Vladimir Jankélévitch: A Reader’s Diary

There are writers you do not so much read as live alongside: writers of a depth, a density, a multiplicity of suggestions that resist the sort of encapsulation by which their names wither into the occasion for empty allusions and knowing nods. For nearly twenty years now, the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch has been such a writer for me. I know of few accounts more moving of the tragedy of the human condition than his The Irreversible and Nostalgia. His Pure and Impure has aided me in keeping my distance from many petty fanaticisms fashionable at present. He reminds me that “philosophy is not the construction of a system, but the resolution to look naively in and around oneself,” that the first sincere impulse toward knowledge is the patient articulation of one’s ignorance.  Born in 1903 in France, the son of Jews from Odesa, he studied in Paris with Henri Bergson, who was the subject of his first book in 1931, and whose ideas would remain central to his philosophical and musicological writings over the following half a century. He fought in the French Resistance in Toulouse, writing tracts encouraging Russian collaborators with the Wehrmacht to abandon their posts and giving the underground lectures in moral philosophy that would form the basis for his three-volume Treatise on the Virtues. Though he had written his dissertation on Schelling, and had even declared in his twenties to a friend that “only the Germans think deeply,” after the end of the Second World War he made an acrimonious public break with German culture (with exceptions for Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Liszt, and a few others) that extended even to Jewish thinkers writing in German. This intransigence, and more specifically his contempt for Heidegger and his relative indifference to Marx, placed Jankélévitch outside the major currents

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