Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Why I am so very unFrench, and other essays

Jacques Bouveresse

Why I am so very unFrench

Note de l’éditeur

First published in Alan Montefiore (ed.), Philosophy in France Today, Cambridge University Press, 1982 (translated by Kathleen McLaughlin). – Definitive French version: “Pourquoi je suis si peu français”, in Jacques Bouveresse, Essais II. L’époque, la mode, la morale, la satire, Agone, 2001,

Texte intégral

  • 1 On the cover of the book for which this essay was written (French Philosophy Today, Cambridge UP, 1 (...)

1In trying to meet the wishes of the editor of the present work I am, obviously, faced with a peculiarly difficult, if not to say insoluble, problem1. My participation in a project of this nature has, at first sight, a totally paradoxical aspect in that (1) I can in no sense be considered a representative or influential contemporary French philosopher, (2) I do not claim, and have never claimed, any genuine originality in my manner of treating the questions that have interested me, and (3) what I have tried to do will certainly be much more comprehensible to the English-speaking philosophical public than to that to which I have addressed myself or which I have tried to help create in France. The only thing that would need to be explained to the English-speaking reader is, no doubt, the fact that I should have adopted from the start such an unorthodox position in relation to my own native philosophical milieu and that I should have shown so little interest in the productions most characteristic of contemporary French philosophy.

  • 2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, New York: Modern Library (...)

2It is a fact that I have found a good part of the philosophical literature published in France since the 1960s quite simply unreadable and that its interest has seemed to me in many cases to be of a documentary or sociological rather than of a properly philosophical nature; I have found myself almost immediately disconcerted and put off by its highly idiosyncratic, astonishingly marginal and provincial character: a character which sticks out a mile whenever, for one reason or another, one is led to consider it from the outside, and which, moreover, explains to a large extent the remarkable fascination that it continues to exert abroad. For want of producing anything really important and lasting, French philosophy of today can at least flatter itself with producing things which resemble nothing else and which, indeed, do not seem possible anywhere else. Bearing in mind the central importance it explicitly attributes to ‘seduction’ in the art of writing and of pleasing, which, most often, takes the place of any theory of philosophical argumentation, I feel justified in saying quite simply that this so widely reputed seduction has, in general, had no effect upon me. This is, after all, a result that it is only fair to expect in certain cases, when such a systematic use is made of ‘arguments’ of this kind. Nietzsche said that France ‘has always had a masterly aptitude for converting even the portentous crises of its spirit into something charming and seductive’.2 At the risk of appearing unjust, even in the eyes of foreign readers, I must confess that French philosophy over the past forty years seems to me on the whole to have been remarkably successful in effecting the transmutation described by Nietzsche.

3To be considered an ‘analytic’ philosopher in France is not an altogether comfortable situation, especially when one considers that the expression ‘analytic philosophy’ continues to be used most often as a synonym for ‘logical positivism’ and, moreover, that the ideas of logical positivism are generally caricatured in a most improbable way. I have even been told that my own works were practically unreadable by the French philosophical public because they were concerned essentially with ‘logic’ (which meant in addition that they were not in any event worth reading, inasmuch as they contained nothing that was properly philosophical). When Frege referred to the reaction of philosophers who, at the mere sight of a formula, exclaimed: mathematica sunt, non leguntur, he doubtless did not foresee that this same reaction would also be provoked by works which contain no formulae at all, that is, not only by logic as such, but also by the philosophy of logic, because of the relatively technical character which springs necessarily from the nature of its object, by all those philosophies which are inspired in various ways directly or indirectly by logic, and finally even by the commentaries and discussions, however nuanced and critical, to which these philosophies give rise. To understand what I mean, one has only to note that Wittgenstein, for example, is still regularly classified here not only as a ‘logical positivist’, but also as a ‘logician’ (which says a great deal about the idea which the French have both of Wittgenstein and of contemporary logic).

4If I speak of things I have ‘heard said’ about myself, this is because I have, all in all, no real indication by which I could tell whether my works have exerted any sort of positive or negative influence, inasmuch as they have occasioned only a certain purely formal and inconsequential approbation, certain objections on principle (in particular political ones) unrelated to their content, and for the rest, a total lack of interest or reaction one way or the other. A French philosopher who openly displayed his sympathy for the analytic tradition at the time I began to do so – I do not believe that, in my case, one could speak exactly of belonging to it – could even in the best of cases, never hope to be considered as anything but marginal or eccentric by the French philosophical milieu or as anything more than a mere chronicler or a more or less gifted imitator by the official representatives of the tradition in question. It is obvious that someone working on his own and almost entirely self-taught, and who is forced to confront an indifferent or hostile environment, can hardly hope to entertain the ambition of obtaining results in any way comparable to those of philosophers benefiting from the decisive advantages offered by the fact of belonging to a well-established tradition and by their use of proven methods of research and discussion, methods which have long formed part of their philosophical consensus. As regards analytic philosophy, it is certain that the situation in France is today incomparably better than it was when I first started to become interested in it. But I do not think that the efforts made by a few ‘eccentrics’ have contributed a great deal to this change in attitude. The interest it appears to generate at the present time is basically due to the relative vacuum that has prevailed during the past few years and to the temporary openness to new ideas that has resulted from it. There is every reason to believe that if it really manages to win a place on the market or rather, in what could more crudely and appropriately be called ‘the bordello of ideas’, to use Pierre Boulez’s expression, this will once again be thanks to a passing fashion, probably just as superficial and ephemeral as those that have preceded it.

