Dominique Janicaud, 1937–2002


Dominique Janicaud, 1937–2002

The philosopher Dominique Janicaud died on 18 August 2002 at Eze on the Côte dʼAzur from a cardiac arrest after swimming in the Mediterranean. He was sixty-four years old. Eze is just along the coast from his beloved Nice, where Dominique had been teaching philosophy since 1966, refusing many invitations to leave for Paris and elsewhere. He lived and worked in a wonderful house high on the slopes of the arrière-pays, close to the valley of the Var.

Born in Paris on 14 November 1937, Dominique studied philosophy with André Jacob at the Lycée Lakanal, and was first drawn to Bergson and the tradition of French spiritualism, particularly the important but little-known (in the English-speaking world) work of Félix Ravaisson. Dominiqueʼs doctoral thesis on this topic was published in 1969 as Une généalogie du spiritualisme français, reissued in 1997 as Ravaisson et la métaphysique. His crucial philosophical encounter was with Jean Beaufret, the most prominent of Heideggerʼs French interlocutors, to whom Heidegger addressed his Letter on Humanism. Beaufret was a cousin of the Janicaud family and Dominique was deeply impressed with Beaufretʼs influential translation and presentation of Parmenidesʼ Poem. Dominique began to read Heidegger and was taught by Beaufret when he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1958. It was with Beaufretʼs encouragement that Dominique studied in Germany and met with Heidegger on several occasions in the 1960s. Dominiqueʼs other teachers were Louis Althusser and Jean Hyppolite, and although the former left little impression on him, it was from the latter that he developed his interest in Hegel, who was the topic of Dominiqueʼs Thèse dʼÉtat, published in 1975 as Hegel et le destin de la Grèce.

Dominique belonged to a small group of Heidegger readers very much contre-courant to the overwhelming Freudo-Marxist hegemony of the early 1960s in Paris. An informal discussion group met in 1965 at the Fondation Thiers in Paris, and included Dominiqueʼs lifelong friend Michel Haar, as well as Hubert Dreyfus, Henri Birault and Jacques Derrida. Yet Dominique was no orthodox Heideggerian. Although captivated by the later Heideggerʼs analysis of the completion or closure of metaphysics and his thinking of the age of technology in terms of the Gestell, his work adopted a significant and growing critical distance from Heidegger. Evidence of this appears in four stunning studies of Heidegger in the 1983 book La Métaphysique à la limite, of which I would strongly recommend the essay ʻHeideggerianaʼ, which is a meditation on Heideggerʼs too little known text Überwindung der Metaphysik.

This critical distance from Heidegger is more obliquely but powerfully at work in Dominiqueʼs major philosophical work, La Puissance du rationnel of 1985, published in Peg Birminghamʼs excellent translation as The Powers of the Rational (1994). Refusing to follow Heideggerʼs division between rational thinking and the thinking of Being, the book attempts an ambitious genealogy of rationality which gives a detailed phenomenology of the effects of techno-scientific power. The Hegelian pedigree of this concern with rationality leads into proximity with both Foucault and Habermas, but also Anglo-American philosophy of science. Far from abandoning rationality,

Dominique was led towards an alternative notion of reason that he called partage. This term has many shades of meaning in French, of which Dominique liked to emphasize the idea of rationality as our human lot or portion. What he was after was a non-dominating, non-instrumental and dialogic experience of rationality as that which is shared by mortals in their everyday being with one another. In many ways, Dominiqueʼs critique of Heideggerʼs sharp division between meditative thinking and technologized reason echoes Habermasʼs critique of Adornoʼs univocal notion of instrumental rationality opposed to aesthetic experience. The concern with partage led into an original account of temporality in the 1997 book Chronos.In an autobiographical text, Dominique wrote of his sharp disagreement with Heidegger:

I could no longer accept either the schema of history or that of Being, or the secret, destinal correspondence of the originary and the Ereignis. And I do not think that meditative thought can preserve a resource against technicist nihilism if it refuses all specific understanding of new realities, which always resound with ambiguity.

One of the most impressive features of La Puissance du rationnel was its detailed engagement with those new realities, and Dominique had an impressive knowledge of both the history and the philosophy of science and much contemporary scientific research. The critique of Heidegger was extended to the latterʼs ʻunconditional destinal historicismʼ in a 1990 engagement with the effects of Heideggerʼs politics in French philosophy, LʼOmbre de cette pensée, which also includes a powerful critique of Lacoue-Labartheʼs work.La Puissance du rationnel did not get the reception it deserved. As is often the case with philosophers, Dominique was better known for more occasional works, in particular two books that appeared in 1991: À nouveau la philosophie, a collection of essays, widely and favourably reviewed; and Le Tournant théologique de la phenomenologie française, which initiated a whole series of debates and polemics among French philosophers. Essentially, the book was a polemic against the theologizing tendency towards a phenomenology of the inapparent or the invisible that can be found in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien and Michel Henry, but whose ancestry can be traced to the influence of Levinasʼs Totality and Infinity. Phenomenologically speaking, Dominiqueʼs sympathies were always more Merleau-Pontian and committed to the idea that philosophy should attend to the concrete world and nothing besides.

These debates were continued in a 1998 collection, La Phénoménologie éclatée.

Dominique spent the last years of his life working on a hugely ambitious history of the reception of Heidegger in France, published in two volumes as Heidegger en France in autumn 2001. It is an extremely valuable piece of work that deserves to be translated.

I knew Dominique well. He was the supervisor of my M.Phil. thesis on the question of the overcoming of metaphysics in Heidegger and Carnap, a topic that he assigned to me. During my year and a half in Nice in the mid-1980s, we met regularly and he would sit patiently as I explained some text in demotic French. He was a good, kind and generous man, a person of great integrity, hospitality and warmth. He was intellectually and geographically remote from the paranoid and finally provincial world of Parisian philosophy and his life in the provinces paradoxically gave him the liberty of a more international outlook than other French philosophers of his generation.

Simon critchley