In Le mystère du signe (reprinted in Histoire et théorie du symbole), Jean Borella reminds us that philosophy is also knowledge of reality, but in a way that differs from today’s so-called scientific (i.e., post-Galilean) knowledge.  “For, while admitting that science can eventually limit itself to the analytical exploration of observable structures – since this is a real dimension of the object studied – we believe that true knowledge of reality requires much more, and that it is precisely the honor of philosophy to be aware of this”1.

To convince ourselves of this, we need only compare the nature of the philosophical concept with that of the scientific concept, from the point of view of their relationship to reality. Whereas the speculative field of philosophical intelligence is an essentially open field, scientificity is only made possible by the epistemic closure of the concept (“epistemic” designating what relates to the general form of scientificity).

Coherence of Language and Coherence of Thought

Condilla’s thesis that “science [is] nothing more than a well-crafted language” properly defines this property: a well-crafted language, as the criterion of scientificity (in the modern sense, other meanings exist, but they relate to a different conception of knowledge). The aim is to achieve perfect correspondence between the language expressing thought and its communication to others: the concept expressed by the speaker and that communicated to the listener must have the same content.

Thinking activity thus maintains a privileged relationship with language, whose function is to express it, to give it the completion of which it is capable. But while thought can verify its coherence in the discourse it holds, it is not discourse that constitutes the coherence of thought. “The need for thought to express itself is a function of its awareness of its own coherence and, fundamentally, of its certainty, i.e. its objectivity, or its openness to the object”. For the coherence of the verification instrument is not the same as conceptual coherence:

  • The former involves the quasi-contractual stability of units of language order (books, parts, chapters, articles, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, morphemes, phonemes, etc.); words must not change meaning all the time, and speaker and addressee must agree on this stability.
  • Distinctly, conceptual coherence, or non-contradiction of thought, is defined as the agreement of thought with itself, but in necessary dependence on the agreement of thought with what it thinks: the object of the concept. “The principle of non-contradiction is indeed a requirement of thought, but insofar as thought is essentially the act by which an object is known, i.e. insofar as it is thought of what is and ordered to being. The principle of non-contradiction expresses a requirement of being. “It is because the thing is truly known and grasped in its essence, that thought understands that the thing cannot be other than it is, and therefore that the concept of a thing (or mental act by which a thing is grasped) cannot be identical with the concept of its opposite.”

Of course, as a psychological act, thought can be in contradiction, or even indulge in it. It is only obliged not to contradict itself when it aims to think being, when it is attentive to reality. Outside this ontological orientation of the concept, the principle of non-contradiction loses its necessity.

The coherence that language imposes on thought is thus very different from that imposed by openness to being:

  • The first is formal and external, more or less controllable depending on the “perfection” of the language.
  • The second is ontological and interior, uncontrollable because it depends “on the information of the concept by reality, which is ultimately given only by an intuition of the mind, escaping all external criteria”.

And this intuition is no longer quite thought (which is movement), as it is immediate, contemplative vision. “The work of thought consists only in not preventing it, by its persevering expectation of reality”: “opening the concept to being”. “To open the concept to being is, for thought, to accept that there is a beyond to the concept, that what it thinks of the real, through the concept, does not exhaust the real, that there is, for it, a hidden face of being”. This hidden face is not unknowable, “but its knowledge requires a transformation of the knowing subject, a radical conversion of his speculative intention, as Plato explains in the symbol of the Cave, in short, that we go beyond the ordinary plane of philosophy and thought to reach that of a true ‘gnosis'”.

Let’s distinguish between the objectivity of the concept and the objectification of language:

  • “The more thought is open to being, the less certain it is of the relevance of its discourse, and the more inadequate it appears;
  • Conversely, the formal coherence of language can be illusory or deceptive, since a rigorous syllogism is false if its premises are false”.

The Epistemic Closure of the Concept

If philosophy aims at this thinking open to being, science, insofar as it is knowledge, cannot be reduced to pure language, “even if we think, with the Vienna School, that the possibility of a formalized translation of scientific discourse constitutes the criterion of its coherence”. For science must involve the concept if it is to speak of anything at all. It’s a question of wresting the concept from the indeterminacy implicit in its openness to being, and such an operation could be called the epistemic closure of the concept:

  • Closure, because we remove from the concept everything that could prevent an exhaustive definition; it’s its closure on itself.
  • Epistemic, because this closure is specific to scientific knowledge (“epistemic” designating, we repeat, that which relates to the general form of scientificity, “scientific” that which relates to science in its actual realization).

