In 2018, via Twitter, Bloomerg’s Noah Smith asked “Who would you list as the five most important intellectuals in America today?” Then, Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of “The Ideas Industry”wrote about the responses in The Washington Post. The answers ranged from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Francis Fukuyama to Ron Chernow. But the larger discussion became, as intelligent and accomplished as the above writers and economist are – are they in fact–in the United States “Public Intellectuals.” And does such a role even exist today? To the extent that in American history, one could argue (whether you ever agreed with them or not) the likes of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley could be viewed in their time as public intellectuals –the answer is probably not. As far back as 2011, The Chronicle, in an article entitled “The Last Public Intellectual,” lamented the death of Christopher Hitchens stating that a singular voice had been silenced. “Unbuttoned and unacademic,” Russell Jacoby wrote, “Hitchens weighed in on almost every subject with panache and passion.” Hitchens was and he did. And an incredibly strong argument could be made that he was the last public intellectual – native to the English-speaking language. But in France, they persist. In fact, one is so famous he is known only by his initials. BHL. And Bernard Henri Levy’s take on modern culture is so important and unique, the American network CNN regularly has him on to opine in English for American viewers.
So why does the role of the public intellectual endure and in some cases flourish in France while there seems to be no equivalent in the United States or even, now, Great Britain?
Who better to ask than visiting professor Catherine Malabou.
Valerie Deorio: From Peter Abelard in the 11th Century, to Michel Montaigne, Descartes, Comte, Voltaire, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir to Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Eric Fassin, Bernard Henri Levy and yourself, French thinkers have been examining and developing ideas on “how best to live.”
What is it about France, French history, education and culture that has produced some of humanity’s most important philosophers and public intellectuals, asking the most important questions and proffering answers for almost one-thousand years? Philosophers in France are frequently sought, interviewed and quoted on topics of politics, sociology, anthropology, art, music, literature and more. Why do you think the role and significance of public intellectual seems to endure in France?
Catherine Malabou: There are surely many reasons for this. To limit myself to one of them, I will speak of a more recent past, which is that of the post-Revolution of 1789. In France, the teaching of philosophy has been compulsory in the final classes since Napoleon. “The teaching of philosophy in our country is not limited to the university, '' declares an inspector general. Philosophy has been since the First Empire (inspired by the tradition of the Jesuit colleges), and with the exception of an eclipse from 1852 to 1863, a compulsory subject in secondary education, limited to the last year of high school.This means that in France, the teaching of philosophy is not reserved for students who wish to specialize at university in this discipline or plan to make it their future professional activity. In the French tradition, the teaching of philosophy therefore has a general vocation: it aims to address all students in the final year, and it goes beyond the strictly university framework at the level of higher education. In our tradition, the teaching of philosophy is thus recognized as having an eminent educational value.
There is therefore a universalist vocation of French philosophical education, inspired by the Enlightenment and which has become an essential element of what is called in France the “republican spirit”. The philosophy programs for the final classes are the same nationally, for all students, with the aim of developing a common culture. This element is very important. The programs are based on very general notions: language, politics, the unconscious, art… and on fundamental texts, from Plato to the present day. This education is supposed to prepare young people to engage in public debate. I think this is what explains, for many, the constant interventions of French intellectuals on a wide range of topics.
VD: In a press release from earlier this year (2022) Rice University wrote a headline that said “Leading French Intellectual to speak at Rice” referring to a talk to be given by Eric Fassin. The release went on to describe him as “one of the most prominent public intellectuals in France, an outsized public intellectual…regularly featured on popular late-night television shows and in daily newspapers.” The same description could be applied to a cadre of intellectuals in France – and some would argue BHL is in a class of his own in terms of prominence.
There is no shortage of articles on the dearth of public intellectuals in the United States
(Noam Chomsky who is now in his 90s and rarely seen or heard from aside) and as a result, a genuine lack in the exchange of ideas, analysis of policy or quality of life discussions in widespread public discourse. One journalist stated that it is because America cannot fathom public intellectualism – writers and billionaire entrepreneurs who acquired significant wealth with one business or technology idea – are asked to comment on larger public issues as if they were intellectuals –but they are not. And therefore, real thinking and ideas are absent, lacking or completely absent in our mass media. With all of the colleges and universities here – it is not for lack of people who could contribute and enhance public conversation. What do we lose when this is the case? Is it a reflection on the media or them pandering to tribal audiences that have no attention span and do not want to think? Literally the public intellectual’s and philosopher’s job description. What are your thoughts on public intellectualism/philosophy in the United States, and the fact there seems to be no real appetite for it?
