Ah yes, those stuffy French philosophers. Chain smoking their way through the deepest of thought, holding in contempt all that their minds can conceive…
So what the heck happened?
The French way of thinking is a matter of substance, but also style. This is most notably reflected in the emphasis on rhetorical elegance and analytical lucidity, often claimed to stem from the very properties of the French language: ‘What is not clear,’ affirmed the writer Antoine de Rivarol in 1784, somewhat ambitiously, ‘is not French.’
Perhaps so… and even as recently as 50 years ago, French philosophy was the master of all it surveyed: Camus, Derrida, Foucault, Levinas.
Since the late 20th century, the rich tradition of French thought has come under increasing strain. The symptoms of this crisis are numerous, beginning with a widespread belief in the decline of French artistic and intellectual creativity. In 2007, Time magazine’s cover article even announced ‘The Death of French Culture’, cruelly concluding: ‘All of these mighty oaks being felled in France’s cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world.’ Even philosophical ideas about resisting tyranny and promoting revolutionary change, which were the hallmark of French thought since the Enlightenment, lost their universal resonance. It is instructive that neither the fall of Soviet-style communism in eastern Europe or the Arab spring took any direct intellectual inspiration from French thinking. The European project, the brainchild of French thinkers such as Jean Monnet, has likewise stalled, as European peoples have grown increasingly skeptical of an institution that appears too distant and technocratic, and insufficiently mindful of the continent’s democratic and patriotic heritages.
Of course, this isn’t to say that American philosophy has reached such lofty heights, much less aspire to even achieve the lows of where French intellectual thought remains today. In a world where we live to react rather than reflect, it’s a tough business.
Still, the idea of a French renaissance in philosophy is an interesting thought, given that much of what the 20th century French philosophers gave us remains largely unexplored and untested, save through the writings of another great European thinker, Pope St. John Paul the Great.