James Faulconer, Professor
of Philosophy and former Dean of General Education and Honors
at Brigham Young University, has written numerous articles
and books on modern European philosophy, including his recent
volume (with Mark Wrathall) Appropriating Heidegger
(Cambridge University Press, 2000). Professor Faulconer
has taught philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium
and has recently spent a year-long sabbatical in Paris.
The purpose of this interview was to elicit Professor Faulconer's
observations on what he considers to be the main currents
of French philosophy.
S.S.: Your area of expertise is
contemporary continental philosophy and you have recently returned
from a year of study in Paris. How would you characterize recent
philosophical trends in France? What are the main issues?
J.F.: Of course, French philosophy is not homogenous, with
everyone working on the same or even related problems. But I think
it fair to say that a large part of the discussion in France today
is dominated by people who are interested in what is called the
problem of transcendence, or the problem of otherness,
another way of saying the same thing. Most of the issues that
one could mention cluster around that problem. There are several
ways one could put the problem, but perhaps the simplest is to
ask, How can I speak of that which is genuinely other than
myself?" At one level, this is the problem of signs, and
this is the way that Jacques Derrida first deals with it: If the
things to which our signs point always transcend the words by
which we point to them (and, clearly they do), how do we have
access to those things?
In this connection, notice that though many in the U.S. have read
Derridas discussion of signs as a kind of skepticism about
the world, he is in fact not arguing that we do not have access
to it beyond language. He is trying to help us wonder at the fact
that we have that access, and he accomplishes that wonder
by pointing to the problem of signs.
But the problem of signs is not the only way to talk about the
question. The questions about the relation between ethics and
philosophy that Emmanuel Lévinas raised are questions about
transcendence or otherness, as are some of the most recent discussions
of perceptual objects and whether we can encounter the thing
S.S.: After observing the French scene first hand, how
much of what is currently being debated there is filtering into
American academic circles? What are American philosophers picking
up on? What are they missing or ignoring?
J.F: My general impression is that the generation of American
philosophers and critics who cut their teeth on structuralism
and poststructuralism, say, those who are now in their 40's to
60's, tend to continue to work on the figures associated with
those movements, such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Kristeva,
Deleuze, etc. In North America it isnt unusual for those
who think themselves on the cutting edge of theoretical matters
to actually be discussing works that are now thirty to forty or
more years old. Foucault's, Derridas and Deleuze's most-cited
works, for example, were published in 1960's and early 70's. Although
these thinkers continue to be important and well worth reading,
one could reasonably argue that a number of thinkers from the
40s and 50s have been neglected and should be reconsidered. The
work of de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty are cases in point. I should
say that there has been a recent renewal of interest in the work
of Henri Bergson from the early twentieth century.
Nevertheless, the philosophers and texts that captivated so many
during the 90s and remain at the center of a considerable amount
of North American discussion did not begin the conversation of
which they are a part and they certainly were not its end. To
read Foucault or Derrida or Lyotard or any of the other French
philosophers who are often taken up in North American without
paying attention to their origins or to the contemporary conversations
on transcendence to which they led is to misread them--not only
to misread them in the sense in which we always misread a text,
but to misread them as one does when one does a profound injustice
to a text.
Though something of the contemporary discussion is getting across
the Atlantic Ocean, such as Lévinass and Derridas
interest in justice, I think we usually miss the context that
gives that discussion meaning. And we know little of the directions
that discussion has recently taken. For example, we are only just
now beginning to hear about the theological turn in
French philosophy, though Lévinas started it in the 60s
and Dominique Janicaud criticized it in 1991, and little is known
of the re-evaluation of Husserl that has been going on since at
least the 80s. (Rudolf Bernet is especially important to this
S.S.: Vincent Descombes argues in his well-known book,
Le même et lautre, that contemporary French
philosophy (by which he means Sartre through the poststructuralists)
has been influenced primarily by German philosopherswhat
he refers to as the three Hs: Husserl, Heidegger and Hegel,
although Nietzsche also figures in the mix. Do you subscribe to
this view? If so, how does this French-as-German model explain
the recent "theological turn" you just mentioned? Descombes's
book was published in 1979, just before this "turn"
began in full force, so it does not at all figure in his scenario.
