Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A young philosopher of note

I have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with the work of a young Iranian-American philosopher, Farhang Erfani, along various avenues, and what a pleasure it has been. In addition to papers published by him in philosophical journals, he recently published a book, “Aesthetics of Autonomy – Ricoeur and Sartre on Emancipation, Authenticity, and Selfhood” (Lexington Books, 2011), and there are at least two more in the pipeline (on one of which I had the privilege of writing a reader’s report for a publisher). In this book he embarks on a welcome re-reading, together, of two thinkers that seem to me to be often somewhat neglected in universities, perhaps because they belong to a philosophical tradition that appears to have been superseded by more recent developments in philosophy, for example varieties of poststructuralist thought.

While the latter is undoubtedly important – poststructuralists are very innovative in tackling age-old philosophical questions – Erfani’s book has reminded me of the reasons why both Sartre and Ricoeur are regarded as two of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. It is no accident that Sartre was France’s leading intellectual during World War II, as well as embodying the country’s “existentialist” conscience during the Nazi occupation. His dictum, that we are “condemned to be free” should be understood in this context, and is a trenchant reminder that no one has any excuse for committing morally compromising acts: when you do, you are inescapably RESPONSIBLE for your choice.

In the case of Ricoeur, in addition to being, like Sartre, anti-essentialist, he is known for what I would call his philosophical approach of “reconciliation”, but perhaps better for what Erfani refers to as his “narrative ethics” and his “hermeneutics of narratives”. Ricoeur had a penchant for understanding human action, or human life, in terms of what one associates, first and foremost, with literature or art.

Erfani concentrates on those aspects of Sartre’s and Ricoeur’s intellectual legacy which enable him to argue that their work succeeds in creatively rescuing a sense of autonomy and selfhood, notably in aesthetic terms – in effect, he sees them, in different but complementary ways, as charting an aesthetic path to an autonomous self. At a time when processes of globalization at various levels, but perhaps most obviously at the economic and ecological levels, are reminding people how “fragile” the human subject can be in such an increasingly complex world, we can take heart in light of these thinkers’ conceptions of imagination and creativity in relation to human identity. Both of them, Erfani argues, displayed a sensitivity for the constitutive role of narrative for individual subjects, to the point where one can legitimately speak of the subject’s “narrative identity”.

This has important consequences in a globalized world, where, as Erfani points out, it is even more difficult to conceive of an individual as being self-sufficient than it was in ancient Athens. The lesson of Sartre and Ricoeur is that the aesthetic means available to us – in the form of imagination, for instance – are indispensable to help us “figure out” what it is to be a “self” today. Moreover, it is also indispensable in re-configuring our conception of politics in a world light-years removed from the ancient Greek polis. In short, Erfani’s book, by engaging with the very relevant work of Ricoeur and Sartre, highlights the potential for autonomy that continues to exist in (often underestimated) aesthetic form, at a time when heteronomy appears to be increasingly the rule for most human subjects in a world dominated by corporate power.

In another (forthcoming) book, “Shooting truth: Philosophy and Iranian Cinema”, Erfani combines his impressive knowledge of philosophy and an equally thorough knowledge of Iranian film and Iranian film scholarship. The title of the book, with its striking, ambiguous metaphor, is telling: it alludes to what is at stake when, in a theocratic, authoritarian state, filmmakers risk their careers, if not their freedom of movement (or worse), to make (shoot) films which have increasingly constituted the space within which the regime can be criticised and the consequences of the Iranian revolution be thought through with regard to its “truth”. Iranian state censorship is such that directors such as Majidi or Kiarostami have to be very circumspect and/or clever at the art of cinematic disguise, to be able to preclude the state from “shooting” the “truth” “shot” in and through their films.

An important thing to notice from the outset is that this is not a book that errs where so many other philosophical writings on cinema go astray, namely, to “use” film(s) in order to illustrate, demonstrate or explain someone’s philosophy, or an aspect of philosophical thinking, thus showing a blind spot for what it is that makes film singular among the arts. In contrast to such approaches, Erfani brings Iranian film(s) and philosophy into a fruitful mutual rapprochement, encouraging each discipline (for film-making is a “discipline” no less than philosophy) to illuminate and supplement the other in their distinctive ways.

This involves philosophical perspectives on the part of some of (mainly) the outstanding Continental philosophers, whose thought is selected with its relevance for (or resonance with) Iranian film as a site of struggle in mind, but the distinctiveness of both philosophy and film is never in any doubt. It is important to recognize this in Erfani’s work, given the tendency, on the part of some philosophers and other human scientists, to reduce film (and the other visual arts) to the status of just another linguistic-conceptual enterprise, overlooking what makes film singular among the visual arts (where I disagree with Noel Carroll’s denial of such “singularity”) – something that Erfani is never guilty of.

