Book review: Penser Librement by Phan Huy Duong (Chroniques Sociales, Paris: 2000)

note #11

field season 2000-2001 (academic year)

Paris, France


Abstract: review of a work of philosophy by a computer engineer well known as a translator and critic of Vietnamese literature

Some classmates at Langues O are putting together an issue of a school journal. A few of us decided to write something about Phan Huy Duong, widely known as the translator of Duong Thu Huong and other contemporary Vietnamese authors into French. I submitted this essay about my experience of his most recent book:

I bought my copy of Penser Librement in the Philosophy section at the FNAC on rue de Rennes in Paris. Phan Huy Duong is all over that bookstore. His first book sold in the Computer Science section. Now there is a shelf of his translations of Vietnamese fiction in Foreign Literature, along with a book of his stories. He is over in Reference as well, with an article in an encylopedia.

Inside Penser Librement, in turn, there is a stack of books. The author lists his own publications at the back. Facing the first page is a list of great thinkers who contribute to modern thought: Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Sartre.

In the body of the book Phan deals with all of them, but above all Sartre, especially his essay "Qu'est-ce que c'est que la litterature?" Sartre's fiction and drama, suffocating, portentous, have repelled me since I first heard about them. But in 1994 I published an essay of Phan's about Nguyen Huy Thiep in which I heard Sartre's liberating voice of reason. Now in Paris I read Sartre's journalism. I'll move on to the literature essay.

One thinker not on Phan's list, the philosopher Tran Duc Thao, runs through the book like a thread. Now I collect his books. I've got his book on Husserl and Marx, his book on Stalin, his articles in Nhan Van and Giai Pham, and I am after his work on the origins of language. I have ordered a philosophical journal from the United States with an article about the Husserl/Marx work.

It's a way of reading, to rifle bookstores and stack the things in my room. I get to any one book when I can, reading it with another under my arm and piles more in my head.

But when I hiked my copy of Penser Librement out to a booksigning in the suburbs last November, Phan signed it while telling me, "Read it!" Later in the course of other business he asked me what my opinion of it was. I didn't have one yet. The book sat in my shelves while I stacked around it other books it had led me to.

Phan did not write this book for someone like me to read it like I do. That list of great thinkers at the front is a sign. You can see just such a list at the front of the self-study books H.G. Wells wrote for young mechanics. This is a book for a working person who reaches out to culture to form his or her own mind.

A list like that has the wrong effect on someone like me, a bookworm who became an area-studies publisher and now an academic who teaches natural science and does social research on people in the humanities. Kenneth Rexroth remarked of T.S. Eliot's essay on Lancelot Andrewes, at the height of its influence in the breakneck expansion of English departments in the US in the 1950s, that Tom Eliot is much more convincing when you have never heard of him or of Lancelot Andrewes before. It's the same with Phan's list.

Influential philosophy starts with the Enlightment? Darwin but not the British theorists of logic? A basic thinker like that biologist, a fundamental academic like Hegel, are paired with Sartre, a local hero? We're taking the popularizer Engels as a source? What?

Phan did not make his choices to have that kind of conversation. He is marshalling resources to direct the reader's attention to a way of thinking freely, for one's self, to negotiate the world with its stacks of books in and out of our minds.

He is teaching critical thought. Many of us, specialist researchers in the humanities and social sciences, do that with students in the classroom. Phan is doing it from his study as an author speaking to readers. Who exactly?

The thoughtful young mechanics who read H.G. Wells in the first years of the twentieth century are all dead now. Their equivalents in the present day, the indispensable people who get a technical education and turn the bolts of society with cleverness and industry, are the computer programmers.

Many of them never met someone like me because they were busy in other classrooms. Phan is one of them in the sense that he is a computer engineer. He started writing for these people as a colleague with a text on programming.

Now he is writing to them as an older man who has certain experience. Phan is a man of the applied humanities. He spent his university years and beyond as a militant for the people of Viet Nam. He has spent the spare time of his professional years as a translator and critic of Vietnamese literature.

He does not speak of this experience. He speaks of philosophy, working through his list of thinkers. He uses their ideas to direct his readers away from philosophy towards engagement with the social world, the natural world, and the self.

His argument is that one should distance oneself from the distinctions of mind and body, life and matter, self and society in order to live intelligently. He proposes a method for thinking by using such categories of thought in dialogue with each other, within oneself, between oneself and another, between self and society, between humanity and the rest of the world.

Someone committed to the history and practice of philosophy could explain how something like Phan's position has been elaborated and debated by academics. From my own experience and from the ethnographic record of the last century of human life, it seems to me that many people do what he advocates.

