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French Lessons

by Rick Lewis

French intellectual life conjures up potent imagery in the imaginations of some Anglo-Saxons. The smell of Gauloises cigarettes. Crowded Parisian cafés. Fog on the brain. Sorry, I mean, on the Seine. Philosophy really matters in France. It has a central part in public life. It is taught to all schoolchildren. Anglophones know about René Descartes, the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’ with his flowing locks and his cogito (“I think, therefore I am”). They know about Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus and the stylish literary existentialism they created on the Left Bank in the years after the War. But the theme of this issue of Philosophy Now is What French Philosophy Did Next.

French philosophy has continued to generate huge interest in the English-speaking nations over the last few decades. However, in universities this interest has been much more in the departments of literature and sociology than among the philosophers. For over a century there has been a split between the type of philosophy done in France and that done in the English-speaking nations. After Sartre, this split deepened into outright hostility, for instance with Roger Scruton notoriously accusing post-stucturalist Jacques Derrida of being a charlatan (to use an old French word). Nobody loves a good fracas more than me, but perhaps this cheery badinage delayed a cooler assessment of the diverse ideas bubbling away in France over the last forty years, years which have seen a colourful parade of theories, trends, and controversies. This issue contains assorted articles about some of the concerns of the best-known French philosophers of recent times. I hope it gives you a flavour of what has been going on. As an added bonus, you may also pick out a few common strands among all the diversity. For instance, our opening article about how much Michel Foucault would have loved Facebook and the article about Derrida both discuss the idea of the self as a performance. (Doesn’t this remind you of Shakespeare’s As You Like It? “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”) This is one example of how French philosophers have approached the problem of personal identity, the universal philosophical conundrum of what makes you you, and what makes you continue to be you as you change over time. You can find out about some other theories of personal identity in Joshua Farris’ article.

The notion of personhood as a performance also takes us to more general philosophical questions about the relationship between appearance and reality, and therefore to this month’s film column. It’s about the fake documentary Death of a President, which gives our reviewer Terri Murray the chance to consider postmodernist Jean Baudrillard’s highly controversial notions of simulation and hyperreality.

This month’s ‘Brief Life’ is about the French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, and makes clear that she too is interested in personal identity, though from a rather different angle. She writes about embodiment – about the consequences of us being not disembodied minds but creatures of flesh and blood, and she examines about how personhood first develops in growing infants.

The article on Kristeva and the one on Derrida both discuss their respective views on language and semiotics. Language has been another absolutely central theme in recent French philosophy, just as it has (in a completely different way) in analytic philosophy too.

Marxism was a crucial influence on French thinkers for well over half a century, but just as the world in general is now mostly post-Marxist, so is French philosophy. Peter Benson looks at Post-Marxist economic and social thought through the writings of Jean Baudrillard and of former armed robber Bernard Stiegler.

In addition to all this, French intellectuals certainly have lessons to teach us about the biggest questions in our lives, including death, absurdity, sex and meaning. You can see this for yourself particularly in Danelle Gallo’s article about Georges Bataille and the artist Yves Klein, as well as in the review of Luce Irigaray’s book about love. Occasionally one has the sneaking suspicion that their choice of terminology makes their concerns seem even bigger and more dramatic than might otherwise be the case. For instance, Bataille has much to say about Death, but it turns out that in his writing this means not physical death so much as the death of the ego, or the death of prohibitions. Bataille and others are concerned with eroticism, but this too has a more specialised meaning than the everyday one: it can mean a psychological quest. Any philosophy grad student who is hungry for fame should consider adopting similarly dramatic terminology. Just imagine! “My PhD dissertation is about sex. (By sex, of course, I mean the relation of linguistic signifiers to the things signified.)” “Great! We’ll make a TV documentary about you!”

In our last issue, we announced that the great Noam Chomsky had been picked as the 2014 winner of Philosophy Now’s Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. So in January Professor Chomsky received the award in front of an appreciative audience at London’s Conway Hall, appearing via live video link from his home in Massachusetts. In his acceptance talk he terrified us all with his tales of institutional stupidity. You can read the transcript in this issue. It’s rather apt that Chomsky’s talk appears in this issue – back in the 1970s he once debated human nature and power on Dutch television with none other than Michel Foucault.

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