5It has, indeed, been possible to read in the Press on a number of occasions that analytic philosophy has now become fashionable in France. This has reminded me of the epoch in the not so distant past when someone had only to succeed in publishing a modest article on Carnap or Quine, without any particular apologetic intention, for the guardians of the integrity of our national philosophical culture to rush to warn the innocent public against the secret invasion of logical positivism. When it is said that analytic philosophy has become fashionable, this must be understood as meaning simply that to speak about it is no longer absolutely forbidden – which, for those for whom even this relaxation seems already much too much, is more or less tantamount to saying that no one any longer talks about anything else. The truth is that the way in which it is talked about at the present time could provide serious reasons for those who did not wait to be authorized by the current philosophical situation to take an interest in analytic philosophy, to regret the days when it was not talked about at all. It is to be remarked, moreover, that, even before the public’s curiosity concerning an as yet strange and little-known reality might have had time to transform itself into a real effort of understanding, voices of authority on all sides are to be heard remarking ironically on the characteristic tendency of French philosophy to discover only after thirty to fifty years’ delay things which, by the time of their discovery, no longer present any real interest. On this point the scenario is always the same: at the moment when new things appear, all sorts of good or bad reasons are found to prevent their importance from being recognized; and when there is no longer any apparent obstacle to acknowledging it, then the decisive argument becomes, precisely, that they are by now no longer of any importance. There is nothing more comical, and at the same time more distressing, than the self-assured way in which the people who make news always claim to have passed beyond that which they have never passed through: without ever having made the slightest effort to understand anything at all about what philosophers like Frege, Wittgenstein, Russell or Carnap tried to do, they preserve their good conscience with the banal and reassuring observation that even those who are taken to be the successors of these philosophers have long ago ceased to do exactly the same thing and are indeed, for the most part, engaged in something quite different. In other words, the earlier stages of this movement can safely be ignored because they belong nowadays only to past history or to prehistory; and the latter can be ignored just as well either because, despite a few minor changes, they represent an inexplicable persistence in the initial error, or because they consist essentially in the rediscovery of certain self-evident truths, truths which had always been known to those lucky enough to have avoided this useless experience entirely. In short, one might as well say, as much from an historical as from a philosophical point of view, absolutely nothing has happened that merits reflecting upon.

6The only important change in this domain is that there exists today in France a certain number of young philosophers who have stopped taking for granted the generally accepted ideas and customary clichés concerning analytic philosophy and who have applied themselves to reading the philosophers in question in exactly the same way as any others, that is, with the same sort of attention and with the same conviction of having something to learn just as much from their failures as from their successes. The only merit that I should claim for myself personally is that of having contributed to a certain extent, both in writing and in teaching, to this evolution. One must not underestimate the importance of this first step, which is always the most difficult to take, and make the mistake of requiring those who are coming into contact for the first time with a foreign tradition to judge it straightaway from the necessary historical and critical distance. Since any hope of modifying the opinions of those already in place is completely vain, one must count, for a long-term improvement, essentially on the change which seems to have occurred in the attitudes of the younger generation and which at least means that the case is no longer judged entirely in advance.

7Ever since I began to be interested in analytic philosophy, I have heard people who are almost completely ignorant of it repeat that it is in the process of dying or that it is perhaps already dead. There was a time when it was reproached above all with having what was held to be an anti-philosophical character. Today what is in question is, it seems, more its ‘anti-scientific’ orientation and its lack of interest in ‘true’ problems, that is, those which have to do with the knowledge of reality in general and, more precisely, the consequences that can be drawn from the most recent developments in contemporary science. This more ‘Popperian’ variation on the classical theme of the death of analytic philosophy at least has the merit of posing a problem that is perfectly real. If the analytic tradition arose, as Dummett thinks, out of the dismissal of the theory of knowledge as the fundamental part of philosophy in favour of the theory of meaning or, more broadly, the philosophy of language, it will never find favour in the eyes of those who have renounced once and for all not only any effort to seek a new paradigm for first philosophy, but also any idea that there exists some sort of domain reserved for philosophy alone, that is to say, a range of philosophical problems specifically different from those that are posed elsewhere, in particular in the sciences.

8The analytic tradition can in fact be considered one of the last ways of safeguarding the relative autonomy of philosophy and of upholding its claim to the status of a ‘fundamental’ discipline, at the very time when there is a general tendency to contest the pre-eminent position it is supposed to occupy within our culture as a whole and the special prerogatives it continues to demand. For those who are in favour of a systematic elimination of conventional boundaries and of hierarchical distinctions between the most diverse manifestations of culture and who consider, for example, the sciences, philosophy and literature itself as so many different exercises of the same creative imagination in the service of the same will to ‘knowledge’ in the broadest sense of the term, a conception such as that of analytic philosophy has every chance of seeming as unsuitable and as obsolete as those which it has supplanted.

9However this may be, there is no reason to consider the defence and the promotion of analytic philosophy as constituting, for the moment, the major problem presenting itself in France. For example, it cannot be said that the current situation of philosophy in Germany is itself, despite a traditional prejudice in its favour, much better known or appreciated in any more exact manner. And it is noteworthy that the exchanges and characteristic movements of mutual convergence that have for some time now been taking place between contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosophy and currents that are as specifically ‘continental’ as phenomenology or hermeneutics, provoke scarcely more curiosity and interest than do the hard-core analytic productions. Everything leads one to believe that the opposition between the analytic and continental traditions is gradually being transformed into a marked anachronism. But it is probable that France will for some time to come continue to make itself ridiculous by combating as a threat that which the philosophy of most other countries will have long ago integrated as a positive and essential contribution. What is considered just about unanimously everywhere else as the current state of philosophy is, it seems, always too modern for our university teaching and too traditional for our avant-garde. In a comment on a celebrated passage in Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, Musil makes the following observation about the situation of philosophy in the contemporary world:

  • 3 Robert Musil, Tagebucher, Adolf Frisé (ed.), Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1976, vol. 1, p. (...)

