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Reviewed by:
  • Twentieth-Century French Philosophy
  • Ronald Shusterman
Twentieth-Century French Philosophy, by Eric Matthews; 232 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, $13.95 paper.

Pace the habitual proverb, one of the best things about this volume is indeed its cover: a picture of Sartre lighting his pipe, in some Parisian cafe, in the midst of an animated discussion with Simone de Beauvoir and Mr. and Mrs. [End Page 188] Boris Vian. There is an “arty” dimension to French philosophy which has mostly disappeared from English thought since the time of Russell. One could hardly imagine illustrating a history of recent English philosophy with (say) a picture of P. F. Strawson sitting in a bar with some rebellious trumpet-player-cum-novelist. Matthews manages to give the reader an exceptionally clear idea of the thought of those whom he considers to be the most significant French philosophers of our time. Perhaps the selection is too restrictive; some of the major figures who are completely—or almost completely—absent from this volume include Jacques Maritain, Michel Serres, Paul Ricoeur, Vladimir Jankélévitch, and Gilles Deleuze. Matthews’s work, however, is intended as an introduction, so his survey is necessarily light. The justification for the selection is that the essence of twentieth-century French thought involves an emphasis on subjectivity. This emphasis is examined in the work of Bergson who was the first of many to underline the role of the self and the body in our dealings with the world. Direct quotations of the major texts are infrequent; this, however, is probably for the best—or so one feels when one encounters examples such as “Value is the self in so far as the self haunts the heart of the for-itself as that which the for-itself is” (p. 76). Matthews excels at “translating” the ideas of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and others into an English acceptable to even the most pedestrian ordinary language philosopher.

Many readers may, however, be dissatisfied with some of Matthews’s classifications. Structuralism, for example, is represented here by Lacan and Foucault. Matthews correctly underlines Foucault’s “suspicion of a priori theorizing” (p. 149) but one has to remember that many of the great literary structuralists such as Barthes or Genette did base their work on abstract reasoning. In their hands, structuralism was hardly anti-scientific, so for someone coming to philosophy from literary theory, Matthews’s definition and examples are confusing. But perhaps these classifications are not essential to Matthews’s argument about the growth of subjectivity. It is indeed this subjectivity which emerges not only as Matthews’s thesis but as his target as well. He notes in Lacan’s philosophy the “lack of any serious argumentative support” and a “failure to offer empirical evidence for what looks like an empirical account” (p. 147). After a brief discussion of Foucault’s overall project, Matthews concludes that “one may feel a lingering suspicion that it is fatally flawed” (p. 156). This is frustrating and unfair; there is no point mentioning this flaw if one does not go on to work it out. Other philosophers get the same treatment. For example, Matthews argues against Lyotard’s picture of science as discredited: “Society might . . . find it hard to believe in science any more, without it being true that science was unbelievable” (p. 186). One may agree with Matthews on this point, but all of these rapid end-of-chapter dismissals remain rather superficial.

Unfortunately, Matthews rarely builds the necessary bridges to make his study more illuminating. There is a passage on Bergson’s distinction between [End Page 189] “analysis” and “intuition” which is quite close to Russell’s distinction between “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance.” Other such bridges could be built between Merleau-Ponty and pragmatism, or Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There is a reason for the absence of these connections: Matthews’s basic premise is that there is something specific about French philosophy; too many obvious bridges to other thinkers would undermine his entire argument. One of Matthews’s goals is to demonstrate that it is “important to the understanding of works of philosophy...

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pp. 188-190
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