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Jean Cavaills on the Effectiveness of

Symbolic Thought
The philosopher of Mathematics Jean Cavaills (19031944) plays an important
role in Claude Imberts thought. His published work had a significant impact
after the war. It is largely a reflection on debates on the foundation of
mathematics and on two opposed models of axiomatics, foundationalist and
constructionist. The philosophy he announced (cut short by his death during
World War II) was to be a study of the generativity of conceptual structures, as
opposed to a phenomenology of knowledge. He derived from his reflection on
invention in mathematics a great scepticism on the ideas of the separateness and
unity of consciousness and a criticism of the teleologies inherent in philosophies
of consciousness. In that, his work, according to Claude Imbert, made possible
the reflections on structures and symbolisms which were to dominate the
French context in the following decades.
Keywords: philosophy of mathematics, formal systems, epistemology,
teleology, Jean Cavaills

In Claude Imberts genealogy of the abandonment of Kantian and neoKantian theories of knowledge, logic and symbolism, Jean Cavaills
holds a prime position. He represents a moment in the late thirties
in France when, for her, a number of antinomies and false problems
were abandoned, in particular the oppositions of form and intuition,
theory and object, concept and experience, and the obsession with
absolute foundations. Because Cavaillss life was tragically cut short,
in 1944, at the age of forty one, when he was murdered by the Nazis
(he was one of the founders and heroes of the French Resistance),1 he
left a work that only announced a transformation in the philosophical
understanding of the operations of thought, but one which he did not
Paragraph 34.2 (2011): 257265
DOI: 10.3366/para.2011.0021
Edinburgh University Press

258 Paragraph

have the time to carry through to a full philosophical theory or a fully

articulated movement beyond philosophy as did Claude Lvi-Strauss.
His publications are mainly a reflection on the development of modern
mathematics and of the logical systems designed to explain and
supposedly ground their procedures. Nevertheless his work on the
philosophy of mathematics played a significant role in anticipating the
post-World War II replacement of a consciousness-based philosophical
analysis of truth and intelligibility with a process-based one, where the
study of the autonomous generativity of systems of thought, structures
and symbolisms, what he called effective thought (pense effective)2
replaced that of the intractable relationships between consciousness and
its objects.
Within the pre-war French tradition where, with the exception of
Lon Brunschvicg (18691944), questions regarding the foundation of
mathematics and mathematical logic were often considered marginal
by mathematicians and philosophers alike, Cavaills was an original
thinker. His work was essentially concerned with the concrete
procedures of the construction of mathematical theories, of which
recent developments showed the irreducible diversity. It was now clear
that their warranty could only come from their own development,
which is why he declared himself a Spinozist.3 This was the conclusion
of his work on the history of Set Theory and of his edition and
commentary of the correspondence between Cantor and Dedekind.4
For Imbert what is interesting here is Cavaillss differentiation
between two types of axiomatic theories, those of Hilbert and
Dedekind. The first one is closed and still aims to be compatible with
Kants transcendentalism, while what the correspondence between
Cantor and Dedekind shows is an open system, a thought by nature
in movement, (more than simply a historical record), constantly
modifying its axioms, inventing operations and new types of proof,
and a new language, an extensional symbolic production, partially
borrowed from algebra and suited to these new types of axiomatic.
Here is of course where Freges syntactic invention was important.5
From this perspective, neither the conceptions of knowledge of
the philosophies of consciousness (from Kant to Husserl), nor those
of formalism (Hilbert) and of logicism (from Russell to Carnap)
were satisfactory. Philosophies of consciousness tend to reduce
the complexities and unpredictability of the inner development of
demonstrations to descriptions of forms of judgment and consequently
often rely on logical theories that are simplistic when compared
with what is at stake. The first and last sections of Cavaills best