It is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth of vision of this book, or to the subtlety and incisiveness of Erfani’s highly original interpretations of the Iranian (and one Kurdish) films. I found it hard to decide which of his philosophical interpretations of these films is my favourite – the Heideggerian interpretation of Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”, and the Lacanian interpretation of female director Meshkini’s ”The day I Became a Woman” would probably vie for supremacy in the end.

Erfani approaches the latter film along the interpretive Lacanian axis of jouissance (extreme, virtually unbearable pleasure), and shows, brilliantly, I believe, that there is a reason for the fragmented structure of this film. It knits together the stories of three different women, all marginalized as women, and all in the position to discover, if not their particular jouissance, then its transgressive effects in their lives.

If the audience should experience the disruptive functioning of jouissance in relation to the film’s (narrative’s) symbolic order, but also to the women’s lives, one should regard the director’s voice as the fourth in the film, Erfani suggests, because of the way she brings the other three together as representative of the marginalization of women and of their struggles. Here, again, Erfani recognizes the singularity of cinema as art, in so far as it is shown as transcending the limitations of the symbolic.

This is but a smattering of the philosophical work on the part of this young thinker and teacher (he teaches at American University in Washington, DC), but it whets one’s appetite for more. I fully expect him to produce something special in political philosophy (his abiding interest) sooner or later, but until then, I shall relish whatever philosophical surprises he comes up with.

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    • Maria

      Thank you for this, Bert – I have not read anything by Erfani, but a friend once told me of a paper that he presented at a conference in Canada pitting Ricoeur (narrative identity) against Habermas (argumentative identity), and opined that he was quite persuasive about Ricoeur’s superior ability to explain who “one is”. I shall look out for his work.

    • Rene

      Glad there are other people around who like Sartre’s work. His Being and Nothingness gave me a different (more optimistic) handle on nihilism than what I had been used to.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Philosophy was my worst mark at University – I thought most modern western philosophers talked rubbish! Noble Savage? Men born free? Is God invented? If no-one hears a tree fall does it fall?

      I am definately a Neo-Plantonist – the Greeks spoke sense!

      And we studied none of the Eastern Philosophers.

      History and Psychology were among my highest marks.

      But my only first was for Xhosa, which I used to speak fluently and found easy to learn (unlike Latin, which I hated,but was forced to take as a subject by my parents who were grooming me for law, and which was my worst mark at school).

    • Prof. Joe Manyoni


      Thank you so much for this brilliant enunciation of the work of Farhang Erfani (of whom I was not aware) and for introducing her to a wider readership. Philosophy has long been an ethnocentric discipline focusing almost exclusively on traditional Eurocentric perspectives to the negelct of other philosophical traditions particularly Oriental. Its focus on Metaphysics, Logo-centrism and Language Games in the pursuit of internal conceptual consistencies obscured other philosophical traditions concerned with practical life situations.

      I agree with Lyndall Beddy (and Maria) that some of Western philosophy is somewhat tautological and enigmatic. In my days we were schooled on Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein and Sartre among others. A comparison between Sartre’s elucidation of “Being” (existence) and the mental gymnastic language games of Wittgenstein which is reminiscent of Cartesian syllogisms is a case in point. Arguably, Sartre provided a philosophy to which each individual could relate and offered a practical explanation of the real world. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. One would wish more neglected philosophers from other traditions would be given the exposure they deserve.

      On a personal note, I do follow news and events from South Africa and it is always gratifying to read your well considered views on various topics in this Forum, and the country should be proud to have intellectuals of your calibre training its students in…

    • Bert

      Dear Prof. Manyoni – I am gratified that you find my introduction of readers to Farhang Erfani’s work (who is a “he”, by the way, but one who writes with the sensitivity usually attributed to women) valuable. You’re spot-on – it was intended as an introduction, and a well-deserved one. You are also right about the importance of looking wider than just western thinking – in Farhang’s work you get the best of both worlds, and I, for one, enjoy and value what I can learn from him regarding Iranian thought and cultural practices such as cinema. His students in the US are indeed fortunate to have someone who straddles this divide so knowledgeably.

    • Paul Whelan

      Once again I am uncomfortable in detecting a suggestion that instead of the truth being many-sided it has all along lain elsewhere, with ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’, and at last is being revealed. I trust I am being absolutely unfair in saying so.

      For why should Erfani’s ponderings have any implications for thoughts about the Noble Savage, the ideal of ‘men’ being born free, seeing God as an invention, hearing or not hearing trees that fall in an empty forest and other staples of western thought?

      And how does any thinking, past or present, escape being ethnocentric? Where else could it be sourced?

