French Philosophy Now
Philosophy Now. A Magazine of Ideas, Issue 153: December 2022 / January 2023
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?
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.
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.
2 thoughts on “Manon Royet, French Philosophy Now (2022)”
I find the article less than convincing, but agree that there is far less interest in French philosophers outside of France than there was in the 1970s and 80s. As far as university philosophy departments in the US go, the lack of interest in contemporary French philosophers goes hand in hand with a decline to where postgraduates are mostly dabbling in analytic minutiae to the point of meaningless solipsism. Primarily referencing Maoist Badiou and Marxist Ranciere ignores the work of other contemporary French philosophers such as Monique Canto-Sperer, and the recently deceased Jacques Bouveresse, who, along with many other French philosophers, refute the generalization presented. Jacques Derrida stated that primary goal of his philosophical endeavor was to undermine ethnocentrism, a goal in sharp contrast with the supposed prevalent internationalism among French philosophers that Manon Royet’s article presents.
In the full article, which was insightful and well written, you wrote
“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.”
Is this not a rationalized position akin to French universalism in calling philosophers to a “crisis” and essentially communicating that there is a correct way they can advance a post-neoliberal agenda and other ways (thinking liberté, égalité, fraternité) are wrong and should be discarded? To that end, isn’t the whole paper an appeal to popularity? Does the diminished influence of the international French philosopher “rockstar” exactly mean their position is wrong?