The Greatness and Fall of French Philosophy

ESSAY / The Golden Age of French philosophy (1945–1989) created something great. An atmosphere, a new way of thinking, a new way of being. A freedom-hungry life experiment. So what then went wrong?


When I went to university, we learned that Foucault had beheaded the king. We learned that power was not only oppressive, commanding and controlling people through the law. But that power reproduced itself down through the institutions and created social classes and exclusions. That power had moved into ourselves, become our own worst enemy. We ourselves were a result of structures, other people's knowledge and language. We learned to do power analyzes of the institutions and texts while glorifying the marginal. We learned that meaning was an endlessly exposed construct, flowing along chains of signs, that every statement of general principles and values ​​had to be put in quotation marks and examined for its underlying, historically contingent bias. We learned to be suspicious of the natural. We learned that there were no ideals, the good, the beautiful, the true. We found pleasure in deconstructing repressed notions of essence, even the idea of ​​the stable subject, the ability to say 'I'! We easily learned the unwritten rules of the theories, because there was nothing solid in us, nothing to stand against.

Only the disappearance and a cool melancholy remained.

Later, we got full- or part-time jobs in an educational machine that in the zeroes ended up smearing French theory and thus also communication analysis and method over everything. Which gave us a feeling of never getting anywhere. That the French theory, which we now passed on, eventually didn't really mean anything. It's just theory, as a student once said. What she meant was, it's just method. It's not about anything. It's just about how we talk about how we talk about. Task upon task. Like lubricating oil for a mass university. As if the knowledge and communication and network society had come to fit French theory all too well. What went wrong? What happened? Answer: The emptiness happened, the work race happened, the consumption spasm of capitalism happened, the network happened, the indifference happened, the pain happened, and yes, the longing happened, the longing for a point of view. And the identity happened, the climate happened, nature happened, death happened that it could end – and yes, the truth returned, the glow of utopia returned.

The Golden Age of French Philosophy

The period from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall has been called the golden age of French philosophy. Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Bataille, Blanchot, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Lévinas, Kristéva, Lyotard, Badiou and Rancière. The names are big. And they created something big. An atmosphere, a new way of thinking, a new way of being. A freedom-hungry life experiment. First a new humanism, then a new trans-humanism. A new way of writing history. A new political person. A new aesthetic. A new resistance. A new criticism. A new overshoot. All on the back of Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God, the collapse of universal values ​​and the shock of World War II. Nothing was stable anymore, everything could be different, the world, man, life, gender.

Eventually man also disappeared, man and his experience were absent, there were only structures, cultural habits, institutions, languages ​​and knowledge regimes set by institutions and their historical forms. A French brand that invaded the American campus now as 'french theory'.

In the seventies when Michel Foucault peaked, Baudrillard published the book Forget Foucault. But no one forgot Foucault. He remained on everyone's lips even though he existed as nothing more than a mask. In fact, he became even more popular. The highest goal was to disappear, behind the texts, behind the language. Only the disappearance and a cool melancholy remained. Barthes, Derrida, Blanchot had long since replaced Sartre's universal intellectual and Camus's moral and humanist correctness. And psychology could not think, sociology's communities were false and boring.

Structuralists In The Green. Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Levi-Strauss. 1967


The fall of the Berlin Wall and the global network of zeros gave French theory the ideal conditions for growth – but it was also the time when it triumphed to death: Much came to be about networks, endless interpretations, the free play of capital and relational forces. It became clear that the French theory's critique of power and politics no longer made much difference.

All of them had underestimated the smooth development of capitalism.

Regardless of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's last attempt to breathe life into it Empire around the year 2000. All of them had underestimated the smooth development of capitalism. That many with a penchant for French theory, (even though Gilles Deleuze in his famous essay on the control society – and Foucault saw it coming), were affected by the economic government management of the zeros, where all control was transferred to the individual. The power moved into ourselves, even more intensely, self-exploitation, isolation and precariat became everyday for many and still is. Power became existential. The power turned to internal pain. It was no longer content to operate through repression and discipline, as was the case with the workers in the factory. Back when you knew who you were fighting against and why. Now it had become invisible, technologically agile and mobile, and worked through seduction and communication, what we all live for from morning to night. The power hid behind the wide and seductive smile.

