:: Article

The New French philosophy

by Richard Marshall.

The New French Philosophy by Ian James. Polity 2012.

France is suffering within its means. 3.26 million unemployed, youth unemployment at 26.5 per cent, consumption declining, no economic growth for five years, a despised political class the majority think is corrupt and a President everyone thinks is merde. Riots in their suburbs, a rubbish rugby team and Germany setting the tone in Europe. How does French philosophy respond? By taking Oscar Wilde’s advice and avoiding arguments on the grounds that they are vulgar and often convincing. Some of their radical solutions are self-confessedly ‘impossible’, ‘paradoxical’, unthinkable’ and so on. But then, if impossible, they don’t exist. So what’s on offer is not even better than nothing. Years ago the late Weberian philosopher Ernest Gellner once commented that the reason some philosophers had given up on Hegel was not because they were too philistine to appreciate the depths but because they hadn’t yet given up on finding working solutions to problems. Having read Ian James’s fascinating book on these new French thinkers I fear that I too am going to be accused of philistine tendencies. Alas, it can’t be helped. Some of the new philosophy is intriguing, but much of it seems content to startle, unsettle and parade an ingrained belief that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Gary Gutting, a renowned expert on French philosophy, has defended the impossible however, writing that some ‘… versions of continental thought regard the essential activity of reason not as the logical regimentation of thought but as the creative exercise of intellectual imagination. This view is characteristic of most important French philosophers since the 1960s, beginning with Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. They maintain that the standard logic analytic philosophers use can merely explicate what is implicit in the concepts with which we happen to begin; such logic is useless for the essential philosophical task, which they maintain is learning to think beyond these concepts.’

He continues: ‘Continental philosophies of experience try to probe beneath the concepts of everyday experience to discover the meanings that underlie them, to think the conditions for the possibility of our concepts. By contrast, continental philosophies of imagination try to think beyond those concepts, to, in some sense, think what is impossible.’ Gutting thinks there is a substantial distinction to be made between continental and analytic philosophy and in the course of defending this now contested view he writes that ‘…analytic philosophy reads experience in terms of common-sense intuitions (often along with their developments and transformations in science) and understands reason in terms of formal logic. Continental philosophy, by contrast, typically sees experience as penetrating beyond the veneer of common-sense and science, and regards reason as more a matter of intellectual imagination than deductive rigor.’ If this is right then my disbelief in the causal efficacy of an absent ontology is merely a defect of my intellectual imagination! Well, whatever you might think about this, Gutting’s comments helpfully contextualise the new French philosophers that James writes about.

Ian James sets out to show that in the new French philosophy the idea of ‘new’ is its subject, where new is understood in terms of ‘rupture’ and ‘discontinuity’ and ‘novelty.’ The French philosophers wonder how the new is possible. Gilles Deleuze started this in the 1960’s in his philosophy of ‘difference.’ Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault continued. Lyotard’s ‘event’ seeks to explain how discourses are contested and thinking is transformed. Jeff Malpas thinks this ‘the founding moment of any postmodernism.’ Lyotard’s ‘The Different’ is defined as an instability in language and discourse. It is supposed to create ‘new addressees, new addressors, new significations and new referents’ and ‘new phrase families and new genres of discourse.’ Derrida’s late ‘Spectres of Marx’ is about going beyond existing research programmes, ‘… beyond any possible programming, new knowledge, new techniques, new political givens.’ Foucault talks about epistemic breaks as an ‘event’ in ‘The Order of Things.’ He asks, ‘ how is it that thought has a place in the space of the world, that it has its origin there, and that it never ceases to begin anew?’ He suggests a process that ‘… probably begins with an erosion from the outside, from a space which is, for thought, on the other side but in which it has never ceased to think from the very beginning.’

James discusses seven new French philosophers; Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, Catherine Malabou, Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou and Francois Laruelle. This is intended to be neither exhaustive nor up to date but rather an indicative group in support of an argument about a paradigm shift. These seven all agree with Foucault that the new comes from ‘an erosion from the outside.’ Five of them established themselves in the 1970’s. Two are younger and not yet established as much.