It is not, then, the reduction of the concept to well-made language that defines science, but the act by which it renounces the ontological openness of the concept, the eventual knowledge of the essence of things, for this openness, characteristic of philosophical knowledge that awaits the revelation of essence, is matched by this other renunciation: renunciation of the conceptual completion of mental knowledge, to which science cannot subscribe. This renunciation of philosophy is “incompleteness accepted and lived as speculative humility”, the sign and condition of an absolute speculative demand: “love of the divine Sophia, that is, of the self-revelation of the Principle to Itself, […] desire for the knowledge of which the Absolute knows Itself”.

It is clear, then, that the end of philosophy is the disappearance of conceptual knowledge through the transformative absorption of conceptual form in its own transcendent content, with the concept itself belonging to the order of knowledge, but disappearing in its own completion, whereas science puts an end to the mental act that produces the concept, allowing it to attain a kind of self-consistency (the possibility of an exhaustive definition in which the “idea” becomes virtually a mental thing), by which it leaves the order of knowledge to submit to that of technical activity. “Basically, the philosopher is never finished thinking, until his thought has found its Master in the very thing it thinks. The scientist, on the other hand, puts an end to the act of thinking by a technical decision, because practical activity is that very beyond of thinking from which it is possible to close the concept as precisely the concept of this activity. There are only two ways for a living being to stop thinking: either to contemplate, or to act”.

The proper purpose of science is therefore technique, not pure knowledge – a simple observation that Auguste Comte pointed out before us. On the other hand, where there is a purely speculative interest, it belongs to philosophy. “Obviously, speculative interest can sometimes coexist in the same individual with a technician’s aim. We may not even be aware of their difference. But as soon as we leave the order of intentions for that of effectuations, the confusion is no longer possible, even if, in its practice, science is led to open up to aspects of reality that are solely a matter of knowledge.”

Epistemic Closure of the Concept in Galileo and Saussure

This epistemic closure of the concept is clearly characteristic of modern science. “As long as the relationships between phenomena are seen as a consequence of their nature or essence, science remains imbued with philosophy. The day, on the other hand, when a man who is more ‘brilliant’ than others, or less ‘philosophical’, manages to find the means by which phenomena can legitimately be considered as reduced to a network of relationships, modern science exists in its own right. This is what the examples of Galileo and Saussure illustrate:

The case of Galilean physics is exemplary. “The mutation by which we passed from Aristotelianism to science is a conceptual mutation” consisting, not essentially, in renouncing Aristotle’s physics because of experience, but in abandoning a philosophy of motion that sought its cause in the nature of bodies”2. Indeed:

  • For Aristotle, movement is intelligible, it has meaning and through it the mobile is realized3; because “every concrete being is constantly disposed, from within so to speak, to possible changes”4. The role of physics is thus to account for sensible appearances through knowledge of the essence of things. “This is why it subordinates itself to mathematical sciences such as astronomy, which are content to account for motion through geometric relations.”
  • Galileo, on the other hand, renounces any attempt to grasp the meaning of motion, considers it as a state (and therefore no longer in need of explanation) and deploys it in an abstract system of spatio-temporal coordinates devoid of any hierarchical organization.” The epistemic closure of the concept of body, now defined by the notion of “material point”, is therefore not so much an abstraction (which would retain only certain characteristics of the empirical object) as a construction of the “ideal body”. The Galilean universe becomes “a universe of concept-objects which themselves move in a conceived space-time. The geometrization of space entails the forfeiture of all qualitative distinctions”: figures, he says, “are neither noble, nor perfect, nor vile, nor imperfect, except insofar as I consider square bodies to be more perfect for building than spherical ones, but circular bodies more perfect than triangular ones, for rolling a chariot”5; which illustrates what we’ve been saying: the entirely neutral corporeal world is only the locus of technical action and “constitutes the sole ontological reference of the epistemic concept”, a concept completed in such a way that it can serve as a means of action.

