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The Poverty of the "New Philosophy"

By Tarifa, Fatos | Modern Age, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Poverty of the "New Philosophy"

Tarifa, Fatos, Modern Age

In the midst of intense anti-American sentiments prevailing in France and throughout much of Europe early in 2006, a book by Bernard-Henri Levy, American Vertigo (Random House), made it to bookstores all across the United States. It was apparently directed against the French and European anti-Americanism that has become rampant since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Levy, who visited America in 2004, wrote his book to assess "the state of health of American democracy" (1) one hundred seventy-three years after Alexis de Tocqueville published his seminal work Democracy in America. To most Americans, Levy is a totally unknown author. His name, however, is not quite unknown to those familiar with French intellectual life of the past three decades.

Levy is a French quondam philosopher, a wealthy bon vivant, bohemian intellectual, who, with his movie-star lifestyle, his picture frequently featured on the cover of the Paris Match magazine, and his celebrity friends the late Yves Saint-Laurent, Alain Delon, and Salman Rushdie, has long become a fixture of the continental gossip rags. A man not particularly encumbered by modesty, Levy is anecdotally known for his words "God is dead, but my hair is perfect." American Vertigo, as the author himself admits, is "not a book of philosophy," but "it's journalism, it is literature, it is funny," it is also, still in his words, "un geste philosophique." It is precisely this "philosophical gesture" in Levy's most recent book that recaptured my sociological imagination, to use C. Wright Mills's language, which, by grasping history and biography and the relationship between the two within French society, evoked a glitzy but otherwise short-lived episode in France's intellectual history of the mid-1970s that came to be known as the nouvelle philosophie (New Philosophy). The self-announced anti-anti-American author of American Vertigo, Bernard-Henri Levy, was its founder and the figurehead of an assemblage of a dozen or so young intellectuals in Paris, whose "new philosophy" vanished as swiftly from the French intellectual stage as it appeared on it.


The May 1968 events in France, as well as a number of political events from the mid-1950s to the second half of the 1970s, produced a profound crise de conscience in French Marxist thought. The nouvelle philosophic emerged as a byproduct of this crisis. A coterie of French intellectuals, self-proclaimed "new philosophers," frantically denounced all forms of Marxism as a "philosophy of domination" and, as Levy put it, an "opium for the people." The "shocking" novelty of their "new" philosophy was believed to mark the "end" of Marxism in French social thought. Thirty years later, however, a number of questions linger in the intellectual horizon. What was new in the nouvelle philosophic? What were its tenets? Why did it fail to emerge as a distinctive school of thought? If Marx est mart, as the "new philosophers" and the media announced with fanfare in the mid-1970s, why couldn't the French "new philosophy" escape the fate of an ephemeral phenomenon? Were the "new philosophers" misunderstood, incorrectly interpreted, or badly read in their time? Or did they simply fail to provide a new conceptual framework for the understanding and the interpretation of human society at the fin de siecle? In what follows I attempt to answer some of these questions.


France is a country where Marxism in one form or another, but most importantly in the form of Marxist existentialism and humanism as developed in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as of a more orthodox Marxism championed by Louis Althusser in the early 1960s, has provided a dominant frame of reference for work in philosophy, sociology, and the "human sciences" ever since the end of World War II.(2) During the first two decades after the war the grip of Marxism on the minds of French intellectuals was virtually complete. It became the cerebral orthodoxy in Parisian intellectual life, or as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, the "unsurpassable horizon" of the age.

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