J.F: I agree in large measure with Descombes. From 1933
through 1939, Alexandre Kojève, a Russian émigré,
taught a seminar on Hegel at L'École Pratique des Hautes
Études that made him one of the most important influences
of twentieth-century French intellectual life. Among its attendees
were André Breton, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
Pierre Klossowski, Raymond Aron, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Queneau,
and (I think) Jean-Paul Sartre. (Oddly, though most of these thinkers
are, at least from an American perspective, to the left politically,
it is the American political right that has been influenced by
Kojève through Leo Strauss and his student Alan Bloom,
as well as through Francis Fukayama.) Kojèves seminars,
especially his reading of the master-slave dialectic in Hegels
Phenomenology of Spirit, raised questions that became the
center of a great deal of discussion and thinking.
Edmund Husserl and his student, Martin Heidegger, were also very
important to French thinking in the 40s and afterward. Though
no one event or person brought Husserl to the attention of French
thinkers, it makes sense to say that the then relatively unknown
Lévinass publication of his dissertation, Théorie
de lintuition dans la phénoménologie
de Husserl (1930), made an important contribution to French
interest in Husserl. Husserl was very important to thinkers like
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, among others. Especially in the beginning,
French thinkers tended to read Husserl through Heideggers
eyes because Lévinass dissertation is written from
a clearly Heideggerian perspective.
Heideggers influence is obvious in Sartre. Lêtre
et le néant (1943) owes its title to Heideggers
Being and Time (1927), though Sartres book is as
much influenced by Husserl and by Kojèves Hegel as
by Heidegger. Heideggers work was also influential on a
great many other French thinkers, especially beginning in the
50s. Jean Beaufret was perhaps most responsible for bringing Heideggers
work into the French intellectual scene, which in turn occasioned
at least one of Heideggers most important works.Letter
on Humanism(1947) was written in reply to questions from
Beaufret as a response to Sartres Lexistentialisme
et un humanisme (1946).
Though none of these three figures was what one might call a religious
thinker, each was concerned with the problem of transcendence,
and the turn to religion quite clearly grew out of the interest
in that problem.
S.S.: To follow up, who would you add to Descombes's model
to round out the picture of signficant influcences on current
French philosophical thought?
J.F.: There can be no doubt that the two most important
influences on French philosophy from the 40s on were Husserl and
Heidegger, or we might even say Husserl through Heidegger.
They remain influential today. But perhaps the other important
influence on French philosophy during the last twenty or thirty
years has been Emmanuel Lévinas. A student of Heidegger
who was repelled by Heideggers activities during World War
II and also a student of Franz Rosenzweig and the Talmud, Lévinas
initiated a new discussion in French philosophy, that of the
other, and introduced the question of the relation between
lautre and lautrui. Of course, as Vincent Descombes
showed some time ago (Le Même et le autre, 1979),
in an important way this interest in otherness does not begin
with Lévinas. There is a strong sense in which that theme
has been an important to French philosophy since at least Kojève.
(It is certainly an important part of his reading of Hegels
master-slave dialectic.) Nevertheless, there is a clear shift
in direction with Lévinass work, Totalité
et infini: essai sur lexteriorité (1961), a shift
sufficient to call it a new development: the other as transcendent,
as interruptive of being; ethics (which means relation to
others, not rules for acting well) as foundational
Not every contemporary French philosopher is a Lévinasian.
Far from it. But except for those doing philosophy comparable
to Anglo-American philosophy (such as Jacques Bouvaresse), no
one seems to have been able to escape dealing with the question
that Lévinas raisedhow am I related to that which
transcends my world, the other? Lévinas is an often unnamed
influence, but he is nonetheless there in the work of thinkers
like Derrida (who explicitly refers to Lévinass influence
in his 1967 works), Jean-Luc Marion, Jean Greisch, Didier Franck,
Jean-Louis Chrétien, Francois Courtine, and Michel Henry.
