France’s greatest export?

Alain Badiou’s survey of French philosophy since Sartre is characteristically fierce
June 20, 2012
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. But others have denounced the whole business as a conspiracy of incorrigible leftists, nihilistic obscurantists, and pretentious postmodern relativists.

Alain Badiou is the latest in the line of French philosophy professors who have had global greatness thrust upon them: 25 of his books have appeared in English since 1999, along with dozens of works of eulogy and exposition. Badiou, now in his seventies, still hankers for “the truth of May ’68,” and refers to himself, in a rare flash of humour, as “the last communist.” But in one respect at least, he defies the stereotype: he is a Mr Valiant-for-Truth, a believer in invariant eternal verities, and a born-again Platonist, committed to philosophy as “the discipline of the concept,” and mathematics as the revelation of reality. He is thus an implacable opponent of all the language-obsessed relativisms which, in his opinion, have sapped the vigour of the west from the pre-Socratics to the present.

If all this has passed you by, you may be tempted by the latest outing for Badiou in English: a collection of essays and reviews from the past 40 years, surveying French philosophy since the salad days of Sartre (The Adventure of French Philosophy, Verso). But Badiou’s reverence for philosophy as a “universal aim of reason” may keep getting in your way. Back in the 1970s he denounced the whole spectrum of French philosophers—from “anarcho-desirers” at one end to renegade left-opportunists at the other—as “charlatans” and “bourgeois impostors,” and age has not cooled his vehemence: throughout this book he is to be observed dissing his colleagues from a very great height.

If you are repelled by radical leftism, you can brush Badiou off as an unreconstructed Maoist bully. But even if you aren’t, you may feel uncomfortable with some of the so-called “axioms” of his “post-dialectical dialectics.” Politics, as Badiou understands it, is not about compromise, negotiation, or listening to what other people have to say: it is essentially a philosophical practice, and as such it cannot be satisfied with anything less than “the Good and the True,” which, it seems, refuse to come out of hiding except in the pure ecstasy of revolutionary action. You are therefore enjoined to set aside your bourgeois qualms about “elitism,” “aristocracy,” or “totalitarianism,” and enter the lists against “democratic stupidity,” “humanitarianism,” “programmatic egalitarianism” and “human rights.” No doubt about it: French philosophy still has a kick in it, and it can still turn heads. You have been warned.