Claude Boisson writes by e-mail:
We are very proud of this French peculiarity, which never fails to impress foreigners.
But Jean Piaget, the psychologist, wrote a little book (Sagesse et illusions de la philosophie, 1965) in which he suggested that premature exposure to philosophy could be detrimental to good thinking. According to him, adequate philosophizing presupposes the mastery of a science, and young students in France are encouraged to vaticinate in a void.
Piaget was guilty of scientism, to be sure, but his view has some merit. Bad bad students, or bad good students (i.e. "bright" students who have learned rhetoric but don't really care about thinking), can get intoxicated with words.
That may account in part for French philosophical bullshitting of the Derrida type.
Professor Boisson is on to something. But permit me a quibble. While "vaticinate in a void" has a nice alliterative ring to it, it is not so much that young students in France are encouraged to prophesy but to think in ways that are excessively abstract and verbal and insufficiently attentive to empirical data and scientific method. So I suggest 'ratiocinate in a void.'
The underlying problem, and it is not merely a problem for the French, is that of the "two cultures" to borrow a phrase from a lecture and a book by C. P. Snow, now over 50 years past. There is literary culture and scientific culture and tension between them. Jean Piaget sounds the same theme in his Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (World Publishing, 1971, tr. Wolfe Mays). This is the book whose French title Boisson supplies above. I read it in 1972 but it didn't dissuade me from graduate work in philosophy the next year. I began re-reading it this morning at the considerable temporal distance of 41 years. I hope to dig into and 'blog' some of its details later or perhaps in this very entry.
One of the curious things about the denigrators and opponents of philosophy is that they never hesitate to philosophize themselves when it suits their purposes. But somehow, when they do it, it is not philosophy. It is something worthwhile and important and true! These scientistic denigrators never just stick to their laboratories and empirical research. For example, Piaget's second chapter bears the bold and sweeping title, "Science and Philosophy." He makes all sorts of interesting arm-chair claims and bold assertions about the respective natures of science and philosophy and the relations between them. One wonders how careful, plodding empirical research bears upon these Piagetian pronunciamentos from the arm chair. They are obviously not scientific assertions, though they are the assertions of a scientist.
In doing what he is doing Piaget must presuppose the validity of at least some philosophical thinking, his own. What is annoying is when people like him fail to own up to what they are doing and refuse to admit that it is philosophy. In an unbearably tendentious manner, they use 'philosophy' to refer to something cognitively worthless while posturing as if what they are doing is cognitively worthwhile and so can't be philosophy! Richard Dawkins plays this game in a discussion with Stephen Law. Law made a non-empirical, wholly conceptual point with which Dawkins agreed, but Dawkins refused to take it as evidence of the cognitive value of some philosophy. Does Dawkins think that philosophy is by definition cognitively worthless? If so, then I say that Dawkins is by definition an idiot.
But I digress.
Returning to the "Science and Philosophy" chapter of Insights and Illusions, we observe that Piaget makes bold to speak of the meaning of life, a question his positivist colleagues, wielding their version of Hume's Fork, the dreaded Verifiability Criterion of Cognitive Significance, had consigned to the dustbin of cognitive meaninglessness. He calls it "the most central problem motivating all philosophy . . . the problem of the 'finality' of existence." (Insights and Illusions, p. 42) But then he goes on to say this: "To begin with finality [teleology], this concept is the prototype of those concepts that positivism considers to be metaphysical and nonscientific, and rightly so, since it concerns an anthropocentric idea, originating in a confusion between conscious subjective data and the causal mechanism of action, and involving, under the form of 'final causes,' a determination of the present by the future." (Ibid.)
My question to Piaget: one the basis of which empirical science do you know this to be the case? Or is this just another ex cathedra (literally: 'from the chair') asseveration?