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Present Trends of French Philosophical Thought

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 59, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 531-548 | 10.1353/jhi.1998.0024

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Journal of the History of Ideas 59.3 (1998) 531-548

This is a rather large subject, so you will not be astonished that I shall not treat it in its entirety. French philosophy during the years of war and occupation was pretty active. Though there were some heavy losses: the death of Brunschvicg, <whose> posthumous book [...], Héritage de mots, héritage d'idées, a book written when Brunschvicg was in hiding, and a book as "clear and serene as that of Condorcet," has appeared after the liberation of France; the death of Halbwachs, of Politzer, of Cavaillès, of Lautman shot by the Nazis, of others less well known...; there was the ban on publications by Jewish authors, yet, in spite of this, there has been a surprising number of interesting and even important publications, both during and after the war.

It seems that for the elder generation of French philosophers -- and that applies not only to philosophers, but to scholars in general -- for the generation of men too old to take an active part in the underground move-ment -- work, as if nothing happened, has been in the same time a means of escape and a means of resistance. They felt themselves <to be> asserting a spiritual tradition that could not be destroyed, and should not be destroyed, and should not be endangered by such contingent "accidents" as Vichy government or even the Gestapo.

Thus there have been a new translation of Plato by Robin, books on Plato, on Aristotle, on the medieval (Gilson) and modern philosophy etc., books on philosophy of science, books on sociology, psychology, logic (Méray, Serrus), philosophy of religion, translations of philosophy classics. At the first glance <at> the bibliography of this period (Lavelle, Le Senne, Bachelard, Gilson, etc.) you could have the impression <of> wander<ing> in a familiar landscape: yet this would be a completely false impression, because as a matter of fact, this familiar landscape has been completely upturned by the upsurge of existentialism and the revival of Catholic philosophy (Fessard, De Lubac, Blondel, Nedoncelle, G. Marcel). Under this double impact everything -- even the "climate" of philosophy -- has changed. Philosophy has become a socially <mighty> phenomenon.

Neither Catholicism nor existentialism are, of course, specifically French intellectual movements. Catholicism is universal ex definitione, and as for existentialism, though French existentialism possesses some specific fea-tures that distinguish it from and even oppose it to the German one, fea-tures that can probably be explained by different national traditions -- Descartes, Pascal -- it, too, is no more French than it is German. Existen-tialism as such is <a> European by-phenomenon, a definite phase of Western philosophical thought (and European thought, European civilization, at least until the recent -- perhaps successful -- attempts to destroy it, has been a unity). It originates more than a hundred years ago with Maine de Biran and Kierkegaard, and only has been rediscovered by the twentieth century now. Two thinkers that have been nearly completely neglected by the 19th century -- but the 19th century, at least the second part of it, has been a dark age for philosophy -- and after the rediscovery or simply the discovery of Kierkegaard in the 20th, it spreads, in Kierkegaard's wake, from country to country with the usual speed or delay with which ideas travel today. Thus existential philosophy has been, first, developed in Germany in the '20s and '30s by Heidegger and Jaspers, then -- Kierkegaard having been translated into French during the long armistice between the World Wars -- in France, some 15 years later. I have heard, by the way, that Kierkegaard has been, or is in the process of being translated into English. So, it is possible that in some 15 or 20 years you will have an existentialism in this country.

But to return to France, the rise or upsurge of existentialism has been extraordinarily rapid. It was simultaneous with Husserl's phenomenolo-gy<'s> becoming known in France (Husserl's last work, Meditations Car-tesiennes, being the text of the lectures he gave in the Sorbonne in 1929, which is now available only in the French translation): from Husserl to Heidegger!

The influence of Kierkegaard became decisive...


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