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French Philosophy Now
Manon Royet tells us what’s happening in French philosophy, and why you don’t know about it.
From Descartes and Voltaire, to Sartre and Foucault, French thought has long occupied a privileged seat in the world’s agora. René Descartes (1596-1650), for instance, is often referred to as ‘the Father of Modern Philosophy’ – which admittedly denotes a Eurocentric field of view that looks at history with blinkers. But twentieth century French thinkers such as Foucault, de Beauvoir, Barthes, and Derrida are also among the most influential voices of modern philosophy. In the West they are unavoidable cultural references for a vast array of academic disciplines, ranging from philosophy to history and sociolinguistics. Foucault viewed his project as a ‘Critical History of Thought’, and Derrida’s most famous work, Of Grammatology (1967) criticised some of the principles put forward by the founder of linguistics, Ferdinand De Saussure.
A few years ago, while writing on sociology, I was surprised to receive criticism for having omitted to include works by Michel Foucault in my bibliography. I was puzzled. My research did not engage with Foucault’s precepts: why, then, should he be referenced in it? It did not matter, the criticising academic said: the rule of thumb is that whenever one deals with any of the numerous themes that passed under Foucault’s scrutiny, he should be cited. This would cover topics as different as power, discourse, conformity, institutions… the list is long. But if this speaks to the statutory position of twentieth century French thought, it also highlights one thing: we don’t hear of new French thinkers anymore. Think about it. Could you name a French philosopher who is still writing?
Painting Reality by Dror Rosenski 2022
The Growing Silence Of French Voices
A long time has passed since Simone de Beauvoir revolutionised feminism with her discussion of human history through the lens of gender in her groundbreaking 1949 book The Second Sex. It is telling that among the new generation of philosophers, Judith Butler, a contemporary American philosopher of gender, does not have a French counterpart. Julia Kristeva is arguably the only contemporary French philosopher whose writings on women’s oppression enjoy a wide international reputation, and she was born and raised in Bulgaria. She also wrote her most acclaimed works in the seventies and eighties.
Comparison only makes the absence of resounding French voices more imposing. It urges us to ask: where have all the great French thinkers gone?
Perhaps the lights of French thought just don’t radiate very far anymore. This observation is not new. Articles on this topic have flourished over the past fifteen years. In December 2007, Time magazine ran the headline: ‘The Death of French Culture’. Juxtaposed to this fatalistic title was this caption: ‘Quick, name a living artist or writer from France who has global significance. Right. But help is on the way.’ In the article, Donald Morrison, a former Editor of Time Magazine’s European and Asian editions and lecturer at the prestigious Parisian institute of higher education, Sciences Po, pronounced French cultural life quasi-expired. Similarly, Sudhir Hazareesingh, a Professor of Politics at Oxford, and author of the book How the French Think (2015), has denounced what he views as the decadence of French thought on the international scene in multiple opinion pieces. One of them, entitled ‘French thought once dazzled the world – what went wrong?’ is a carefully constructed criticism of ‘the French style of thinking’, which have been extensively debunked, outside and inside the country.
The Origins Of Modern French Thinking
What is ‘the French style of thinking’ anyway? Examining the development of French philosophy in the eighteenth century helps us grasp its typology, how it manifests today, and why it has receded from the international shores of culture.
Although France produced key thinkers earlier, it was through the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that French philosophy started spreading en masse, influencing the development of ideas across Europe and America and beyond. During this time, the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, and D’Alembert were part of an intellectual movement that sought to provide the foundation for a new reason-based political system to replace the monarchy. They wanted this new social and political world to be based on ideals of liberty and equality for all individuals.
This movement was itself heir to the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This revolution had showed that reasoned observation-based theories were more successful in explaining natural phenomena than folklore or ecclesiastical storytelling. The Enlightenment envisioned a new society guided by the principles of rationality, universality, and individuality. Its metaphor of light as truth connoted the new emphasis on bringing society out of the darkness of dogma, and into progress grounded in methodical reasoning and universal human values.