      And isn’t the end of ‘philosophy’ in any culture in any era to teach that, like any we quote and countless more, the Greeks did not talk sense all the time, but only some of it?

    • Bert

      Paul, rest assured, I am certainly saying nothing of the sort, even if others are; on the contrary, I am pointing to what we can learn, through Erfani, of the relatively unknown tradition of Iranian cinema – to say nothing of Iranian philosophy – which is precisely a confirmation that truth is “many-sided”, if you wish to use that phrase. In case you have not already inferred that from what I write here, the concept of “truth” is one of the most contested in philosophy’s history – hence the correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory, Heidegger’s notion of truth as “aletheia” (unconcealedness; as a prerequisite for any of the others to function), Nietzsche’s notion of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors”, and Foucault’s claim that truth is a function of an episteme (or, alternatively, of a discourse). I believe that the best thing to do about finding out the “truth” about something is, to quote T.S. Eliot, “to be as intelligent as possible” (what he called the “best method”).

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      An Arab philosopher, many centuries ago, made the observation that slaves when freed, only want to enslave others and become slave masters – which I find a much more astute observation than Rousseau’s “Noble Savage”, and which is certainly borne out by the history of both Liberia and Sierra Leone.

      When psychology and philosophy seperated in the West, both went sterile.

    • Bernard K Hellberg

      The great benefit of a degree in philosophy is that one can think deep and profound thoughts as to why one is unemployed.

    • Maria

      @ Lyndall: You have obviously not read Kristeva or Lacan, or, for that matter, Kaja Silverman, Slavoj Zizek, Renata Salecl, Joan Copjec, Merleau-Ponty, or Luce Irigaray – in all of them philosophy and psychology/psychoanalysis are in constant conversation. Before them, in Kierkegaard and Freud, too. And this does not exhaust the list.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      It was about the time of Freud that psychology and philosophy split – sex was too much for the philosophers.

      But worse damage was done when Adler, the behaviourist beloved by the Americans, split off from the the Freudian/Jungians.

      As I have always said to the behaviourists (who believe everything is stimulus and response animal behaviour, and can be controlled by drugs) is then why can’t you predict the response in advance?

    • Paul Whelan

      Bert –

      For my part rest assured I did not have you personally in mind nor Professor Joe Manyoni, who comments here, in making my comment.

      I refer more to the assumption, not even the political stance but just the robotic response one meets on the internet especially and that your articles tend to attract, that the west, capitalism and all its works, have nothing to offer, if they are not actually depraved.

      That, as I suggest from time to time, is a matter of faith, not a matter of fact, but either way, won’t have me believing it is the truth.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      World unemployment among the young is not being caused by there being too many capitalists, but by there being too few.

      The rich no longer want the bother of employing labour and building factories or farms, when they can make money by speculating in bonds, stocks and property instead.

      In the past the only way to get rich,, or richer, was to save money and earn interest, or to employ labour to produce something to sell for a profit.

      Politicians have made savings pointless by zero or low interest rates, and allowing banks to lend money they don’t have to people who can’t afford to pay back.

      No one want to have the hassle of employing labour either, and then be sneered at as a capitalist, or have your factory nationalised.

      In black society all had to be equal or be accused of being successful by benefiting from witchcraft. This stifled all innovation and advancement.

    • Paul Whelan

      Lyndall –

      No doubt there is a lot of truth in what you say and people will argue the issues you raise anyway. Also, not only in black society but in traditional societies generally, ‘equality’ and a sharing of ‘tribal’ values, beliefs and means are the way society preserves itself. Society is collectivist. Many see that as self-evidently superior. I cannot.

      But my point is different. On Bert’s site, a site devoted to philosophy, the assumption that capitalism is the sole cause of the world’s problems and must be replaced by a new system, unspecified, or by the restitution of an old system, romanticised, always seems to me to miss the point.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      It is not capitalism but debasement of the currency (aka inflation) that has caused the present crisis.

      When currency was linked to gold, or the dollar linked to gold, banks could not lend money they did not have (called gearing) to people who could not pay back (starting with the idiotic idea of American sub-prime loans).

    • Garg Unzola

      You are ‘wasting’ your ‘time’ if you do not ‘quote’ from the prescribed reading list of Rock Star philosophers who are mere obscurantists and ‘ignore’ standard ‘dictionary’ definitions of words. The key is to ignore any contrary views, to celebrate your ignorance of other subjects that are not ‘pure’ philosophy and to cling to the same fallacies. You can’t be a successful philosopher until you become a sycophant. Once you get this right, you can name drop and ‘punctuate’ your way out of any reasonable argument and indeed ‘reason’ itself.