Consequently, one could, in an epoch like that of today, unconcernedly affirm that which one does not know to be objective fact and one would be justified, if the thing is done with an elegant hand, in counting on a greater success than would one who hesitates. Since in Germany, moreover, we have the ideal of a specialized philosophy, written for professional philosophers and removed from any contact with the blissfully loquacious joys and sorrows of real life, one cannot even grumble too much about the fact that there has developed, alongside this, a sort of newspaper and magazine philosophy, a philosophy of ‘lighting to the best advantage’ in which, thanks to the juggling of literary hands, one sees floating around just about everything that one could shake out of the volumes of an international philosophical library if one were to break their binding. I shall have more to say about this later; for the moment it is enough for me to say that it can be more modest to talk about oneself than to talk about ideas.3

10The tendency to talk about oneself (with a disconcerting lack of modesty) rather than about ideas has undeniably been encouraged in France by the fact that philosophy is considered here as an essentially literary discipline and the philosopher as being first and foremost a writer who is to be judged principally as such. The avowed aim of some of our most gifted and most influential ‘theorists’ is, moreover, to erase as far as may be possible the distinction which is supposed to exist between philosophy and literature, without being overly concerned with the practical consequences, which are, to my mind, already most disturbing. We are witnessing, in particular, the proliferation of a type of work which attempts, with a very relative degree of success, to compensate for the absence of properly philosophical argumentation by means of literary effects and for the absence of properly literary qualities by means of philosophical pretensions. In general, contemporary French philosophers are past masters in the art of making themselves quite impossible to grasp, that is to say, they are never to be found at the precise point where criticism might possibly reach them. In particular, they are always doing something other than ‘philosophy’ whenever they are suspected of doing it poorly, namely literature, science, politics or something else which has as yet neither name nor status and which cannot be judged in terms of habitual criteria. One may note in this connection that, by a paradox by which it seems only the naive are astonished, structuralism, which constituted in principle a return in strength of ‘scientific’ objectivism and which had made the disappearance of the ‘subject’ and of the ‘author’ one of its favourite themes, has given rise to the most detestable forms of narcissistic self-celebration, of unconditional submission to the master, of the cult of the personality and of the star system, along with an almost total inhibition of the most elementary of critical reflexes. In this regard, I must confess that despite all the psycho­logical, sociological, historical and other explanations that may have been proposed, the remarkable conformity of my generation and the astonishing docility with which it has generally allowed its convictions and its orientations to be dictated to it by undisputed intellectual masters, by circumstances and whatever may be in the news still constitutes for me even today a fairly incomprehensible phenomenon.

11Apart from its intrinsic interest, which appeared to me at once to be considerable, analytic philosophy has attracted me in large part because of the instinctive aversion that the opinions of the majority have always inspired in me and because of my tendency to consider that a philosophical idea diminishes in value in pro­portion to its success. As Vincent Descombes remarks:

  • 4 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre: quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978), Pari (...)

In the recent evolution of philosophy in France, we can trace the passage from the generation known after 1945 as that of the “three Hs” to the generation known since 1960 as that of the three “masters of suspicion”: the three Hs being Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger, and the three masters of suspicion Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.4

12At the time I began my studies in philosophy, the Holy Trinity Marx-Nietzsche-Freud was in the course of being enthroned in the Pantheon (whence, it seems, it has for some time now been seriously threatened with ignominious expulsion). It has not taken much more to make a hardened disbeliever of me. It is always fascinating to observe the unimaginable forms of blindness and idolatry to which authors reputed essentially for their exceptional mastery in the art of stripping off masks and casting down idols can in their turn give rise. One of the reasons why I have never really been attracted by Marxism and psychoanalysis has been simply the fact that everything that counted at the time as reflection and creation had necessarily to refer to them.

13As for me, I have never been able to bring myself to submit to the constraint of externally imposed interests and subjects, as described by Pierre Bourdieu in his works on the sociology of the intellectual milieu. It is as difficult to believe in theory as it is incontestable in practice that a privileged minority, holding symbolic power and innocently exerting the violence which this power authorizes, may determine arbitrarily and at every instant what is and is not to be discussed, for the sake of a crowd of followers persuaded that they are wholly free in choosing their subjects on the basis of their intrinsic importance alone. The consequence for France, where the phenomenon is, like the influence of fashion, clearly more perceptible and more spectacular than in most other countries, is that only a minute fraction of the information relevant to philosophical reflection on the world of today is actually considered or used. The most significant example is certainly that of psychoanalysis which, despite the fact it has for some time been thought to be, as one says, ‘in crisis’ (or perhaps, more precisely, because of this), continues to occupy a place out of all proportion in relation to other disciplines that are just as important and, in certain cases, distinctly more promising.


14Spengler wrote in The Decline of the West:

  • 5 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, London: George Allen and (...)

And I can only hope that men of the new generation may be moved by this book to devote themselves to technics instead of lyrics, the sea instead of the paint-brush, and politics instead of epistemology. Better they could not do.5

15The only possibility remaining, according to him, for philosophy today, and which it must resolutely adopt by making a virtue of (historical) necessity, is history:

  • 6 Id,, p. 45.

Systematic philosophy, then, lies immensely far behind us, and ethical philosophy has been wound up. But a third possibility, corresponding to the Classical Scepticism, still remains to the soul-world of the present-day West, and it can be brought to light by hitherto unknown methods of historical morphology. That which is a possibility is a necessity. The Classical scepticism is ahistoric, it doubts by denying outright. But that of the West, if it is an inward necessity, a symbol of the autumn of our spirituality, is obliged to be historical through and through. Its solutions are got by treating everything as relative, as an historical phenomenon. […] Whereas the Sceptic philosophy arose within Hellenism as the negation of philosophy – declaring philosophy to be purposeless – we, on the contrary, regard the history of philosophy as, in the last resort, philosophy’s gravest theme. This is ‘skepsis’.6

