Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960 by Gary Gutting
French philosophy, like ‘continental’ philosophy more broadly, is, of course, an oddly Anglophone construction. The problem here runs deeper than the lags and refractions that so often skew the reception of European texts in the UK and US. It digs beneath our very definition of what we think we are reading when we read such texts. In this sense, it is telling that the term ‘continental philosophy’ first got coined as a catch-all pejorative by the Oxbridge philosophers of the ‘50s; a line drawn around the limits of their discipline. As Simon Glendinning remarks, ‘calling a work by that name has enabled self-styled analytic philosophers to render inaccessible to themselves whatever they have been most interested in underestimating.’ Or in other words, what gets called ‘continental’ is whatever we have a stake in failing to understand.
Under such fogged and fuzzy conditions, Gary Gutting’s latest book sets out to sharpen our sense of what has made post-war French philosophy so ‘foreign,’ so distinct from the analytic style that dominates our own academic departments. He begins with the generation of the ‘60s – Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze – and from there he follows the central threads of the tradition, through to the end of the century. In doing so, he makes the arresting claim that the ‘uniqueness’ of French thought is, first and perhaps foremost, a product of the French educational system. It is worth pointing out, says Gutting, that ‘almost all the major French philosophers of the twentieth century were graduates of the super-elite École Normale Supériure.’ Not only this, he notes, but the ENS is itself structurally prone to reproducing patterns of homogeneity between its teachers and students. The key role in this process is played by the agrégation, a compulsory exam for those who want to teach philosophy (Gutting has a fascinating aside on the correlations between this exam and the subsequent research interests of the people sitting it.) One is reminded of Mark McGurl’s equally compelling account of the influence of MFA programs on post-war American literature; the ENS emerges from Gutting’s book as a hothouse for the production of a philosophical monoculture.
(There is more work to be done in this vein, unearthing the institutional underpinnings of theory. Equally, there is much to be thought through in terms of where theory may be headed next; whether it might be forced to make more of its para-academic possibilities, in the age of the dissolved university.)
Apart from its pedagogical context, what makes French thought ‘French,’ for Gutting – what unifies it, what sets it apart - is its persistent attention to a single, underlying theme: ‘thinking the impossible.’ This is the metaphilosophical meat of the book: the argument that, where analytic philosophers at least ‘act as if’ everything can be conceptually understood, the French are fascinated by limit cases, and are ‘sceptics about conceivability.’ Whether they are deconstructing concepts (Derrida), plunging into the realm of the religiously inconceivable (Marion), or inventing new concepts altogether (Deleuze), their work wants to take us beyond what we thought we could think of. Yet the problem with this approach, Gutting warns, is that it can’t help but render itself inconceivable, unreadable, cutting us off from ‘the basic pre-philosophical concerns that led us to philosophy in the first place.’
To press home his point, he conducts a very funny (if you’re a philosopher) thought experiment: suppose, he says, that a chapter from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition gets submitted to a mainstream journal, where it is refereed by an analytic metaphysician. Gutting’s mocked-up ‘report to the editor’ wittily underlines his complaint against ‘continental’ modes of enquiry: that somehow their content can’t quite be paraphrased, can’t be summed up in words that make sense to us. As ‘many know but few acknowledge,’ these books really aren’t easy reads - in fact, he goes so far as to claim, perhaps they truly cannot be grasped, at least not on a line-by-line level. This would explain why the field is so plagued by its secondary texts, many of which fail to shed light on their sources. We have all read primers by academics who, far from understanding a canonical work, have ‘merely become facile at reproducing its obscurity.’
Against such distractions, Gutting advances an ‘analytic’ approach to reading these resistant works. For him, this is the ‘right sort’ of commentary – the one that recovers the value of its objects, if only by rebuilding them from scratch, ‘in a much more tractable language.’ What he means by this is that the conceptual novelties encountered in, say, Deleuze, need to be reconnected to, or restated in, the everyday terms with which we are familiar. ‘We should recognise,’ says Gutting, ‘the essential philosophical role played by the commentators’ who carry out such work. Well, one could argue, here he’s merely legitimating his own position in his profession, as a commentator who does just this. Nonetheless, his book represents an admirable attempt to fix up a field that has got unglued from itself.
Yet Gutting’s way of reading risks losing its grip on something essential to the reading experience; to a reader’s encounter with continental thought. This weakness is let slip in the course of an analogy between French philosophy and literary modernism:
Just as there is a tradition of modernist literature that requires, as literature, secondary explication, so too the work of some philosophers cannot be separated as a philosophical achievement from the labours of their analytic interpreters.
What’s wrong with this claim is that it forgets to reflect on the ways in which Derrida or Deleuze, like Beckett, like Kafka or Walser, not only do not require explication, but forever exceed our attempts to explicate them. They are literary, or they are philosophical, or both, precisely to the extent that they can never be dealt with, never explained away. Indeed, what if philosophy too partakes of the ‘singularity of literature,’ to borrow Derek Attridge’s term? What if what makes a style of philosophy singular is the same thing that singles out a literary style, and what if style is all that matters in philosophy, and in literature? For Attridge, singular works are those that ‘command attention... that surprise, that disturb, that find new modes of representation and new objects and events to represent.’ It is perfectly possible to read works of philosophy as if they were works of literature. To read them without concern for their ‘truth content,’ attending instead to what leads them not to describe the world, but to create worlds, or to propose worlds at odds with our own. In the end, philosophy never really does succeed in describing anything. It tries to articulate what life is like, but it fails, at all times, in all places. This is the very thing that reveals and redeems it as literature.