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The Philosopher King, the Veil & the Mammoth

Jeff Mitchell on the political rise and fall of Luc Ferry.

Perhaps the most famous argument in Plato’s Republic is that the best form of government would be one in which the key decision makers were philosophers. Equally well known is the fact that in nearly two and a half millennia such a state has never materialized. For better or worse, most philosophers have wielded little political power. There have, of course, been some notable exceptions. Some of the more obvious examples include Seneca, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Benedetto Croce and Martin Heidegger. If ‘philosopher king’ is taken to mean any philosopher occupying high political office, then until recently one philosopher with a strong claim to the title was the Frenchman Luc Ferry.

From May of 2002 until late March of this year Ferry served as the Minister of Youth, National Education and Research in the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Because public education in France is highly centralized, and includes both primary and secondary education, the ministry oversees a massive state bureaucracy. France has relatively few private institutions of higher learning, so the Minister of Education is responsible for a national system that includes technical and professional schools, adult and continuing education centers, as well as universities. The education ministry also administers large, state-funded research programs in the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences. In an opinion piece that appeared in the March 28th, 2003 edition of Le Monde, Ferry argued that his agency has, in fact, grown too large. Currently it manages over 70,000 educational institutions, more than 900,000 teachers, nearly 500,000 staff, and has a budget of approximately 63 billion Euros. The responsibilities borne by his ministry, he asserted, constitute a case that is ‘unique in the world,’ and one that cries out for reform through decentralization.

Although the fifty-three year old professor qualified as a philosopher king through his ministerial appointment, his career does not necessarily bespeak of the quest for power. Ferry’s professional work and social commitments are also those of the public intellectual, a role that has a particularly strong tradition in France. French public intellectuals have perhaps most frequently come from the ranks of writers (e.g., Émile Zola and André Malraux), but have also included the occasional philosopher (by all accounts the standard in this category was set by the renowned existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre). In France today intellectuals continue to enjoy a type of prestige and public popularity that is generally unknown to their American and British counterparts. In addition to his academic career, Ferry has written reviews and commentaries for the popular press and even appeared on television programs.

Ferry was no newcomer to national politics, and before he became Minister of Education he served for about eight years as president of the National Council on Programs within the education ministry. He also did a tour of duty in 1997 on a commission that was created to investigate judicial reform.

The philosopher served in a government that, relative to the French political landscape, is probably best described as ‘centrist right.’ Although President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Raffarin are viewed as conservatives in France, many of their policies and attitudes would, for example, find more approval by Democrats than by Republicans in the United States. Ferry is an avowed agnostic whose overall philosophy constitutes a form of secular humanism, and from an American standpoint one might well wonder what would make his views ‘conservative’ in any meaningful sense of the term.

Ferry’s intellectual appeal to the political right primarily stems from his sustained critique of the main currents of French postwar philosophy, and his defense of republican ideas and values. In the last half century France has been a hotbed for radical social criticism, more often than not from the left of the political spectrum. French structuralists, post-structuralists, and deconstructionists have called into question many of the key assumptions underlying modernity. Drawing liberally on Marx, Freud, Saussure and Continental philosophy, French thinkers in the humanities and social sciences have challenged commonly-accepted understandings of such basic political concepts as ‘discourse’, ‘subject’ and ‘power’.

Like the United States, France is a constitutional republic whose ‘working philosophy’ hails from the Enlightenment. The deep-seated critique of the very vocabulary of Enlightenment thinking has had implications for both French political theory and practice. One of Ferry’s best-known books (co-authored with Alain Renaut) has appeared in English under the title French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism. A more literal translation of the French title would be The Thought of ’68 (La pensée ’68). Although the late sixties were turbulent times in the United States, in May of 1968 France teetered on the brink of an actual revolution. The revolt began in Parisian universities, but when the protest spread to include approximately ten million striking workers the national economy nearly came to a standstill. In their book Ferry and Renaut analyze the intellectual background to the events of that May by exploring the theories of four of the country’s most influential postwar thinkers: Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. Each theorist is presented as a French version of a major Continental thinker. Bourdieu’s sociology is described as a form of French Marxism, the philosophers Derrida and Foucault are the respective French representatives of Heidegger and Nietzsche, and of course Lacan is the father of French Freudianism. Ferry and Renaut argue that common to Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger is an antihumanism that often includes a skepticism or outright rejection of democratic government and social arrangements. On the authors’ analysis, French intellectuals after 1945 were particularly attracted to utopian and romantic critiques of the liberal social tradition that they perceived as having failed to prevent European totalitarianism and colonialism.