Within his argument, Phan dismisses much of what philosophers and social scientists do in the university these days as gibberish. If he knew about anthropologists he would dismiss us too. He seems to have tuned out the university sometime in the 1960s. I share his taste but not his thought on this matter. Like many of us, Phan is best when he is talking to the audience he knows about what he has actually done.

The good part of Phan's argument teaches a practice. I see no point in restating his pedagogy as theory to argue with it. I agree with some of the ideas he uses and I disagree with others. You know that already. I can add to your knowledge by pointing out some other books around Phan's, in the bookstores and catalogues, in order to distinguish the practice advocated by this book here and now.

In the catalogue of his publisher, Chroniques Sociales, there are two books like Penser Librement, at least by reading their publicity. Penser par soi-meme: Initiation a la philosophie by Michael Tozzi introduces philosophy in order to help the reader to adopt deliberate positions. Prendre Sa Vie en Main by Andre Gromolard talks the reader through a way to overcome suffering to think clearly, act easily, and love with generosity.

Penser Librement fits well with these books, and with the whole Chroniques Sociales catalogue. The publisher proposes to provide books that awaken an interest or teach the basics or synthesize the knowledge of a field. There is a practical emphasis, on self-help, raising children, succeeding in studies or on the job, as well as broadening one's horizon.

Phan's book differs from Tozzi's in that Phan isn't initiating the reader to philosophy. He doesn't care if the reader never reads a single work from the tradition. He differs from Gromolard in that he makes reference to philosophical tradition while teaching humanity. Why does he do that?

I can answer that by walking you down Boulevard St. Germain to the bookstore next to the Deux Magots where Sartre and De Beauvoir wrote. There are no Chroniques Sociales books in there. But on the display table that greeted me entering the store last Tuesday there was another book a lot like Phan's, 101 Experiences de la Philosophie Quotidienne by Roger-Pol Droit.

It, too, teaches thinking by deliberate interaction within the self, between self and world, among self and others. It doesn't have a list of the philosophical tradition in front because the author is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and a columnist on philosophy for Le Monde. Droit and his readers don't need a list with Marx and Descartes at the front of the book because those names have been tattooed on their skulls.

Droit proposes thought experiments which work to the same purpose as Phan's argument from tradition. Neither author is obviously more clever or profound than the other. It seems to me that Droit doesn't mention philiosophy for the same reason that Phan does mention it, for rhetorical effect. People who are sophisticated in the humanities are often moved to see someone actually reason without references. People who make machines work are often charmed to learn that the procedures they use have a history as ideas.

The distinction between the authors is a matter of position. Phan has thought this through. In the back garden at an art opening soon after his booksigning last year he explained the geography of the marketing of his book.

He distributed a flyer to those he has met in his different careers. The flyer refers the reader to the corner bookstore, which are all over France and can fill orders rapidly. Moreover, the book is in every store of FNAC, the leading national chain. FNAC has a long history of selling Phan's books and was happy to take him on in the Philosophy section as well as Computer Science and Foreign Literature.

It would be more evocative to call this militancy than marketing. The strategy reflects an old colonial's sophistication about the metropole. Phan stated simply that in France a philosopher is one of those who studied the subject at the Ecole Normale Superieure, among whom the philosophy publishers select on the advice of a few other such people. So he found another way.

Before getting into that we had talked about the man Tran Duc Thao, who did go to the Ecole Normale Superieure. Phan told me about the controversy with Sartre over Hegel, adding that Tran Duc Thao read German and Jean-Paul Sartre didn't. I would add that Sartre went on to preach engagement and Tran Duc Thao joined the Vietnamese revolution.

But you can lose yourself making judgements about other people's lives. Phan's candid assessment of his situation writing philosophy in France shouldn't hold the attention too long. It is just an example of what he teaches his readers to do, to think with categories rather than in one, to act deliberately and with attention.

This July I will be in North Carolina teaching social theory, the philosophy people use to do empirical work on human life. I will start the course with a novel Phan helped bring to the US, Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong. It introduces the messiness of life and the country of Viet Nam.

Then we'll march through Karl Marx, Simone De Beauvoir, and Benedict Anderson, theorists of class, gender, and nation. International Studies forbids me to teach Charles Darwin and human evolution in their program. While we discuss theory we will return to Vietnamese fiction, and go to social research among Vietnamese, to see how people actually try to write and research and live with these abstractions.

I will try to practice with my students, coralled into a room with me by a "cultural diversity" requirement, the good parts of liberal arts education. That's what Phan tries to do for his engineers. If I've got a student who reads French he or she may work with Penser Librement. In any event I'll read the book again after teaching and see what I have to say about it then.

Dan Duffy doctoral candidate

Department of Anthropology

University of North Carolina


Langues, Litteratures et Societies

Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales

laureat Chateaubriand 2000-1