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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers by Alan D. Schrift (Blackwell Publishing) (Hardcover) To understand the evolution of recent French thought, both the philosophical debates and the figures behind them must be examined. This unique book addresses positions such as vitalism, neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, existentialism, Marxism, structuralism, and feminism, and provides concise biographies of the influential philosophers who shaped these movements, including entries on over eighty thinkers.

The discussion and cross-referencing of ideas and figures, together with an appendix on the distinctive nature of French academic culture, provide readers with an unparalleled resource for coming to grips with recent French philosophy in a single engaging and concise text.

Just what is "the Sorbonne"? Is it a building? An institution? Does it operate under the auspices of the French government or does it function as an independent agency? And the Ecole Normale Supérieure? Is that like a high school? Or a university? Or an institute of advanced study? As I began to work on an introduction to twentieth-century French philosophy, I came to realize that not only I, but also many people who considered themselves relatively well informed about recent French philosophy, did not really know the answers to many questions like these. More importantly, as my research evolved, I came to recognize that the answers to questions concerning the various academic institu­tions in France told a great deal about the history of philosophy in France in the twentieth century. For example, the supposed faddishness that is often noted as characteristic of French philosophy is not, I came to recognize, so much the consequence of "intellectual fashion" or personal choices as it is the result of the highly centralized and regulated system of academic instruction and professional certification that has marked the intellectual formation of virtually every significant French philosopher. To give an example, consider the following: in the four decades preceding 1960, almost no hooks on Nietzsche were published by philosophers in France. During the 1960s, beginning with Gilles Deleuze's Nietzsche et la philosophie in 1962, books, essays, and journal issues devoted to Nietzsche's work appear frequently. While many have wondered what sparked the Nietzsche explosion in France in the 1960s, and a "natural" hypothesis would be to assume that this interest arose in response to the publication in Germany of Heidegger's two-volume Nietzsche in 1961, a knowledge of French academic practices suggests another explanation: Nietzsche's On the .Genealogy of Morals appears on the reading list of the agregatlon de philosophie — the annual examination that must be passed by anyone hoping for an academic career in philosophy -- in 1958, the first time his work appears on that examin­ation's reading list in over thirty years. His works reappear on the reading lists for several of the following years, which means that many philosophy instructors whose teaching prepares students for this exam­ination, as well as all students finishing their higher education during these years, would be spending considerable time reading Nietzsche's work. That so much published scholarship would follow from so many students and teachers reading Nietzsche's works in preparation for this examination is not at all surprising, and examples like this one, I would argue, explain a great deal about so-called French scholarly fads. (The agregation de philosophic is discussed in some detail in appendix 1.)

One of the primary goals of this text is to provide some of the institutional and academic background that helps to explain how phil­osophy in France has developed during the twentieth century. It is Schrift’s conviction that the relative lack of awareness among English-language students and scholars of the French academic system and the role it has played in the intellectual formation of French philosophers has resulted in a lack of attention to many significant factors that have influenced the historical unfolding of philosophy in France. This lack of attention is most apparent in the cases of post-1960 "poststructuralist" French thinkers and it manifests itself in a number of ways. First, there is the general sense that while many of these thinkers respond to some extent to their structuralist predecessors, they are inspired more directly by German philosophers: Husserl, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Hegel, in particular. By chronicling the entire century and recalling some of the lively philosophical debates in the century's first six decades, I hope to correct the conjoined misconceptions that "French Philosophy" began with existentialism and functions in large part in response to the German master thinkers.

A second, related point, concerns a "cult of genius" that has sur­rounded many of the leading French philosophers of the century, a cult that some of these thinkers have themselves cultivated, with the result that the interlocutors with whom they were engaged and the teachers from whom they learned are often completely eclipsed from view. The fault is not always with the French, however, as their eager English-speaking audience is all too happy to ignore the hints that they them-selves sometimes give. So, to take a well-documented example, in Michel Foucault's inaugural address upon taking his position at the College de France, he credited Georges Dumézil, Georges Canguilhem, and Jean Hyppolite for the roles they played in his intellectual evolu­tion. Yet how many scholars who have published on Foucault, and students who have studied his work, would have to confess to not having read a word written by any of these three? There has been, throughout the twentieth century, a number of great "teachers" whose influence on French philosophy has been enormous — teachers like Alain, Wahl, Kojeye, Bachelard, Canguilhem, Hyppolite, or Jankelévitch — and by highlighting the roles they have played, I think a better sense of the evolution of French thought can be garnered.

