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French Thought?


OK. I’m all geared up for my trip to Europe. I envision myself sitting by the sea in Barcelona, eating tapas and drinking wine, maybe winding through the labyrinthine streets of Lisbon, or stumbling over the crumbling ruins of Rome, perhaps picking my way along the cobblestone streets of Salzburg. But most of all I see myself sitting at a sidewalk table at Les Deux Magots on Paris’ Left Bank and soaking in the ambience of European consciousness and particularly that which is most the European of all, French thought.

To be truthful, my visions of Paris are of Hemingway writing with a pad and pencil in a café, a beer in front of him and critical eyes directed toward the passing pedestrians, hoping not to be interrupted by one of the silly American or English expatriates who only want to gossip. Not that Papa was above a little gossip himself. At other times, I imagine Sartre, drinking coffee or wine, reading and taking notes, hopeful that an adoring young Sorbonne student will recognize him and distract him from his heavy intellectual exercises and burdensome sense of responsibility, then bending over his tablet and writing a trenchant line or two, directing the rest of us to be free but not free of guilt.

So in preparation for my vigils at the sidewalk cafes of St-Germain-des-Prés, I decide I’d better bone up on the latest French thought, which means first refreshing myself on early twentieth century French philosophy and then tackling that which in the last twenty or thirty years has become all the rage. The French debate this stuff the way Americans talk about sports, don’t they? How can I hold up my head at Café de Flore and be ignorant of Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard and now Marion, Nancy and Laruelle?

I’m no philosopher but I’ve read my share of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Searle, Fodor and Dennett, not to mention, Anscombe and Foot. As a self-styled empiricist, I cut my teeth on analytic philosophy and loved its close ties to science. Being something of a cognitive scientist myself, I could see the value of philosophy in clarifying my ideas and provoking the pertinent questions. And guys like Fodor and Dennett have a breezy sense of humor, making reading them a pleasure.

But what’s going on with the French? Other than Foucault and, refreshingly, Malabou, their philosophy doesn’t seem to refer to anything. It curls back upon itself—analyzes its own language and that of its own incestuous practitioners. Did positivism stop at the shores of France?  Wasn’t Comte a Frenchman? Why do they still criticize ideas I thought no one took seriously (e.g. classical Marx and Freud) and have an obsession with the transcendent and the ideal (spending thousands of words dismissing what I would have thought they never should have considered in the first place)? And why couldn’t the Ordinary Language movement have made at least some inroads into the French intellectual culture, at least to the extent that it would deal with language as it is used to communicate? They only harp on language as form, on reality as language. They only talk to each other. At least they have a social and political conscience, or appear to.

I blame it all on phenomenology.

The Editor




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