CM: I know that this view is obvious to many. France is seen as the country of intellectual debates while the United States is considered the country of the death penalty of thought and public discussion. I do not share this view at all. On the one hand, I will come back to it, the intellectual debate in France has lost much of its quality and level. It is most often reduced to vulgar and uninteresting media interventions, with the sole aim of selling bad books and occupying the airwaves. On the other hand, you will have noticed that for almost a century now, some of the most important French philosophers have come to teach in the United States, where they find a space for much more open discussion. The most important recent ideas (gender fluidity, post-colonial, decolonial thinking, the problem of anti-blackness…) come from the United States, not from France.
VD: In the 21st century, do you think “philosopher” is synonymous with “public intellectual”?
What effect do you think the proliferation of social media has had on the philosophical and intellectual wellness of society?
CM: We are touching a central point here. Not all contemporary significant and important philosophers profess to be “public intellectuals”. Let me explain. In the second half of the twentieth century, a deep gap opened between “school-university” philosophy and the philosophy which was not yet called “popular” but was soon to be. It was with Sartre that this breach opened up, with the passage that he analyzes as a necessary passage from the “philosopher to the intellectual”, in particular in Plaidoyer pour les Intellectuels, published in 1972. Intellectuals, he declares elsewhere , are “persons who, having acquired some notoriety through work that is intelligent, abuse this notoriety to leave their domain and meddle in what does not concern them”. He pursues: “Was the condemnation of Dreyfus Zola's affair? Was the administration of the Congo Gide's affair? Each of these authors, in a particular circumstance of his life, measured his responsibility as a writer”. If philosophy as a political affair is addressed to everyone, if we are all philosophers in this sense, it is therefore not entirely in the name of knowledge, of the mind or of enlightenment, but in the name of responsibility in the commitment. All philosophers because all responsible. It is essential to understand commitment in the Sartrean sense as a state of fact, linked to the human condition as such.
Sartre is rightly considered the first "media" philosopher. The “new philosophers” (BHL, André Glucksmann, Jean-Marie Benoît…), who claimed to be Sartre’s heirs, appeared at the turn of the 1970s. The great adventure of mediated intellectuals and “consumer product” philosophy then began. It is striking to see that this movement was resisted by a small number of “irreducible” — Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, to name a few —, who also experienced a form of media coverage, also claimed to speak for everyone, even if their public is less numerous, but who clearly stood out from TV stars and newspaper stars because they didn’t have the same idea of the public debate precisely. Philosophy has never been more split, paradoxically, than with the appearance of the media philosophers, the fashion for “cafés philo”, and the idea that there was no need to have studied philosophy to be a philosopher. Indeed, everything significant in philosophy from the 1980s onwards happened outside the media and “popular” scene.
We then have to be cautious to distinguish between media intellectuals and philosophers who refuse to be considered public intellectuals in that sense.
VD: Having said all this, one can find articles on the alleged demise of the French intellectual –but then just as many claiming the French intellectual is alive and well. Have you seen significant changes since you began your work with Jacques Derrida?
CM: I'm going to answer this question by first talking about what I call the important philosophers, and I will then answer the next question by talking about what I call the media intellectuals. In both cases, strangely, the significant changes that occurred since Jacques Derrida’s passing all revolve around the demise of deconstruction.
Several trends emerged in the late Xxth century. First, there was Alain Badiou’s return to the confrontation between philosophy and science (mathematics in particular), that was too quickly and brutally dismissed in his view by the Heideggerian and deconstructivist tradition. Such a return to science was sustained by a strong communist political orientation. Mathematical equality, for Badiou, is the ontological expression of political equality. This trend has found many echoes in Zizek’s own thinking. Second, there was the emergence of a very famous movement, “speculative realism”, that directly followed from the Badiousian dogma. Quentin Meillassoux’s book, After Finitude (2004, and 2006 for the English translation), was extremely successful. Meillassoux affirms the reality of the “arche-past” of the earth and demands a new theoretical approach grounded in the mathematical concept of the “transfinite”. By “arche-past”, or “ancestral past”, Meillassoux means a past devoid of any human presence, an extremely ancient past, that is totally indifferent to all of our subjective, “corelationist” (subject/object) modes of thinking.
Another important movement is the ecologism of Bruno Latour. “We have too little of an idea of what ecology means,” Latour used to constantly declare. In his view, ecology is not well integrated into society, its conceptualization is at once too global but also too narrow, including only those things which have been labeled “green” to the exclusion of processes related to organizing life and to do with social justice, paradoxically severing the social from the ecological.