Cavaills on Symbolic Thought


known philosophical work, Sur la logique et la thorie de la science, are

an analysis of the naivety of Kants claim to repudiate psychology
while deriving his philosophy of science from an inherited logic of
judgement, and a criticism of the early Husserls attempt at grounding
logic in a philosophy of consciousness. He famously concluded:
A doctrine of science can only be given by a philosophy of the
concept and not a philosophy of consciousness. The generative
necessity [of scientific demonstrations] is not that of an activity but
of a dialectics.6 The aim of a philosophy of the concept is thus to
study the mechanisms of this generativity, which operates by splitting
and overcoming, and this initially by analysing the development of
specific mathematical and scientific theories. On the other hand, a
purely formal logical syntax is unable to draw a priori the outlines of
real mathematical theories because it misses an important dimension of
formal productivity: its progress is necessary and always conditioned
by effectivity. The proper understanding of the notion of a formal
system, for Cavaills, implies studying a generation by bursts and
successive overcomings as opposed to juxtaposing abstract systems
constructed without relationship to effective processes:7
These historical reversals where the result destroys the method and the whole
system it derives from, have often been described: the processes that are necessary
to the solution of a problem cause, in the very actualisation that gives them
a meaning, a change in outlook such that it is already necessary to abandon
the notions constitutive of their structure. But intellectual linkages go beyond
empirical history: their dialectical development causes both their movement and
the permanence of their validity.8

Finally, when formalism is linked to empiricism, as in Logicism, one

is unable to explain the inner relationship of mathematics to physics,
or theory to object, other than simply as a choice between abstract
systems based on experience, a contingent choice which recreates
the problem of the heterogeneity of the object to the theory, which
is precisely what this approach was supposed to overcome (Cavaills
1962, 42; Cavaills 1981, 16983).
In his study of the history of Set Theory Cavaills stresses the fact
that metatheories use procedures that do not belong to the theories
studied and yet are now of a fully mathematical nature. So, as Claude
Imbert noted:
instead of looking yet again for a fundamental, originary, elementary theory, and
an axiomatic categoricity, Cavaills suggests associating constructivism with its

260 Paragraph
metamathematical control and thus reveal the solidarity of all parts of mathematics,
so that it can never be said : here is the simple. All projects of inventory, of
definition, origin, architectonics, but also of the intentional determination of a
science by its object were suddenly abolished. (Imbert 2003b, 78)9

The purpose of a philosophy of mathematics was to reflect on the

processes of thought themselves from the inside, in their singularities
and multiplicity and not to fit them into a logic of scientific thought
aimed at reducing the alleged difference between subject and object
that had been instituted in the first place. Thus he wrote about
Intuitionism, the theory that however complex, mathematical objects
are mental constructs, as opposed to autonomous entities:
The necessity of the generation of an object can only ever be grasped through
the recognition of a success; existence within the thematic field has meaning
only as a correlate of an effective act. (. . .) The question of the meaning of an
operation as posed by the Intuitionists derives from the prejudice of a noncritical ontology that the object must be defined prior to the operation, while
it is inseparable from it. (Cavaills 1981, 1778)10

The privilege of philosophy as a foundational theory was thus

irremediably abolished, but this could be seen positively rather than
as a loss. Cavaills had attended the famous Davos disputation between
Cassirer and Heidegger, in 1929, where both speakers started from
the recognition that Kants formulation of transcendentalism could
not serve as a foundation to contemporary science. Seen from the
perspective of this debate his reflections on mathematics take on a more
general philosophical meaning. Imbert notes that Cavaills did not take
sides but was already struck there by the impasse of both perspectives:
Cassirers residual neo-Kantism and the transcendentalism still at the
heart of his philosophy of symbolic forms as stages in the linear
cultural development of awareness, as well as Heideggers hermeneutic
phenomenology, his ontology of finitude and of the situatedness of
existence, designed to replace Husserls conception of transcendental
phenomenology as rigorous science. Though transcendentalism was
an impasse as far as grounding modern science was concerned,
Cavaills was not drawn to the mystical celebration of finitude and
the existentialism of Heideggers students. He had studied youth
movements during a prior stay in Germany and looked with irony
as well as worry on their obsession with Kierkegaardian or Pascalian
anxiety, on their questioning of the meaningfulness of reason and
culture, seen as instruments to disguise existences emptiness. Cavaills

