In October, a few days after a school teacher was decapitated by an Islamist radical outside Paris, France’s education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer denounced a pernicious ideology “ravaging” French universities.
Blanquer warned of the influence of “ideas which often come from elsewhere” that he contrasted with the “universalist [and] republican” concepts underpinning the French social model. After the organisation representing university presidents expressed concern at the minister’s remarks, a group of some of France’s leading intellectuals rallied in his defence.
In an open letter to Le Monde, they argued that “the importing of Anglo-Saxon communitarian ideologies”, by which they meant notions such as minority rights and multiculturalism, “is a real threat to our universities.”
The suggestion that American-style “identity politics” are incompatible with the French state’s assimilationist conception of republican citizenship is one that has been made frequently in recent debates around the nature of secularism in France. The irony here is that the very ideas that French politicians and intellectuals dismiss as alien imports can themselves be traced back to an intellectual revolution that took place in France in the late 1960s and early 1970s — the reverberations of which would come to be felt most strongly not in Paris but in the American academy.
Amid the tumult of the événements of May 1968 and their aftermath, French thought took on a distinctive hue. Thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida launched an assault on the philosophical tradition and on the ambition of philosophers since antiquity to converge through reasoned argument and reflection on the fundamental nature of knowledge or reality — or both.
For Derrida, for example, it was a question of “being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use” — that is, to the historical freight and inheritances that any philosophical vocabulary carries with it. He argued that it was an illusion to suppose that the elaborate conceptual structures laid out in the works of the great philosophers reflected either the timeless essences of things or the “transcendental” conditions of human beings’ access to them.
Two new books deal, in very different ways, with the influence that Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida and others have had on scholarship — and latterly politics — in the English-speaking world, especially in the US.
Cynical Theories is an anatomy of what the authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call the “Social Justice Movement” — perhaps better, and more colloquially, known today as “woke” ideology — which they see as a mortal threat to the philosophical and political liberalism they espouse. They share, they say, the aim of eradicating various forms of social injustice. But they reject both the account of racism, sexism and so on proposed by the “ideology of Social Justice”, which emphasises structural power relations rather than individual beliefs, and the remedies it recommends.
Pluckrose, a self-described “exile from the humanities”, and Lindsay, a “mathematician with a background in physics”, have two main aims, one polemical, the other historical or descriptive. First, they want to make a critical intervention in the “culture wars” around the politics of identity that have waxed and waned on American campuses, occasionally spilling out into the wider public sphere, since the first controversies over “political correctness” erupted in the late 1980s. We seem to be in a particularly hot phase of the conflict currently, on both sides of the Atlantic. At the end of November, for instance, academics at Cambridge university rejected a proposal from the governing council that would have required staff to be “respectful of the diverse identities of others”.
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s second aim is to offer a history of a movement they label “postmodernism”, by which they mean a generalised suspicion of “grand narratives” about human progress, and an emphasis on the limits of rational inquiry. In this bit of the story, Derrida, the subject of Peter Salmon’s biography, An Event, Perhaps, is one of the key figures.
It is worth noting, as Salmon does, that Derrida rarely, if ever, used the word “postmodernism” himself. He quotes Derrida exasperatedly rebutting the charge that his was a philosophy of “nihilism or scepticism”. But Pluckrose and Lindsay aren’t particularly bothered by details — indeed, fine distinctions or refined taxonomies, they say, “are primarily of interest to academics”. Their defence of liberalism against the alleged depredations of postmodernism is arguably not well-served by such indifference to basic matters of intellectual hygiene. But be that as it may, they have a case to prosecute.
Their primary target is a set of “French ideas . . . about knowledge and power”, which, they argue, have been incorporated into contemporary “Social Justice scholarship and activism”. On Pluckrose and Lindsay’s account, the “postmodern turn” from which the ideology of social justice draws its inspiration involves a commitment to two basic principles: the “knowledge principle” and the “political principle”.
The first of these entails “radical scepticism” about the possibility of objective knowledge or truth — doubt, that is, about the ability of our words and concepts to capture the world as it really is. The second rests on the idea that “society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how”. As an example of this, Pluckrose and Lindsay take Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling 2018 book White Fragility, which argues that “racism is a multi-layered system embedded in our culture”.
If, as they do, you treat racism not as a structural feature of the culture but as a matter of individuals holding certain sorts of prejudiced attitudes or beliefs, then the strategies you propose for dealing with it won’t make any reference to group rights or collective redress for historic harms of any sort — in the form, for instance, of compensating black Americans for the crime of slavery.
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But it’s unclear to me why, for example, Pluckrose and Lindsay should find the employment of inclusion officers in the workplace so objectionable, or why they think there’s a fruitful parallel to be drawn between corporate diversity schemes and the controversial policy of “no-platforming” racists in universities. In the authors’ view, though, these phenomena are all of a piece. It’s a short step, they argue, from “seeking incidents of bias and imbalance” in hiring practices to silencing “certain views on campus”.
An “obsession with language”, Pluckrose and Lindsay write, is at the “heart of postmodern thinking and [is] key to its methods”. There is nothing distinctively “French” or “postmodern” about such a focus on language, however. The same could be said, after all, about the Anglo-American “analytic” tradition in philosophy, which famously took a “linguistic turn” in the first half of the 20th century. This involved the claim that philosophical problems could be solved either by tidying up ordinary language with the aid of tools drawn from formal and mathematical logic or else illuminated by paying close attention to how words are used in everyday contexts.
The authors are either unaware of this chapter of intellectual history or are content to set it aside.
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Salmon’s book fills in some of these gaps. His account of Derrida’s rather bad-tempered exchange in the late 1970s with the American John Searle nicely captures the former’s complicated relationship with philosophers from the anglophone world.
Their dispute turned on the correct interpretation of JL Austin’s theory of “performative” utterances (statements in which we do something — make a promise, for instance — rather than describe a state of affairs). One is struck first by the extent of Derrida’s agreement with Austin, the doyen of Oxford philosophy in the 1950s. He regarded the latter’s insight into the nature of performatives as “powerful and correct”, Salmon observes. Equally striking, though, is the dismissive tone Searle took with his opponent. And this encounter, Salmon suggests, set a template for Derrida’s subsequent encounters with English-speaking philosophers, who tended to regard him with intense suspicion.
When Derrida began to travel regularly to America in the early 1970s, he was mostly welcomed by literature departments, and not by academic philosophers. Many of the latter, Salmon says, “saw his work as poisonous”, and thought he had dazzled literary critics unfamiliar with the basic standards of philosophical rigour.
This was demonstrated particularly vividly in 1992, when Cambridge proposed giving Derrida an honorary degree. A group of prominent British and American philosophers wrote to The Times protesting the offer. “Derrida describes himself as a philosopher”, they noted tartly, but his influence “has been to a striking degree almost entirely in fields outside philosophy”. They went on to offer a laughably sketchy and largely inaccurate precis of Derrida’s work before remarking that “many French philosophers see in M Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment”.
The “nagging fear that those who saw him as a charlatan were right”, Salmon writes, stayed with Derrida until he died in 2004, and it seems that Derrida’s fate — if Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book is anything to go by — is to be condemned posthumously for views many of which he never held.
Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Swift Press, RRP£20, 352 pages
An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida, by Peter Salmon, Verso, RRP£16.99, 320 pages
Jonathan Derbyshire is the FT’s acting deputy world news editor
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