publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
Lawrence D. Kritzman , editor. The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp.xxv + 787. Cloth, $85.00.

This unique collection of short articles surveying twentieth-century French thought sets itself apart from other reference works in several ways. First, it portrays French thought in a holistic, multidisciplinary fashion in which philosophy is coextensive with historiography, psychoanalysis, film, literature, economics, and the social sciences. Second, the collection brings together an impressive list of contributors, many of whom are prominent French intellectuals themselves. Third, while one might fear that such an ambitious project could easily become unwieldy and chaotic, the unique organization of this collection into four parts provides the flexibility necessary for a multidisciplinary approach, while making the volume well-organized and easy to use.

The History begins with "Part I: Movements and Currents," a collection of 31 entries surveying important movements and schools of thought in the twentieth-century French scene. All of the major philosophical movements one would expect to find are included (e.g., Phenomenology, Existentialism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism), as well as a range of other topics including Surrealism, Communism, Feminism, Négritude, and the New Right.

"Part II: Themes" introduces more than 60 topics central to twentieth-century French thought. Among these we find classics such as "The Absurd and the Death of God," "Authorship and the Question of the Subject," and "The Body," as well as "Cognitive Science," "Aesthetic Theories," and "Anticolonialism." Of particular interest to philosophers will be a series of entries on the French reading of key figures including Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and an entry on "Hegel in France," written by Judith Butler. This section also includes an article on "Ethics," written by Paul Ricoeur, in which he outlines three tendencies in twentieth-century French moral philosophy as found in the works of Bergson, Nabert, and Levinas. [End Page 340]

Between Parts II and III, we find two "Interchapters." The first—an essay by Baudrillard on the inability of theory to be "pure"—serves as a nice conclusion to the treatment of movements and themes. The second is an extended essay on "The Intellectual," written by the editor, Kritzman, himself. It provides a preface to the treatment of individual thinkers, exploring the invention of "the modern intellectual," and following French intellectuals as "moral guides and social critics" (363) from the Dreyfus affair, through the Resistance and Communism, to contemporary issues of universalism, multiculturalism, and immigration.

In "Part III: Intellectuals," we find entries on 120 thinkers, each including biographical information and discussions of major contributions. The range of figures is to be commended, as it covers the entire century and includes prominent women and diverse multicultural voices from la francophonie.

Finally, "Part IV: Dissemination" constitutes a unique contribution to the study of twentieth-century French philosophy, providing 24 entries on the critical means of dissemination of ideas during the century. This includes a survey of the most important French educational institutions, television shows and radio programs, newspapers, journals, and other publications, as well as descriptions of important meeting places for the exchange of ideas, such as Pontigny and Cerisy. This section is an especially helpful reference for the scholar of French intellectual life working outside of France.

In contrast to typical reference volumes and historical encyclopedias, the Columbia History is a document of living history. This is largely due to the inclusion of prominent contemporary French intellectuals as contributors. Several figures appear as both authors and subjects of articles, including Balibar, Baudrillard, Kristeva, and Ricoeur. The consequence is that the reader may often find more commentary and opinion than is typically found in a reference volume, as these thinkers provide their own perspectives on the history of twentieth-century French thought. But the editor states explicitly that the collection was not intended to provide a comprehensive or objective history; rather, the hope is that the critical analysis provided by contemporary figures will help to deepen the reader's understanding of key issues.

In the Columbia History, readers will not find any narrative account of the development of French philosophy in the twentieth-century, in contrast to those that have recently appeared in similar retrospective studies, such as Gary Gutting's French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2001) and Alan Schrift's Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers (Blackwell, 2005). On the other hand, thanks to the multidisciplinary approach of this collection, readers may find a more comprehensive insight into twentieth-century French intellectual life than would typically appear in a philosophical encyclopedia. The collection's range of entries on the larger cultural, political, and artistic context provide an especially helpful reference for scholars of twentieth-century French philosophy.

Elizabeth Butterfield
Georgia Southern University

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.