Power had become invisible, technologically agile and mobile, working through seduction and communication.

Baudrillard was partly right: Foucault clones who occupied the universities and administrative offices acquired one laissez-faire-attitude that suited the times: The general rule swallows up all exceptions – nothing you do will make a big difference, criticism moves no boundaries.

The need for illusions?

Thinking without a safety net, turning one's back on illusions such as God, truth, the eternal, goodness – and understanding reality through the particular – the concrete social practice – became, with Michel Foucault as standard bearer, the intellectual ideal. Foucault himself went all out and abandoned all illusions: being, God, nature.

But the question is whether we do not precisely also need illusions, not as abstract ontology, but as it setting by which we stretch towards a possibly unattainable goal – a direction? From Foucault we learned not to believe in a human nature. But in doing so we perhaps also lost a form of naivety that enables us to ask completely different questions about human life and social development. If we must always be guided by the given scientific theoretical norms, we will have increasingly difficult questions in asking fundamental questions anew. We are easily captured by the established scientific descriptions, for example the one that we have moved from a view of the idyllic and egalitarian state of nature of early societies (Rousseau) to today's enlightened hierarchical power society driven by necessary special interests, competition and inequality (Hobbes). Although there is some truth in this description of development, it is also limiting.

In the book The beginning of everything (da. Ed. 2022) David Graeber and David Wengrow write: «Perhaps we should from the outset treat people as the imaginative, intelligent and playful creatures they are and deserve to be perceived as? Perhaps we should stop telling the story of how our species lost its idyllic state of equality and instead ask ourselves how we have ended up in such tight conceptual chains that we can no longer even imagine that we can reinvent ourselves.”

Noam Chomsky was on to something similar in his conversation with Foucault from 1971 at a university in the Netherlands (see That our cultivation of human wonder and curiosity is crucial for all development. And more fundamental than the scientific observations.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy also points out that man's religious instinct is not about comfort or belief in a God as such, but about a fundamental "openness that goes beyond the human sphere." That our lives are more and more than dealing with things, the creation of new inventions, technical innovation, but precisely borne of a fundamental openness. (God, Justice, Love, Beauty. Four little Dialogues. 2011). Today, it is becoming clear that, in the face of the non-human sphere, nature and climate, we lack the tools to think about change, think critically, think more utopian and open. Because if we imagine that everything is linguistic constructions, we probably won't be able to change very much in reality. Here Chomsky was probably right. What we now realize is not that the scientific descriptions were wrong, but that a rational way of thinking has invaded the entire everyday language and removed us from a more searching and wonder-creating dimension. And thus also trivialized our own experiences.

The experience – the importance of art

How do we experience a connection with nature and things? How to understand this intimacy with the non-human aspects – nature, animals, things? Isn't thinking precisely also a matter of focusing oneself on experience in the sense: I explore what I have experienced, as an attempt to expand the experience. That such questions are never only subjective, but point towards something objectively connecting?

In our focus on structures, constructions and observations, we forgot that language itself is nature, itself a body. The Danish poet Inger Christensen said it simply in her book Alphabet, that the way we sense, see and understand is conditioned by the nuances of language, by new ways of naming things.

Those who have understood the changing power of desire are often not the academic, but the practitioner, the craftsman, the artist, the juggler over in the park.

The decline of French philosophy is really the story of the rise of the communication society and the corporate university. "We don't lack communication, we have too much of it. We lack creation», Deleuze and Guattari wrote in What is philosophy? (1991) Literature, poetry and art contain the resistance that simultaneously creates an experience of intimacy and connectedness with nature and the body. Deleuze was right when he said that those who have understood the transformative power of desire are often not the academic, but the practitioner, the craftsman, the artist, the juggler over in the park. For them, true reality begins with what touches and affects the body and then the mind. What may have survived French theory did not become the theory, but rather the art, the film, the poetry – the life and pain outside.

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