Modern French Philosophy 
by Vincent Descombes, translated by Lorna Scott Fox.
Cambridge, 192 pp., £14.50, January 1981, 0 521 22837 9
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It is no secret that philosophy as it is taught and studied at UCLA or Princeton or Oxford is very different from philosophy as it is understood at Paris or Dijon or Nice. An intellectual milieu in which the household names include those of Quine, Strawson, Davidson and Kripke is unlikely to have much in common with one where Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Derrida are taken with great seriousness. This might seem obvious: but we ought perhaps to be a little more surprised than we generally are at the extent to which almost total ignorance as to what is going on in the other of these two philosophical communities is no barrier to advancement and distinction in either of them. For this fact at least suggests the question: how far and in what sense are the members of these two communities engaged in the practice of one and the same mode of inquiry? Has philosophy been irreparably fragmented?

This is becoming a question of some urgency within American philosophy, for there are notable philosophers, in such departments as those at Northwestern, Duquesne and the New School, whose philosophical idiom is that of Paris or Louvain rather than Princeton. Such philosophers and their pupils – and the same issue arises for those whose idiom is that of Frankfurt or Freiburg – have in recent years increasingly felt excluded from the professional arenas by the dominance of the analytic tradition. A Society for Pluralism in Philosophy has organised systematic opposition to this dominance within the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. Manifestos have been issued, elections for professional office contested with a quite new kind of partisanship. This resort to overt politics by the manifestly unpolitical plainly has more than one cause: but the unsympathetic incomprehension within each community of the other’s philosophical perspectives is clearly the most fundamental. So far, that incomprehension has survived a number of attempts to dissolve it; and the fact that there are a few philosophers who have for many years inhabited both communities and made significant attempts to interpret each to the other – such as Alan Montefiore, who contributes a useful introduction to this book, and Charles Taylor – is perhaps chiefly important for the evidence it affords of deep-seated resistance to mutual understanding.

Vincent Descombes’s new book is therefore timely, particularly as it is the most comprehensive and the most philosophically acute account of French philosophy in the last fifty years so far available to English readers. Descombes’s strategy is interesting and original. He presents French philosophy uncompromisingly in its own terms; and he does not try in any explicit or obvious way to make his account relevant to the concerns or beliefs of analytic philosophers. Moreover, he does not pretend to be delivering a final verdict: his account is that of one French philosopher who is himself a participant in the arguments and conflicts he describes. But these turn out to be strengths, not weaknesses: what he gives us is an intelligible history in which particular theses and theories each find their place within an extended series of debates. The whole confers intelligibility on the parts.

Descombes’s narrative begins with those episodes in which the young philosophers of the 1930s drew upon the resources provided by Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger in order to repudiate the Neo-Kantianism of Léon Brunschvig. That Neo-Kantianism envisaged the history of philosophy as a progression, from Plato through Descartes to Kant in which the truth has gradually emerged, the truth being that what is is what is knowable. The conditions and forms of knowledge determine what is to count as reality: hence Brunschvig’s aphorism that the history of Egypt is really the history of Egyptology. The goal of philosophy is the achievement, so far as possible, of a set of judgments which adequately express this unity of knowledge and being.

Behind Brunschvig lay not only such precursors as Renouvier, but the whole ideology of the Third Republic. A facile version of Neo-Kantianism – the history of German Neo-Kantianism from Eduard Zeller to Emil Lask shows that Neo-Kantianism certainly does not have to be facile – accorded extremely well with the high-minded, secularist, rationalist, moralistic ethos which every republican schoolmaster and university teacher was pledged to propagate. One of the symbols of that ethos was the officially enacted philosophy curriculum over whose content Brunschvig presided in his day, ensuring that Plato, Descartes and Kant received their due and that French students were protected from the errors of Aristotle and Hegel. To rebel against Brunschvig’s Neo-Kantianism was thus necessarily a political as well as a philosophical project.

Perhaps the most important resources for that project were provided by the lectures that Alexandre Kojève gave on Hegel’s Phenomenology each year at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes between 1933 and 1939. When Kojève wrote of Spinoza’s Ethics that it ‘explains everything except the possibility for a man living in time to write it’, he identified a weakness that was even more clearly apparent in Brunschvig’s vapid rationalism. The notion that human understanding is developed in the course of encounters with a reality that is radically discrepant with the categories which understanding brings to its tasks, that the central problem is one of falsification, had no place in Brunschvig’s scheme. It is this lesson that Kojève taught out of Hegel’s texts: what we are, what we do and what we understand are always defined by negative contrasts. And it is not just that negation has this central place in our conceptualising and conceptualised activities: the transformation of human thought and activity proceeds only by way of reflection on the negative.

Sartre in Being and Nothingness in 1943 argued that this is indeed true of human consciousness: men define themselves by what they are not. ‘Man is the being through whom nothingness comes into the world.’ But the world of things is quite other. Physical objects have their own reality which evades our forms of negating categorisation. Already in 1938 in his novel La Nausée Sartre had given dramatic expression to this dualist version of the gulf between human beings and physical objects; his philosophical formulation of it stimulated followers of Husserl, such as Merleau-Ponty, to challenge this whole way of establishing the distinction between the categories of the perceiving mind and the properties of physical objects. ‘Perspective does not appear to me to be a subjective deformation of things but, on the contrary, to be one of their properties, perhaps their essential property,’ wrote Merleau-Ponty. There is no gap between how things are and how they are perceived to be.