Paul Ricoeur, perhaps the most important living French philosopher,
has responded to Lévinas in his last two major works, in
Soi-même comme un autre (1990) and, to a lesser degree,
in La mémoire, lhistoire, loubli (2000).
Of course, as I said, Heidegger and Husserl continue to be important
figures in French philosophy, both through Lévinas and
others, and in their own right. Recently a number of philosophers,
such as Françoise Dastur and Natalie Depraz have returned
to Husserl taking him up as an important and independent thinker,
rather than through Heideggers interpretation of him.
S.S.: What do you think it is about Lévinass
thought that contemporary French philosophers find so useful?
J.F.: Lévinas makes explicit what had only implicitly
been a theme since the 30s, namely otherness, and he does it in
a way that brings philosophy itself into question. In essence,
Lévinas asks, If knowledge is ultimately a matter
of relation to an other outside of me, that is transcendent of
my experience, then isnt the ultimate instance of knowledge
the knowledge of another person. And if that is the case, doesnt
that mean that ethicsby which he means relation to
another rather than rules for good behavioris
more fundamental than any philosophizing, such as ontology (the
account of being)? Lévinas shows that a radical questioning
of philosophy had been lurking in French philosophy since at least
Lévinas also creates what Janicaud
calls the theological turn by using a religious vocabulary to
talk about transcendence. Like Ricoeur, Lévinas wants to
avoid depending on religion to make philosophical arguments. Lévinas
is adamant about that; he wants his work to stand on its own as
philosophyand Janicauds charge is that he does not
succeed. Whatever the case with Janicauds criticism, Lévinas
focused thinking on the question of transcendence as an ethical/political
question at least as much as a metaphysical question, and he at
least raised the question of whether religious language and ideas
can be used as a philosophical resource for talking about the
problem of transcendence.
S.S.: To come back for a moment to Derrida, why do you
suppose most American intellectuals seem to be more interested
in his linguistic questions than the religious ones, although
he seems to claim that the two domains are intimately connected.
J.F.: Thats an excellent question, to which I dont
know the answer, though that wont stop me from speculating.
It may be because of the nervousness American intellectuals often
feel about religion. Those who think themselves more scientifically-minded
often begin with the assumption that religion is little more than
superstition, perhaps nothing more. Beyond that, the Enlightenments
prejudice against prejudice has had a powerful effect on American
as well as European thought. Religion requires that we begin with
some pre-judgments, that we recognize something as authoritative,
and the Enlightenment taught that we should question all authority.
For me, the irony is that much late twentieth-century French philosophy
gets read in North America as if it were merely one more version
of the Enlightenment and its attack on authority and pre-judgment.
Those who read Derrida as a nihilist attacking all meaning and
authority, whether they read him that way and condemn him or adopt
him as a philosophical avatar, make that mistake.
S.S.: Evidently several contemporary French philosophers
such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion are believers
in Catholicism. Do you agree with Dominique Janicaud's position
that it is contradictory for them to philosophize from a religious
perspective? How do such philosophers justify the use of religion
J.F.: Im not sure. That is a question that occupies
a good deal of my reading and thinking right now. Of course, Janicaud
has argued that they cannot justify their use of religious ideas
and vocabulary in philosophy. (He makes the argument in Le
tournant théologique de la phénomenologie française
(1991) and more indirectly in La phénomenologie éclatée
(1998)). Janicaud was one of my teachers and I have a great deal
of respect for him, both as a person and as a philosopher, but
I dont know how much I agree with him. If, as he argues,
thinkers like Lévinas and Marion are merely turning phenomenology
into a theological enterprise, then I agree with his criticisms.
The question is whether they are, and that question is an important
part of current discussions in French philosophy.
Marion is explicit about his desire to show that religious revelation,
specifically the revelation of Jesus Christ, is a phenomenological
possibility. (See Étant donné, Essai dune
phénoménologie de la donation 326.) Of course,
Marion goes further than only arguing that revelation is possible,
though he does not argue for the actuality of divine revelation.