Of course, this theory of concept closure is descriptive, not explanatory. It is not enough to close a concept to make science; “all systematic thought reveals itself capable of this, and philosophy itself when it degenerates into a system”.

Modern linguistics was also born of the transition from an open concept of language to its epistemic closure, and its contemporaneity enables us to see the process and its effects at first hand. Saussure’s genius is to have found the means by which a scientific linguistics is possible, “i.e. one in which the laws governing language are no longer properties deriving from the mysterious background of language, but purely positional relations, devoid of substance”. Saussure was faced with a choice: either we wanted to keep the whole of language in linguistics, in which case “the object of linguistics appears to us as a confused heap of unconnected heterogeneous things […] straddling several domains”, or we placed ourselves “on the terrain of language”, taking it “as the norm of all the other manifestations of language” 6, and then linguistics has a precise object, language as “a system of signs expressing ideas”7. Consequently, “not only can the science of language do without the other elements of language, but it is only possible if these other elements are not involved”8. Thus, in obedience to the epistemic requirement, Saussure reduces language to structure (to system, in his words).

The Speculative Openness of the Philosophical Concept

Each of these two examples corresponds to an inaugural event in the history of science: the birth of scientific physics and “structural” linguistics. Above all, they confirm the true conception of philosophical knowledge: “the epistemic closure of the concept presupposes its philosophical openness”. For, in order to legitimately close the concept of the object under study – which is the only way to achieve a closed definition : Like the reduction of the body to the material point, or the reduction of language to a system of differential units – it is necessary to “tear oneself away from the fascination of the thing as it is given to us, in order to substitute a constructed object”, it is necessary to “renounce the most fundamental act of intelligence, which is its openness to the real”, its expectation and “indefectible hope of the real”, “to which first and in itself it submits”.

“The epistemic act begins precisely by reversing this fundamental attitude”, and does violence to the intelligence’s inclination, renouncing “the light that comes from the object”, a veritable speculative suicide. Hence the Aristotelian reactions to Galileo’s theses; these reactions, even if they make some people smile, underline the paradox of conceptually reconstructing the object under study, rather than listening to it. “Many of the criticisms levelled at Saussure are not of a different order”. Yet to exclude from the linguistic object its other real dimensions (society, history, economics, psychology…) is simply “the very act by which the language object is constructed”.

From this point of view, we can’t “reproach geometry for forgetting the thickness of the figures of which it speaks”! And we know that the progress of mathematics has necessitated “the exclusion of any ‘realistic’ preoccupation”. Descartes “broke with the intuitive realism of the Ancients”, who confined “the theory of functions to the three dimensions of Euclidean space and prohibited the properly analytical study of curves”9. In mathematics, we can clearly see “the epistemic closure of the concept of mathematical being, how, by becoming purely operative, it closes in on itself and can be reduced to its own construction. But is speaking of an operative meaning still speaking of a true meaning? Should we not conclude, with Russell, that it is essential, in pure mathematics, not to know what we’re talking about? For, to know what one is talking about is to know the real objects to which the mathematical “symbols” refer, and the (logical) relations between the symbols then depend on knowledge of the relations between things; on the contrary, “to free the relations between ‘symbols’ from this dependence so that they obey nothing but pure logical necessity, the ‘symbols’ must be devoid of meaning (p and q, for example).”

In order to envisage a philosophical critique of structural linguistics, we have to admit that the point of view of scientificity, as such, falls under the jurisdiction of the point of view of philosophy. This explicit thesis is based on the premise that “there is such a thing as philosophical knowledge”, contrary to those who today would have us believe “that science is the only true form of knowledge, and that the role of philosophy should be limited to noting this” and describing the various procedures that science employs. But this is true of science itself: philosophy has nothing special to think about when it comes to the fact that water can be analyzed into two volumes of hydrogen for one of oxygen, or that language can be analyzed into morpheme and phoneme units, “but this is not true of scientificity itself”. If science is master of its closed epistemic domain, which is the foundation of scientific intelligibility, this domain, by definition, does not in itself enjoy scientific sanction: fecundity is not validity. For all that, Galileo, and perhaps Saussure, did not perceive the epistemic closure they were constructing, which is only visible from the philosophical point of view. Such ignorance is no longer Russellian – through the radical indeterminacy of mathematical entities – “it is philosophical ignorance through overdetermination”.

