- Modern French Philosophy by Vincent Descombes, translated by Lorna Scott Fox
Cambridge, 192 pp, £14.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 521 22837 9
It is no secret that philosophy as it is taught and studied at UCLA or Princeton or Oxford is very different from philosophy as it is understood at Paris or Dijon or Nice. An intellectual milieu in which the household names include those of Quine, Strawson, Davidson and Kripke is unlikely to have much in common with one where Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Derrida are taken with great seriousness. This might seem obvious: but we ought perhaps to be a little more surprised than we generally are at the extent to which almost total ignorance as to what is going on in the other of these two philosophical communities is no barrier to advancement and distinction in either of them. For this fact at least suggests the question: how far and in what sense are the members of these two communities engaged in the practice of one and the same mode of inquiry? Has philosophy been irreparably fragmented?
This is becoming a question of some urgency within American philosophy, for there are notable philosophers, in such departments as those at Northwestern, Duquesne and the New School, whose philosophical idiom is that of Paris or Louvain rather than Princeton. Such philosophers and their pupils – and the same issue arises for those whose idiom is that of Frankfurt or Freiburg – have in recent years increasingly felt excluded from the professional arenas by the dominance of the analytic tradition. A Society for Pluralism in Philosophy has organised systematic opposition to this dominance within the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. Manifestos have been issued, elections for professional office contested with a quite new kind of partisanship. This resort to overt politics by the manifestly unpolitical plainly has more than one cause: but the unsympathetic incomprehension within each community of the other’s philosophical perspectives is clearly the most fundamental. So far, that incomprehension has survived a number of attempts to dissolve it; and the fact that there are a few philosophers who have for many years inhabited both communities and made significant attempts to interpret each to the other – such as Alan Montefiore, who contributes a useful introduction to this book, and Charles Taylor – is perhaps chiefly important for the evidence it affords of deep-seated resistance to mutual understanding.
Vincent Descombes’s new book is therefore timely, particularly as it is the most comprehensive and the most philosophically acute account of French philosophy in the last fifty years so far available to English readers. Descombes’s strategy is interesting and original. He presents French philosophy uncompromisingly in its own terms; and he does not try in any explicit or obvious way to make his account relevant to the concerns or beliefs of analytic philosophers. Moreover, he does not pretend to be delivering a final verdict: his account is that of one French philosopher who is himself a participant in the arguments and conflicts he describes. But these turn out to be strengths, not weaknesses: what he gives us is an intelligible history in which particular theses and theories each find their place within an extended series of debates. The whole confers intelligibility on the parts.