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French Philosophers Fight Cuts

such things as human motivation, human development and selfhood, and so on.

There is still, I think, an i.mplicit tendency in
Kathleen Wilkes’ book to regard everyday explanations of behaviour as interesting, perhaps, and
practically essential in the conduct of life, but
otherwise as rather inferior and unsatisfactory if
co.mpared with anything that can be grounded in
physical science. This is linked with an uncritical
attitude towards the concept of ‘explanation’.

Wilkes see.ms just to assume (along with Smart,
Armstrong and many others) that the concept of
‘explanation’ has the same meaning when applied
to the physical world as it does when applied to
human behaviour. I think that this assumption needs

NBWS

French Philosophers Fight Cuts

by Christian Descamps

On 16 and 17 June, a large, attentive and committed
– audience gathered at the Sorbonne in Paris to participate in a ‘Philosophical Estates General’. Beneath
the frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes, Jacques
Derrida described how philosophy is being strangled
in France, and Vladi.mir Jankelevitch spoke of the
‘final solution’. Jeannette Colombel referred to the
philosopher-peasants of Larzac, and Christine
Buci-Glucksmann emphasised the contribution of
women to philosophy. •• But what was this
‘Estates General’ for?

The purpose was to protest against the infamous
‘Reforme Haby’, which considerably reduces both
timetable hours and the number of teaching posts
in philosophy in secondary schools. Paradoxically,
this blow coincides with a wave of popularity for
philosophy amongst the general public. Obviously
one should not lump together everything that’s
published under the prestigious title of ‘philosophy’

• •• But the attack on this subtly subversive
diSCipline is far from being innocent. Liberalis m
is fine, but only up to a point. Regis Debray pointed
out that ‘the relation between the reduction of teaching posts and the proliferation of jobs in televiSion,
.may not be a .matter of cause and effect, but it is
not a coincidence either. •• In reality the sa.me
strategy underlies the.m both.’.

The discussions were remarkable: they affirmed
that without philosophy there would never have been
the miracle of ancient Greece, or democracy, or a
Renaissance or a French Revolution. What is really
under attack in the assault on this diSCipline is free
thought itself.

Of course there were a number of incidents, and a
little scuffling when the impresario of the Nouveaux
Philosophes, Bernard-Henry Levy, got up to speak.

But these very divisions only show that philosophy
is alive and well. If it were dead – as the powers
that be would like – it would of course be accorded
all the funereal respect of those who so like dead
thinkers. (Consider the fabulous turnabouts of the
soviet officials who nowadays always have the name
of MayakowSki on their lips!)
In fact – aside from the folklore that is always
associated with the work of large Ire etings (and
which made the Sorbonne re.miniscent of the Odeon
36

questioning. Com.mon sense explanations of human
behaviour or development or motivation.are. often
inadequate; but the route to a more adequate understanding of these things does not lie through neurophysiology. The psychophysiology envisaged by
Wilkes would not be continuous with common sense;
it would be raiSing different questions which,
thOugh legitimate, would not contribute towards an
understanding of most of the questions about human
behaviour that we want to ask. And these questions
are not ‘.merely practical’, in a deflationary sort of
sense; they are concerned with our whole understanding of what it is to be human, and should not
be displaced by any form of scientis.m, however
.muted.

Jean Grimshaw
in 1968) – these discussions really did produce a
lot of new ideas. Various working groups looked at
the relations between philosophy and the press,
television and publishing. And, beneath all the
rhetoric, the discipline of philosophy e.merged as
vigorous, critical and incisive; and the numerous
secondary school philosophy teachers testified to a
genuine desire for philosophy.

The one regrettable thing was the absence of
students. For whilst it was emphasised that the
desire for philosophy is independent of the imperatives of the Baccalaureat, it would have been nice
to see .more lycee students there – and especially
to ask the.m what they think of the idea of starting
philosophy in the first years of secondary school.

Convulsive, subversive and youthful, the ancient
logos appealed to non-philosophers too – to all
those who refuse to accept the suppression of
thought. Roland Brunet, one of the organisers of
these sessions, is already planning a second
‘Philosophical Estates General’. This will be in a
few months’ time, and will take place somewhere
in the provinces.

(Translated by Jonathan Ree from La Quinzaine
Litteraire 305, July 1979)

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RP22 – SUMMER 1979
Editorial: The Politics of Clarity
John Krige: Revolution and Discontinuity
Les Levidow: Ideology and the IQ Debate
avid Murray: Ollman on Marx on Utopia
Rip Bulkeley: A Reply to Norman’s ‘Discussion’

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