’t be defined through concepts?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Living hasn’t been dealt with by philosophy because Greek thought developed around the abstraction of the idea, of its generality. Truth re- sided not in the physical but in the metaphysical. It based itself on the clarity of thought, whereas life is vague, singular, and ambiguous. Traditionally, in Eu- rope, living has been the province of religion and morality. And with religion in retreat today, the question of living has been neglect- ed, deserted, which explains the market for personal development and happiness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is life your philosophical subject?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That’s where I’ve directed my thought, with the idea of bringing the question of living to the level of the concept. If you say “life,” you’re already saying “general,” but living is al- ways particular. That’s what I learned from delving into Chinese thought, which tends to think in terms of the unclear. Clarity is not the choice of all human understanding. It is a choice brought about by Greek thinking, a choice that worked its way into the foundations of philosophy. Whereas Chinese thought, especially Taoism, has no problem with thinking in an obscure way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, philosophy is not necessarily on the side of clear answers; it can disrupt and disturb.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Philosophy was made to disturb. Since Socrates, it has been designed to upset things, to question. It is made to generate tools of thought that don’t provide solutions but rather cast into doubt our prefabricated ideas. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not philosophy — it’s pseudo-philosophy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And can philosophy orient us, or reorient us, in the midst of con- fusion?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Philosophy invites us to think in a specific way: by develop- ing concepts as a tool of thought. It is eminently active in the capacity of liv- ing better or reflecting on experience. It provides a lever for working out our experience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You took a side trip through Chinese philosophy — a school of thought about which we know next to nothing. At a time when China can become the world’s leading power, it’s interesting to ask about the mode of Chinese thought. You went right into it.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I went first into the Chinese language, classical language, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries. It’s been a long philological effort.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were quite young when you start- ed to dive into Chinese language and texts?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, I was still a philosophy student. I was a Hellenist. I was told that we are the philosophical heirs of the Greeks. And I asked myself, when I was very young, “What can we know about that heritage if we’ve never ventured outside of it?” And when I discovered Chinese thought, I felt our ways of thinking being shaken. But at the outset, I knew nothing about China. I only knew that it didn’t use the verb “to be.” You can’t say “I am” in Chinese. You can say, “I’m here” or “I’m tired,” but not “I am” or “I am not,” “being” or “nothingness.” So right away, you’re in another place. I plunged into an un- known language and literature from outside the Indo- European family and into an ideographic writing system that had remained unchanged until very recently. There I found the conditions of exteriority that I felt I needed, so I went to live in China — at the very worst time — and then in Japan and Hong Kong.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was your idea as a young philosopher going to China?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I was looking for a change of mental scenery. I told myself at the time: “I’m learning Chinese in order to under- stand Plato better.” Because when you experience another way of thinking by leaving behind the language of “being” and ideas like liberty, truth, and individuality… When you say goodbye to this set of ideas, the striking question is, “How do I think?” It wasn’t a question of becoming sinologized or an expert in Chinese thought, but of making the round trip between here and there. Of mining the écart, or the distance between the two modes of thought. So, working from the outside, the idea was to be able to interrogate our own thinking through what it doesn’t think — that is, in the implicit biases that it doesn’t see.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The unthought of our thinking?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — For me, yes, it’s a matter of probing the unthought corners of our thinking, but you can’t approach them head on! You have to devise strategies, ruses, as Nietzsche would say, oblique knowledge, passing through China to get a diagonal take on the unthought of our think- ing. I don’t compare Chinese thought and European thought. I try to arrange face-offs of thought to make one ponder, make one sound oneself out in one direction and the other so as to recreate the field of the thinkable. There is a huge benefit to using China as a theoretical operator.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a gamble. You didn’t know what you were getting into?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — If it hadn’t worked out, I would have stopped. Anyway, it was a gamble. I went to China; I learned classical Chinese because modern Chinese is too easy. But classical Chinese is something else altogether. And then I had to dive into commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries… It’s another linguistic world because it’s a language that has no grammar, no morphology, and does not construct statements.
