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Listening to Philosophy, Silence & Self


Listening to Philosophy, Silence & Self


in conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy

What would it mean for philosophy to listen? What does silence or the self sound like? French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy talks to four by three magazine about the responsibility of philosophy, his approach to the arts, the noise of being and the difference between seeing and hearing oneself.

The relationship between art and philosophy has a long and troubled history. In his Republic, Plato banished art from his ideal society and invited philosophy to become the sovereign ruler of the state. For Plato, art was a form of illusion, creating a representation of an empirical world that was already one step removed from the truth of his Platonic Ideas. It wasn’t until the the German Idealists, and the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in particular, that art and philosophy came closer to harmony. For Hegel, art too was an expression of truth, albeit in a sensuous and thereby imperfect form.

Jean-Luc Nancy is a French philosopher, who has written works on thinkers from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to Immanuel Kant, René Descartes and Martin Heidegger. Throughout his work, he has challenged and questioned philosophy’s denigration of the sensuous and its privileging of the concept. He first came to prominence with The Inoperative Community (1991) and some of his other most well known work include, The Sense of the World (1993) and Being Singular Plural (2000), which highlights the question of our being together in contemporary society as one of the main themes in his  prolific work. Nancy has also published books on film, literature and music, such as on the work of Abbas Kiarostami, On Kawara, Charles Baudelaire and Friedrich Hölderlin.

We talked to Jean-Luc Nancy about the relations of philosophy, art, silence and the self.

Your work has been consistently sensitive to our historical and cultural location, tackling not only themes in art, epistemology and metaphysics but also ethics and politics. What do you take the responsibility of philosophy to be?

Jean-Luc Nancy: Philosophy is responsible for what its name means: philein, to love in friendship, not to aim to appropriate for oneself. Not only to not appropriate sophia but to be in sophia (wisdom, knowledge) of philein, of friendship.

What is friendship? It is care, proximity and non-solitude. Not only between humans, but between all beings. To be responsible is to be made responsible for responding. Even before a rock I can and I must respond: the rock responds with an echo. The echo does not come back to “me”, it is not re-appropriated, but is the resonance of my response to the rock, to its rocky presence. Yet another man or animal is also always a rock: some bones. But bones that resonate other than by echo, or else by echoes to that which the call did not demand, other than to resonate. “I am heeerre” – the echo responds “yes, you are theeerre”. This “eeerre” means that “there” is never “here” nor “over there”.


In Listening you pose the question “Is listening something of which philosophy is capable?” What would it mean for philosophy to listen? How can we listen for truth “itself”?

JLN: To listen is “tendre l’oreille” – literally to stretch the ear – to render it sensitive to what inserts itself between words, to the voice, to intonation, to vibrations. Philosophy always risks allowing significations to isolate themselves and to congeal. It carries this risk, but at the same time philosophy must also allow signification to evade it. Plato says “good is above all essence (or being)”: what is this “above-all” (in Greek epekeina)? How can it be transcribed or phrased differently?

Philosophy learns from art that truth does not demonstrate itself but presents itself. That it does not present itself but forms itself. Truth lets itself be listened to: it resonates, it rings out, that is to say it is present neither here nor there, neither before nor behind, neither on the right nor on the left, above or below. It is not there, but we hear it. 

Philosophy learns from art that truth does not demonstrate itself but presents itself

Writing after Hegel and his ‘end of art thesis’ you’ve embraced a more pluralist approach to the arts, in which different arts reflect and operate on different senses. Why do you reject the idea that art is an expression of ‘ideas’ or of our historical being? 

JLN: Hegel wanted to say that art is no longer the sensible expression of intelligible truths since philosophy presents truth, outside of all forms of presentation –even outside of language.

Nonetheless, the concept is grey; it is a greyness deprived of the colours of life (as he says) which recovers the age of the concept. Philosophy thus comes from life and even from the life of the concept. If the concept is living, it gives it colour. Colour is not an idea and does not express ideas: it touches, it stains, it spurts, it caresses, it trickles, it overflows, it soaks, it crosses. It expresses nothing.  It is expressed by things, by bodies, flowers, water, the sky. It is a pressure rather than an expression.


In your writing on art you’ve shown the ways in which thought both depends on and cannot appropriate the ‘materiality’ of artworks, the body and the world in general. Why do you think thought is unable to do this?

JLN: To appropriate what is outside of ourselves - bodies, exteriority - would be to strip them of their “outside” and thus of their independent nature, foreign to all assignment of property. It would be to appropriate the expropriation with which thought begins.


You draw out many differences between the sonorous and the visual, but also suggest how each sense touches upon the other. Does listening contain a different approach to the self?

JLN: The “self” is an infinite relation to self. It has no completion, it is nothing more than opening and referral. It is neither a “substance” nor a “subject”, it is a to-itself, in-itself, for-itself, it is a to-in-for-without-towards-by-from. It hears itself and hears that it hears, but what it hears is nothing but the distance from the self that opens it up as self. In the first analysis, seeing is different: the subject sees things outside of itself and as a result refers back to itself as an object. However, it does not see its seeing. On the contrary, seeing escapes in the view and in view. But it disappears into the view and reemerges like another vision which turns back on itself and sees that it sees nothing, nothing but the distance from itself.

The ‘self’ is an infinite relation to self

Throughout your work you have consistently problematised philosophical conceptions of the self, such as Descartes’, that separate it from our embodied nature. What do you take the relationship of ‘self’ and ‘body’ to be?

JLN: Descartes specifically says that the “ego” separated from its body is nothing but a preparatory step to better understand that the “soul” is spread throughout the body, by virtue of a materiality entirely its own that joins it completely to the body. Descartes is not a dualist – he has a dualism for knowledge and a complete monism for existence. As soon as we are in knowledge, in the subject/object of knowledge, we are necessarily between two. As soon as we move away from knowledge (into power, value, movement, sense, being-affected) we are no longer between two – we are in relation – which is neither one, nor two.


One of the main themes in your work, especially in relation to your writing on Heidegger,  is the question of our being-with-others. Is our worldly existence primarily disclosed to us through others?

JLN: Of course! How do we know that we “are”? Because others stand outside of us. The “with” consists of this outside which relates us to ourselves as other from others. The “with” is always “without”. The “with” and the plural mean only that there is no such thing as non-relation, no continuum or fusion, just as there are no atoms without interactions. Each “subject” or point of emission/reception is nothing but this, a point, without dimension, without any property but the exactness of emission/reception.


What has silence to offer listening and should silence be understood as a form of privation or withdrawal of the self? Do we encounter being in silence or rather in noise?

JLN: Silence is itself a noise; a rustle, a crumpling, a squeaking, a rumbling, an uproar or a breath, a racket or a panting. All this occurs beneath words, below words, behind them. And “being” is not a thing to encounter. Being is neither a being nor being. Being is feeling the noise of being, feeling its colour, its movement, its taste.


In the distinctions drawn out between listening and hearing. Does resonance in sense carry an ethical dimension for you?

JLN: What are you calling “ethical”? A respect towards the other (to the other in itself, as in me)? Of course, for how can one listen without respecting? How can we listen to someone without being attentive to the one who is presenting their language, to what makes it come and go, speak or fall silent.

Translated by Emilija Talijan


Jean-Luc Nancy is a prolific French philosopher. He has written more than twenty books on philosophy and hundreds of texts or contributions to volumes, catalogues and journals. Some of his most recent publications include Being Nude. The Skin of Images (2014), The Truth of Democracy (2010) and Philosophical Chronicles (2008). Nancy himself is influenced by philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot and Friedrich Nietzsche.