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A former colleague said:


It is noticeable that French students on average can construct better arguments than their peers thanks to these teenage philosophy lessons.

I was going to say that I had few French students, but one of the brightest wrote these quite elegant essays - but almost devoid of evidence. Then, checking something else, I came across this from Perry Anderson, former editor of New Left Review; writing about the intellectual scene in France in the late 60s:

Viewed comparatively, the striking feature of the human sciences and philosophy that counted in this period was the extent to which they came to be written increasingly as virtuoso exercises of style, drawing on the resources and licences of artistic rather than academic forms. Lacan's Ecrits, closer to Mallarmé than Freud in their syntax, or Derrida's Glas, with its double-columned interlacing of Genet and Hegel, represent extreme forms of this strategy. But Foucault's oracular gestures, mingling echoes of Artaud and Bossuet, Lévi-Strauss's Wagnerian constructions, Barthes's eclectic coquetries, belong to the same register.

To understand this development, one has to remember the formative role of rhetoric, seeping through the dissertation, in the upper levels of the French educational system in which all these thinkers - khâgneux and normaliens virtually to a man - were trained, as a potential hyphen between literature and philosophy. Even Bourdieu, whose work took as one of its leading targets just this rhetorical tradition, could not escape his own version of its cadences; far less such as Althusser, against whose obscurities the sociologist railed. The potential cost of a literary conception of intellectual disciplines is obvious enough: arguments freed from logic, propositions from evidence."


Fortunately now there is Michel Onfray, whose works, like those on Freud, Nietzsche and Camus, have massive amounts of evidence, meticulously researched. Though even he is given to rhetorical flourishes which would have been alien to British philosophers - until some succumbed to French intellectual fashion.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jun 20th, 2013 at 02:33:25 PM EST
On the one hand, you have this.  I've read Foucault and Levi-Strauss in translation.  Foucault I really enjoyed - well, I really enjoyed his Prison book, which is not nearly as beloved as his books on sexuality, which were not nearly as good, in my opinion.  Levi-Strauss taught me how to read carefully and take notes, as the meticulous application of such techniques was the only was I was able to get anything at all out of The Savage Mind.  In history and anthro grad school, Derrida, Althusser, and Lacan were only approached from a distance, as it was generally considered to be a far better use of time to read the commentaries on these works than to read the original.

On the other hand, you have the survivors of the old French empiricist tradition.  No good examples really come to mind at the moment (Braudel, perhaps?  But I only know him by name, never got around to reading his books, sadly), but I have several memories of reading VERY details and evidence oriented historical works by French authors.  Many French historians were also involved with exceptionally solid and sound economic and demographic reconstruction projects.  French anthropology, especially the early stuff, had a reputation of being too detail-oriented to be useful as anything other than reference material - just the facts, m'am.

by Zwackus on Thu Jun 20th, 2013 at 05:42:59 PM EST
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On the other hand, you have the survivors of the old French empiricist tradition.  No good examples really come to mind at the moment (Braudel, perhaps?

As it happens, in the very next sentence, Anderson says:

Historians were least prone to such an import substitution of literature, but even Braudel was not immune to the loosening of controls in a too flamboyant eloquence. It is this trait of the French culture of the time that has so often polarised foreign reactions to it, in a seesaw between adulation and suspicion.

Anderson is trying to identify some general features of French intellectual culture at the time which were dominant and very influential outside France (e.g. the people you cite).

Significantly, in considering exceptions to his generalisation you say:

No good examples really come to mind at the moment  

He would, of course, acknowledge that French culture even during this period did include many empiricist works. But they were not at the top of the hierarchy which existed:

Traditionally, literature had always occupied the summit on the slopes of prestige within French culture. Just below it lay philosophy, surrounded with its own nimbus, the two adjacent from the days of Rousseau and Voltaire to those of Proust and Bergson. On lower levels were scattered the sciences humaines, history the most prominent, geography or ethnology not far away, economics further down.

Also he is talking about those works which had national and international influence:

The reception of this effervescence abroad varied from country to country, but no major culture in the West, not to speak of Japan, was altogether exempt from it.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jun 20th, 2013 at 06:54:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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