December 6th, 2005

coyote Phil

French philosophy explained

An excerpt from Michael Blowhard's guide to understanding the French that clarifies so much:

# Don't take French philosophy seriously. This bears repeating in slightly different form:


It can help to ask what the social function of doing philosophy is. In the Anglo world, we tend to think of philosophy as a field of intellectual inquiry rather like science or economics. It's a pursuit of the Truth that might, with luck, throw off some practical benefits.

Philosophy in France plays a very different role. With a couple of great exceptions (Montaigne, Pascal), French philosophy is, IMHO, best understood as a cross between a hyperrefined entertainment form, and an industry for the supplying of fodder for cafe-and-flirtation chatter. Take French philosophy straight and you're likely to wind up doing something stupid like destroying a department of English, or maybe even ruining your own life.

The French would never make such a mistake; after all, nothing -- not even philosophy -- can distract them from the pursuit of Being French. In fact, part of Being French is enjoying phillosophical chitchat, the more fashionable the better. We may not have much patience with it, but the French love the spectacle of radical posturing. We tend to engage with the substance of a radical position. For the French, the attitudinizing is the point. It adds spice to life; it's sexy intellectual titillation, akin to leafing through a provocative fashion magazine. That strange, nonsensical combo of rhapsodizing, fantasizing, and the stirring-up of logical pirouettes? All the French do it -- it's like a national sport, or a much-loved form of performance art. Eh bien: and with what exactly do you fill up chat time at the cafe, with friends, or in the boudoir?

French philosophy? Well, it gives the French something sophisticated-seeming to say (and to gab about) as they go about the genuinely serious business of Being French.