Cavaills on Symbolic Thought


admired Pascal, but Imbert rightly insists on the epistemological rather

than existential dimension of this interest.11 At least, he said, Pascal
was a mathematician. Indeed, he was one who constantly stressed the
irreducibility of scientific theories to each other, in opposition to the
Cartesian paradigm of a Mathesis Universalis.12 So, in Davos, Cavaills
could see the obsolescence of both paradigms (and incidentally of the
subsequent opposition usually inferred from the disputation, between a
continental and an analytic approach to philosophy) and the general
need to rethink the forms of the production of intelligibility, which he
set out to do first through its most eminent example, contemporary
mathematics. Philosophy had to be reinvented by reflecting on the
new sources of rationality.13 The urgent task was to grasp processes of
intelligence that it does not produce, and to penetrate at the point
of appearance of that upon which it does not have competence
but which it cannot ignore (Imbert 2003b, 22). From then on one
could consider the whole work of Cavaills as the decisive exploration
of a new space of thought, revealing a diverse cognitive capacity,
one that is never definitively stabilised, as well as calling for an
anthropological history.14 As Imbert wrote of Lvi-Strauss elsewhere,
Cavaills was a representative of a generation conscious that it had
inherited exhausted intellectual procedures it now had to reshape
(Imbert 2004b, 24).15
If it is impossible to predict what Cavaills subsequent philosophical
thoughts might have been, there are nevertheless a few indications
in his works and echoes with his contemporaries that are worth
mentioning. For instance, a constant questioning of the idea of
a separate and unified consciousness. Cavaills replaced it with
the notion of thematic field [champ thmatique],16 permanently
transformed by the procedures of abstraction that are constantly applied
to each successive object in it:
But the sensible, the immediate concrete consciousness, is not abandoned:
acting upon it is not departing from it (any abstract object, produced for
instance by thematisation, is a gesture on a gesture, (. . .) on a gesture upon the
primitive sensible). The thematic field is not situated beyond the world, rather
it is a transformation of it: the effective thought (requiring a more complete
consciousness) of things is the thought of its own objects (the adequate thought
of a plurality is the thought of its number). (Cavaills 1981, 17980)17

A second constant is the criticism of the teleology seemingly

inherent to the philosophies of consciousness.18 There certainly is a
consciousness of progress but no progress of consciousness: The term

262 Paragraph

consciousness has no univocity of application no more than the

thing has a unity that could be isolated. There is no such thing as
a consciousness that generates its products, or is simply immanent
to them. It is each time in the immediacy of the idea, lost in it
and losing itself in it and only linking with other consciousnesses
(which one is tempted to call other moments of consciousness)
through the internal links of the ideas to which they belong.19
Claude Imbert has noted that at the time when Cavaills produced,
on the basis of a philosophy of Mathematics, a non-teleogical theory
of consciousness and the generativity of symbolic systems, Marcel
Mauss did the same from an anthropological point of view, replacing
the process of a philosophical epic of consciousness with an open
ended anthropological differentiation (Imbert 2003b, 24). This in turn
opened up the field to Lvi-Strausss study of symbolic productions
and objectified mental maps (Imbert 2003b, 24).
She also notes that in 1938, Cavaills renewed the philosophical
genre of the essay in the list he created with Raymond Aron and
Albert Lautman for ditions Hermann, of which the purpose was to
produce essays of a thought inflected by its encounter with new forms
of knowledge (Imbert 2003b, 21).20 Sartres Esquisse dune thorie des
motions was one of the titles published in an endeavour the war was
soon to interrupt.21 This is also when Merleau-Ponty, who was close
to Cavaills, wrote The Structure of Behaviour, again an essay of a thought
reflecting on and inflected by the new sciences.22
Cavaills was not given the chance to take part in the new
philosophy that was to develop after the war, exploring the notion
of structure and transforming our understanding of cognition in its
relationship to symbolism. Nevertheless, if, as Imbert writes, in these
years that immediately preceded the war, philosophical activity had
entered its experimental phase, Cavaills had initiated its possibility
(Imbert 2003b, 25).23
1 See Georges Canguilhem, Vie et mort de Jean Cavaills (Paris: Allia, 1996);
Alya Aglan and Jean-Pierre Azema, Jean Cavaills, Rsistant ou la pense en actes
(Paris: Flammarion, 2002). Cavaills created several resistance networks, was
arrested by the Vichy police and escaped twice. He wrote Sur la logique et la
thorie de la science in the prison camp of Eyjeaux, near Montpellier, between
September and December 1942, escaped to London where he met De Gaulle
in London in 1943. He was finally arrested in August 1943 and shot in