OLIVIER ZAHM — No morphology, so no syntax?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That’s right, neither morphology nor syntax. There are no main and subordinate clauses, no relative or conjunctive clauses. That entire apparatus, which seems obvious to us, does not exist in Chinese. Moreover, there are no conjugations or declensions. Chinese verbs are not conjugated. So, statements can be under- stood only with reference to their context. That assumes an effort of memory that has made the literate Chinese what they are. You must be well-read to delve into Chinese. Patient read- ing, learning, memorization.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is it possible to think without morphological and syntactic constructions?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — The Chinese think as much as we do, of course. It’s a form of thought that proceeds through interrelated formulations that respond to each other. It means that instead of constructed statements, you have thought based on correlations. That’s the basic principle behind yin and yang. To say “landscape,” you say “mountain/ water.” To say “world,” you say “sky/ earth.” China uses thought by correlation, whereas we use thought by construction. You have to appreciate where ours comes from: language. First, the alphabet, a mode of writing. Letters, then syllables, then words, then clauses, then sentences, then speech.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You haven’t attracted a following. There isn’t much sinology in French thought.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Indeed. Sometimes I feel a little lonely. My position is not only to combine Western philosophy and Chinese thought, but also to have China play the role of theoretical operator, akin to a lever to be used to submit philosophy to reinterrogation. That was my building project.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that was how you became a philosopher?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No, I was a philosopher from the start.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were a student of philosophy, with low odds of becoming a philosopher. There are just a handful, maybe 10 per generation max, all countries included.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That’s true. All the same, it was what I wanted most… What I wanted to do when I was 20 was to say goodbye to Greece, not for lack of interest but to go elsewhere and to see, from that else- where, how to read Socrates. In a word, to learn to read Chinese so as to understand Platobetter. That’s my personal mantra. Nothing will persuade me to let go of that. It has been my work for 20-plus years. Beginning 10 or 12 years ago, my work changed a bit to come back more toward a general philosophy, which explains my recent books on the subject of living.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Essays on intimacy, on the second life.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — And the most recent works — L’Inouï: Ou l’Autre Nom de Ce Si Lassant Réel (Ungraspable: Or the Other Name for This Very Tiring Reality), De la Vraie Vie(OnRealLife),and L’Incommensurable (Immeasurable). The ungraspable and elusive, reality, real life, the personal and intimate: they offer the greatest resistance to philosophical conceptualization. That’s what fascinates me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A last word on Chinese culture: any other comparisons between Chi- na and the West?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — In paint- ing, for example. Take Leon Battista Alberti’s On Paint- ing from the Renaissance. He theorizes about points, lines, surface elements, surfaces, bodies. In other words: composition. To which we might compare, from the Chinese side, a logic of correlation — the yin/yang pairings of the south- and north-facing slopes of the mountain, the sunny side and the shady side, the earth and the sky, and so on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Things are always in relation in Chi- nese thought?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, in correlation, in opposing but complementary terms. In- separable, like right and left, earth and sky, day and night.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You say that this occurs in terms of energy, interaction, change.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Indeed. If you are not thinking like we do in terms of being as pure existence, you are thinking in terms of flux. And Chinese thought is the thought of flux.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Of movement, transition, intersections?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — In Chinese thought, one is always situated. There is no being in the sense of pure existence. And that, obviously, creates a huge distance from our way of thinking and blocks the entrance to the ontological path. China thinks in terms of flux, flux in interaction, mutation, mutual influence. And that is effectively a vision of a world in continuous transformation, which I call “silent transformation,” with totally different strategic thought and totally different ethical thought as well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That way of thinking is very mysterious to us…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, although it isn’t at all mystical or mysterious. But it disrupts us in our language and requires us to think in terms of flux, reciprocal influences, respiration, vectors, factors, renewal. The term “energy” is too Greek.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What I’m about to say may be very ethnocentric, but how is it that this richness, this subtlety of thought that is always relative, about transition, modification, and the impermanence of things, should be so invisible? When China is visible, it is of- ten modeled on our Western ideas of truth, efficiency, and so on…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — You’re absolutely right. First of all, there is a historical reason. We went into China and imported our truth. First with Christian mis- sions, but that had very little influence. At the end of the 19th century, through Japan, China followed in the footsteps of the West, of European science. Today, if you read a newspaper article in China, nine-tenths of the categories are Western: politics, beauty, science, and so on. It’s Western language converted into Chinese, but Western language is what has become established in the world. Starting with science, which provides a basic foundation for everything else. And then there is the fact that the concept, that universal tool, is something everybody can take hold of and apply. Anybody can grab a hammer or saw. But as for the subtleties of the Chinese language, as you said, you have to pass through the language, the commentaries. Access to them is much more restricted than to the commodity of the conceptual tools, which are available to anyone’s understanding, as Kant would say. So there is a major historical reason… And there is another reason, namely that the conceptual has universal author- ity, whereas to get at the subtlety of the implicit one must follow a long path, so only the very literate have access to it. You need learn- ing, initiation, something on the order of patience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even for the Chinese themselves?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Of course!