He goes further by arguing that the possibility of revelation
gives us a new understanding of phenomena in general. Thus, though
he does not think that he makes theological assumptions, he does
think that religious phenomena can show us a new way of understanding
phenomena and, so, ought to inform phenomenology.
Similarly, Henry is explicit about looking
to Christianity for a new understanding of what phenomenology
is. The question is whether Marion and Henry can do that without
beginning from theological concepts and methods. Janicaud argues
that they cannot. In contrast, Marion and Henry argue that an
analysis of religious phenomena show us things that we will not
see otherwise and that have something to say to us about how to
do phenomenology. And they argue that their analysis of religious
phenomena stands on it own, without requiring that one be a believer.
Perhaps an analogy to science can help us understand this debate:
Creationism claims to be able to give a scientific account of
the origins of the physical world that is in harmony with the
Genesis account. A creationist account can be accepted as science
ifand only ifit can stand on its own as a scientific
account. In other words, creationism is science if and only if
it gives an account of the origins of the earth that doesnt
call on the authority of scripture or use religious beliefs as
assumptions. That requirement is not a rejection of religion,
it is true by definition: science gives explanations in mathematical
and physical terms, without reference to religious ideas. That
is its strength as well as its limitation. Science cannot deal
with that which cannot be described adequately using only the
assumptions and tools of science. Creationism has failed to give
an account that confines itself to the methods, terms, and assumptions
of science, so it must be rejected as science.
Similarly, philosophers like Marion and Henry can be said to be
doing phenomenology if and only if their accounts do not require
that we begin with religious assumptions. That requirement has
come to be part of the definition of philosophy over its 2,500
year history. It remains to be seen whether Marions and
Henrys accounts avoid beginning with religious assumptions.
Some of Marions more recent work, such as Le phénomène
saturé (1992) and Lévénement,
le phénomène et le révélé
(1999) clearly attempt to make Marions argument for the
possibility of religious revelation without taking recourse to
religious assumptions. For Marion, the Christian discussion of
icons and idols and their difference gives us a way of thinking
about how it could be possible to claim to have had an experience
of the thing-itself. Marion gives us an account of how it is possible
for there to be phenomena that go beyond any accounting one can
make of them using a Kantian framework. In other words, there
are phenomena, called saturated phenomena, that can
only be understood as the appearance of the thing in itself. Though
the Christians experience of the divine in worship is the
model that Marion uses, that model applies to art and aesthetic
experience, as well as to ordinary events.
On the other hand, though Henry does not argue that one must be
a believer to see the perspicacity of his analyses, he does referfrom
the beginning and unapologeticallyto Christian texts as
sources for his ideas. In both Cest moi la vérité,
Pour une philosophie du christianisme (1996) and Incarnation,
Un philosophie de la chair (2000), he argues that the Christian
understanding of the body contests the Greek understanding of
it, but that the Greek understanding has given us the way we think
about the body. Thus, only if we take recourse to Christian
ideas can we have a different understanding of the body, and the
different understanding that Christianity gives us opens a new
way of understanding phenomenology and philosophy.
In contrast to Marion, Henrys focus is not so much on Christian
experience as it is on Christian doctrine. He argues that early
Christianity was insistent on the importance of the incarnation
of Christ to Christian belief. In fact, it was so insistent that
both Greeks (which includes the Romans) and Jews found Christianity
unthinkable, the Greeks because it was so absurd to believe that
a god had been incarnate; the Jews because such a belief was not
only absurd, but blasphemous. In Incarnation Henry argues
that the point of the Council of Nicea was primarily to defend
Christianity against the claims of the Gnostics, who, in a variety
of ways, denied the incarnation of Christ. The doctrine of the
Trinity was not developed in answer to a philosophical question
about the unity of God, but in response to the problem of Gnosticism.
Thus, Henry argues that Christianity is deeply concerned to preserve
the importance of the body to human experienceunlike Greek
thought or Jewish thought, the two kinds of thinking against which
Christianity defined itself. That emphasis on incarnation means
that Christianity can offer us a way to think about human being
that is radically different from the ways that the philosophical
tradition (which is Greek) has thought about it. (See Incarnation
11-35 for one place where Henry makes this argument explicit.)
