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on 15 October 2012
If you had the misfortune to study philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon tradition before about 1980, then this book will be a minor revelation. I studied philosophy in the UK in the mid-1970's, and if the French were up to anything interesting, we didn't hear about it. Sartre was regarded as a novelist, Bergson as a sort of poet, which was what they might have thought of Gaston Bachelard had they heard of him, while Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida and all those guys might as well have been writing in Bulgarian. Now, you can barely find a book by a contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosopher on the shelves at Foyles: it's all about the French.

If you haven't read many of the twentieth-century French thinkers, this book is an excellent get-started guide. It will point you to the philosophers who were working in your area of interest. I now want to take another shot at Bergson, Foucault, re-read Bachelard's Poetics of Space, and have added Merleu-Ponty to my catch-up list.

Gutting's exposition of Derrida, Lacan and the post-structuralists confirmed my suspicions that after the structuralism (Foucault and Levi-Strauss especially), it all goes downhill pretty briskly. Linguistics was a big deal in philosophy in the 1960's and 70's but whereas the Anglo-Saxons were already dryly technical and so simply absorbed linguistics as yet another tool, the French interpreted "the language thing" as a metaphysical issue, and the ideas around sign-signifier-symbol were made to carry meanings and functions that they simply weren't intended to do.

The chapter on Simone de Beauvoir is so respectful it feels like it was outsourced to a Licensed Feminist. de Beauvoir deserves a place as the first modern feminist theorist, but feminism is not philosophy. It's an ideology supporting entitlement-activism on behalf of women, just as Marxism is an ideology that supports the activism of the proletariat.

Gutting concentrates on the writers who deal with identifiably Anglo-Saxon philosophical problems (so there's not much B H-L, Baudrillard and other such provocateurs) and amongst those problems, he suggests that a central theme is the idea of freedom: what does it mean and how is it possible? The Anglo-Saxon answer is about freedom as a lack of externally- or self- imposed constraints, whereas the French answer presents freedom as an actual positive state that one feels. Reading French philosophers on freedom always felt to me uplifting, and now I know why.

The domination of French philosophy by the normaliens wasn't a uniquely French thing. British philosophy was dominated by a few Oxford and Cambridge colleges for much of the twentieth-century. The only reason it isn't dominated by any particular institution now is that there isn't really a dominant figure. The French, it seems, had Sartre, while the English had Wittgenstein. Gutting's book make me feel like the French got a better deal.
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on 2 February 2017
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