16If one adds that for the author of The Decline of the West the politics of a civilized epoch, in contrast with those of a cultivated epoch, are represented today by journalism, whereas in Antiquity they were represented by rhetoric, one is tempted to say that the idea of an historicist, political, rhetorical and journalistic philosophy, which has been so remarkably illustrated by the case of France, corresponds as a whole rather well with the prognostic formulated by Spengler. If I have mentioned his name, knowing well that it is enough to set off unanimous reactions of horror and indignation on the part of French philosophers, this is first because contemporary French philosophy has produced, in a different manner and style, a certain number of false prophets of the same species as Spengler, and secondly because I have always had the feeling that there was something typically Spenglerian in the historicism – whether explicit or latent – of French philosophy, with its obsession with the decline and exhaustion of possibilities, its recurrent pessimism concerning the future of philosophy in general, its submission to the fait accompli and to what is unavoidable in the development of philosophical thought, its haste to give in to the necessity of the epoch and its resolve not to go beyond what it considers to be its limits and its historical obligations. It is rare indeed to find a philosopher who, in addition to his philosophy properly speaking, does not offer a sort of historical plea pro domo, which allows him to make his philosophy appear as the only one possible and necessary and to transform the mood of the time into an imperative of world history. Every philosophical enterprise that wishes to have any chance of success must be accompanied by a sort of certificate of ‘uncircumventible’ and ‘untranscendable’ topicality, that guarantees both its conformity to the exigencies of the historical moment and its having been imposed by them, to the point of exclusion of every other possibility. In the selection of the mandatory subjects, the appeal to sovereign history and the more or less terrorist invocation of ‘modernity’, considered as index sui et antiqui, naturally plays a wholly fundamental role.

17Today, we are, at least in France, obviously far from the period when Nietzsche reproached philosophers with a fundamental lack of a sense of history and a sense of relativity. History has become, in a certain sense, our Darstellungsform, to such an extent that it is from now on difficult to envisage classical philosophical problems from an angle that is not above all and in essence historical, or to imagine that these problems may have any sort of present or future existence as such. This type of historical thinking is, moreover, applied more and more systematically to the immediate present itself, so that, as Musil remarked with irony, one has nowadays the impression that with each new academic (or publishing) year a new ‘ism’ or a new epoch commences. This disastrous custom is further aggravated by an ‘heroic’ conception of the history of ideas as constituted by a series of more or less spectacular ruptures or revolutions, which in principle forbid any kind of return to earlier problems or solutions. As we have seen in the structuralist episode, philosophical ‘revolutions’ are openly assimilated to scientific revolutions and are supposed to imply the same kind of irreversibility, a move which authorizes treating the recalcitrant as though it were a matter of imposing a new science in the face of prejudices and questions belonging to another age. One not infrequently hears it said that, after the ‘definitive’ work of X or Y, one can no longer pose this or that problem or employ this or that philosophical concept, in much the same way as we would say that, after Einstein, we can no longer speak of the ether or of absolute simultaneity. The only way to reconcile this view of things with the periodical reappearance of the same basic philosophical problems which were believed to have been settled definitively is, of course, to claim that one invents them at the time at which one rediscovers them.

18I have laid stress on this aspect because the absence of an historical sense, which here is considered to be one of the major weaknesses of analytic philosophy, and its characteristic tendency to make the traditional philosophical questions topical by retranslating them directly into its own language, a tendency which professional historians of philosophy generally find so shocking, did a great deal, at the beginning, to make analytic philosophy appealing to me, so excessive and so frustrating did I find the importance accorded by French university philosophy to erudite historical research and its attitude of deferential neutrality towards the great authors and the great controversies of tradition. As, in its own way, by virtue of a more audacious – if not more convincing – utilization of history, the avant-garde tended to the conclusion that we are, in one way or another, already in the era of post-philosophy, so analytic philosophy offered the image, doubtless somewhat naive but distinctly more reassuring and encouraging, of a philosophical universe in which the great traditional problems preserve a certain contemporary relevance and can be treated in a relatively fruitful way through the application of new methods.

19The major advantage of analytic philosophy, especially if seen as Dummett – rightly or wrongly – interprets it, in the fundamentally positive and progressive perspective of a sort of revolution in the history of philosophy brought about by Frege, was, in the eyes of the rare French philosophers of my generation who discovered it at a moment decisive for their future orientation, precisely that it presented itself as a philosophy which was really suited to the present in a philosophical context outrageously dominated, on the one hand, by a nostalgia for the ‘grand’ philosophical tradition and, on the other, by futurist speculations concerning ‘unheard of’ modes of thought that were to be those of the post-historical and post-philosophical era into which, without realizing it, we had already entered.

  • 7 Cf. Michael Ayers, “Analytical philosophy and the history of philosophy”, in Jonathan Ree, Michael (...)

20Today still, even though I am entirely convinced by his arguments, I cannot bring myself completely to share Michael Ayers’s severity concerning the analytical type of history of philosophy,7 for its errors and historical misunderstandings seem to me, all things considered, less scandalous than the tendency to make the historical understanding of authors and of doctrines – which, moreover, by definition, one can never actually attain – a philosophical aim in itself rather than an indispensable means or preliminary step. This is the reason why I am not sure whether I have ever quite managed to do justice to historical works as exemplary and as indispensable as those of Martial Gueroult, which have always given me the impression of offering stones to someone who is asking for bread.

21It is at the least surprising to see an author like Carnap regularly denounced by contemporary French philosophers as a paradigm of anti-philosophical dogmatism, while they themselves practise their own forms of intellectual terrorism and censorship of bothersome questions in such a natural and candid way that one is quite taken aback. As Putnam writes:

  • 8 Hilary Putnam, “Language and philosophy”, in Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, Mind, Language and Reali (...)

The school to which Carnap belongs – the so-called Logical Empiricist school – has often been criticized for oversimplification and dogmatism. Oversimplification it has, indeed, been guilty of; but dogmatism seems a highly unfair accusation. I know of no group of philosophers who have been more willing to abandon their own cherished beliefs when careful logical analysis showed those beliefs to be untenable.8

  • 9 Ibid.