In the 1970’s the philosophers moved away from a linguistic paradigm which had dominated Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault. Signifiers, signifieds, the symbolic, discourse, text, writing, arche-writing were recast in terms of materiality, the concrete, ‘… worldliness, shared embodied existence and sensible-intelligible experience.’ The paradigm of structuralism and post structuralism as being a literary genre was subjected to its own ‘event’. John Mullarkey wrote in ‘Post-Continental Philosophy’ that the paradigm shift happened later than James claims, in 1988 with the publication of Deleuze’s ‘The Fold’, Badiou’s ‘Being and Event’, Henry’s ‘Seeing the Invisible’ and a discussion between Laruelle and Derrida on whether philosophy of science was possible. Mullarkey sees the paradigm shift as being one where the postmodernists realigned with ‘naturalism and with the life sciences, with mathematics and the reaffirmation of philosophy of “philosophy as a worldly and materialist thinking.” James agrees with this assessment. ‘Immanence’ was thought to be the essence of the paradigm shift at one time.

James pulls the paradigm shift back to the 1970’s and disputes the idea that immanence is a universal concern of the new philosophy. There are other shifts too. Concerns with the subject, subjectivity, community, politics, art are predominant. He notes that consideration of a broader base of recently historic thinkers includes Bergson, Sartre, Deleuze, Henry, Levinas, Henry Corbin, plus modern voices such as Clement Rosset, Christian Jambet, and Guy Lardreau as is found in Peter Hallward’s ‘The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today’ where we find talk of the ‘singularity. ‘If anything holds the field together, if anything (beyond the contingency of languages and institutions) allows us to speak here of a field … then it is the continuous persistence of singularity as the strong polarizing principle of the field as a whole.’ According to Halliward this paradigm of thinking is non-relational, involving ‘a radical refusal of mediation or representation.’ They refuse to engage with the world and therefore ‘ came to embrace a singular conception of thought to the degree that they judged the world incapable of redemption.’ French philosophy, on this account, is about anticipating the provision of an event producing relational accounts with the world, ‘in order to re-engage with the world and its possible transformation.’ What this means is that Derridean philosophers took the linguistic paradigm to show that philosophy was solipsistic, a practice whereby language represented language and therefore was cut off. These new philosophers wanted to leave that ghetto.

James excludes many new French philosophers. Key ones are those connected with philosophies of technology and science such as Bruno Latour, Dominique Lecourt and Michel Serres. He includes Stiegler, however. The purpose is to elaborate an argument. Derrida is important to Nancy, Stiegler and Malabou. They all moved away from deconstruction. Louis Althusser was important to Ranciere and Badiou who are both understood partly in terms of their distancing themselves from his thought. Laruelle calls his own thought ‘ non-Heideggerian deconstruction’ and after 1980 developed a ‘non-philosophy’ which, according to James ‘can be aligned with an Althussarian structural conception of science and theory.’

Badiou made the case against the linguistic paradigm of structuralism and post-structuralism in 1977 in his ‘The Theory of the Subject’, claiming that ‘it is materialism that we must found anew with the renovated arsenal of our mental powers.’ He thought the linguistic paradigm was anti-humanistic. Ranciere made a similar move in 1974 when he writes ‘ideology is not simply a collection of discourses or a system of representation’ in breaking with Althusser in ‘Althusser’s Lesson’. In 1979 Nancy wrote ‘Ego Sum’ which rejects the Lacanian understanding of the self in terms of structure, text or process. Nancy claims that Cartesian introspection uncovers an ego that is prior to any linguistic or symbolic enunciation. His ideas about ‘community, embodiment, shared existence and his ontology of the singular plural’ are all built on this Cartesian epistemic paradigm.

Laruelle’s ‘The Decline of Writing’ was published in 1977. In this he attacks the idea of ‘text’. He says that ‘text must be stripped of the ontological primacy with which structuralist ideology and the majority of “textual” ideologues comfort themselves.’ He replaces it with materialism, which is a heteronomy ‘more radical than that of the symbolic chain.’ He sees this as a reason for breaking with philosophy.