There are certainly other works that should be mentioned. Particularly around race studies or feminism. I will come back to that. I just wanted to insist here on the fact that deconstruction has disappeared from the most recent discussions concerning equality, science, ecology or realism. Even here, in the United States, Derrida’s thinking is not well received or studied any longer. It is so surprising when you realize that Derrida was such a global star …
VD: You have been –and are –in such a unique position to comment on the public intellectual in France and the U.S. With the well-documented tribalism in the U.S. that reached critical mass with the advent of Donald Trump for President – and Emmanuel Macron lamenting the importing of that tribalism –to some degree to France and blaming it for a decline in intellectualism – What do you think the future holds for the relevancy and significance of philosophy and public intellectualism?
CM: Paradoxically, there is a sort of return of Derrida, but in one of the worst ways. A conference took place in Paris last January (8-9/2022) whose title was : “After deconstruction: reconstructing science and culture”. This conference, organized by the College of Philosophy, the Observatory of Decolonialism [in fact a censorship apparatus], and the Committee Laïcité République brought together figures known for their positions against what is called, in France, “the” “woke” (what you call “tribalism” I guess). On the website of the Observatory of Decolonialism, you even find the word “wokistan”. The conference’s announcement immediately assimilated “the woke” with deconstruction.
The philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, president of the College of Philosophy and co-organizer of the colloquium declared: “Deconstruction is a technical theme in the history of philosophy. This thought led to the belief that only the dominant/dominated, oppressor/oppressed reading grid would make it possible to understand the world. In this current of thought, the West represents the height of oppression. If decolonial research really offers interesting contributions to research, is it their role to want to destroy this world?”, he asks. The French minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, gave his support to the conference, and gave a brief talk in which he insisted upon “the urgent need to deconstruct deconstruction”.
“Woke”, or “wokism” have clearly become enemies for a great number of French intellectuals (the media philosophers precisely). This phenomenon is undoubtedly the mark of a dangerous "right-wing drift", but not only. It is also shared by many leftists, who judge that the central values of French Republicanism are threatened by the woke culture. Hence the pluralism of the conference, which gathered academics from various political stands.
“The” woke is the pejorative and contemptuous version of “stay woke”, the hashtag of Black Lives Matter, that repeats and echoes the warning cry of African Americans against new and insidious forms of exploitation and oppression occurring after slavery. The “woke” has become an umbrella term that includes gender studies, transfeminism, race studies, radical ecologist movements, ecofeminism, the culture of cancellation (or "cancel culture" ), post-colonial studies, decolonial studies, intersectionality, and all discourses seemingly perpetrating “attacks” against the universal and also against whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, a certain form of traditional feminism, Christianity, non-vegetarianism, etc. The anti-wokism, in France, is also a reaction against American academic culture and the reign of cultural theory.
Equally at stake is the so-called neutrality of “French laity”, a tradition that has been central to the building of Republican education at the end of the XIXth century, according to which education must be independent from any religious authority. The woke is supposedly threatening laity, as it supports the idea of an autonomy of minorities. It is accused, in particular,of defending a certain muslim anti-Frenchness, of encouraging radical islamism even— hence the term “islamo-gauchisme”, leftist-islamism. I won’t waste time trying to counter-argue all those accusations . I just want to signal the fact that if the equation of wokism and deconstruction allows its defenders to include diverse thinkers in it, like Foucault, Deleuze, Butler, and many others post-structuralist or post-post-structuralist thinkers, the main enemy remains Derrida.
The French hatred of Derrida has always been and still is very violent and aggressive. Such hatred has a long history, and the Paris conference is of course the most recent symptom of it. It started around the seventies, with the publication of Glas, and has never ceased since.
A last blow has recently been given by Emmanuel Faye, the philosopher who wrote substantially about Heidegger’s nazism and stated that Heidegger’s books should be removed from the academic library. In a recent article published in Le Monde, 30/01/2022: « Cessons de prendre pour une pensée critique la “déconstruction” dérivée de Heidegger », "Let's stop taking Heidegger-derived 'deconstruction' as critical thinking”, he reminds that deconstruction is a translation of Heidegger’s concepts of Abbau and Destruktion. And because Heidegger was a nazi, there is necessarily a nazi heritage in Derrida’s thinking.
As if deconstruction, a word that Derrida himself was so reluctant to make use of, meant purely and simply destruction. Deconstruction would be responsible for the reign of post-truth and the supposed current dismissal of reason, rationality, objectivity and scientificity. This situation of the philosophical debate is definitely catastrophic.
Valerie Deorio is a freelance writer and shameless Francophile. She says she could not resist using her personal connections to NYU French Literature, Thought and Culture staff to get the opportunity to interview Catherine Malabou and discuss the topics in this article.