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French Socialism and Philosophy Since May 1981

NEWS
French Socialism and Philosophy Since
May 1981
Has the new French Socialist Government made any moves
to alter the position of philosophy in French education where (in spite of a diminution of the proportion
of philosophy in the syllabus in the mid-seventies)
philosophy still retains a role in school education
not entirely unlike that of religious education in
the UK: a compulsory element in a number of syllabuses
for 15- to 18-year-olds (‘baccalaur~at’) intended in
part to further moral and civic education.

One pointer is the number of candidates accepted
for a life-long teaching contract (at ‘aggr~gation’)
to teach in secondary or tertiary education. According to a member of the aggr~gation panel, the midseventies changes plus the falling popularity of those
baccalaur~at syllabuses in which philosophy was
extensively taught affected the number of places the
Ministry of Education was prepared to offer until, in
1979, only 20 candidates were accepted from the
entire country. But there was already an upturn in
1980 (to 25) and again in 1981 (to 33). The new
government raised that figure to 42 upon taking
office last May, and has maintained that level for
1982.

But the increase has to be seen in context. Other
straws in the wind suggest what long-term developments
in education and research the government has in mind.

One is the introduction of syllabus changes, a new
more attractive baccalaur~at option with considerable
emphasis on philosophy and the insertion of philosophy
in a service role into other programmes.

Another sign of things to come is the report on the
state of the human and social sciences drawn up by a
commission headed by Maurice Godelier at the request
of the Minister for Research and Industry, JeanPierre Ch~v~nement, known for his leadership of a
‘left-wing’ grouping in the Socialist party, CERES.

The human and social sciences incorporate more or
less our social sciences plus history and law, but
in French universities they are generally split
between faculties of letters and of law. The
commission of twenty university and research figures
analysed 2000 responses to questionnaires from
educational institutions and public bodies such as
political parties, and then produced a commentary on
the state of both the infrastructure and the ideas in
the various fields it had to cover. The report
complains of interference and austerity by the previous administration, which tended to impose short-term
benefits on research (compare the current restructuring of the Social Science Research Council), to

favour politically agreeable areas such as Neoclassical economics, and to discourage profounder
and more critical research, and in various ways it
makes great play of the principle of academic
independence from the state.

Though philosophy as such did not come into its
range, some specific kinds of philosophy (such as
political philosophy – reckoned to have ‘collapsed’

conceptually) were covered, and various of the
report’s arguments and recommendations must bear on
philosophy. For example, the report names the history
of science and technology and women’s stuqies as large
gaps in current research; and it identIfies numerous
research areas needing development between different
disciplines, including written expression and the
civilisati~n it forms, and again the history and
epistemology of science and technology. Finally, the
report recommends a battery of new institutions such
as a national institute of history and epistemology
of science and technology, a centre for psychoanalytic research and an interdisciplinary college
of philosophy.

Uncannily to cue comes a third initiative, a
proposal from Ch~v~nement to establish a new
International College of Philosophy – which several
of the big names of French philosophy (such as
Jacques Derrida and Dominique Lecourt) have been
asked to organise. Can it be accidental that these
two are so prominent in two fields mentioned by the
Godelier report: the civilisation of written expression and the epistemology of science respectively?

Ch~v~nement managed, in setting out this proposal,
to combine respectful, even chauvinistic, reference
to the place of philosophy ‘at the heart of [the
French] cultural tradition’ with a view, more technocratic in inspiration, that ‘research and reflexion
on scientific methods and paradigms, on transfers
between sciences, on procedures common to several
sciences and the phenomena which arise when several
sciences meet, merit more concentrated attention.’

All in all, it looks as though the socialist
government, while probably intending a larger role
for philosophy in education, research and culture at
large, will be asking for something from philosophy
in return. Whether that something will be the offspring of recent growth in philosophy alone or of the
government’s positivist need to obtain development
remains to be seen.

Noel Parker
41

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