A third and final point is also worth mentioning. The enormous popularity of the major figures in contemporary French philosophy — Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Kristeva, Irigaray, Lacan, et al. — has not only led to many very influential figures from earlier in the century being largely if not totally forgotten, but has also eclipsed the significant work of a range of other contemporary philosophers. These two eclipses have different causes and reflect different phenomena. The latter — those important figures in France who have not yet been or are only just being "discovered" by an English-speaking audience include figures like Jacques Bouveresse, Gilles-Gaston Granger, Jules Vuillemin, Clement Rosset, and Alain Badiou, who for differing reasons have just never caught on sufficiently to justify the expense of translating and publishing their work. (That this is changing in the case of Badiou's work is worth noting.) But it is the former the "forgetting" of earlier influential figures that is, I think, more intellectually interesting, as it has a great deal to do with the abrupt and rather odd dismissal of all things existentialist that followed the rise of structuralism.

To be sure, much of this had to do with a typically Oedipal French intellectual gesture, namely, the exiling of Jean-Paul Sartre from theo­retical relevance. One could certainly argue that no intellectual force exercised so dominant an influence on French thought this century as did Sartre, which makes his disappearance all the more suspect. But not only has Sartre been overlooked. In addition, almost everything that had any connection with him — and this was quite a lot — has also been ignored for quite a while. I mean here not only Sartre's major "exist­ential" interlocutors Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, but also the religious critics to whom he was responding such as the Personalist Edouard Mounier or the Catholic Gabriel Marcel, and the various Marxist controversies that he was a party to during the 1940s and 1950s. And then there was his influence on and support for the challenges to colonialism raised by, among others, Frantz Fanon, Aime Césaire, and Albert Memmi. Things are changing recently for the better in this regard, and there is now, to be sure, some renewed interest in the work of Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, and the so-called "black existentialists." There is even renewed interest in Sartre's political as well as existentialist philosophical writings in circles other than those focused on teaching undergraduate existentialism classes, where Sartre's popularity has never waned. But there are still important figures and developments, particularly in the first decades of the twentieth century, and in the years between World War II and the rise of structuralism, that need to be recalled if the French twentieth century is to be told philosophically. That is what this text seeks to do.

In part one, Schrift offers a narrative account of developments in French philosophy through the twentieth century. His focus in this narrative is twofold: first, Schrift recalls the evolution of French thought from its spiritualist and positivist roots in the nineteenth century through several major developments: the introduction of phenomenology, both Hegel­ian and Husserlian; the two responses to phenomenology: existential­ism's "philosophy of the subject" and what the French call epistemologie's "philosophy of the concept"; the emergence of the human sciences and structuralism's challenge to philosophy; and the various ways that philosophical thinking reemerged after structur­alism. Throughout this narrative, Schrift emphasizes two features that are often overlooked as one tells the "official story" of how French phil­osophy moves from Bergson to existentialism to structuralism to postmodernism: the role played by French academic institutions and practices on the specific philosophical developments that emerge, and France's indigenous philosophical tradition's contribution to what is too quickly seen as appropriations of the thought of a succession of German philosophers.

In part two, Schrift provides biographical notes for a significant number of the philosophers who have, in my opinion, played important roles in the history of philosophy in France throughout the twentieth century. These notes are not, however, what one typically finds in a biography. Rather than rehearse the personal details of these thinkers' lives, Schrift focuses instead on the central factors in their intellectual formation: where and when they were born, where they went to lycee, where they prepared for the competitive entrance examination to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, who they studied with, who they went to school with, on what they wrote their various theses and under whose direction, where they taught, etc. Attending to these details reveals how "small" the French philosophical world is in terms of the available routes one could follow on the way to a successful academic career, and shows the enormous influence played by some philosophers who, while largely unknown outside the French academy, occupied positions of institutional power that determined what several generations of students would learn.

In the first appendix, Schrift discusses the major academic institutions that have marked the education and careers of all philosophers in France. While some of these institutions will be familiar — the Sorbonne or the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the College de France or the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes the ways in which they each place certain limitations on their students and faculties may not be well known. Nor will their respective relations with each other be likely to be familiar to many readers. In some cases, these relations and limitations are impor­tant, and their changes over the century might make one's position at one or another of these institutions quite different, depending on when one taught or studied there. Other institutions, like the agrégatlon de philosophie, or the prestige and influence of certain Parisian lycees, may not be known at all to many readers. For this reason, although it appears as an appendix, many readers might profit from reading this section before parts one and two, as some familiarity with French academic culture will help make sense of certain details in the historical narrative and the biographical notes.

