Peter Salmon, Since Derrida, Aeon, 6 May 2022
A golden generation of French philosophers dismantled truth and other traditional ideas. What next for their successors?
Ricœur was part of a generation that Hélène Cixous, one of its members, called ‘the incorruptibles’. Their numbers included such thinkers as Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jean Luc-Nancy, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, to name just a few. While they were as defined by their differences as by their similarities – their work embraces the whole political spectrum, some were poststructuralist, some simply post structuralist – for each of them, questions of identity were central to their project, and their analyses opened up new ways of understanding the self.
What the self isn’t, for any of these thinkers, is the sort of stable, fully conscious, immutable generator of meaning that a certain version of Enlightenment thinking – and a certain version of both current philosophy and current ‘common sense’ – proposes. Following on from three thinkers whom Ricœur called the ‘masters of suspicion’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud – late-20th-century French philosophers looked at ways in which the self is constructed, how important or unimportant ‘consciousness’ is in that process, and how meaning is created. For each of these thinkers, we are not the absolute possessors of all our thoughts – there is a lot of work being done by preconscious, unconscious, non-conscious and subconscious impulses impacting what we regard as our ‘self-positing ego’.