It is sometimes noted–typically with admiration–that France is a place where a philosopher can still be a celebrity. It sounds laudable. But celebrity culture can be corrosive, both to the culture at large and to the celebrities themselves. So it’s worth asking: What price have French philosophy and its devotees (on the European continent and elsewhere) paid for the glamour?
Perhaps one casualty is clarity. The writings of the French postmodernist philosophers (and those inspired by them) are notoriously abstruse. In a scathing critique of theorist Judith Butler, an American who writes in the French poststructuralist style, philosopher Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago suggests that the abstruseness is calculated to inspire admiration:
Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.
On Friday we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky (something of a political celebrity himself) excoriates Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, along with Lacan’s superstar disciple, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, for using intentionally obscure and inflated language to pull the wool over their admirers’ eyes and make trivial “theories” seem profound. He calls Lacan a “total charlatan.” Lacan had a penchant for using trendy mathematical terms in curious ways. In a passage on castration anxiety, for example, he equates the phallus with the square root of minus one:
The erectile organ can be equated with the √-1, the symbol of the signification produced above, of the jouissance [ecstasy] it restores–by the coefficient of its statement–to the function of a missing signifier: (-1).
Chomsky’s criticism of Lacan and the others provoked a wide range of comments from our readers. Today we thought we would keep the conversation going with a fascinating audio clip (above) of philosopher John Searle of the University of California, Berkeley, describing how Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu–two eminent French thinkers whose abilities Searle obviously respected–told him that if they wrote clearly they wouldn’t be taken seriously in France.
Searle begins by reciting Paul Grice’s four Maxims of Manner: be clear, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity of expression. These are systematically violated in France, Searle says, partly due to the influence of German philosophy. Searle translates Foucault’s admission to him this way: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”
Searle has been careful to separate Foucault from Derrida, with whom Searle had an unfriendly debate in the 1970s over Speech Act theory. “Foucault was often lumped with Derrida,” Searle says in a 2000 interview with Reason magazine. “That’s very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.” Elsewhere in the interview, Searle says:
With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.
NOTE: For more on John Searle, including links to his full Berkeley lectures on the philosophy of mind, language and society, see our post, “Philosophy with John Searle: Three Free Courses.”