Malabou, of a younger generation, wasn’t writing in the 1970’s but continues the paradigm shift. (It is an interesting question how long a paradigm shift takes to stop happening and become settled. Her ‘Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing’ came out in 2005 so it seems a shift can take nearly thirty years in some cases.) She introduces a notion of ‘plasticity.’ This replaces writing as a key paradigm. Writing is a paradigm she links with linguistics, cybernetics and genetics. Plasticity serves a new materialism.

Marion and Stiegler weren’t writing in the 70s either. Marion replaces the structuralist view with an insistence that ‘givenness is anterior to any economy of writing or difference.’ This ‘unconditional givenness’ links with Malabou’s ‘plasticity.’ Technology according to Stiegler embodies a fundamental materiality of human life. That technology works as a prosthetics shows this, says Stiegler.

Post structuralism was concerned with the material. The Tel Quel group, Lacan and Althusserian thoughts about the materiality of ideology are all examples. But James insists that materialism was always a concern with the ‘materiality of discourse, of language and of the symbolic which might then form or inform material practices.’ Nancy, Stiegler, Malabou and Badiou develop materialist ontologies. Marion and Laruelle conclude that ‘… the immanent real … [is] … an instance which is in excess of ontology or any horizon of being whatsoever’ which seems to be a rather disappointingly banal claim that there’s an objective world that is independent of our phenomological awareness. Questions of the political and community are also developed in terms of this materialism. James says that ‘[s]uch a concern is most often expressed in terms of political change and an attempt, in the work of philosophy itself, to think the conditions of political transformation and to affirm, facilitate or bring about political change itself.’ Marion and Laruelle don’t have these concerns however.

Jean Luc Marion is a phenomenologist and theologian. He has been accused of inaugurating a ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology along with the likes of Michel Henry, Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas. He is concerned with the implications of the ‘overcoming’ of metaphysics post Nietzsche and Heidegger. A Cartesian epistemic process provides an ontology based on the ego and God. God is not a metaphysical substance because Deity is conceived via the Cartesian process. In ‘The Idol and Distance’ we get a negative theology which replaces a metaphysical God as Substance, Being and Presence with a God as Infinite Distance, Separation and Withdrawal from Being. Nietzsche announced the death of the metaphysical God, according to Marion, but the God of Infinite Distance survived. God lies outside the limits of a Cartesian epistemology. Cartesianism ego defines the horizon of thought and so God is ‘… to expose oneself to what already no longer belongs to us.’ It is thinking close to Levinas’s.

Husserl attempted to provide a full reduction of the world into experiential terms. Nietzsche is understood as advancing the same idea in Marion: ‘Can the givenness in presence of each things be realized without any condition or restriction? This question marks Nietzsche’s last advance and Husserl’s point of arrival’ says Marion in ‘Logical Investigations.’ In ‘Reduction and Giveness’ the givenness replaces or is identical in the role it plays to the Cartesian ego and provides the ground for all instances of intuition, intention and signification. Marion sees himself as providing a third reduction of phenomenology: the first being Husserls’ reduction of objects into the transcendental ego; and the second being Heidegger’s idea of reducing phenomena to Dasein. Marion claims ‘the givenness of phenomena cannot be subsumed into any formal ontology or any horizon of being.’ ‘In the realm of reduction it is no longer a question of Being … Because Being never intervenes in order to permit the absolute givenness in which it plays not the slightest role.’ Phenomena were now reduced to what is given, without foundationalist underpinnings of an ego or Dasein. Metaphysical commitments were stripped away. Some proclaim this as the end of philosophy, but philosophy has to be understood very parochially and narrowly for this to be the case. There is no principled reason to so restrict the meaning.

