France's strange, wonderful love affair with philosophy
Few things about France strike foreigners as so endearingly strange as the country's enduring love affair with philosophy.
France is the country whose Revolution was driven by Enlightenment philosophy; more recently, it was the country of Sartre and Camus (and their lesser-known conservative antagonist Raymond Aron).
The phenomenon is real. It's obviously not the case that every single Frenchman can lecture about the finer points of Plato and Descartes, but it's also the case that philosophy enjoys serious prestige, at both the elite and popular level. Books are best-sellers. Philosophers are invited on TV and even given their own talk-shows. It's not unusual for a mass market magazine to make an interview with a philosopher its cover story. Philosophy is a mandatory part of the high school curriculum. Senior politicians often tap top philosophy graduates as speechwriters, the first step on a political career, which explains why there probably hasn't been a French cabinet in the past 50 years that didn't have at least one minister with a graduate degree in philosophy.
This has obvious upside. Civilizations ultimately run on ideas, and societies that want to prosper should, so to speak, work out them out, manipulating their intellectual muscles regularly. France takes seriously the notion that a democracy is impossible without an informed citizenry, and that this requires thinking seriously about issues — to philosophize.
But it also has a downside. If any figure enjoys equivalent prestige to the philosopher in America, it's the economist, as befits America's reputation for pragmatism. America has avoided the trap of having its intellectual circles manned by crusty old Marxists who, as late as the 1990s, seemed to have missed the fact that Marxism doesn't actually, you know, work. Rousseau famously opened his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality with, "Let us begin by laying facts aside," a piece of advice that too many French philosophers have taken a smidge too literally. While France has produced much valuable philosophy in the 20th century, the joke about the post-post-post-structuralist spouting off literal nonsense from his tenured perch has some validity.
Now, economics is not nearly as pragmatic as is usually thought and America's worship of the economist has also led it into some hot water. Perhaps some happy middle might be pursued. Perhaps America should tone down its economists a little bit and France should keep in mind that a philosopher is not the same thing as an expert on every topic. Give Paul Krugman's New York Times column to David Bentley Hart!
But what the popular economist in America and the popular philosopher in France have in common is the pitfalls of what happens to any profession that confers status, fame, and money — a deluge of oleaginous scam artists. The most prominent of those, of course, being the shameless Bernard-Henri Lévy, whose academic scandals fill several paragraphs of his French-language Wikipedia entry. The most famous involved his citing a book of philosophical satire written by a fake philosopher with a punny name as if it were a legitimate work by a legitimate author (whose body of work BHL knew very well).
The simple fact of the matter is that France's most prominent philosophers have not produced quality work for many decades, with a few exceptions (mainly to be found in the subculture of Catholic philosophers, but even then...). And this is partly driven by the popular appeal of philosophy. As a young grad student, what would you like to do more: Write pop histories of Plato and get invited on TV shows, or trudge away in anonymity on a study of Plato that will be read by 12 people? Partly it's driven by France's cultural exhaustion and malaise. But partly it's also a phenomenon of the fact that post-post-modern philosophy, all across the West, suffers from a kind of total exhaustion.
But for all that, I wouldn't trade away my country's love affair with philosophy. Like all love affairs, it can be messy, but it's still wonderful in its own way.