The Enlightenment’s definition of critical reasoning and progress was not limited to French philosophers alone. It encompassed intellectuals throughout Europe. After all, it wasn’t Voltaire or Diderot, but the Königsberg-born philosopher Immanuel Kant who articulated the most widely-accepted motto of the movement: Sapere Aude, or ‘Dare to know through the use of reason.’ John Locke was English, but he too was committed to using scientific methods to fight against the shadows of arbitrariness, and reason to fight against political tyranny.
So, what’s so special about the French?
More than their general dedication to critical thinking, it is their absolute emphasis on rationality that set the French philosophers apart. British philosophers such as Locke and Hume proposed that knowledge was acquired by practical experience mediated by the senses, a position known as empiricism. By contrast their French peers deemed that truth was accessed through deductive reasoning, and that the senses cannot be trusted. Since they’re unreliable, the theory goes, one must automatically and methodologically question the information they pass onto us. The eighteenth century philosophes’ reliance on this ‘methodological doubt’ and the use of rationality makes sense in the light of Descartes’ legacy, since he had maintained that the sole proof even for existence itself was to be found in one’s thoughts, an idea famously summarised in his statement ‘I think therefore I am’.
The French philosophical tradition is deeply anchored in Descartes’ radical skepticism. It is contrarian at its core. You heard that right, there is philosophical backing to the cliché that the French are always on strike.
Revolutionary impetus and Enlightenment thought were deeply connected, with philosophers providing the arguments for equality, anticlericalism, and generally creating the intellectual context for the Revolution. In other words, French philosophy has long also been deeply enmeshed with politics. French thinkers were so involved in political life that France’s 1789 constitutional document the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen followed their guidance. For instance, the separation of powers was inscribed in it following Montesquieu’s precepts. This charter of human rights, written in the midst of the French Revolution, marks a decisive turn in Western history. It inscribed important concepts about civil society into modern political practice, and philosophers were an integral part of this.
To sum up: after Descartes, French thinking developed two distinctive features. The first has to do with its intellectual predilections: it was especially preoccupied with rationality, universality, and it highly valued radical skepticism (as it still does). The second is that it is a philosophy undeniably political. In the French tradition, thinkers are lighthouses helping the population navigate the perilous waters of social and political change.
French Philosophy Hasn’t Changed, That’s The Problem
So the French love abstract, universal ideals, and incredulity. What does that have to do with its alleged, much-commented, downgrade? The answer is ‘a lot’. French philosophy has not changed that much at all; but the world has, and that’s the issue.
The Gallic tradition of thought starts from ideas rather than experience, which has led it to tend to conceive of humanity in universalistic terms. It holds that everyone can have access to universal truths through abstract deduction. This implies that everyone can reason themselves into agreeing with each other on humanistic truths. This assumption amounts to saying that conflict due to individuals holding different and incompatible conceptions of the world and values, is avoidable.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is just one example of French unifying doctrine. France’s so-called ‘civilising mission’ is another. It refers to the vocation of the French, self-proclaimed at the height of the era of colonialism, to bring civilisation to the rest of the world – justified by the French belief in rationality and its universal application. However, from this, the problem with the modern world becomes evident: France’s philosophical allegiance to universalism effectively denies pluralism of worldviews. It simultaneously imbues the fruits of one’s reasoning with a humanitarian character, and the status of undisputable, all-encompassing truth.
It comes as no surprise that the idea that one can reach universal principles by resorting to rationality has received extensive criticism from a litany of disciplines. The Sixties’ Poststructuralist philosophical and literary movement, for example, argued strongly that power relations and subjectivity underscored pretty much everything we previously thought of as adamantly objective – including philosophy. And Postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault contended that a pretence to universality and neutrality in effect paves the way for more intractable forms of oppression.
This movement was lucidly defined by Judith Butler in her essay ‘Contingent Foundations’ (1994). Postmodern thought, she says, is about calling to account how examples and paradigms ‘‘serve to subordinate and erase that which they seek to explain.’’ The argument is that the rationality and universalism so loved by French philosophers have a paradoxical capacity to to exclude different belief systems, and provide the philosophical tools to hide the fact that it’s happening. Such alienation is produced on the foundation that they fail to align with truths found through reasoning, and thus imbued with a false universal applicability French thought shields out everything that falls outside the scope of its supposedly ‘universal because rational’ principles.
