The French Soil of Fertile Thought

December 2, 2015 | Richard

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FrenchPhilnewrevImagine my surprise. I had just finished creating a 'word cloud' of some of my favourite French philosophers using a free website called Wordle (see image above).  I wanted to accompany the image with a post paying homage to the liberty of French ideas - spurred by the recent tragic terrorist attacks in Paris. Then I came across the lengthy Guardian article by Sudhir Hazareesingh entitled, "From Left Bank to left behind: where have the great French thinkers gone?"

The premise of the article's bold title struck me as both sweeping and tendentious . . . it also contradicted several of my own preconceived notions about the ascension of French thought.

Hazareesingh declares flatly that "French thought is in the doldrums". His writing style is convincing, and especially when painting the historical picture. For example, when he talks about the role of national intellectual constructs, he says "Rousseau’s political philosophy, to take the most obvious example, has consistently provided the bedrock for French republican patterns of thinking over the past two centuries – notably the belief in the possibility of a more rational organisation of society; and the thought that not just society but human nature itself could be regenerated through collective endeavour." This statement is cited in contrast to what happens now-a-days. The effect is compelling, but I don't think it all comes together: what he often cites for argument, doesn't really address the main issue of "left behind" in the article title.

However, what is most notable in this piece is what he chooses to de-emphasise, the French philosophers themselves. He submits the whole canvas of thinkers for consideration:  dramatists, novelists, economists, politicians, rulers, historians (Nora is mentioned three times), sociologists, and even scientists and political parties. "Thinking" is a broad concept, and the lines do blur among the disciplines, so yes my complaint is partially semantic. But many of those individuals who appeared in the 'word cloud' (e.g. Kristeva, Cixous, Nancy), philosophers closely allied with 'French Thought' I would argue, do not get any mention at all; this in spite of the declaration up front in his piece, "French philosophy, which taught the world to reason with sweeping and bold systems such as rationalism, republicanism, feminism, positivism, existentialism and structuralism, has had conspicuously little to offer in recent decades".

Hazareesingh's statements are also sweeping as they are also a little hard on French philosophers. Sartre is mentioned at the start in connection with a disillusioned writer who 'grimly' notes, “The time will soon come when we will be reduced to selling little statues of Sartre made in China”; Sartre, Fanon, Foucault and Bourdieu are put in a single sentence about social inequality and political oppression; Montesquieu is quoted on insouciance; there are nods to the "ethnologist" Claude Lévi-Strauss, "whose notion of structuralism arguably represented the single most inventive French contribution to western thought in the second half of the 20th century", and Descartes 'father' of modern philosophy for cogito ergo sum; Beauvoir and Foucault appear before historian Pierre Nora; and Comte is mentioned in connection with the occult.

But it is when he is winding up his piece that we glimpse what is foremost on his mind. While, "European progressives have come up with innovative frameworks for confronting the challenges to democratic power and civil liberties in western societies...their Gallic counterparts have been indulging in abstract word games, in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard." This last 'in the style' statement comes off as not only dismissive, but distinctly anti-intellectual, which is ironic in itself given what he is attempting to achieve.  And still, he seems to have set the bar impossibly high, "Yet little of this ideological fertility is now in evidence, and French thinking is no longer a central point of reference for progressives across the world. It is noteworthy that none of the recent social revolutions, whether the fall of Soviet-style communism in eastern Europe or the challenge to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, took their cue from the French tradition".

How the French think: an affectionate portrait of an intellectual peopleHazareesingh's writing is compelling, but his interpretive skills are somewhat compromised by both the limited selection of more traditional philosophers for consideration, and his lack of nuance in his treatment of his subjects. He may be right about many things, but his conclusions are not persuasive.

Still, I will have to have a closer look at his book: How the French think: an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people, and hope to read more of the optimism found in the very last sentence of his article, "But we should remember that in France especially, there is always the potential for a sudden reversal: regeneration is one of the essential myths of French culture."

Here is an entertaining review of Hazareesingh's book, also found on the Guardian website: How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh review – from Descartes to Asterix the Gaul.



Emergent Philosophy & Legacy

Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopedia, contains a very interesting List of philosophers, including lists of philosophers by nationality. There are a couple of notable things about the List of French philosophers. The first is how large a list it is! With roughly a thousand names it is far bigger than the lists of other nations (List of American Philosophers would be second).  However, the French list not only dwarfs the others in size, it also appears to have the greatest number of entrants requiring write-ups.  If this social media encyclopedia tells us anything it is that French philosophers are engaged.

Which begs a question, really...why aren't we hearing more about French philosophers? It is not only true that recognition requires time (time is the great incubator of ideas), but perhaps doubly true when we consider French thought in the Anglosphere; such thought normally being transmitted through texts. So French ideas will continue to come thorough definitive translations, through authoritative editions, through debates, lectures, media events, and other works.  But this won't happen today or tomorrow. Take the case of Foucault who passed away over 30 years ago and yet publishing of his work is still ongoing.

And another case in point, think of Derrida and Baudrillard 30 or so years ago before we spoke of deconstruction and the primacy of the virtual? (You could be forgiven for thinking that Baudrillard wrote in the Internet age.) These philosophers certainly weren't on campus like they are today: being critically examined for their contributions in a variety of subject disciplines. It is fascinating to think about the way in which Rene Decartes (1506-1690), who lived so long ago, is the acknowledged 'father' of modern philosophy. It does seem possible to draw a line from many of his preoccupations to many of the investigations at great universities like MIT - I'm thinking mostly in the area of cognitive sciences. The excellent Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts his contribution into perspective, "In the end, Descartes' legacy partly consists of problems he raised, or brought into prominence, but did not solve. The mind–body problem is a case in distinguishing the domain of the mental from that of the physical, Descartes struck a chord. Many philosophers accept the conceptual distinction, but remain uncertain of the underlying metaphysics: whether mind is identical with brain; or the mental emerges from complex processes in the brain; or constitutes a property that is different from any purely physical property, even while being instantiated by the brain. In this case, a problem that Descartes made prominent has lived far beyond his proposed solution."

"Vive la philosophie française!"

And speaking of French culture, did you know that Salon du livre de Toronto French Book Fair is beginning here today (from Dec 2nd to 5th) at the Toronto Reference Library?

 Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Rodin, Le Penseur, Jardin du Musée Rodin, Paris VIIe, France. Picture taken by Yair Haklai on March 31, 2007.