In the second appendix, Schrift produce a very compre­hensive bibliography available of French philosophy in English transla­tion. For authors who have had only a few works published in English translation, their texts appear as part of their biographical notes. But for authors whose works have been widely translated into English, Schrift lists all of their translated books plus the titles and bibliographical information of their initial French publication.

Surveying the entirety of the developments in the twentieth century in French philosophy would be a task for an encyclopedia rather than a short introduction. Schrift highlights those develop­ments that are either most philosophically significant or most important in terms of the roles played by certain academic institutions on the intellectual formations of French philosophers. This has led my account to pay what some will no doubt regard as insufficient attention to the influence of the ideas of Marx and Freud on developments in philosophy. The reason for this is that this narrative chooses to focus on academic philosophy: while Marx and Freud are very much a part of the twentieth-century intellectual world out of which almost all the philosophers Schrift discusses have arisen, they were not allowed into the philosophical cur­riculum of the university (or even the classe de philosophie) prior to the late 1960s, and even then, they are only barely present. From this perspective, then, Schrift draws a distinction between, for example, what Althusser might be "teaching" his students — Spinoza, Rousseau, Machiavelli — and what he's working on with his colleagues — how to read Capital. Emphasizing the world of academic philosophy has also led to a selectivity that might appear somewhat arbitrary, especially as concerns those figures whose biographical notes included. In making the decisions as to who to include, Schrift tries to include not only all the major philosophers whose work has been well received by the English-speaking philosophical audi­ence, but also those philosophers whose work, and teaching, has been influential on the development of generations of French philosophy students, including some students who subsequently became important philosophers in their own right. Such a list could have extended indefinitely, and while some well-known figures in philosophy and related fields have been omitted (Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau, Vincent Descombes, Dominique Janicaud, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edgar Morin, Alexis Philonenko, and Jacques Ranciere, among many others), Schrift tries to at least mention them in connecting them either to developments or to philosophical colleagues whose philosophical inter­ests they shared. Hopefully, the story these biographies of intellectual formation tell, along with the historical narrative that precedes them and the notes on French academic institutions that follow them, is a good one, which is to say, an honest story, informative and insightful, sometimes predictable and other times surprising. Not the whole story, by any means; but a story worth telling.

Contemporary French Philosophy: Modernity and the Persistence of the Subject by Caroline Williams (Athlone, Continuum) (HARDCOVER) surveys Contemporarily French thought with emphasis upon the subject. It is a fine reworking of significant threads within francophone Continental thought.

 Author summary: The arguments and explorations of the status of subjectivity in the following chapters will also draw attention to the insuperability of the political horizon of philosophical questions. The re‑opening o f the question of the subject cannot be viewed in isolation from the reexamination o f the possible structure o f the political. We have noted above that philosophical and political levels are interwoven. Philosophical thought is the conceptual lining of the political, and philosophical questions are always ontico‑political ones. We can go further: philosophical and political thought share a common history and philosophical foundations are always political in their effects. Hence, if the consideration of the ontological shape of the subject gives rise to political questions, then ontological questions are themselves politicized just as the political, too, must become an ontological category with all the accompanying risks that such categorization brings. Each thinker considered here is cognizant of this fundamental relation. Indeed, from Lukacs to Foucault, epistemological problems are folded into political ones.

Moreover, philosophical questions regarding the subject also entail ethico‑political decisions. The decision (both conceptual and political) shapes the form, content and possibility of the political. To tie the question of the subject to the structure of the political in this way is not to map a theory of the subject upon the political neither is it intended to reduce the subject to an effect of a constitutive political structure. Both of these theoretical manoeuvres risk determining the shape and content of the subject and inverting the problematic of subject to that of the political. 14 The claim in this study is that the emergence of a particular problematic of the subject ‑ and the extent of its constitution ‑ itself shapes and delimits the conditions of possibility of the political. When the fragile, contingent nature of the subject's constitution is emphasized, the groundwork of political thought is itself re‑opened. We shall view the ways in which the philosophical and the political are inextricably bound and simultaneously give rise to each other, by pursuing the various presentations of the subject in each of the following chapters. Our first task, however, is to situate the subject upon the terrain of modern philosophy and to consider, in turn, the question of the philosophical inheritance of contemporary accounts of the subject.