22It is true that ‘the importance of the Logical Empiricist contribution is often overlooked (or, worse, deliberately played down) today because the real contribution has turned out to be entirely negative’.9 Now, the idea that philosophy could consist in formulating theses and in trying to see whether or not these can, in the final analysis, hold up when confronted with the facts involved, and the by no means negligible interest to be found in even clearly negative results obtained in this way, all this is manifestly foreign to contemporary French philosophy, to such an extent indeed that rational argumentation, critical discussion and the custom of replying to objections tend to be considered as old-fashioned and incongruous practices. (Those who are sceptical or recalcitrant are generally treated by the representatives of the orthodoxy of the moment as an anomaly to be explained rather than as an honourable opposition one might possibly attempt to win over.) And yet, as Putnam notes concerning the ‘failure’ of logical positivism:

  • 10 Ibid.

While the sense of disappointment is, humanly speaking, all too understandable, and so is the desire to “try something new”, it still remains a great historical contribution to have shown us how to make philosophical propositions more precise. And if the propositions all turn out to be false – well, getting agreement on even that is surely an important progress.10

23Although I have certainly never been in any sense an adept of logical empiricism and although reading Wittgenstein has made me fairly sceptical regarding the possibility or the necessity of making philosophy more ‘scientific’ than it generally is, I have always been extremely grateful to Carnap for having revealed to me the existence of a way of doing philosophy incomparably more satisfying to a rational mind than that to which I was accustomed. And even today I continue to hold him in great admiration not only for the substantial contribution he made to numerous areas of exact philosophy, but also because of the remarkable serenity and total absence of proselytism or fanaticism that characterizes his philosophical efforts and style. One must, doubtless, have been acquainted with the extraordinarily pretentious, provocative and disdainful tone of some of the most typical productions of French philosophy and the aggressive militantism – not to say the militarism – of certain politico-philosophical programmes, which have experienced a success as surprising as it was ephemeral, in order to appreciate fully an enterprise conducted with as much measure, method and perseverance as was that of Carnap.

  • 11 Cf. Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

24Generally speaking, logic continues to be considered here as a purely technical discipline, with no privileged relation to philosophy properly speaking, since it is supposed, in fact, to have become a mere part of mathematics; and it is disqualified a priori by philosophers of science themselves (including philosophers of mathematics) essentially because of the ‘guilt by association’ of which Hao Wang speaks,11 that is because of the tendency to take logic purely and simply for logical positivism or, at the very least, to consider the latter as the (spontaneous) philosophy of logicians. Contemporary French epistemologists have always categorically opposed any philosophy of science more or less directly inspired by logic. At the time I was a student, one had to choose once and for all between the ‘logic of the sciences’ (as it used to be called) and historical epistemology, explicitly identified with epistemology as such and thought of as an exclusively French speciality. Inasmuch as the efforts to clarify or to explain fundamental meta-scientific concepts made by the logical positivists and their more or less direct descendants seemed to me not only interesting from a purely philosophical point of view but also to be dictated more or less directly by scientific practice itself, one would surely have just as much right to judge historical epistemology in terms of the contribution it may make towards the solution of questions of this sort; and I have never really understood why the sole response to such questions acknowledged as permissible by French epistemologists consisted in simply decreeing that they were not to be raised.

25If the partisans of an exclusively historical approach implicitly considered the distinction between the ‘context of discovery’ and the ‘context of justification’ to be entirely illusory, they were manifestly prepared neither to provide any sort of argument in favour of this evident fact, nor to make explicit and to confront, as Feyerabend does today, the extremely disagreeable epistemological consequences resulting for scientific rationalism and realism, which they defend in principle and refuse in practice. Feyerabend himself finally concludes that the philosophy of the sciences should not be reformed but simply allowed to die its own death. This type of declaration, which I have heard repeated as a leitmotiv by the epistemologists of my generation, would obviously be much more comprehensible and more plausible if it were only explained in what way the case of the philosophy of the sciences, considered as the bastard and parasitical discipline par excellence, is fundamentally different from that of the philosophy of morality, of religion or of art and finally from that of philosophy as such.

26However regrettable it may be, ignorance of mathematical logic and of the contribution it has made to contemporary philosophy certainly does not constitute the most disturbing phenomenon. What is far more disturbing is the general tendency denounced by Musil as early as 1921 in his critique of The Decline of the West: there exists today in intellectual circles (in particular in philosophical circles)

  • 12 Robert Musil, “Geist und Erfahrung. Anmerkungen fur Leser, welche dem Untergang des Abendlandes ent (...)

a favourable prejudice with regard to infractions against mathematics, logic and exactitude; among the crimes against the mind, these are willingly placed under the category of political offences which do honour to their author, the public prosecutor finding himself, strictly speaking, in the role of the accused.12

27French philosophers who display a rather too pronounced taste for precision and accuracy (I dare not say rigour, since every philosopher is convinced of being rigorous in his own way) are well acquainted with this sort of situation. Exact philosophy, which cannot be said to have occupied a position of high prestige in France for the past forty years or so and whose representatives might rather have the impression of being on the whole in a state of legitimate intellectual self-defence, is nevertheless regularly treated as a potential aggressor threatening the most fundamental of philosophical freedoms. The same type of favourable prejudice naturally works to the benefit of obscurity and hermeticism with the result that an insistence on clarity and intelligibility finishes by being itself considered as a sort of abuse of inquisitorial power.

28The critique of rationalism (regularly confused with positivism and with scientism) is naturally always accompanied by formal protestations of respect for the sciences and logic, with regard to which the question is, in principle, simply one of limiting their more abusive claims by bringing them to recognize their own presuppositions and limitations. But the practical consequences of this purely reactive and defensive attitude, by virtue of which the sole manner in which scientific knowledge can directly interest philosophy lies in the clarification and denunciation of its unavowed (and unavowable) presuppositions, are always the same. From Sartre to the ‘new philosophers’, contemporary French philosophy has been largely dominated by an instinctive refusal and a panic-like fear of scientific and technical culture and by an exasperated resolve to affirm its radical heterogeneity and its absolute superiority in relation to a discourse whose platitude, vulgarity, pre-critical easy conscience, utilitarian preoccupations and compromises with the political powers-that-be are too obvious to give rise to anything but mistrust and disdain.

