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French Bac philosophy - Russian roulette

by Ted Welch Wed Jun 19th, 2013 at 06:37:41 PM EST


Monday the French BAC (A level equivalent) began as usual with philosophy - why begin with philosophy - perhaps because it's such a fundamental subject ? Not quite, more prosaically it starts with philosophy because all students have to take it so it takes time to mark all those papers. But then they all take it because the French do regard it as an important subject - they're all Cartesians now. This concern with philosophy is something I admire about French culture - even if they do sometimes think they can answer complex questions with a definition - see my cafe philo diary:


"In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate." Rene Descartes


But, given the nature of the humanities in general and philosophy in particular, it's not something which can be evaluated with much accuracy and it's done in the form of one essay in four hours ! As one guy says, he got a respectable 12/20, but some of those in his class who were best at philosophy only got a 5: "It's a Russian roulette - or perhaps a Greek one."

Vincent Peillon, the current minister of education, also only got a 12, but went on to study philosophy, gained a PhD in it and became a philosophy lecturer. However, he was precocious and took the exam at 16 rather than 18.

The Bac was introduced by Napoleon in 1808 and in 1809 there were 31 candidates and 21 passed - having studied Greek and Latin authors, rhetoric  - and philosophy.

Questions from the last few years, to get a sense of how another country challenges its students via Essential Questions:

Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
Is it our duty to seek out the truth?
Would we have more freedom without the state?
Can natural desires exist?
Is the only purpose of working to be useful?
What does one gain from working?
Is every belief contrary to reason?
Can desire be disinterested?
Are we prisoners of the past?

This year the questions included:

Is language just a tool?

Can one act morally without taking an interest in politics?

Since ethics provides criteria for judging political actions as right or wrong rather than understandable or inevitable, Sartre appears to have changed his mind a number of times about political violence. Or is he, as Ronald Santoni argues, `curiously ambivalent'?


There are cafe philosophy meetings in many French towns; a philosophy lecturer, in a TV news discussion of the Bac philo (can you imagine this on Brit TV ?), said that the French go to cafe-philos not for answers, but for the pleasure of discussing ideas. So if a French person doesn't respond immediatly to your question, they're not being rude, they're thinking about it - and savouring the pleasure.


"Everything has been figured out, except how to live" Sartre

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
[ Parent ]

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 ]
I've always dealt a hard bat to the head of western philosophers and the people who read them, from the Zen perspective of the sound of won plank hitting Heidigger's Heed.

Now that me Yurpeen, not so oft.

"Everything has been figured out, except how to live" Sartre

"Human Beings will soon walk a road that leads nowhere... Take care of my son now - see that he doesn't go crazy" -- Chief Dan George

"She has very soft skin. the only trouble with Snake Women is that they copulate with horses, which makes them strange to me" -- Chief Dan George

Foucault's Pendulum

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sun Jun 23rd, 2013 at 03:40:18 PM EST
Younger Daughter didn't like any of the dissertation questions, so she chose "commentaire de texte", working on a Descartes quote. She found it quite easy.

She got her result last week : she scored 11/20. She was bitterly disappointed. Her philo teacher said "oh yes that was a difficult text. Full of présupposés and sous-entendus."

Amazingly, it didn't stop her getting the mention "très bien" (overall average of 16 or better).

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Mon Jul 8th, 2013 at 11:26:15 AM EST

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