How, then, to begin? As we shall see in Chapter 1, Descartes' starting point was to question the reliability and certainty which could be attached to knowledge derived by the self. Whilst the problems that troubled his own epistemology do not ‑ and indeed could not embrace the concerns of this introduction, the spectres of doubt and insecurity, the questioning of ground, origin, telos, the limits of experience, and hence human knowledge, preoccupied Descartes and those after him in much the same way as they form the horizon for thinking for the writers considered in this work. Derrida has noted that, so long as questions regarding the constitution of the subject are tied to the ontological question which deals with the subjectum, they must remain post‑Cartesian.8 Althusser, Lacan and Foucault are all considered to be post‑Cartesians, according to this observation. Of course, the status of this view must remain, at this early stage of our investigations, open to debate. Even when this movement of questioning appears to be overshadowed negatively as a crisis of thought or a doubting of subjectivity (as it is for Descartes) the openness of a mode of questioning, the calling to accounts of the subject, may still produce new figures of thought, and create new forms of subjectivity, before any egological containment of the subject takes place.

This return to beginnings, to first principles and to `the things in themselves' shorn of all substantial relations was a journey taken by Husserl's phenomenology. It is often claimed that the three philosophical masters to influence the writers considered in this work were Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who replaced the centrality of Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger in contemporary French philosophy. However, it is likely that such a picture of the philosophical transition in post‑war France goes furthest in accounting for the decline of existential humanism which was influenced primarily by what Descombes refers to as `the three H's'. Hegel, Heidegger, and particularly Husserl's, influence continued within contemporary thought and the latter's attempt to reduce subjectivity to its barest essence, to question the mode through which consciousness may constitute its world, is a project which may even be seen to seep, through categorical inversion, into the discourse of structuralism (see Chapter 2). All philosophical positions which place subjectivity under erasure owe their beginnings, in part, to Descartes, Kant and Husserl who, by subjecting consciousness to doubt, a transcendental framework and the phenomenological reduction respectively, sought to secure, ground and isolate the central characteristics of, and limits to, subjectivity. Nevertheless, if contemporary conceptions of the subject are concerned with the problem of beginnings, or the question of the before, this focus is without chronological or teleological reference. The beginning or origin does not simply precede the construction of the subject, or the political for that matter, rather it co‑exists with, and accompanies both as their necessary counterpart.

In this particular work, Althusser, Lacan, Derrida and Foucault may each be understood to question the status of subjectivity in philosophical discourse. Whether we investigate `structuralism' or `post‑structuralism,' each of these thinkers may be understood to have transformed, repositioned and reconstituted the question of the subject.9 Whilst the chapters below indicate theoretical parallels in their positions and a certain common locus of concern, as Derrida similarly observes, the problematic of the subject cannot be reduced to a homogeneity. Each chapter of this book identifies a particular theoretical milieu for its reflections upon the question of the subject; each is organized according to diverse frameworks encompassing language, psychoanalysis, discourse, power and ideology. Very often the perspectives developed in the chapters overlap; sometimes they even reduce or disrupt the construction to the subject. For example, in Chapter 2 we will examine the presence of Spinoza's philosophy in Althusser's Marxist epistemology, and the place which both philosophers assign to the subject; in Chapter S, we will examine the trajectory which takes us from Althusser's conception of ideology to Foucault's perspective on power, and compare their respective discussions of the subject as an effect of ideology and power.

However, whilst each thinker appears to reposition the subject in relation to a distinct locus of problems, it is clear that they all share one important philosophical problem, namely the paradox of the subject which draws each of the thinkers into its mire ‑ even as they seek to undermine, transcend or evade it by repositioning and reconstituting the subject in other forms. The paradox is that the subject is both in the world (as an empirical subject) and also an object of the world (a transcendental subject or object)." The paradox of the subject expresses the ineluctable aspect of thought attempting to think its own (absent) ground. In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard describes the paradox as the passion of thought `wanting to discover something that thought cannot think', something without demonstration or presupposition. As both burden and passion, the paradox bequeaths a risk to contemporary thinkers of the question of the subject: neither to resurrect the subject tout court, namely, in one piece, nor to ignore its insistence, its ineluctable significance. Can contemporary thought remain close to this weight of the paradox in order to reconfigure the subject productively and creatively? We can begin to offer some hints of response here.

The paradox finds a place in contemporary thought because the concept of the subject is at once viewed as a requirement of analysis and something which must be radically displaced. Thus, references to the subject always seem to assume the existence of some form of subjectivity, even though it is precisely this which is open to question. This paradox introduces a circle of referentiality because it appears that in its desire to account for the emergence of the subject, contemporary thought risks resurrecting precisely that which it seeks to question. The thinkers considered in this study are aware of this paradox of subjectivity to a greater and lesser extent. Althusser will try to contain the subject within the realm of ideology and avoid its reflexive exigency, even though it continues to haunt his formulations, marking his later writings in significant ways. Derrida, on the other hand, will root out this paradox continuously, tracking and unravelling the assumption of

a punctual subject, self‑present and always `on time'. What is clear however, is that the paradox of the subject cannot be simply put to one side because it will always throw up problems for those trying to analyse its significance. Rather, we must recognize this conceptual slippage inherent in the order of subjectivity as an announcement of the subject's persistence, a persistence which can take many different forms, styles and modalities in the philosophical perspectives under consideration in this book.