29The diversity and the subtlety of the reasons invented by the fox of this fable in order to decree the grapes he cannot reach to be too green, will doubtless be rewarded with the astonishment and admiration of future generations, especially if they recall that as a good disciple of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, he more or less pledged himself never to be taken in by the bad reasons given by others. The intellectual masters who have dominated the French philosophical stage over the past few decades may be, in general, little disposed to assume the objective consequences of their explicit or implicit teaching; but it is difficult not to see anti-scientific, anti-rationalist and anti-analytical bias as partly responsible for the disastrous weakening of the critical sense, the progressive transformation of the knowledgeable (or presumed to be knowledgeable) public into a sort of religious community dedicated to the cult of a few consecrated stars, the uniformly admiring, not to say out-and-out dithyrambic, style of authorized criticism, the regrettable disappearance of intermediary ranks between genius and pure and simple nonentity and the tendency systematically to absolve errors of reasoning and method (to the extent that these are still actually perceived) in order to retain only what is essential, namely the literary qualities. In a context such as this, the mere fact that it continues to conceive of philosophy as an argumentative discipline already constitutes by itself a weighty argument in favour of analytic philosophy.


30As Descombes remarks:

  • 13 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre, op. cit., p. 17 (tr : Modern French Philosophy, p. 7).

In France the development of a political position remains the decisive test, disclosing as it does the definitive meaning of a mode of thought. It is as if the heart of the matter had not been reached until, from suppositions about the One and the Many, or about the nature of knowledge, the subject shifted to the issue of the next elections or the attitude of the Communist Party.13

31The collapse of Marxism, the ‘discovery’ of the cause of human rights and the replacement of theoreticism and scientism by moralism and the rhetoric of prophecy have obviously changed nothing of any consequence in this state of affairs, since commitment to the service of a great political or humanitarian cause continues to be considered capable in and of itself of taking the place of philosophy and of dispensing one from the necessity of observing the most elementary rules of argumentation and of critical discussion.

32There are two important observations to be made concerning this situation. The first is that this omnipresence of politics in philosophy has always gone hand in hand with an almost total absence of any philosophical reflection worthy of the name on the subject of politics. The second is that the accumulated disappointments and errors, notably in political matters, do not appear capable of really bringing into question the characteristic tendency of French philosophers to attribute to themselves a sort of monopoly of critical lucidity, considered once and for all as their basic professional virtue, so that in the end it would be altogether small-minded and out of place to ask them for any concrete proof of it. The resistance to any type of refutation by results shown by the postulate according to which philosophy is considered to be the critical discipline par excellence is nothing short of astounding. Putnam reports that, at Princeton, he has heard a certain number of literary colleagues discussing the case of scientists in general and denouncing, with a remarkable unanimity, their lack of culture, their narrow-mindedness, their arrogance and the danger represented on the social and political level by their ‘simplistic’ conceptions, in view of the presumption in their favour shown by those in power, who allow themselves to be too easily impressed by their scientific titles and their supposed expertise. One probably has to admit that the refined conceptions of literary men, and in particular those of philosophers, have never made, and never could make, humanity run risks of this sort. (It is true that this tendency can also, on occasion, be reversed, to the extent that, as we have recently witnessed in France in the case of the ‘new philosophy’, the ‘intellectual masters’ in philosophy and literature are in their turn considered to be more or less directly responsible for totalitarianism and oppression.) In France, where philosophy is a discipline which is supposed at one and the same time to participate actively in the transformation of society and to represent, in relation to the scientific and political establishment, the vigilant and disinterested awareness of the stakes and the risks involved, it is not surprising that it is constantly torn between the determination to be taken seriously and the fear that this will actually happen.

  • 14 Cf. Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, London, Henley and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Pau (...)

33If it were not for the phenomenon of immunization against every kind of potential counter-example, which I mentioned above, the adequate response to the remarks reported by Putnam would consist in remarking, as he does, that, generally speaking, literary scholars are not to be outdone by scientists when it comes to making declarations and taking up positions in thoughtless and irresponsible ways, and that one cannot see why these should be ascribed to the whole of the community in question when they come from the scientific world and yet, on the contrary, be considered completely marginal and representative of only a minority point of view when they are made by people from the world of literature.14

  • 15 Hilary Putnam, “Language and philosophy”, op. cit., p. 2.

34Putnam very justly remarks that the protests heard increasingly today against the professionalism, academicism, esoterism and the growing technicality of philosophy are by no means new, each philosophical generation having been suspected for more or less the same reasons of not dealing with the ‘true’ questions, ‘whose discussion would, of course, interest one and would never become technical’,15 but that things have been made undeniably worse by the excessive inflation of the problematic of language, an inflation which, in any case, is not limited solely to analytic philosophy:

  • 16 Ibid.

This perennial tendency to criticize philosophy as “too technical” is very much reinforced by the “linguistic” character of contemporary philosophy. For language […] is thought by the layman to be uninteresting in itself and irrelevant to the Great Questions.16

35If, for obvious reasons, it is considered entirely normal that science should rapidly become a matter for specialists, whereas philosophy should in principle remain to the end everybody’s business, still it is not certain that professional philosophers do not give in a bit too quickly to the temptation to reply to questions which have perhaps not been put to them and to provide justifications for which it is not always sure that the uninitiated public has really asked. In an interview published in Le Monde, Desanti has contrasted two sorts of philosophy, one which is concerned with the problems and reflections of each and every one of us and another which he characterizes in the following way:

  • 17 “Entretien avec Jean-Toussaint Desanti”, Le Monde, 8 March 1978, p. 2.