Cavaills on Symbolic Thought




February 1944. One of the main characters in Jean-Pierre Melvilles 1969

film on the French Resistance, LArme des ombres, was inspired by Cavaills.
See for example Jean Cavaills, Mthode axiomatique et formalisme. Essai sur le
problme du fondement des mathmatiques [1938] (Paris: Hermann, 1981), 912.
For the early Spinoza, the idea that before our knowledge can be deemed
true it must first demonstrate the certainty of its method, leads to an infinite
regression since one would need a method for proving the certainty of
the first method, etc. Stating that working iron requires the possession of
hammers is tantamount to saying that men are unable to work iron since
hammers must be made out of iron. In fact better and better tools have
been developed on the go, starting with whatever material was available in
nature. So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself
intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other
intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments,
or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds
till it reaches the summit of wisdom [Sic etiam intellectus vi sua nativa facit sibi
instrumenta intellectualia, quibus alias vires acquirit ad alia opera intellectualia, et ex
iis operibus alia instrumenta seu potestatem ulterius investigandi; et sic gradatim pergit,
donec sapientiae culmen attingat]. Spinoza, Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, VI,
31, in Opera, edited by von C. Gebhardt, vol. II, (Heidelberg: C. Winters
Universittsverlag, 1972), 14.
This being said, in terms of epistemology, Imbert stresses Pascals influence
rather, not just because of his questioning of the classical notions of axiom and
definition, but also because of the irreducibility of his own scientific theories
to a system of science.
Jean Cavaills, Mthode axiomatique et formalisme. Essai sur le problme
du fondement des mathmatiques [1937] (Paris: Hermann, 1981). Hereafter
(Cavaills 1981); Philosophie mathmatique [1938] (Paris: Hermann, 1962).
Hereafter (Cavaills 1962). Cavaillss works have been collected in uvres
compltes de philosophie des sciences, (Paris: Hermann, 1994).
Personal communication with Claude Imbert, 10 August 2010.
Ce nest pas une philosophie de la conscience mais une philosophie du
concept qui peut donner une doctrine de la science. La ncessit gnratrice
nest pas celle dune activit, mais dune dialectique (Jean Cavaills, Sur
la logique et la thorie de la science (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France,
1947), 78). Hereafter (Cavaills 1947). When Cavaills refers to dialectics
he has in mind generative processes such as generalisation, formalisation or
thematisation, where for instance certain operations are transformed into
elements within a higher-level field of operations. See (Cavaills 1981, 177).
(Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.)
Son progrs ncessaire est chaque fois conditionn par leffectif. Une
gnration par clatements et dpassements successifs (Cavaills 1947, 35).

