05. 26. 2009. 10:04

Why philosophy?

An interview with Xavier Rubert de Ventós

"...if you’re Hispanic you’re not expected to be clever, but interesting and exotic." – The Catalan philosopher Xavier Rubert de Ventós was the guest of his Hungarian publisher Typotex and the Cervantes Institute in Budapest on the occasion of the Hungarian release of his book Por que filosofia?

Your latest book Why Philosophy? has been translated into several languages. This book is a sort of pocket guide, a short introduction rather than an in-depth work of philosophy. What is its place among your books?
 
The book was originally made on request for Catalonian television as a series of public lectures.  What I wanted to get across to the audience was the reason why philosophy is important and how it is useful for us. I tried to make readers realize how everyday routines dull their sensitivity to philosophical problems. Let me give you an example. My son was eight when we were on a bus in Mexico and he got hungry. We couldn’t stop to get anything and all we had was a banana. So I gave him that to eat. Before he started he asked: "And Daddy, how do I eat this, as a first or a second course?" This just goes to show how neurotic we really are. His concern wasn’t with finally getting to eat, but wanting to know what it was exactly he was eating in relation to acquired behavioural norms and  conduct. My aim with using examples such as this was to create a link between the readers and philosophy and to oust them from everyday formulas of thinking. It is true I don’t consider this to be my masterpiece, but it did turn out to be my most popular work to date.
 
Critics consider your book on modernity (De la Modernidad, 1980) your most important work. This was released in the early eighties, and much has changed since then in the world and perhaps even in our concept of modernity. How has your philosophy changed, has it evolved since then?
 
I would say it was me that has changed. Writing a book alters me, transforms me. I write about what has touched me or excited me. For me, writing is a reaction to what happens to me. It also helps me deal with my anxiety and tension. The sort of problems I have with modernism and post-modernism are exemplified in Why Philosophy? Like the in-flight coffee served with a little container which isn’t labeled "cream" but "For Your coffee". For this phenomenon I have coined the phrase significamentoso ("meaningfulous") in the manner of pringoso (greasy, sticky). That is how the world is today. Everything is assigned a meaning in a sign system. Instead of defining what a thing is, it is designated a purpose.
 
My main interest really was how one could speak based solely on experience. When I talk to people I’m not concerned with their beliefs or philosophies, these are usually hogwash anyway, but rather what is happening to them personally. The experiences, the work of a doctor or a sign painter is infinitely interesting, even if their philosophical convictions aren’t. A similar problem is when someone is expected to define and justify their tastes conceptually. I teach architecture at a university, and there people are expected to have a preference for nonfigurative art, like Tàpies for instance, but what can I do, I’m into the figuratives. What a shame! People are judged by their tastes and preferences. No wonder they’re anxious when their preference differs from majority values. That is often how the French think, they require judgment to tell how a piece of work relates to a style or period. Italians are far less preoccupied with this, they show their taste with more confidence. This is part of the reason why discussing what happens to us and its impact is so difficult. Even though the only thing certain is what happens to us. Our beliefs regarding the subject are theoretical, sociological and psychological explanations that are ultimately useless. These I also deal with in my book on modernity. I describe my experiences with current fashion. I bring up writers such as Plato who disliked the modernity that we regard as the classical period of Greek art, and Max Scheler. During the ’20s, Scheler wrote a book against Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, respectively. He was a remarkable mind who had anticipated even then the ideological foundations of right- and left-wing regimes. People found him irritating because he wouldn’t fit into the system.
 
How does your work relate to the Spanish or generally to the Hispanic philosophic tradition? You often reflect on your own Catalan language use in your book, and how language generally determines our conceptual thinking. Is there an aspect of your philosophy that can be derived from cultural, linguistic and national identity?
 
That is such a complicated question, I’m not sure if it can be answered really. A world-class American theologist called Harvey Cox once wrote that whenever he hears of Spain, what automatically comes to his mind are anarchy, cruelty and bulls. I read this and realized if you’re Hispanic you’re not expected to be clever, but interesting and exotic. That is of course just one side of the matter. It is true I’m connected in various ways to the Spanish philosophical tradition. Schopenhauer, whom I adore, had greatly admired Baltazár Gracián, despite being an utter Jesuit. As a young man I was strongly influenced by Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. But there was one Catalonian philosopher even more important to me, Eugenio D'Ors (1882-1954). He’s a very odd figure, on one hand a Catalonian writing most of his work in that language, and the originator of Noucentisme, on the other hand a servant of Franco’s conservative dictatorship. If he had started writing in Spanish rather than Catalan, and if his political views weren’t so abominable, he could really be world famous. As for me, I support Catalonian autonomy and see no rational reason why Catalonia should continue belonging to Spain.
 
In Why Philosophy? you briefly describe a philosophic path seeking connections to Eastern philosophies and Zen Buddhism. The philosophical stance you propose is for sensual experience as opposed to an external, conceptual evaluation. It would appear you feel a kinship to these Eastern traditions.
 
My relation to Eastern philosophy is ambivalent. For one thing I’ve some negative experiences from a period in the seventies when I was a scholarship student at Berkeley and a sort of counterculture orientalism was very popular. I found this really irritating. On the other hand, I experienced the genuine nature of Eastern, specifically Japanese culture, from tea ceremony to haiku, and this fascinated me. I’d written about it in another book of mine, the "Eastern answer” to philosophical problems. But as a Westerner I have a different mentality. People belonging to the Western civilization, Judeo-Christian etcetera, like us, are creatures battling against Evil. Easterners are conversely battling against Pain. Their concern is not with eliminating the reasons.  If a fakir senses no pain, what do the nails matter to him? I on the other hand celebrate inventions like penicillin and real medication.
 
I also have another, more philosophical answer. Easterners make a definite distinction between the absolute, abstract Man or God, and enumeration. You know Borges’ famous parody with the famous Chinese taxonomy of the imperial animals. It’s similar to the worst book I’ve ever read, the Kama Sutra: put your legs here and the position is called so, there and then it’s so-and-so. What a nightmare! So in the East you have the absolute and a compulsion for classifying, taxonomy in overdrive: I stand between the two as a Western man, my concern is with concepts and their definitions.
 

Levente Seláf

Translated by: Dániel Dányi

Tags: An interview with Xavier Rubert de Ventós, Xavier Rubert de Ventós