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Reviewed by:
  • The New French Philosophy
  • Todd May
The New French Philosophy. By Ian James. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2012. vi + 221 pp.

Ian James offers a survey of seven of the most important contemporary French thinkers: Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, Catherine Malabou, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, and François Laruelle. The guiding thesis of his book is that, in contrast to the focus of recent structuralist and post-structuralist thinking on language, contemporary French thought has turned to materiality as its core concern. It rejects the ‘linguistic paradigm’ ‘in the name of a systematic attempt to radically rethink questions of [. . .] wordliness, shared embodied existence and sensible– intelligible experience’ (p. 4). On the one hand, the characterization of post-structuralist thought as wedded to language displays a hermeneutic tilt towards Derrida; Deleuze and the later Foucault are materialist philosophers in James’s sense of the term. And indeed the first four thinkers James treats — Marion, Nancy, Stiegler, and Malabou — are inextricably involved in a conversation with Derrida’s work. On the other hand, James’s positive thesis — that these contemporary thinkers seek to address materiality — is a productive way to bring together their diverse concerns. Each thinker wants to articulate, or at least gestures towards, an excess over what a linguistic structure can conceptualize, an excess that is not an abstract possibility but a real existence. For Marion, it is the saturated phenomena that inhabit givenness. For Nancy, it is the sense that arises in our exposure to one another. For Stiegler, it is the technicity that is not merely attached to us but indeed helps constitute who we are. For Malabou, it is the plasticity that characterizes the brain and its relation to the world. For Rancière, it is the sensible that is often distributed so as to reinforce political inequality. For Badiou, it is the inconsistent multiple that is Being. And for Laruelle, it is the One that is the ultimate real. In every case, thought attempts to come to grips with a materiality that is irreducible to conceptual capture but which, in one way or another, grounds the concepts, might seek that capture. James concludes that ‘[o]nly on this basis can philosophy renew itself and move beyond the closure of the metaphysics of the past to the opening of new forms in the future’ (p. 188). James is a sure guide through the thinkers he discusses. The author of books on Pierre Klossowski, Nancy, and Paul Virilio, James knows his way around the ideas he discusses. What is more impressive is his ability to navigate through the various thickets of these elusive thinkers and to arrive at the animating ideas that allow access to their central projects. (And anyone who can do this for the thought of Laruelle in particular should have a place reserved in philosophical heaven.) James’s interpretations are generous: he considers objections to the thinkers he discusses but always tries to present them in the best light. This seems appropriate for a survey book, and his defences of thinkers are never dismissive of their critics. It is difficult to imagine a better introduction to contemporary French thought than this one.

Todd May
Clemson University