Why France Lionizes the Man Who Challenged Everything

By Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

Why France Lionizes the Man Who Challenged Everything


Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


From Roquefort cheese to Brigitte Bardot, France can be justifiably proud that many of its national treasures have become celebrated in the United States.

But in terms of sheer influence, few may eclipse the modern mark set by its postmodern philosophers.

France's pride in its heavy thinkers was splashed all over the news this week, as everybody who is anybody in French public life clamored to praise Jacques Derrida, the father of the philosophical theory of deconstructionism, who died last weekend.

Leading the pack was President Jacques Chirac, who lauded Mr. Derrida's efforts "to rediscover the free movement that lies at the origin of all thought."

The prime minister, two cabinet ministers, the mayor of Paris, and the head of the French Communist Party all recorded their reactions on the back of a special 10-page supplement published by the daily Le Monde to mark the philosopher's passing.

Ironically, Derrida's theories are scarcely taught in France, where philosophy departments have long distrusted his global vision of politics and art and the world.

And in America, where Derrida's thought swept through humanities departments coast to coast, his death was noted in The New York Times only as the departure of an "abstruse theorist."

"There is a chasm between the United States and France on this," says Francois Cusset, a philosopher who has written about the influence of French philosophy on America. "In the US, where Derrida's role was absolutely central, his death didn't get much attention. In France, where Derrida was marginalized from Day 1, it is a national trauma."

The French, of course, have a rather particular relationship to thought: They famously cherish ideas more than facts.

The French Revolution was a dramatic example of an idealist uprising, spurred by theories that philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot had expounded in weighty tomes, even if the ideals were not and could not be realized.

Those ideas were also, perhaps, France's most important export to the US, and Derrida's importance in French eyes clearly had something to do with his influence on the other side of the Atlantic.

"In Jacques Derrida," Mr. Chirac boasted in his statement, "France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of the intellectual life of our time."

Derrida's theory is not easily articulated - he once described deconstruction as "a certain experience of the impossible" - but it claims that language inevitably distorts the reality it purports to represent. An obvious consequence, of course, is that no text can be true. This line of postmodern inquiry emboldened a legion of US academics to challenge the established literary canon - indeed, even the founding axioms of Western civilization.

At home, French students may be unfamiliar with Derrida, but they are meant to know a thing or two about philosophy.

Final year high school students in a literary or humanities stream spend eight hours a week studying "philo" - one of the subjects they must pass to earn a diploma. …

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