Alongside this, and in opposition to it, there is what I shall call the philosophy of professionals. Now this philosophy, if one considers the dominant philosophy today, Anglo-Saxon language philosophy, known as ‘analytic philosophy’ (but the name matters little) is presented as an institutionalized body of knowledge. It includes various schools, often competitive but also often working together, with strict forms of learning and with initiation rituals. Out of this come extremely important, subtle and useful works: but these works remain academic. They are developed within the field of the discipline, just as algebra or differential topology are developed within their own field. This inevitably gives rise, in ordinary people, in the worst case to a feeling of intimidation or exclusion and in the best case to a reaction of disinterest, of not being concerned.17

36For Desanti, with whom everyone will surely agree on this point,

  • 18 Ibid

it is […] essential to see clearly that philosophy would write its own death warrant if it did not seek to connect up with the needs of everyday man, if it were to shut itself up in a new “clergyship”.18

37These reflections, intended for the general public, are of a type which is quite common in France, and seem to me particularly interesting for three main reasons: (1) because analytic philosophy is presented as the ‘dominant’ philosophy, although it is taught almost nowhere in France (which is most indicative of the general tendency of contemporary French philosophers to take their fears for realities); (2) because the professionalization and the institutionalization of philosophy as an organized body of knowledge are described as new phenomena, posing a problem specific to contemporary philosophy and liable seriously to compromise its future; (3) because the philosopher who denounces this sort of peril would probably be the first to recognize that the really important and lasting part of his own production comprises works which are particularly austere, specialized and esoteric, dealing essentially with the history and the philosophy of mathematics and which can really be of interest only to a very restricted public.

38The solution which he himself has adopted is that of many other French philosophers; it consists in doing simultaneously both of the types of philosophy he distinguishes, that is to say, in proffering at one and the same time a discourse reserved for the professional public and another intended for the general public, to which correspond two conceptions of philosophy and its exigencies, two philosophical styles and two completely different types of publications. The problem then inevitably reappears within philosophy itself, in the form of the connection which has now to be made between the two types of discourse, that of the ‘clerk’ who speaks as a professional and that of the ‘popular’ philosopher who uses a language reputed to be in principle accessible to everyone.

39Certainly, no one asks what sort of reaction ‘ordinary people’ of the period might have had with respect to preoccupations such as those of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant or Hegel, nor whether it could simply be a question of this sort of reaction. Morever, even if it is true that the great moral and political questions are more directly related to the preoccupations of the ordinary person, one may easily realize that any serious philosophical discussion of this sort of question ends up being hardly less technical and esoterical than questions dealing with the theory of knowledge or epistemology. The true problem would, in fact, be to know why the gap between the philosophy of the professionals and the presumed expectations of the general public (which, by definition, is never consulted) gives the impression of having become today more radical and more intolerable than in the past, from a point of view which in reality is essentially that of the professionals themselves.

40It is obvious that the public of philosophers who specialize in dealing with questions which, as Desanti says, ‘concern life and death, and the ordering of desires, and the evils of society’ and others of the same sort, even if it is no doubt much larger, is not necessarily much closer to what Desanti calls ‘ordinary people’ than the public of a logician or an epistemologist. But there is indisputably a great difference between philosophers who, like Sartre, Marcuse or Foucault, give the impression of having more or less transformed the mentality of their time in their respective areas, and others, like most analytic philosophers and, in fact, philosophers in general, who address themselves almost exclusively to the members of their confraternity. And it is entirely understandable that the former give the impression of more closely corresponding to what philosophy today can and should be if it is to remain faithful to its traditional vocation (or perhaps, more precisely, to the idea we form of it).

41It remains nevertheless the case that the unformulated demands of the general public with regard to professional philosophers are determined much less by what one really knows about these demands than by what philosophers themselves believe them to be or, for various reasons, judge that they should be and would wish them to be. Moreover, it is clear that when philosophers claim to deal with the problems which we all have, they are actually dealing, in a good many cases, with nothing but their own individual and collective problems, such, for example, as has been seen in a number of recent cases, as the problem of their own relation to politics. Finally, if it is normal to require of philosophy that it deepen our reflection on the great moral, social and political questions of the age, it would certainly be wholly unreasonable and absurd to require of any given philosopher that he justify his position by a contribution of this sort which would probably, in most cases, be fairly trivial and of no great interest.

  • 19 Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke, op. cit., vol. 7, Kleine Prosa, Aphorismen, Autobiographisches, p.  (...)

42Rather than incriminating, as does Desanti, a certain propensity of contemporary philosophers to overlook their fundamental obligations to the unspecialized public in order to confine themselves to purely technical tasks, it would no doubt be preferable to recognize that their apparent capitulation on this point corresponds also to an objective situation, a situation constituted by the fact that the professionals are today in many respects the last to be able to provide what society generally demands of them under the name of ‘philosophy’. Those who propose any sort of reply at all obviously have a better chance, in any case, to make themselves heard than those who would feel themselves constrained, not, as is ordinarily supposed, by pusillanimity but by a sense of ‘professional’ honesty, to confess their own ignorance. As Musil notes, quod licet bovi non licet Jovi that is to say, ‘The epoch in which the wise doubt their ability to arrive at a world-view has made of world-views a possession of everybody.’19 This is why

  • 20 Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, London: Secker and Warburg, 1953, vol. 1, p. 300.

nowadays there is a terrifying amount of philosophizing done in small slices, so much so that shops are the only places where one can still get anything without a philosophic view being involved. There is, on the other hand, a definite mistrust of philosophy in large chunks, which is simply considered impossible.20

  • 21 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre, op. cit., p. 17 (tr : Modern French Philosophy, p. 7).

43For my part, I have never been convinced that the practice of analytic philosophy or, more generally, of a relatively technical and specialized type of philosophy, should of itself lead to a lack of interest in the important questions of everyday life or to a particularly conformist or conservative attitude on questions of this sort. I even tend to think that ‘ordinary language philosophy’ itself, despite the absence of an explicitly normative point of view with which it is constantly reproached, could help substantially to improve our manner of formulating and discussing the most practical philosophical questions (including political ones). But the benefit that one can expect in such cases from this type of philosophy is, whatever way you look at it, incomparably more indirect, more ambiguous, less substantial and, to be blunt, frankly more disappointing than that which the majority of French philosophers have recently acquired the (to my mind most regrettable) habit of immediately requiring of the most abstract philosophical reflection. An analytic philosopher would probably find it a great deal more difficult to realize ‘the abrupt leap from the Idea of good to palpable good’ mentioned by Descombes.21 And one must not forget that what French philosophers mean when they reproach analytic philosophy with encouraging submission to established opinion and authority is most of the time simply that it runs the risk of making people a little less self-assured, a little less eloquent and a little more circumspect regarding what are at once the most important and the most difficult questions.

