The history of [Candide’s] world-famous phrase, which serves as the book’s conclusion – il faut cultiver notre jardin – is … peculiar. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it didn’t come into written use in English until the early 1930s – in America through Oliver Wendell Holmes and in Britain thanks to Lytton Strachey. But a long, unrecorded history of its oral use and misuse can be deduced from Strachey’s announced desire to cure the “degenerate descendants of Candide” who have taken the phrase in the sense of “Have an eye to the main chance.” That a philosophical recommendation to horticultural quietism should be twisted into a justification for selfish greed would not necessarily have surprised Voltaire. (Julian Barnes, “A Candid View of Candide” The Guardian (1 July 2011).
In Voltaire’s Candide, the scathing critique of abstract, world-alienated, self-alienating, sanctimonious theoretical philosophy in general, and of professional academic philosophy in particular—specifically exemplified by 18th century Leibnizian/Wolffian rationalism and theodiocy, satirically represented by that iconic moralistic idiot of professional academic philosophy, Dr Pangloss—equally evocatively and provocatively concludes with the phrase “il faut cultiver notre jardin,” “we must cultivate our garden.”
What does Voltaire’s world-famous phrase mean?
As per the above, the novelist Julian Barnes aptly noted that a popular, vulgar misuse and twisting of it means “have an eye to the main chance,” that is, a “justification for selfish greed,” and then proposed that, contrariwise, its real meaning is “a philosophical recommendation to horticultural quietism.”
That reading of its real meaning seems wrong to me, however, an anachronistic interpretation over-influenced by the later Wittgenstein’s idea that real, serious philosophy should only get clear on the confusions of classical philosophy as represented by mainstream professional academic philosophy, discharge all its bad pictures, engage in liberating self-therapy, and then just “leave the world alone.”
Contrariwise to Barnes’s Wittgensteinian contrariwise, I think that “il faut cultiver notre jardin” is in fact Voltaire’s radically enlightened 18th century philosophical recommendation to revolutionize philosophy, and transform it from abstract, world-alienated, self-alienating, sanctimonious theorizing into a concrete, world-encountering, self-realizing, emancipatory rational humanistic enterprise: in a nutshell, the philosopher as a rational rebel for humanity.
Hence what Voltaire is really saying, in the context of 18th century radical enlightenment, is essentially closer to what the early, humanistic Marx is saying in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach—
The resolution of theoretical considerations is possible only through practical means, only through the practical energy of humanity. Their resolution is by no means, therefore, the task only of understanding, but is a real task of life, a task which philosophy was unable to accomplish precisely because it saw there a purely theoretical problem. (MEGA I/3, pp. 121-122)
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it. (Thesis 11, MEGA I/5, pp. 533-535)
and to what Thoreau is saying in his 1854 Walden–
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers…. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. (I, “Economy.”)
—than it is to what Wittgenstein is saying in the Philosophical Investigations.
That being so, how do
(i) the meaning of “il faut cultiver notre jardin,”
(ii) Voltaire’s radically enlightened critique of professional academic philosophy as abstract, world-alienated, self-alienating, sanctimonious theorizing, and
(iii) his corresponding radically enlightened 18th century recommendation about real, serious philosophy,
jointly apply to contemporary philosophy?
First, I think it’s entirely clear that the popular, vulgar misuse and twisting of “il faut cultiver notre jardin” as “have an eye to the main chance” applies directly to the professionalization and neoliberalization of academic philosophy in late 20th and early 21st century liberal democratic states, whether in Europe, North America, or anywhere else in the world.
Second, I think it’s also entirely clear that Voltaire’s radically enlightened critique of professional academic philosophy as abstract, world-alienated, self-alienating, sanctimonious theorizing applies directly to the Ivory Bunker of professional academic philosophy in the USA in The Age of Trump.
Third, I think it’s even self-evidently clear that Voltaire’s radically enlightened recommendation about real, serious philosophy directly applies to the three basic proposals made by members of the APP circle, including:
(i) Robert Frodeman’s and Adam Briggle’s conception of field philosophy,
(iii) Z’s conception of open philosophy.
Therefore, 21st century philosophers,
let’s eradicate the infamy! (écrasez l’infâme!) that is the panglossian professionalization and neoliberalization of academic philosophy worldwide, together with the ivory-bunker-ization of professional academic philosophy in the USA in The Age of Trump, and cultivate our garden.