“If philosophical concepts are […] pierced by reality, this means […] that they conceal the unconceived, the unthought of, the ‘unintelligent’ [… from which it] follows that the speculative field of philosophical intelligence is an essentially open field, and this by definition. The philosopher is well aware that all conceptual knowledge operates a certain speculative closure”, whereas vulgar thought is of course unaware of its own limits, and science consciously ignores them, because it must think only within the epistemic limits defining “the only space of rigorous thought (as far as science is concerned)”. The philosopher also knows that one can only limit from the unlimited, that “one can only be aware of the limits of the conceptual by being aware of a beyond of the concept. This awareness is also a permanent condition of our knowledge”, which philosophy intends to take into account. It will intervene, “not out of any pretense of unduly surpassing science, but whenever human thought, having become aware of its finitude, nevertheless decides to go beyond it and continue to pursue its effort of rigor, in spite of this finitude, because of it and with it”.

This is why philosophy is necessarily first, “i.e. metaphysical, because it defines the most general speculative field possible”. Thus, the sciences are not islands progressively detached from the philosophical continent (Plato and Aristotle were already distinguishing between science and philosophy), but “limitations drawn within the general speculative field called philosophy. The difference between pre-Galilean science and post-Galilean science (defined from the point of view of scientificity) is that, under the Ancients, the delimitations of the different scientific sectors within the general speculative field are not entirely closed: the particular sciences remain open to the general science that is philosophy, and standardized by it. […] Despite its deepest wish, scientificity is not the creator of a new speculative field, […] of a new intelligibility, or of a ‘new rationalism’, as Bachelard falsely believed.” He only described “the (ideological) discourse that an ideal scientificity could hold about itself, but not that of the actual practice of science”.

If the notions of substance and physical identity were merely the imaginative residues of a poorly psychoanalyzed reason, the crisis of contemporary physics would have been resolved long ago. Whether it likes it or not, human thought cannot escape philosophical obligation, any more than science can escape its jurisdiction”10.


  1. Le mystère du signe, p. 93.[]
  2. Koyré, Études galiléennes, Hermann, 1966, pp. 12-17; Le mystère du signe, p. 102.[]
  3. Koyré, ibidem, pp. 20-21; Le mystère du signe, p. 102.[]
  4. Maurice Clavelin, La philosophie naturelle de Galilée. Philosophie pour l’âge de science, Armand Colin, 1968, p. 23; Le mystère du signe, p. 102.[]
  5. Saggiatore, t. VI, p. 319, Opere di Galileo Galilei, edizione nazionale, 20 volumes, published by A. Favaro, Florence, 1890-1909; Clavelin, op.cit, p. 218; Le mystère du signe, p. 102.[]
  6. Cours de linguistique générale (C. L. G.), critical edition prepared by Tullio de Mauro, Payothèque, 1972, pp. 24-25; Le mystère du signe, p. 105.[]
  7. Ibidem, p. 33; Le mystère du signe, p. 105.[]
  8. Ibid., p. 31; Le mystère du signe, p. 106.[]
  9. Jules Vuillemin, Mathématiques et métaphysique chez Descartes, P.U.F., 1961, p. 92; cf. Descartes, Règles pour la direction de l’esprit, XVI; Le mystère du signe, p. 108.[]
  10. Le mystère du signe, pp. 95-111. In addition to this definition of philosophy, we should also mention the one outlined in a note in Penser l’analogie (n. 3, p. 137): “The philosophical act seems to us to comprise three modes: interrogative (or heuristic), metaphysical (or theoristic) and scholastic (or grammatical). The first mode is research: questioning, the second is grasping the truth: contemplation, and the third is teaching: formulation. Every great philosophy combines these modes in varying proportions, or tends to deny the validity of one mode in the name of another. This is because these three modes are in dialectical tension, each finding its limit in the other two, but also its raison d’être. This is a (philosophical) theory of philosophy that needs to be developed”. See also the philosophy-logic distinction, in Jean Borella, La Révolution métaphysique, p. 275[]