264 Paragraph
8 La description est bien connue de ces renversements historiques o le
rsultat fait clater la mthode et le systme tout entier dont il est issu: les
procds exigs par la solution dun problme provoquent, dans lactualisation
mme qui leur donne un sens, un tel changement dclairage quil faut
dj abandonner les notions qui forment leur structure. Mais les liaisons
intellectuelles dpassent lhistoire empirique: cest leur dveloppement
dialectique qui assure la fois le mouvement de celles-ci et par elles-mmes
la permanence de leur validit (Cavaills 1962, 274).
9 Au lieu de chercher encore une thorie socle, originaire, lmentaire, et une
catgoricit axiomatique, Cavaills propose dassocier le constructivisme son
contrle mtamathmatique et de faire voir la solidarit de toutes les parties
des mathmatiques entre elles, en sorte quon ne peut jamais dire l est le
simple . Tout projet dinventaire, de dfinition, dorigine, darchitectonique
mais aussi de dtermination intentionnelle dune science par son objet, sen
trouvait soudainement annul.
10 La ncessit de lengendrement dun objet nest jamais saisissable qu travers
la constatation dune russite; lexistence dans le champ thmatique na de
sens quen tant que corrlat dun acte effectif. (. . .) la question du sens
dune opration telle que la posent les intuitionnistes mane du prjug
dontologie non critique que lobjet doit tre dfini antrieurement
lopration, alors quil en est insparable. A non-critical ontology is one
asserting the duality of a sensible world in itself and of a thought mistaken
for historical manifestations [la dualit dun monde sensible en soi et dune pense
confondue avec des manifestations historiques] (Cavaills 1981, 176).
11 Imbert refers to Cavaillss correspondence and his project of working on
probability theory (Imbert 2003b, 16). She has often stressed the importance
of the notion of pari or wager understood as risk taking, to a different form
of philosophical thought. See for instance Imbert 1982 and Imbert 2007b.
12 See Jean Khalfa, Pascals Theory of Knowledge, in The Cambridge Companion
to Pascal, edited by Nicholas Hammond (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003), 12243.
13 On the history of the Davos disputation, see Peter Eli Gordon, Ernst Cassirer
and Martin Heidegger at Davos, 1929 an allegory of intellectual history,
Modern Intellectual History 1: 2 (2004), 21948.
14 Personal communication with Claude Imbert, 10 August 2010.
15 consciente davoir reu des procdures intellectuelles puises quil lui
incombait de reconfigurer.
16 A notion which helps understand Deleuzes later notion of a plane of
17 Mais le sensible, conscience concrte immdiate, nest pas abandonn: ce
nest pas le quitter que dagir sur lui (tout objet abstrait, obtenu, par exemple,
par thmatisation, est un geste sur un geste, (. . .) sur un geste sur le sensible

Cavaills on Symbolic Thought




primitif). Le champ thmatique nest donc pas situ hors du monde mais
est transformation de celui-ci: la pense effective (exigeant une conscience
plus complte) des choses est pense de ses objets (la pense adquate dune
pluralit est pense de son nombre).
For instance Husserls idea of a teleology immanent to the history of
philosophy. (Cavaills 1947, 77).
Le terme de conscience ne comporte pas dunivocit dapplication pas
plus que la chose, dunit isolable. Il ny a pas une conscience gnratrice
de ses produits, ou simplement immanente eux, mais elle est chaque fois
dans limmdiat de lide, perdue en elle et se perdant avec elle et ne se liant
avec dautres consciences (ce quon serait tent dappeler dautres moments
de la conscience) que par des liens internes des ides auxquelles celles-ci
appartiennent (Cavaills 1947, 78).
Essais dune pense adjective par leffet de nouveaux savoirs.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Esquisse dune thorie des motions (Paris: Hermann, 1938).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Structure du comportement (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1942).
Si dans ces annes de limmdiat avant-guerre, lactivit philosophique tait
entre dans sa phase exprimentale, Cavaills avait mis en jeu sa possibilit.