This paradox must also be attached to the unavoidable historicity o f the subject. Whilst the subject may be reinscribed in another theoretical register or perspective, it may often still remain tied to previous conceptions of subjectivity and to a historical and philosophical genealogy from which it is difficult to escape. 13 This point really provides the context for Derrida's observation noted above regarding the Cartesian underpinnings of some conceptions of subjectivity. It may also apply to other philosophical positions that draw upon distinct genealogies of the subject, be they Spinozist, Hegelian, or Nietzschean. It is not the intention of this book to offer a history of the concept of the subject.

However, it is crucially important to observe ‑ and attempt to locate the philosophical displacements that have been undertaken within contemporary thought. Only then can we respond to the question of a break with the philosophy of the subject and expose its fictional basis. The question of philosophical inheritance is a complex one, not least because contemporary thought poses its own unique questions to the past; in effect, it rediscovers past philosophers and makes them our contemporaries. Chapter I will trace this historical relation and the question of philosophical inheritance for its effects upon the various discourses of the subject.

French Feminists on Religion edited by Joy Morny, Kathleen O'Grady and Judith L. Poxon (Routledge) gathers together, for the first time, writings on religion from the major voices in French feminism including Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, Brossard, Chawaf, Clement, Marchessault and Wittig. Among the topics debated are the significance of the Virgin Mary in Catholic theology; the theological importance of love; the repression of the maternal in Judeo-Christian tradition; Judeo-Christian notions of sin, defilement, purity and redemption; feminine subjectivity and divinity; and new religious meanings from ancient goddess traditions.

French Feminists on Religion offers the first representative selection of important writings by French feminist thinkers on the topic of religion, including the most influential and provocative texts on the subject from Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Monique Wittig and Catherine Clement.

Each thinker is introduced by a bibliographical preface, whilst individual essays are preceded by an editorial commentary explaining the context and significance of each piece for the study of religion. The collected texts cover a broad range of religious practices and discourses focusing primarily on Jewish and Christian concerns, but including elements of ancient Goddess traditions, Witchcraft, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Brought together for the first time, these essays demonstrate the central importance of French feminism for the study of religion, and at the same time make evident the significance of religious themes, figures and concepts to the world of French feminist thinkers.

Contents: Foreword by Catherine Clément Translation by Sharon Hackett and Morny Joy Preface
Acknowledgements Introduction: "French Feminists and Religion" Part One: Luce Irigaray 1. Plato's Hysteria [abridged] from Speculum of the Other Woman 2. La Mystérique from Speculum of the Other Woman 3. Divine Women [abridged] from Sexes and Genealogies 4. When the Gods Are Born [abridged] from Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche 5. Sexual Difference [abridged] from An Ethics of Sexual Difference 6. The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry [abridged] from Thinking the Difference 7. Practical Teachings: Love- Between Passion and Civility [abridged] from I Love to You Part Two: Julia Kristeva 8. Approaching Abjection [abridged] and Semiotics of Biblical Abomination [abridged] from Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection 9. Credence-Credit and Credo [abridged] from In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith 10. Stabat Mater from Tales of Love 11. Psychoanalysis- A Counterdepressant [abridged] and Holbein's Dead Christ [abridged] from Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia 12. The Chosen People and the Choice of Foreignness from Strangers to Ourselves 13. Reading the Bible from New Maladies of the Soul Part Three: Catherine Clément 14. Sorceress and Hysteric [abridged] from The Newly Born Woman 15. The Child, the Savage [abridged] from The Newly Born Woman 16. Where Am I? [abridged] from Syncope 17. Jouissances: Between the Angel and the Placenta [abridged] from SyncopePart Four: Hélèe Cixous 18. Sorties [abridged] from The Newly Born Woman 19. The Author in Truth [abridged] from "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays 20. Coming to Writing [abridged] from "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays 21. Grace and Innocence: Heinrich von Kleist [abridged] from Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector, and Tsvetayeva 22. School of Dreams [abridged] from Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing 23. Writing Blind [abridged] from Stigmata Part Five: Monique Wittig 24. Excerpts from The Lesbian Body Bibliography

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