44I have been reproached with not being entirely fair towards contemporary French philosophy, the brilliant superiority of which has been expounded to me by students at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, to whom it had opened entirely new horizons and far more exalting perspectives. It would obviously be absurd to deny that it has produced extremely brilliant individuals and works of such specific originality that one can at least acknowledge, as I have done at the beginning of this essay, the merit French philosophy is due for having made a totally novel contribution to contemporary philosophy, one probably inconceivable in any other context. But the individual successes that the entire world is supposed to envy us cannot completely hide the dramatic fragility, instability and inconsistency of its deep structures of thought, the lack of taste for intellectual enterprises that are not likely to lead to immediate and rather spectacular results which are then to be echoed and amplified on the level of the general public, the eclecticism, the superficiality and the confusion of interests and crazes, the rather infantile predilection for systematic excesses and provocations, the profound indifference concerning reasons and consequences, which explains the levity and the irresponsibility with which ethical and political choices are made. So far as I am concerned, I have never managed to consider as altogether secondary and trivial the most irritating faults of the ‘Gallic’ style of thinking, in particular the childish chauvinism and nationalism, the political megalomania, the versatility – confused with critical sense and mental flexibility – and the repetition, at ever-increasing intervals, of the same heroic-comic episodes consistently interpreted in the tragic mode (by this I mean the constant oscillation of the pendulum between more or less blustering subversive attitudes and pitiful returns to the most commonplace self-evidence). Nor do I consider that to come belatedly to a recognition of the nature of one’s situation or to produce resounding pieces of self-criticism is enough to make us forget the time that has been lost, the injustices committed and the deep wrongs done to the cause of philosophy itself.

45It is true that, if the mentality of the ‘new mandarins’ in America really corresponds to Chomsky’s unflattering description of it, the French intelligentsia has the right to boast of a distinctly more developed critical sense and consciousness of its moral responsibilities, at least if we are to judge according to the frequency and the nature of their declarations and the positions they take up. However, this indisputable advantage to which French intellectuals are so ready to refer in their own support, is in fact probably much more symbolic than substantive, to the extent that talkative bad conscience is too often substituted for effective action, verbal denunciation of abuses and injustices for the resolve really to contribute to their abolition, and the production of a political mythology intended essentially for domestic consumption for the elaboration of a political thought capable of bringing any weight to bear on the ways in which things actually evolve. For a French intellectual, to take up a political position is generally nothing more than a sort of statutory obligation that has to be fulfilled at every moment, without there being any need either to justify it by means of real arguments or to answer for it later. To consider things in the way of Desanti, is not the paradox precisely that what is or should be everyone’s business can give rise to the constitution of a semi-professional category whose principal function is to formulate a ‘specialist’ opinion on questions of which it is declared that everyone must resolve them with the help of his own knowledge and at his own risk?

46After having believed during the preceding period in political violence and revolution, French philosophy seems today to have returned quite simply to morality and to right, apparently forgetting that it had adopted and celebrated the first solution because of the real or presumed insufficiencies of the second. It is not impossible, after all, that the next ‘revolution’ may consist in a rediscovery of the discreet charms of truth, eclipsed for some time past by the more obvious seductiveness of rhetoric. We must give fashion the credit for giving a chance, one day or another, to all ideas, including those which may appear to contradict it most directly. In other words, if the worst is never entirely certain, the best is probably never entirely impossible.


1 On the cover of the book for which this essay was written (French Philosophy Today, Cambridge UP, 1983), the editor, Alan Montefiore, writes: “Eleven leading contemporary French philosophers give here more or less direct presentations and exemplifications of their work. As a collection the essays convey the style, tone and preoccupations, as well as the range and diversity, of French philosophical thinking as it is being practised today.” The ten other authors were Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Vincent Descombes, Claude Lefort, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, Piere Macherey, Louis Marin et Paul Ricœur [editor’s note].

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, New York: Modern Library, 1927, 1954, p. 508-9.

3 Robert Musil, Tagebucher, Adolf Frisé (ed.), Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1976, vol. 1, p. 664.

4 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre: quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978), Paris, Minuit, 1979, p. 13. Trans. L. Scott Fox and J. M. Harding: Modem French Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 3.

5 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1934, p. 41.

6 Id,, p. 45.

7 Cf. Michael Ayers, “Analytical philosophy and the history of philosophy”, in Jonathan Ree, Michael Ayers and Adam Westoby, Philosophy and its Past, Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978.

8 Hilary Putnam, “Language and philosophy”, in Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, Mind, Language and Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 20.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Cf. Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

12 Robert Musil, “Geist und Erfahrung. Anmerkungen fur Leser, welche dem Untergang des Abendlandes entronnen sind” (March 1921), in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke, Adolf Frisé (ed.), Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1978, Band 8, Essays und Reden, p. 1043.

13 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre, op. cit., p. 17 (tr : Modern French Philosophy, p. 7).

14 Cf. Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, London, Henley and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 88.

15 Hilary Putnam, “Language and philosophy”, op. cit., p. 2.

16 Ibid.

17 “Entretien avec Jean-Toussaint Desanti”, Le Monde, 8 March 1978, p. 2.

18 Ibid

19 Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke, op. cit., vol. 7, Kleine Prosa, Aphorismen, Autobiographisches, p. 932.

20 Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, London: Secker and Warburg, 1953, vol. 1, p. 300.

21 Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’autre, op. cit., p. 17 (tr : Modern French Philosophy, p. 7).

© Collège de France, 2013

Conditions d’utilisation :