    • Rene

      Oh come on, Garg, every person with a smidgen of intelligence can see that is not what Bert is doing! He discusses the philosophers he refers to at length, and doesn’t merely “names-drop”. What is your game here? Do you take delight in running people down all the time, even when they don’t deserve it?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      I think an article on the old “ends justifies the means” philosophical debate is worth your doing for us.

      The “People’s War| by the ANC against the IFP which started in the townships in the 1980s (ref “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffreys) and the present “armed struggle” mythology all seem to me based on that principle.

    • Garg Unzola

      I do not see how anyone with a smidgen of intelligence can take continental philosophy seriously. If Sartre does not deserve ridicule, then I would like some valid reasons why not. I can think of quite a few reasons why he does: Turning down a Nobel prize publicly while privately still requesting the prize money, for one. The undue weight given to a whimsical idea like existential freedom, for another.

      Taking Iran: Look at how un-capitalist Iran is, then it becomes clear that other anti-capitalist tirades are not steeped in facts or reason but in mere ideological convenience. The way forward for Iran is not through continental philosophy’s relativism and pointless grappling with easy concepts, but by following the same path most of the civilised world followed from serfdom to prosperity. That is, through enlightenment type thinking and the capitalist society that inevitably results.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      When De Klerk unbanned the ANC in 1989 hardly anyone in SA knew who they were, despite the present “armed struggle” mythology. They piggy backed on the trade union movement and their support base to get known.

      The biggest opponents of the ANC were the PAC and the IFP. (i.e. black parties, whites being irrelevant as a minority).

      The PAC was more popular in Africa and equally supported to the ANC in the west. Under Nelson Mandela the ANC eliminated the PAC by pretending that their “struggle heroes” and murderers were also heroes of the ANC. Unfortunately that watered down the principles of the ANC – and the end result is Malema.

      The People’s War ,using the necklaces and matches, was started by the ANC, based on the ideas of the Vietnamese communists, and then blamed on the IFP (ref “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffreys). This watered down the other black opposition party.

      So the question now is – Did the End justify the Means?

    • Rene

      Garg, you should know that an ad hominem argument is the cheapest of all logical fallacies – running down continental philosophy because of a continental philosopher’s (fallible, human) actions does not discredit the school of thought you really want to get at. And again, no one with a smidgen of intelligence would fall for that. Besides, does anyone really think that Sartre (or Ricoeur, or many other continental philosophers) would have been able to exert the vast influence that they wield in many fields unless they had something profound to say? I am a psychologist, and Sartre, as well as Heidegger, is hugely relevant for my discipline – just look at the work of Ludwig Binswanger, for example. Foucault is another case in point; his (as well as Ricoeur’s, and Lacan’s) influence on a very popular direction in psychology, narrative therapy, is pervasive. So please don’t parade your ignorance as if it is knowledge.

    • Bert

      Lyndall – I’m not sure if I understand your question regarding the causality of ‘the end justifies the means’ correctly, but given your illustration of it with reference to the history of the ANC’s relationship with several other, mainly black, political groupings, it strikes me that it should surprise no one that this kind of thing has happened, and will continue happening in politics, because most political parties, or for that matter, politicians, are so ideologically interpellated that their ideology dictates what they acknowledge and, in the end, do. The ‘end’ in question here, it seems to me, is the ‘must-have’ of the world believing that the ANC is the sole political benefactor of the country as far as ‘liberating’ it is concerned. And whether the ‘end’ has justified the ‘means’, in retrospect, I doubt if it ever does. As long as some people know that they could not have done it on their own – it required people like Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, De Klerk, Anjie Krog, Beyers Naude, Helen Suzman, Janet Cherry, and a host of others to bring us beyond apartheid. And bringing us beyond apartheid without a civil war intervening has been worth it, although those of us who have opted to stay here have to countenance the undesirable situation of living in ‘our own country’ under conditions where you hardly ever feel safe – unlike countries like Italy, France, Australia, Greece, Turkey, Canada, Wales, etc., all of which I visited recently, where…

    • Garg Unzola

      I can see that you’re a psychologist as opposed to someone with a background in the study of logic. A teleological argument is a logical fallacy, whereas pointing out an inconsistency between Sartre’s lauded revolutionary credentials and his actions is not an ad hominem. Saying Sartre had a lazy eye is an ad hominem. Brandishing terms of endearment like ‘smidgen of intelligence’ is a glass house of an ad hominem. Noting that Sartre didn’t exactly practice what he preached is not an ad hominem, but a testament to the fact that his philosophy is not useful – not even to himself.

      It doesn’t matter how famous or influential a historical figure is or how useful they appear to be to your field. It is precisely the continental thinkers who deny that you even have a means to evaluate the efficacy of the thinkers you mention, due to a fundamental misunderstanding of early 20th century scientific discoveries (named cargo cult science or quantum mysticism).