The development of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century further disproved the conception of the individual as being entirely rational. It revealed the preponderant role of the subconscious, undermining the claims both that rationality is the defining feature of humanity, and that we are capable of pure, unbiased abstraction. It is now well-known that humans are contaminated by a long list of cognitive biases (they’re well illustrated in Daniel Kahneman’s 2021 bestseller, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement). The principle of ‘unmodified reasoning leading to universal truth’ becomes merely a confidence-boosting but highly unrealistic ideal.
Yet despite the many detractors of philosophical universalism, contemporary thinkers in France just can’t seem to let it go. Alain Badiou (b. 1937) is a former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. He is also the most widely translated living French philosopher. His work deals extensively with political uprisings and liberation of the masses through appeals to universalism, and he conceives of the moments of popular revolt such as 2011’s Arab Spring as movements of emancipatory universalism, motivated by universal principles of justice and freedom.
Badiou has been powerfully criticised by theorists such as Elizabeth Paquette, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina. She dedicated an entire book, Universal Emancipation – Race Beyond Badiou (2020) to deconstructing Badiou’s thesis. In it she showed that his commitment to universal principles effectively produces a political theory incapable of dealing with the specificities of struggle. For instance, since his philosophy of ‘indifference’ is blind to race, it cannot account for the struggles of racialised individuals. The result is a justice-inspired philosophical system that is paradoxically ineffective at considering justice and freedom while tackling emancipatory politics.
This illustrates a typically French problem. The 1978 law that banned the collection of data based on race or ethnicity is another striking example of French universalism. France likes to see itself as a colour-blind, religion-blind, and pretty-much-everything-else-blind nation. For this reason, it is not permitted to retrieve statistics on minorities. The contradictions at the heart of this approach, which makes minorities unquantifiable and therefore effectively invisible, have been widely discussed in the international press. A 2020 article published in The Atlantic condemned the hypocrisy of the French universalistic dogma by warning, ‘France Is Officially Color-Blind. Reality Isn’t’. Yet, the French intellectual world persists in its damaging love affair with being out of touch. Blinded by their dedication to abstract, airy ideas, contemporary French philosophers still don’t want to confront their cherished precepts with the lessons of real-life experience.
Where has the legacy of Foucault and Postmodern thought led? The new strain of philosophers is recycling old themes. It has failed to integrate the lessons of the Poststructuralist critique of universalism. And the rest of the world just doesn’t care to watch anymore. To renew itself, French thought is confronted with an impossibility. It suffers from what Sudhir Hazareesingh eloquently described as the French ‘tendency to look inwards in space, and backwards in time’.
To summarise, French philosophy hasn’t changed, so it has become outdated. It hasn’t integrated new thinking and knowledge, making it ill-adapted to tackle modern problems.
Paris At Night, Benh Lieu Song 2010 Creative Commons
The Political Potential of French Philosophy
Paradoxically, the same thing that makes French thought obsolete – its inertia – also contains the potential for its rekindling. French philosophy is rationalist and universalistic, and political in its concerns. While the universalism explains why French philosophy has grown increasingly inaudible outside of France, its political nature may hold the key to reinvigorating it on the international scene.
Let me explain.
France practically invented the concept of the intellectual as an important public figure. Since the Enlightenment, French philosophers have helped draft watershed political texts; and long after the salon culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gathered intellectuals to debate in fashionable Parisian apartments, the figure of the French intellectual as a political commentator and moral guide remains alive and well. It is common in France for philosophers to be invited onto TV shows alongside politicians to discuss social issues. In the ramp-up to a presidential election, for example, politicians constantly quote French philosophers in their debates, using them as vouchers for their own legitimacy. For example, the far-right candidate Éric Zemmour’s favourite citation in the lead-up to the 2022 election seemed to be from Rousseau: “Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfil around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars to be spared having to love his neighbours.” Zemmour often resorts to this bon mot as a sort of authoritative argument, supposed to both prove the hypocrisy of the other candidates’ focus on human rights and to justify his stance on nationalism and domestic preference. (By doing this, Zemmour ironically continues the French tradition of casting the philosopher as a political guide, while trying to rebuke the figure of the good-willed intellectual as an elitist traitor to the nation.)
