What is – or what is not – contemporary French philosophy, today?

RP 161 () / Article

The question that serves as the title of my lecture,* the question that motivates this lecture, is sustained by a negation that is absolutely necessary to the construction of the problematic I aim here to open. For I have found no other means than the ‘labour of the negative’, in the most literal sense, to submit my claim to the order of reasons that has led to the absence in France of chairs of philosophy defined in this way – such that the phrase ‘Contemporary French Philosophy’ be immediately understood, as we currently understand it here in the UK. The theoretical field implied by this phrase invites a problematization of both the philosophical and the contemporary from which a certain French otherness may be deduced. Contemporary French philosophy is not simply the philosophy produced in France (or in the French language), by and in the institution of the university, according to a diachronic line whose moments and diversity could be gathered up in a calendrical present/presence, whose variable dimensions stand for the ‘contemporary epoch’.

More generally, and more academically, in the distribution adhered to by the French university system for defining chairs of philosophy, ‘contemporary philosophy’ is wedded to the official chronology of the contemporary used by historians, and it begins in… 1800. This poses a number of amusing problems when it comes to studying Kant, who is split in two by the turning point of the French Revolution, which is said to complete the modern period (opened, as everyone is supposed to know, by the taking of Constantinople). One is thus constrained and forced to adopt, by convention and by consensus, the most philosophical date for the inauguration of the contemporary: that of the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). It is almost unnecessary to say that in an institution whose destiny has long been negotiated between ‘traditionalists’ (privileging the study of the texts of this tradition), theorists of knowledge (with whom the first generation of French ‘analytic’ philosophers began by allying themselves) and the tenants of moral and political philosophy (the very name is something of a manifesto…), the most contemporary French philosophy (in the sense of a philosophical actuality that it will be necessary for us to define better below) is superbly ignored.

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* This is a revised version of an inaugural lecture for a Professorship in Contemporary French Philosophy in the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, delivered on 22 May 2008.