16/03/2010

The shame! (of being a French philosopher)

I had a nightmare a few nights ago. I was sitting in an old gym room, crossed legged on a rubber mat. 'Please introduce yourself to the group'. - 'My name is Sandrine' - 'Yes?' - 'I'm a philosopher.' - '?' - 'and I'm French'. - 'Please, relax. We're all friends here'. Then I look around and see everyone around me is wearing a white designer shirt, with the two top buttons undone, they're all Bernard Henry Levy! I break into a sweat as I notice I too am wearing a white shirt. I raise my hand to my head to feel for the trademark hair and as I begin to scream I wake up.


So when did 'French philosopher' become a dirty word? Was it just BHL with his cheap designer look? Or Derrida with the improbably titled books (Nietzsche's Spurs??? Postcards???). Or does it go back even further to when Hobbes and Descartes were bickering about rotten apples?

Back when I was teaching a course on the Rationalist, my head of department got my husband, a Brit, to teach the Empiricists. Now the rationalists weren't all French, by any means. Descartes and Malebranche maybe (hardly anyone teaches Malebranche though) – but Leibniz and Spinoza??? On the other hand, all the empiricists were Brits – English (Hobbes, Locke), Scottish (Hume), Irish (Berkeley). So that gives the snotty islanders a very good reason to pretend that the rationalists were French and to take the hundred years war up the ivory tower.

Then there's the whole analytic continental debate. Analytic philosophers are Brits, and Americans. They're sensible, wear cords, tweed, or jeans. They read serious philosophy of the kind that makes sense and that scientists supposedly wouldn't turn their noses up if they were to read any of it. (right). Continental philosophers are French, Italian, or anyone whose English is accented. They read Kant and Heiddeger, maybe Sartre, mix metaphysics and politics, and don't like being understood, especially by scientists (which of course, gives scientists the perfect reason to love them!) Now the funny thing is, that both kinds of philosophy are really German. And except in their most extreme, ridiculous form, they are perfectly compatible with each other. So it looks like the distinction is just one more way for the English and the French to fart at each other across the channel.

But maybe there is yet a distinct species of the French Philosopher. The French philosopher is always male. He wears designer shirts, he smokes. He fancies himself a bit of a journalist and a babe-magnet. His books are best-sellers. He doesn't even need to be French, but can be, say, Romanian. Also, he doesn't read philosophy, and is easily confused by the distinction between real and fictional writers.

Thankfully, as a woman, I can't be a French Philosopher. Saved by sexism.

1 comment:

'Im Indoors said...

Well, Leibniz wrote in French, and also invented a French chocolate biscuit, so maybe that's close enough.

Of course, on the criteria given, this makes Hobbes a continental philosopher as well. He certainly didn't mind mixing metaphysics and politics. And he also invented a kind of biscuit.

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