Ferry has developed this theme in other works, and has edited and written books with Renaut critiquing the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger (Why We Are Not Nietzscheans and Heidegger and Modernity). Judging from the fact that it is his single most translated work, Ferry’s best-known book along these lines is probably The New Ecological Order. In this award-winning essay he offers a sustained criticism of ‘deep ecology,’ which, he maintains, in its extreme forms re-packages the same anti-humanistic and anti-democratic utopianism that inspired so many French philosophers in the sixties.

In addition to formulating critiques of contemporary Continental philosophy, Ferry has elaborated his own version of secular humanism. In Man Made God, he explores the possibilities for spirituality sans belief in the supernatural. He argues that the re-organization of marriage in western societies upon the basis of romantic love led to profound changes in the family. Whereas family life had previously been dictated by tradition and local custom, around the eighteenth century a new degree of individualism entered into marital relationships. As marriage gradually became a matter of mutual attraction and choice, new attitudes developed towards children. According to Ferry, it was in the modern family that parental love was first able to fully develop. He interprets the special emphasis on romantic and parental love in modern societies as a divinization of the human. For many people today, he asserts, the truly sacred is no longer located in a transcendent God, but is to be found in our loved ones. It is for the latter, and not for some theological abstraction, that most of us would willingly sacrifice ourselves. In an interview that he gave to the magazine Nouvelles Cles, Ferry discussed his own experience of secular spirituality:

“As to myself, I’ve recently discovered love for children. I have a little girl who just turned five. I’ve developed feelings that I would have never imagined before! All parents who love their children know these feelings – they are very unique. As Hans Jonas says, it’s a ‘non-reciprocal responsibility’ and one that, as a type of love, literally calls forth feelings the existence of which one hasn’t had even an inkling, whatever may have been the nature of one’s love life before having children. Now, this love for children, because it is non-reciprocal from the start, has, contrary to what some have said, an immense potential as a source for universal compassion. One doesn’t experience in at all the same way images of catastrophe or war – focal points of the humanitarian response – depending upon whether or not one has children whom one loves.” [My translation]

Ferry maintains that the modern relocation of the sacred in others, although grounded in the profane, is just as transcendent and mysterious as the supernatural version of the holy that he believes it to be in the process of supplanting.

Ferry’s work on religion has not been limited to the sphere of philosophical argument. As Minister of Education, one of his most important projects was a law on secularism in the public schools. Passed by parliament on March 3rd of this year, the law prohibits grade school pupils from wearing clothing or symbols that conspicuously indicate religious preference. The law’s wording about ostensible display has generally been interpreted by the French media to mean that items such as the Islamic veil, Jewish yarmulke, or a large Christian cross will be forbidden. ‘Discrete’ symbols such as a small crucifix, Star of David, or Hand of Fatima will be allowed. The new law, which will go into effect at the beginning of the next academic year (i.e., in the fall of 2004), also admonishes school authorities to talk to a pupil before initiating a disciplinary procedure.

Although the regulation was passed in the National Assembly and the Senate by sizeable majorities, and, according to polls, is supported by the bulk of the population, it has had more than a few vocal opponents at home and abroad. Due to her former possessions in North Africa, contemporary France has a large Muslim minority, and some critics have argued that the real target of the new regulation are Muslim girls and young women who insist on wearing veils to school.

Ferry has been an outspoken proponent of the legislation, and has argued vigorously for the need to preserve the ‘principle of secularism’ in French government and public administration. In fact, in a sort of historical synchronicity, Luc Ferry is a descendant of the statesman Jules Ferry (1832-1893), who was a key architect of secular public education in France. In a speech he gave in February, Ferry the Younger presented three main reasons to support his new law: It will combat the rising tide of communitarianism, help reinvigorate the country’s secularist tradition, and promote tolerance and national unity.