It is not difficult to recognise even in these developments of the 1940s the emergence of themes familiar in analytic philosophy, although presented there, not only in a different idiom, but largely in the context of the philosophy of the natural sciences. When, for example, Lyotard describes the phenomenological view of truth by saying that ‘truth is defined in its becoming, as the revision, correction and surpassing of itself,’ his claim has its counterparts in some of Lakatos’s claims about truth in the natural sciences. But such echoes are much rarer in most of those writers who superseded Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. The structuralists, on the one hand, and the practitioners of deconstruction, on the other, present a quite new class of difficulties to the English reader, difficulties in general exacerbated by teachers of literature who have presented their doctrines with that kind of cloudy enthusiasm which led Thomas Carlyle to call literature ‘a great foam-froth’.

On both groups of authors Descombes is excellent. His account of structuralism with its emphasis on the debt to the mathematics of Bourbaki and to the practice of such anthropologists as Dumézil is a model of clarity: ‘It is impossible to speak of the structure as a particular object – a text or an institution. What is structured is not the thing itself, as literary criticism often imagines ... but the set, of which this thing may be considered one representation, in comparison with other sets.’ So Dumézil compared the pantheons of Indo-European peoples, showing that each set of gods has a structure matching that of other such sets. It is only after identifying that structure that we can discover its significance: to have studied each god individually, comparing it with members of other pantheons, or to have studied one pantheon by itself, would have been sterile. Thus structuralism is essentially a comparative method: by comparing texts in the history of science and philosophical texts, Michel Serres has attempted to identify recurrent structures; Lévi-Strauss has attempted the same project for kinship systems. It is a presupposition of structuralist thought that signs are constituents of codes which are not individual creations. Structuralism, says Descombes, ‘wishes to show man’s subjection to signifying systems (which precede each of us individually)’.

There is then a crucial break between either Hegelian or phenomenological modes of thought, on the one hand, for which the crucial problems lie in the relationship between the subject who understands and perceives and the world in which the subject is situated, and structuralist views, on the other hand, in which the subject is denied any such central place. There is an even more radical break in the transition to the Nietzschean perspectivism of a Derrida or a Deleuze. Indeed, in Derrida’s case we have one of the most interesting and systematic attempts to disrupt that whole philosophical tradition of which his own work is one of the end-products. For at the core of that tradition, in Husserl’s own writings, we find a notion of truth which can never in fact be instantiated, but which cannot be expunged from what we say either. Husserl has tried to return us to that primary presuppositionless intuition in which we grasp the essential: Derrida shows that there cannot be any such return, that every such attempt presupposes an interpretation, and so on. And in saying this Derrida himself almost becomes the author of one more general theory of signs: ‘every sign is a signifier whose signified is another signifier, never “the thing itself”. ’ I say ‘almost’ because Derrida’s position always has to be guarded against the danger of self-refutation, the danger of discovering that in announcing the defeat of every previous philosophical position he is simply himself advancing one more philosophical position of the very type which he has attempted to disown. Against this possibility Derrida has been conducting a running battle, with himself as much as with his critics, in which the pun and the paradox play as important a part as do the arguments. And perhaps this is a necessary strategy: whereof one almost cannot speak, thereof one has to make jokes.

The virtues of Descombes’s narrative are more numerous than I have been able to suggest: he has, for example, quite excellent discussions of the uses to which Nietzsche and Freud have been put. If therefore I finally turn to two points at which his narrative is perhaps less illuminating than it might have been, it is not with the intention of detracting from his achievement. Descombes, like many others, identifies key weaknesses in Althusser’s positions. What he does not emphasise adequately – and at this particular time it is what it is fitting to emphasise – is the profound gratitude that we all owe to Althusser for having brought French Marxism back into dialogue with the rest of French philosophy, using notions drawn from both structuralism and the philosophy of science. So far as French philosophy was concerned, he de-Stalinised Marxism more thoroughly than any other Marxist did. His place in the history of French philosophy is partly that of one of the heirs of the divided inheritance of Gaston Bachelard, a philosopher whom Descombes merely glances at in passing. Yet it seems clear, not only that Bachelard is one of the major philosophers of this century, but also that in his writing he anticipated many of the problems which have been central to American and British philosophy of science ever since Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. For in his polemics against Emile Meyerson in the 1930s he established for the first time a developed conception of those radical discontinuities in the history of science to which Kuhn was to draw our attention later.

It is important to notice finally that Descombes has been well served by his translators. Recent English translations of European philosophy have too often been of a deplorable standard. The translation of philosophical prose is a fine art, sometimes undervalued and always inadequately rewarded. Ms Scott-Fox and Mr Harding have put both us and Descombes in their debt.

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Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

SIR: I would like to correct the error committed by Alasdair MacIntyre in his review of Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy (LRB, 16 April) concerning my sex, which is female. However limited the clues afforded by a mere initial, it is probably a good rule never simply to assume the masculinity of translators (or of anyone else).

Lorna Scott Fox
London E8

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