This argument is connected to Derrida’s work on the ‘logic of the gift ’ in ‘Given Time.’ This is Derrida’s claim that ‘if an act of giving is to be pure, then there must be no return to the giver, no debt of recognition may occur in relation to the giver, nothing may be accrued as a result, either in the short term or through some process of deferral. Otherwise, the gift is not a gift but functions as a mode of exchange.’ Derrida claims ‘ the gift is annulled… as soon as it appears as gift or as soon as it signifies itself as gift, there is no longer any “logic of the gift.”’ Marion denies that Derrida’s logic of the gift can be applied to phenomenology. In anthropology and sociology ‘giving’ is always economic. But phenomenology is neither anthropological nor sociological but rather, says Marion in ‘Being Time’, uses a ‘paradox logic’ whereby ‘the given, issued from the process of giveness, appears but leaves concealed givenness itself, which becomes enigmatic.’ Phenomenology becomes on this conception like Borge’s ‘The Coin of Odin’ which is a coin with only one side or like being modest, which you can be but cannot know. Marion rejects sociological and anthropological models that are assumed by Derrida and so rejects Derrida’s deconstruction of Husserl. Derrida sees Husserlian phenomenology as being a product of the ‘temporal and temporalising economy of difference.’ Marion sees this as a metaphysical claim because it is grounding the phenomenal on something anterior. Derrida however claims that Marion’s is metaphysical too in that it is grounded on ego.

Marion rejects this because he sees phenomenality as resting on the anonymity of its source. It is ‘viewed as pure unconditioned giving prior to any other horizon, economic, ontological or otherwise.’ His view is criticized as being too thin. It is a ‘negative phenomenology’ according to Janicaud. It’s thinness leaves it open to theological interpretation, ‘… a mere negative propaedeutic for his theology’ as Christina Gschwandtner says. Marion says his phenomenology ‘gives all that is and appears’ and so is neither thin nor a misreading of Husserl. It is unconditional and prior to intention and signification with the possibility that it may saturate any intuition in characteristically surprising, unexpected, unforeseen and unpredictable ways. This saturation reverses the Kantian notion that the subject constitutes the phenomenal: in Marion the given constitutes the self.

Saturised phenomena can be understood in terms of ‘the event,’ ‘the idol’, ‘the flesh’ and ‘the icon.’ An event is historical and felt by populations ‘in excess of any singular interpretational directedness or horizon of expectation ’ and so is a bit like Ricoeur’s hermeneutic history and Badiou’s ‘event’; ‘The idol’ is how art, such as a painting, ‘gives a sensible intuition or sensory perception which is in excess of any determinate meaning, concept, category or classification’ and this is rather like Derrida’s ‘difference’ and Nancy on artworks; Flesh is ‘the fundamental medium of givenness itself.’ The icon is ‘ the gaze of the other upon the self…. The face of the other, it is not constituted by intentional consciousness but rather imposes itself upon it in and of itself.’ He controversially aligns all this to a theology that is Christian and specifically Roman Catholic.

Jean-Luc Nancy is prolific. He departs from Derridean post-structuralism by reintroducing erased terms. He is post-phenomenological. James aligns him with Blanchot and Levinas rather than Heidegger. He aims to develop an ontology of community and the political such that the subject is entwined rather than individualistic. He thinks art has a central role in this. Nancy argues that the world always makes sense, ‘and does so before or prior to conceptual determination, and prior to giving it a fixed signification or attributing to it predicates or characteristics.’ He has a notion of finite thinking that limits this limitness. He is indebted to Blanchot and his ‘Infinite Conversation.’ Sense is always linked to materiality, the way ‘worldly existence is disclosed to us through situated and embodied being.’ The relation of the body with the world is important; bodies are not in the world but towards it, exposed to it so that the meaning of the body and the world becomes mutual and shared. The idea is that the sense is always one of codependency. In this the dual meaning of ‘touch’ is an important metaphor. In ‘The Muses’ where he discusses art Nancy writes: ‘Touch is nothing other than the touch of sense altogether and of all the senses. It is their sensuality as such … touch presents the proper moment of sensible exteriority, it presents it as such and as sensible’ and ‘Touch forms one body with sensing, or it makes of sensing a body, it is simply the corpus of the senses.’ James calls it the hinge between sense as the horizon of meaningfulness and sense understood as sense perception. It is a key to the idea of a ‘shared material existence.’

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 14th, 2013.