Study Guide

Paul Valéry Buzzwords

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Look, we didn't do buzzwords in the 19th century. At least, we weren't like those wacky postmodernists, who are always coming up with buzzwords life signifier, subaltern, and gynocritic. I am a man who loves words, but I try not to belabor them. Here are a few words that are helpful for understanding my work, but let's not call them buzzwords. It's just not very fin-de-siècle.


It all started with that cultural rebel and poet of the extremes, Charles Baudelaire. His turn-of-the-century poems inspired similar work by Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. In the spirit of Baudelaire, we were all into moods and sensations, not just objective descriptions.

Our poetry aimed at getting beyond the surface of the object itself to explore the object's essence. We thought the surfaces of things were just "symbols" for the essence within. Think of a person, for example. Sure, we all see the surface appearance of that person, but do we really know what's going on in that person's heart and head? We Symbolists thought all of reality was like that, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it.

You should know that we repudiated all religious, spiritual, and moral concerns; that stuff weighs you down. We believed that as poets, we were way interesting, and that our personal and creative opinions of things provided fascinating material for poems.


I liked the swiftness and pithiness of aphorisms—you dash something off, just a short little truthy saying, and you keep moving. Plus, what a sense of accomplishment you get after tossing off just a few lines.

I took this stuff really seriously, recording fresh material and whimsical reflections on science and math and everything else under the sun each and every morning. Here are some of my faves:

An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it.

Love is being stupid together.

War: a massacre of people who don't know each other for the profit of people who know each other but don't massacre each other. (Source)

Just goes to show you—you don't need 1,000 pages and fancy-shmancy terminology to make a good, intelligent point. Isn't clarity better?

Constructivist Epistemology

Okay, so, cards on the table: this term totally did not exist while I was still walking on the great green earth. It was cooked up later, in 1967, by the famous educational theorist Jean Piaget, and then people looked back on my work as an early example of it. Constructivist epistemology is the idea that "scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world" (source), which is to say that scientists make sense of the world through theories; they don't just stumble across fully formed theories like a treasure chest half buried in the sand.

I was considered a constructivist for uttering this little gem: "Science is the representation of recipes and procedures that work always" (source). What I mean here is that scientists come up with the theories. Scientists test them and verify them. Scientists produce out knowledge of the world. That means that science is only one way to understand reality, and anything that goes beyond the understanding of scientists goes beyond the understanding of science, too. Got it?

Lost Object of Desire

This here's a tricky one. Because I believe that knowledge is formed and not discovered, I also believe that we cannot truly understand an object; we can only describe it with language, or represent in with words or images. Frustrating, I know—which is why I compare this maddening unknowability with the experience of desiring something you can't fully have. In both situations—seeking to fully understand an object, and desiring a person—we only get bits and pieces of what we want.

Negative Philosophy

This is just a confusing way of saying "critical philosophy," which means that I didn't openly embrace the ideas and theories of the philosophers who preceded me. Look, they didn't find the Holy Grail; they just had theories, which are, well, theories, not objective scientific facts. Even the big guns like Aristotle and Kant were just spinning theories pretty much out of thin air. Sure, they thought long and hard, and sure, they were totally logical, but theories are theories.

No ideas—or even the meanings of words, for that matter—are ever fully pinned down and defined for good. We don't ever really have absolute knowledge.

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