Henry argues that thanks to the Christian tradition, we can rethink
human being by not focusing on mind and will, but on pathos, on
the fact that, as embodied beings, we are affected. Our ability
to feel pain, sorrow, and joy, things that cannot be reduced to
will but only to affection (in the strict sense of that term),
are what define us as human beings, not our minds and wills.
Even non-religious thinkers like Derrida have recognized the importance
of religion to their thinking. Derrida does not pass as
someone religious, as he says, but he recognizes the similarity
between some of his work and negative theology and he recognizes
that the questions he is concerned with are parallel to, if not
the same as, the questions that arise in religion.
Many of those dealing with the question dont just talk about
religion. As are Marion and Henry, many are themselves religious,
for example, Ricoeur, Chrétien, Greisch, and Franck. A
number of these religious thinkers ask, Doesnt Christianity
have resources for thinking about transcendence that give us alternatives
to the ways of doing so that we find in traditional philosophy?
Those who ask this question are not arguing that one must be a
believing Christian in order to do philosophy. (Though Franck
has said that, in the end, all philosophy is Christian philosophy,
I dont think he meant that only Christians can do philosophy.
I assume that he meant, instead, that philosophy as we know it
has been defined by, among other things, Christianity.) Instead,
those who ask this question are arguing that, in dealing with
its issues, Christianityespecially primitive Christianity,
the Christianity of the New Testamentthought in ways that
we can use as models for thinking about the problem of transcendence,
whether of the referents of signs, of things in themselves, or
of divine beings.
The question is whether they can use that resource without turning
philosophy into theology. I have to say I dont know the
answer to that question. Some days I think it is possible; other
days I think Janicaud is right.
S.S.: Throughout the modern period Kant has been very influential
in French academic philosophy. What role does Kant play in the
contemporary discussion of transcendence, religion, etc.?
J.F.: Kant has been important to French academic philosophy
for a variety of reasons. For example, he is important to anyone
interested in Hegel because Hegel was trying to overcome the gap
between the world and ideas that Kant creates. You cannot understand
Hegels solution if you dont understand
the problem that Kant created.
Kant is also important to someone like Jean-François Lyotard
because Kant raised the question of what makes knowledge legitimate.
If we can describe postmodern or poststructuralist thought as
a critique of the Enlightenment, and I think we can, Kant is important
as the culmination of the Enlightenment. Postmodern thought doesnt
try to go beyond the Enlightenment to some new form of thought,
but to question it from within, as we see in Lyotard: if we our
knowledge claims are confined to the phenomenological world, as
Kant argues, and cannot refer to anything transcendent as justification,
then what justifies them?
In both cases we can summarize the ways that Kant is important
by saying that he creates the problem of transcendence as we know
it. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant responds to the
radical skepticism of David Hume by arguing that we can have objective
knowledge. We can know that we are experiencing phenomena and
that those experiences will be regular in a variety of ways. Kants
argument is that, because such things as multiplicity and cause-effect
are necessary to experiencewithout them experience is not
possiblewe can know that there are such things. We can have
objective knowledge because we can know those things that constitute
the objects of experience, the phenomena. However, Kant argues,
those things like multiplicity and causality are not necessarily
part of the thing itself.
When I touch my chair and experience it in time, as a totality,
and as being part of various chains of cause and effect, I am
having an experience that I can verify through the experience
of others. In other words, I can know about that experience, about
that object, that phenomenon. However, according to Kant, though
I assume (and cannot but assume) that the experiences I have are
correlated with the things that give rise to those experiences
(with the things themselves), I cannot get behind
or before my experience to check out that correlation.
Therefore, I cannot know that the thing itself gives rise to the
experiences I have, though I assume that it does. My experience
of the thing (the phenomenon) can be known objectively, but it
doesnt follow that the thing itself can be known objectively.
Notice that when we talk this way the words object and thing do
not mean the same. The object is that which we encounter in experience.
