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  • Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960
  • Douglas Smith
Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960. By Gary Gutting. (The Oxford History of Philosophy). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. viii + 216 pp. Hb £25.00.

Ostensibly an argument-led study of a single theme rather than a survey, this volume combines both modes. The first half establishes the historical background to twentieth-century French philosophy in social, institutional, and intellectual terms (the place of philosophy in the secondary education system; the role of the École normale supérieure and the agrégation in the formation of a distinct philosophical culture; the [End Page 277] importance of Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and existentialism as both models and counter-models for post-1960 developments). This section largely synthesizes existing work, but is lucidly presented and provides a platform for more detailed discussions, in the latter half of the book, of individual philosophers and overarching trends. The thematic focus explains the limited range of philosophers discussed (Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Levinas, Marion, and Badiou), and each is broached through close readings of specific texts rather than through a synoptic view of their work. The central argument is that the specificity of recent French philosophy lies in its attempts to ‘think the impossible’, which for Gutting has taken three main forms: first, the attempt to demonstrate how concepts collapse into incoherence (the impossibility of thinking); second, an effort to conceive the apparently inconceivable (thinking the impossible); and third, the project of developing new concepts with which to think the previously inconceivable (rethinking the possible). The first is identified with Derridean deconstruction, the second with Derrida and Marion’s discussion of religion and the divine, and the third with Deleuze’s commitment to conceptual innovation. In the readings of specific philosophers and texts, there are many insightful and rewarding passages, but problems emerge on the level of the book’s metaphilosophical thesis for two reasons: its analytic perspective and its implied audience. Gutting’s perspective on French philosophy is that of an alternately sympathetic and sceptical reader trained in the anglophone analytic tradition, and his book addresses potentially more sceptical student readers from the same tradition. However, it is by no means certain that its ambivalent presentation of French philosophy could persuade analytically minded readers to engage with the material in question. For while Gutting admires the willingness of French philosophy to explore the limits of philosophical enquiry, he is highly critical of what he sees as its failure to work through its insights in a lucid and logical manner that engages with intuitive understanding. So the book ends in a paradox: the value of French philosophy lies in its willingness to explore areas neglected by the anglophone analytic tradition, but this value can be fully realized only if it is explicated in turn by that tradition, while the interest of such an exercise to those qualified to carry it out seems a moot point. Perhaps tellingly, in spite of Gutting’s strictures on Derrida’s notion of undecidability, a proofreading error has made ‘alteration’ indistinguishable from ‘alternation’ at key points in the text. Ultimately, it remains unclear whether this book’s alternation between recuperation and critique of French philosophy is likely to bring about any alteration in the relations between analytic and French traditions.

Douglas Smith
University College Dublin


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pp. 277-278
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