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Bernard-Henry Levy (3) vs. Jacques Derrida; Carlin advances

There wasn’t much enthusiasm yesterday, but I do have to pick a winner, so I’ll go with Zbicylist’s comment: “Carlin. Are there 7 words you can’t say in a seminar? Let’s find out.”

And today we have two more modern French intellectuals! I don’t have much of anything to say about either of these guys so I’ll pass this one on to all of you.

P.S. As always, here’s the background, and here are the rules.


  1. Martyn says:

    I vote for Derrida.

    Bernard-Henry Levy (or BHL as he is called in France) is a millionaire dilettante who has exploited the French love of intellectuals to insert himself into public life. But he is singularly unqualified to be one.

    Here is all you need to know about BHL. In his 2010 book “De la guerre en philosophie”, he quoted extensively a critique of Kant by the philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul (1896-1947). But Botul never existed. He is a satirical creation by the writer Frédéric Pagès. The fact that his school of thought is called “botulism” might have been a bit of a clue, and a few minutes on Google would have uncovered Botul’s origins.

    It might be said that BHL was amply demonstrating one of the central principles of post-struturalist philosophy, that “the author’s intended meaning is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives” (Wikipedia). But even then Derrida wins.

  2. WB says:

    Among French intellectuals, I’d rather hear from a corpse than an active public figure. My vote goes to Derrida.

  3. Tom says:

    Who goes about deciding that people are intellectuals? If an intellectual does something dumb (like walking into a streetlamp while talking on the phone) do they get disbarred?

    Whenever there are revolutions around the world the news talks about groups of intellectuals in that country, who appear to talk about revolution, but take no part in the violence – that is pretty smart, so maybe that is how one qualifies.

    I’m with WB on this, but really I think that the only reason one of these is going through is because they are up against another ‘intellectual’. Derrida to fall at the next hurdle.

    • Andrew says:


      No single stupid thing will disbar someone as an intellectual, but if you do enough of them, people will make fun of you. Just don’t run down any sociologists in a parking lot. We’re running low on sociologists as it is.

      • Martyn says:

        Quoting a non-existent philosopher isn’t like walking into a lamppost. It’s a fundamental failure of scholarship.

        This is certainly not the only dumb thing BHL has said or done. Whole books have been written. See “Une imposture française” by Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer, or “Le nouveau B.A. BA du BHL” by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de La Porte. The latter is available in English translation as “The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland” (Can you see a pattern?).

  4. gdz says:

    In the photo it’s neither BHL nor Derrida, but DSK !

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:
    “Big glasses and a sea of cigarette smoke. Black leather pants, bellbottoms. There’s not an empty seat in sight, and at the front of the room, there’s a man in his mid-forties. Every pair of eyes and ears hones in on him, and for one hour, two hours, more, he talks in his distinctive French accent. The year is 1975, and the man is Jacques Derrida.”

    I actually have heard a Derrida seminar. It was horrible. BHL may well be no better and I’m sympathetic to Martyn above, but I’ll go with the devil I don’t know. Paul de Man might be interesting as well.

  6. zbicyclist says:

    from Wikipedia: “Lévy directed the widely panned 1997 romance film Day and Night. It is considered by critics the worst film of 1997 along with Batman & Robin.”

    “Derrida … had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, anthropology, historiography, linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, feminism, and gay and lesbian studies.”

    So they both have a lot to answer for. Flip a coin.

  7. Nick says:

    Not sure if you saw this:

    I guess this is a vote for Derrida, since the position of ideal seminar speaker is clearly not a competition that can be “won” by measuring the various aspects of people (or things) that would satisfy the definition of that position and selecting the one most quintessential (as would traditionally be done in a “Western” scientific mode of inquiry). Rather, the position is simply constructed by the community, by which I mean in one sense the community of Columbia University, and also the community commonly referred to as “academia” (of course that raises the question of *who* is doing the commonly referring but I will not address that question here), but in reality, merely the select few who comment on this blog. And if the speaker qua speaker will be heard in a literal sense by those very same people who have already determined that the person is speaker qua ideal seminar speaker, then is anything actually heard at all?

    I think not.

    • Jonathan (another one) says:


    • Steen says:

      I second this. How is Derrida not seeded? A paradigmatic figure, who looms large over many seminars. Seems like Lévy would just barely beat out Garrison Keillor in the 65 vs. 64 match.

      I think the next (nonfictional) tournament should feature Kanye West vs. the guy who did ‘Batman and Robin’

      Nitpick: s/Bernard-Henry/Bernard-Henri/

      p.s. thanks for adjusting the title format!

  8. Martin says:

    Derrida. Because among those in the category of (French) intellectuals of which to be dismissive counts as a sign of intellectual seriousness and integrity, especially if no word of them has been read, Derrida is simply the bigger name, for Sokal reasons. And w/r/t the latter, who is the sole reason many people have an opinion on Derrida, and a strong one at that, Derrida might have to say something, though it might not be possible to find out what it means, precisely, or at all, or maybe that’s the point?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Discussing “modern French intellectuals” in 2015 is about like discussing the “modern French army” in 1940.

  10. Roy says:

    Perhaps we can declare that they both lose, and move forward one of the deserving people who lost earlier.

    • Xi'an says:

      (+1) I second this motion, they both have no appeal as seminar speakers and as “intellectuals”, which is anyway an empty notion attributed to them by the media rather than an academic body. Better invite Sokal!

  11. JL FOULLEY says:

    Difficult to choose between Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionivism and Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL), a leading member of the so called movement of “new philosophers” who emerged in French universities after the 1968 events.
    If deconstructionivism can be viewed as a way of questioning the canons of art especially architecture, I would be curious to see what Derrida and BHL (one of his students) have to say about science and technology. Although I would be inclined to vote for Jacques Derrida, I am afraid of the jargon of modern philosophy To avoid that, I would have suggest to ask Gaston Bachelard (“La formation de l’esprit scientifique”) or Georges Canguilhem or Jacques Monod (“Chance and necessity”) to give such a seminar due to their knowledge also in physics and biology.

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