It is that which appears as a phenomenon. The thing, the thing
itself, is that which is behind the experience. Presumably, the
thing is that which gives rise to the experiences we have, but
though we can know those experiences, we cannot know what comes
Kants discussion was revolutionary. It not only dissolved
the problems of Humean skepticism, it provided a foundation for
Romanticism, and much of contemporary French philosophy has interesting
parallels to and roots in nineteenth-century German Romanticism.
The question of how the thing in itself (including the ego itself,
which, like other things, Kant argues we do not have direct access
to) is related to the world and to the human subject is the question
of transcendence. That question is at the heart of a good many
discussions in contemporary French philosophy, from discussion
of how the sign is related to the signified to how I am related
to another person.
S.S.: Bernard-Henri Lévy recently published a several-hundred
page study of Jean-Paul Sartre, The Century of Sartre,
in which he argues that Sartre is without doubt the most influential
French philosopher of the twentieth century. He also makes the
case that many of the major philosophical positions adopted by
late twentieth-century philosophers are already present in Sartres
workincluding a return to religion (and to Lévinasian
philosophy) in the last few years of his life. How would you react
to this claim? Did you notice any return to Sartre in France?
Do you personally see anything salvageable in Sartre?
J.F: Im embarrassed to confess to a gap in my education.
I do not know Sartres work that well and, so, cannot respond
to your question adequately. My impression is that Lévys
book was well-received and much discussed and that there are,
indeed, those who are taking another look at his work.
S.S.: To conclude, can you suggest a few titles of must
reads for students interested in contemporary French philosophy?
What are in your view the 5 or 6 most significant works published
in the last ten years?
J.F: This is a difficult request, so let me make it a little
simpler by merely suggesting some books that would help a student
interested in a better of understanding what weve been discussing.
Of course, that means Im going to recommend more than only
five or six books.
Colin Davis has written a good introduction to Lévinass
work, Levinas: An Introduction (1996), and Simone Plourdes
Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité
(1996) is excellent. Of course, if you really want to know what
Lévinas is doing, you must read his work, at least Totalité
et infini (1961).
Ive mentioned Janicauds work, Le tournant théologique
de la phénomenologie française (1991) and
La phénomenologie éclatée (1998). Both
of these are important to understanding the argument over what
phenomenology is and for thinking carefully about the questions
raised by thinkers like Lévinas, Marion, and Henry. Jean-Francois
Courtine edited a book of essays by Marion and others that serves
as a kind of reply to Janicaud: Phénoménologie
et Théologie (1992).
Someone interested in Marion might look at Lidol et la
distance (1977), or Du sûrcroit (2001), but perhaps
the most important book to read would be Étant donné,
Essai dune phénoménologie de la donation
(1997). For shorter pieces, I especially think that the two essays
I mentioned earlier are important, Le phénomène
saturé (1992) and Lévénement,
le phénomène et le révélé
(1999). In them Marion tries to make his case in what is clearly
a straightforward philosophical way. For seeing what Henry is
doing, beside Incarnation (2000), I recommend Cest
moi, la vérité (1996) as good books for understanding
what Henry is doing.
Ricoeurs work isnt part of the debate weve focused
on, but it is very important. The series that begins with La
métaphore vive (1975), moves to the three volumes of
Temps et récit (1983. 1984. 1985), and ends with
Soi-même comme un autre (1990) deserves considerably
more attention than it gets in North America.
As for other important thinkers in contemporary French philosophy,
not all of them involved in the discussions Ive talked about,
let me suggest names to watch for rather than particular books:
Ive already mentioned Rudolf Bernet, Françoise Dastur,
and Natalie Depraz. To that short list, add Jean Greisch, François-David
Sebbah, Béatrice Han-Pile, Jacob Rogozinski, Monique Schneider,
Alain David, Rémi Brague, Eliane Escoubas, Michel Haar,
Jean-François Courtine, and Guy Planty-Bonjour. Im
sure Im leaving out any number of people whom I should mention,
but that list will give students a good idea of the variety of
philosophical thought in France today.