OLIVIER ZAHM — To reclaim their own mode of thinking?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — They have to reclaim their own culture by disentangling themselves from the conceptualizations of Western categories, which they were obliged to borrow for historical reasons.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That or they go study in the United States…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — The point is that often they don’t disengage. There are very few Chinese men and women of letters today. When you compare translations of ancient Chinese texts into modern Chinese, you see the immense loss caused by the use of Western categories that aren’t appropriate but have the advantage of handy universalism. And that leads Chinese scholars to say, “Our culture is not communicable; only we understand it.” Which gives rise to a sort of nationalistic disdain because, obviously, the facile universality of to- day’s world categories does not suit China — or Japan, either.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you give us an example?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. The notion of “beautiful” has taken hold everywhere in the world. But that notion rendered in Chinese, [Meˇilì de], is not at all a Chinese (or Japanese) category. In China, thought about artistic practices does not necessarily fall into the category of the beautiful, yet that category is now imposed everywhere in the world. Even the Chinese use it, but that puts them cross-wise with their own traditions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in a way, China has decultured itself?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Absolutely. They’re under the yoke of globalized Western categories, but now there is a nationalistic overlay of resentment and rejection.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A need for decolonization.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, ac- companied by nationalistic claims to an ineffable, superior culture because that culture doesn’t lend itself to being described or trans- lated in European terms. So, translation is necessary… The danger is to consider Chinese thought irrational, mystical, incomprehensible, which it certainly is not!
OLIVIER ZAHM — An obscure body of thought.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — In fact, Chinese thought is very coherent, but appreciating its coherence requires the patience to approach it with- out falling into the trap of pseudo-universal categories, which are, in reality, Western categories.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I would like to return to one of your ideas, “silent transformation,” wherein China is much more at ease with the un- expressed or unasserted acceptance of a quiet, discreet evolution of things. What we see happening in China is that things are changing very quickly with- out a very clear position ever being staked out.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Absolutely. Without crowing about innovation or success, as we do in Europe. Great Chinese thinking is thinking about processes and the nature of process, which is the meaning of the term Tao. The Way, not in the sense of a way that leads to something like a truth or a historical goal, but the Way of viability, that is, the way through which things pass, fluidity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that is the Tao?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, that’s it, the Way. The term “Way” can have differ- ent meanings. It’s not a way that leads to a promised land or a truth; it’s the viable, lifelike way in which everything happens, in the manner of breath passing through our body. That viability, or sustainability, is the great richness of Chinese thought, linked as it is to the idea of process. The world is process, not becoming. The world for Chi- na is a continuous process of silent transformation marked by sonorous outcrop- pings. At the same time, be- cause the transformation is global and continuous for China, it is not perceived, measured, noticed, or talked about. But because no one is looking into that ongoing silent transformation, when something does emerge, it’s already fully formed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s too late…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Take aging, for example. We don’t feel ourselves aging because it’s comprehensive and continuous. It’s not one more gray hair, a change in our complexion or voice, it’s a whole. Because it’s every- thing, nothing stands out enough to be noticed. But then you see a photo from 20 years ago, and you say, “Wow, I’ve aged.” That is the visible and noisy out- cropping of a silent trans- formation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this aspect of Chinese thought has led you to formulate your own philosophy, which you have defined by two key concepts: the French word écart and the between.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I’ll start with the concept of écart so as to distinguish it from difference and differentiation. Difference was the great concept of the previous generation in philosophy: Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and their peers. Thinking about difference was revived by the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, of course. That was fundamental in modern French thought — namely that the sign exists only as a differential. There is no essence. No form of ontology is possible anymore, so what counts in language is the system of differences. That was Saussure’s great idea, which, in a way, removed the possibility of ontology. That’s why it was so important for Derrida and 20th- century French thought.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did that make metaphysics impossible?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Because there was no longer any superior entity, only differences. No more entity, no more being. Ontology and metaphysics no longer interest linguists. It really is the notion of difference that is at work. Ontology was hollowed out by Saussurian thought, by Saussure’s linguistic position that signs count only in their difference.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why was the concept of difference so important for modern philosophy?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That was a model for 20th-century thinking. Difference serves to identify through differentiation. Identity and difference have long been a couple in philosophy and, as Aristotle said, from difference to difference until you get to the essence of the thing, which defines it. Difference sorts things. It is one of the great tools of Aristotelian thought, which sets up typologies. Using differences, you can sort and classify. But you’re eliminating as well because once you’ve defined A by its difference with respect to B, you drop B and keep A.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And so you eliminate the Other?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Right. So difference reduces, sorts, isolates. The écart in my own philosophy does the opposite. The écart unsorts. In French we say écart de langue (language gap), écart de conduite (breach of con- duct), or il a fait un écart (he swerved). So the écart is an exploratory, heuristic concept. For me, the question is how far the écart can extend. For example, how far does the écart between Chinese language and European language reach?