What French philosophers have to say remains eminently political in substance. I mentioned Badiou’s stress on the emancipation of the masses and on political struggle. Jacques Rancière (b.1940) is another major contemporary French thinker who writes profusely about political philosophy. He deals extensively with what he calls ‘the part of those who have no part’. By this, Rancière means the enactment of equality by those who are in subjugated positions by vocalising their right to equal treatment. Rancière’s writings have all to do with the politics of recognition. In a similar vein to Badiou, he stresses the importance of public action, and fights political apathy.
Frédéric Gros, lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Paris XII, dedicated his latest book, Disobey (published in English translation in May 2021), to the dangers of political apathy and blind obedience to leaders. It urges the reader to use critical thinking in the face of a corrupt politics that gives free reign to the market: “At a time when ‘experts’ pride themselves on their decisions being the result of anonymous and icy statistics, disobeying is a declaration of humanity,” he writes.
While France’s enduring love of skepticism results in an emphasis on political engagement and resistance, its positive sentiment towards intellectuals grants philosophers the platform to denounce delusional optimism.
Our world is faced with a multitude of pressing problems. On top of the list is the climate crisis that no COP meeting seems to adequately address, and the deepening of inequalities worldwide, between a few multimillionaires and billionaires and the rest of us. Popular indignation has expressed itself through the bolstering of nationalist and populist leaders on the one hand or a disinterest in politics on the other. But such inward-looking attitudes heighten social divisions. Hate crimes sharply increased in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency. And general political indifference means fewer opportunities to generate solutions to the world’s current crises.
As philosophers in France are interested in the political game and at the same time part of it, they are bearers of potential. They can hinder what the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe calls the ‘evasion of the political’ – the widespread disengagement with political life. The modern philosophes’ line of thought as well as their public stature encourages people to commit to fighting politically for their visions of societal visions. They show the importance of engaging with political institutions, questioning them, and expressing dissent publicly. So, French philosophy is endemically political. And that’s a good thing.
This moment in history requires philosophers everywhere to be politically active. The neoliberal model has encouraged us all to equate politics with economics. To get out of the swamp of political exclusion, apathy, and extremism, we have no choice but to re-enter the political space, and to reflect on the meaning of coexistence. The neoliberal crisis is a crisis of the political. This makes the French tradition an interesting model for reflecting on the current issues we face from a political and philosophical standpoint, instead of an economic one.
At the core of contemporary French philosophy lies an important contradiction. It is well suited to help us navigate the current political moment, but it is obsolete when it comes to other modern topics such as diversity because it relies on ideas of universalism, and a deep-rooted conviction that society should treat all individuals identically regardless of their social and religious traditions and values. Abroad, the reach of French thought is withering. It used to hold a prominent place in the realm of ideas worldwide. But, unlike French thought, the world has evolved. It has become weary of the one-size-fits-all solutions of philosophical universalism.
French philosophy is not doomed. It contains within itself the remedies to its growing global irrelevance. It has the potential to inspire people to reflect on and engage with the crisis of neoliberal democracy. While providing a model where philosophers are central figures in society, the French philosophical tradition also highlights the importance of questioning politics. It seeks to defeat political disinterest, incentivising people to constantly reflect and improve. French philosophy can provide a template that opposes the depersonalised institutions of neoliberalism, if only it will incorporate pluralism and move away from the Enlightenment-inherited script of disempowering universalism.
© Manon Royet 2022
Manon Royet is a philosophy writer, researcher and translator based in London. The thesis of her postgraduate degree at UCL on political philosophy focused on the theories of Jürgen Habermas and Chantal Mouffe. She specialises in questions of identity, multiculturalism in Europe, and their political solutions.