Alain Badiou’s survey of French philosophy since Sartre is characteristically fierceby Jonathan Rée / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Jean Paul Sartre meeting with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960 © Museo Che Guevara
French industry as a whole was in poor shape at the end of the second world war, but one sector was soon reporting an export-led recovery: philosophy. Ever since the Revolution, the French state in various incarnations had promoted philosophy as the crowning glory of secular secondary education. Under the command of the minister of education in Paris, an army of well-trained philosophy professors was deployed throughout the hexagon, and in the colonies too, to propagate a certain idea of France, based on humanistic morality, civic idealism, and the essence of European civilisation. France produced philosophers as Switzerland produced cuckoo clocks. After the liberation French philosophy went global.
Jean-Paul Sartre had been part of the system, working as a provincial prof de philo before reinventing himself as a novelist and playwright. In January 1945, after a dull but productive war, he was flown to New York as a guest of the US State Department, which was keen to show the wonders of America to the top brains of the new France. Sartre annoyed his hosts by comparing American imperialism to Nazi terror, but as far as intellectual trade was concerned, he hit on a winning formula. He was louche, exotic, and relatively young; and even if he hated the word “existentialism,” it provided him with a memorable brand. For the arty set, Sartre’s existentialism was the last cry in cultural innovation, while the mainstream press denounced it as “the morbid publicity stunt of decadent bohemians”—which left a sizable section of the book-buying public wanting to know what all the fuss was about.
Sartre’s notoriety, joined to that of Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, soon spread to the rest of the English-speaking world, and the great enterprise of Englishing the most outrageous French philosophers was launched. I would guess that more than a hundred others have since been added to the awesome threesome, and many of them—Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and Foucault for a start—are equally magnificent. But there has always been a streak of madness in the English-language reception of contemporary French philosophy. Some readers have found unspeakable glamour in the wooden jargon of French classrooms, as subjects are inscribed in texts, while readings are interrogated, and discourses condemned for their aporias and lacunae. Some have discovered an intellectual heroine or hero to dedicate their lives to.…