OLIVIER ZAHM — How far can an écart extend?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That’s the whole question. Think- ing about differences makes distinctions, whereas an écart opens up a distance. If I want to hang two paintings together, I look for the right distance between them. If they’re too close together, they cancel each other out or encroach on each other. If they’re too far from each other, they’re no longer together, no longer related. The écart creates a distance, but the objects retain a relationship. An écart de langue, a gap to be bridged, escaping from the conventional, the expected, the already known. As a philosopher and sinologist, I explore possible écarts as so many enrichments between Chinese language and thought and Euro- pean language and thought. But at the same time, a relationship is sustained across the écart. It’s not an infinite distance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What does your concept of the écart reveal?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — It reveals the “between,” but a between under tension, a working between. A stretched between opened up by the écart between cultures, between individuals, between ideas. This between is a fertile, productive, philosophical resource. I believe that the diversity of cultures should not be thought of in terms of identity and difference, but it can be thought about in terms of écart and resources.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you reject the concept of cultural identity?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. For example, I have often been asked: what is Europe’s cultural identity? But there is no cultural identity proper to Europe. In fact, there are cultural écarts between languages and countries, which constitute Europe’s richness. Is Europe secular or Christian? It is the écart between the two that is interesting. Europe lies between a Christian tradition and the secular tradition of the Enlightenment. And it is that, its tension, its fertility — not what Europe is — that makes Europe. In Pascal, you have the geometrician, the mathematician, on the one hand, and the believer on the other — in the same person. It is that écart that constitutes Pascal’s intelligence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And so the écart is a philosophical re- source.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — The écart is a distance which, by opening, creates tension. The resource is in the tension. That’s what is fertile; that’s what is doing the work; it doesn’t let itself be reduced just like that into intellectual notions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why not translate écart as “gap”?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Because it’s the opposite. “Gap” implies separation, the space between the running board and the platform. But an écart is not a separation, not a ditch. It is the opening of a distance that puts things in a reflective relation to one another, creating a tension between them.
OLIVIERZAHM—So, how would you translate it in English?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — By the French word écart. Languages have their own fertility. They never stop exchanging and appropriating words. It’s interesting that “entre” is not “être.” “Between” is not “being.” That’s essential because “between” is something that has no property, no determination; it has no being, no “in itself.” “Between” is the space through which things pass, the space in which they operate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have an example in Chinese culture of the importance of this in-between space?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — There is no anatomy in traditional Chinese medicine, no constitutive parts or separate organs, but there is the circulation of energy on which the acupuncturist works. Flows of energy that are very finely described, from the hair on your head to your toenails. It is these vessels of energy that produce animation. The original “between” is the breath circulating within us, in the between.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your recent concept of “de-coincidence”? You wrote a book about it.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — That follows from the concept of écart. My concern here is a more political one. When I look back over my path, I have wanted to escape from the coincidence of be- ing born into European philosophy, so I de-coincided myself by going to China. To de-coincide is to step out of built-in matches…
OLIVIER ZAHM — So as to create an écart?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, it springs from the concept of the écart. My idea relates to a world, our world, which, with its globalized market and political impotence, has stopped trying to overturn things, ceased seeking revolution or wholesale change. But even overturning means turning something upside down, which, in a way, is to stay in the same configuration. Decoinciding, by contrast, means splitting, fissuring—it is fissures that cause caves to collapse. So, not to overturn things, because we lack the power, and things would remain the same; not to denounce, because the denunciations won’t be heard; but to split certainties. Decoinciding means fissuring the great ideological coincidences so as to reclaim the initiative and put society back to work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fascinating, in a political sense. You’ve moved from the personal to the political.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I would like to engage society more with this concept of de-coincidence. For a year, I’ve been putting together a group with a lot of artists, a lot of “psys” (psycho- therapists, psychoanalysts, and so on), and management types. I’ve written about efficiency, so that reels them in…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And people from the trans community as well?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I would like that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Questions of drugs and addiction, too?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I started a project on addiction and de-coincidence because “leaving addiction” doesn’t mean much. Leaving addiction to go where? Back to normal life? Psychoanalysts will tell you that you don’t give up addiction, you move from one addiction to another. Whereas to de-coincide your addiction is to undo it, to split it from within. The same is true for the analytical cure. As Freud said, patients who are trapped in a traumatic psychic coincidence hang onto it while suffering from it. So, we have to identify these ideological and psychological coincidences and try to find crossing points where we can de-coincide from the traumatic source. In art, I am an artist insofar as I de-coincide from art al- ready created. In philosophy, I think only insofar as I de-coincide from what has already been thought, inso- far as I step out of the intellectual coincidence in which I find myself, inso- far as I fissure in order to move away from it, not to overturn it but to open an écart that will enable me to regain the initiative to think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To regain the initiative.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — In the Latin sense of the word initium, beginning.