Ferry argues that under the banner of minority rights, some individuals and groups have sought a new justification for old forms of dogmatism and intolerance. When taken to an ideological extreme, the particularism of various ethnic and religious communities can become a threat to the principles and values underlying the republican form of government and civil society. Quoting a speech given by President Chirac, Ferry points to the French traditions of humanism and meritocracy, and to the country’s commitment to promoting equality and fraternity among her citizens. On the philosopher’s view, the republican tradition actually respects the ‘right to difference,’ since it creates conditions that permit the peaceful coexistence of different communities within French society. However, such coexistence can only endure provided that the concerned parties are prepared to abide by the rules that guarantee a democratic form of public order. One of the primary missions of the public school system, he maintains, is the transmission of a common culture that inculcates republican values. Ferry interprets the principle of secularism within the public schools as vital to the republic, since it places all particularisms – religious, political, and ethnic – on an equal footing. On his view, secularism within public education is by no means a measure against religion, but in fact serves to guarantee the continued freedom of religious belief and practice.

Ferry also argues that the new law remains true to a longstanding French tradition of secularism in public life. While most – if not all – democratic societies have some sort of formal separation between Church and State, in France it is particularly well defined. The first article of the French Constitution of 1958 declares that “France is a republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic and social.” (italics added). By comparison, the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”) are less comprehensive, since on a narrow interpretation the first clause simply prohibits the establishment of a national religion. Ferry urges that France should not, due to the influence of the ‘Anglo-Saxon world,’ abandon one of the best aspects of her republican tradition, namely, “the commitment to the principle of formal equality, and the concern to act in such a way that the respect and dignity of the other does not depend upon the communities to which he belongs, but above all upon his humanity per se, and therefore upon a universal element and not a particular one.”

Finally, Ferry argues that the new law, in prohibiting only conspicuous signs of religious preference, avoids turning the principle of secularism into a sort of militant atheism. Secularity, he points out, provides the same protections for agnosticism and atheism that it does for religious faith. The fact that the law permits discrete religious symbols makes clear that its intention is not to interfere with the personal convictions of pupils, but only to control an aspect of their public presentation of themselves within the civic space of the public school.

Ferry’s other major project during his time in office was to work for a general reform of French higher education. In fact, this has been a goal of nearly every French Minister of Education within recent memory, and it has cost several of them their posts. Although there is a general consensus on both the left and the right that the universities are in need of modernization, the combination of a large academic bureaucracy, powerful teachers unions, and influential student organizations has made fundamental change difficult. In the past twenty years, several projects for reform have been withdrawn due to massive protests by students, teachers, and functionaries. The sheer size of the French system of public education, and the political power of its collective administrations, faculties, student bodies and unions, have led it to be affectionately – and somewhat reverentially – nicknamed ‘The Mammoth.’

Ferry’s calls for increased autonomy for the universities were decried by critics as part of a ‘liberalist’ agenda, which, in current French political vocabulary, conjures up images of privatizing public education and running schools like businesses. In November of 2003 the French weekly Le Point reported that Chirac was unhappy with how Ferry had handled his proposed reform of higher education (an unidentified presidential advisor was quoted as saying “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Chirac so upset with a minister.”). After the President’s right-wing coalition was punished by voters in regional elections this March, Chirac decided to replace most of his ministers. Ferry’s position was given to François Fillon, a political insider. To all appearances, it would seem that the Mammoth has claimed yet another victim – this time a philosopher king.


Jeff Mitchell is an associate professor of philosophy at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Arkansas. His research interests include ethics, psychoanalysis and pragmatism.

Further reading

• The interview with Ferry in Nouvelles Cles was by Patrice van Eersel: ‘Un philosophe face au divin: Un entretien avec Luc Ferry,’ Nouvelles Cles, No.10: Été 1996. It is available on the Internet at: www.nouvellescles.com/Entretien/Ferry/Ferry.htm
• The speech given by Ferry on February 2nd of this year is also accessible on the Internet (in French) at: www.education.gouv.fr/actu/element.php?itemID=2004291453

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