The Nouvel Observateur, like Prospect, has published a list of thinkers to celebrate its birthday. Does it tell us anything about the state of French thought?by Tim King / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
In his commentary accompanying last month’s list of 100 global intellectuals to mark Prospect’s tenth birthday, David Herman demoted Paris as the centre of world philosophy. But he failed to go beyond that and add the deeper truth: that even if Paris is no longer the capital, France profonde remains the cradle of French thought. Not because great thinkers experienced enlightenment here, but because scarcely literate paysans, my neighbours’ families, escaping abject rural poverty, left here for Paris and there discovered a talent for running cafés. The great left bank cafés—Lipp, Flore and La Coupole, around whose tables the intellectual reputation of Paris was built—were all owned by people from here. Who else but Auvergnats and Aveyronnais would have tolerated scruffy individuals spending all day and most of the night covering tables with books and reams of paper, for the price of two coffees? Down here, the tradition lives on: the cafés-philo are a most surprising success in my heavily depopulated region.
For the French have not lost their passion for ideas. Earlier this year, the Nouvel Observateur, a stylish left-leaning weekly, celebrated its 40th birthday with 25 grands penseurs du monde entier. That the editors of both Prospect and the Nouvel Observateur should mark a birthday by celebrating international thinkers shows a kindred spirit, although it is the differences that stand out.
The entire anniversary issue of the Nouvel Obs was given over to its 25 great thinkers—in France that’s enough to sell copy. Each was honoured with a 1,500-word essay, a flattering full-page photograph, an interview and an itinéraire bibliographique. Some might assume that the French list would lean heavily on French thinkers: but not so. In fact, deliberately there were none. Only seven names were common to both magazines (Slavoj Zizek, Martha Nussbaum, Antonio Negri, Peter Sloterdijk, Richard Rorty, Amartya Sen and Michael Walzer). The English thinker chosen by the Nouvel Obs, Simon Blackburn, was not on the Prospect list (although I am reliably informed he came close to the final cut).
“For a European,” says Pascal Engel, professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and major contributor to the French magazine’s birthday special, “a penseur is neither philosopher, academic nor intellectual. He has a working knowledge of philosophy, but in France the great intellectual cannot be a university teacher—indeed, teaching is seen as death to true thinking.”
While perhaps reflecting the greater rigidity of thought in…