‘Le Moment Philosophique Des Années 1960 En France’ reviewed by Benoît Dillet

Le Moment Philosophique Des Années 1960 En France

Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2011. 589 pp., €35
ISBN 9782130582069

Reviewed by Benoît Dillet

About the reviewer

Benoît Dillet is writing his PhD thesis at the University of Kent on the philosophies of …


In recent years in France, a group of young academics conducted a series of research projects in search of the lost times of philosophy of the 1960s. This marvellous collection of essays explains that our times are still defined by the 1960s since we have not yet come to terms with this period. Maniglier notes in his Introduction that the contributors do not claim to be ‘‘‘descendants’’, ‘‘heirs’’, traitors or loyalists, nostalgic or reconciled’ (6) but simply recognise that the books from that period should be assessed in order to understand what we are today (a term used extensively by many authors in the book): ‘what ‘‘us’’ means and what ‘‘today’’ means’ (7). Paraphrasing Sartre who famously wrote in Question of Method in 1957 that ‘Marxism was the impassable horizon of our time’, we can say, arguably, that ‘poststructuralism is the impassable horizon of our time’, or rather Marxism is intrinsically archaic if it does not integrate some of the philosophical apparatus of 1960s French philosophy. The argument is ambitious and fifty years after the publication of The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss, we seem to have enough distance to measure the scope of the effects created by this ‘philosophical moment’. Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard are the main protagonists in this drama, and the contributors are not scared to compare 1968 to 1789, or as Milner does (191), drawing a parallel between Jena and Ecole Normale Supérieure, German idealism and French poststructuralism.

Since this is an edited book of thirty essays, the review cannot fully do it justice, but it seems important to outline here the main themes and authors covered. First of all, many of the papers were presented in a series of conferences in 2008 hosted in many universities for the 40th anniversary of the events of 1968 in France; these should be seen as a contribution to a much wider commemoration which took place in the media (TV, radio, newspapers, blogs).

For the editor, the philosophical 1960s starts with the publication of two books by Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind and Totemism Today in 1962, and finishes in 1971 with Lyotard’s publication of Discourse, Figure. In 1962, Lévi-Strauss, after bringing structuralism to ‘human sciences’ and contesting philosophy from the outside, prepared the break between his early writings and his later Mythologiques series, complicating his notion of myth, and by the same token, breaking with the positivist aspects of his first structuralism. These two books later had a consequential effect on philosophers and social theorists from the same period. Finally, ending with Lyotard’s ambitious book which opens an oeuvre left to be discovered and interpreted.

From the eight parts that make up the structure of the book, the four thematic parts (the epistemological moment, the political moment, the philosophical moment and the aesthetic moment) are woven into the other four parts, each devoted to a specific figure, each bearing a specific date marking a turn in the landscape of French thought of the 1960s (Lévi-Strauss 1962, Althusser 1965, Derrida 1967, Lyotard 1971). While Deleuze and Foucault do not have a part devoted to them, they are extensively discussed in many contributions, especially those in the epistemological moment. However, the reader is forced to wonder why Jacques Lacan does not figure as one of the main protagonists, and this could also be extended to Félix Guattari who often seems to be simply amalgamated to Deleuze.

For Deleuze, in 1967 it was the spirit of the time, as for Foucault in 1966, it was an attitude to diagnose the present, calling for a form of ‘radical journalism’. Why such an obsession with the present? Etienne Balibar’s contribution helps us here with its emphasis on the notion and the philosophy of the event, since for him, an ‘evental turn’ occurred (214-15) in twentieth century French philosophy. Balibar’s essay stands as one of the most ambitious and significant contributions in this volume. It celebrates the event as a new philosophical category born out of 1960s’ French philosophy and which, for him, will remain its definite mark: ‘I will risk to call eventalism [événementialisme], as we spoke of existentialism, historicism, structuralism’ (213). Contemporary philosophies that attempt to engage with the current state of affairs (Balibar uses the French word, actualité), in terms of ‘the immediacy of ‘‘situations’’, the facticity of ‘‘conditions’’ or of ‘‘circumstances’’, and the turning to action, realisation, hence to the efficiency or effectivity of practice’ (213), cannot but engage with this metaphysics of the event, in order to think of ruptures, the absolutely new and the changing of problems. But equally true, a new reading of Hegel can emerge once the philosophical category of the event is established: for example, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, in referring to the state of affairs, Hegel subsumes the ‘evental’ element in creating his universal discourse, the dialectical contradiction. The solution for Balibar is then to do away with the transcendental event in the same way the (post)structuralists did away with the transcendental subject – by studying the conditions of possibility for its production. With the help of Judith Butler, Balibar finds similarities between Foucault’s texts ‘What is Enlightenment?’(1982, 1984) and Althusser’s book Machiavelli and Us, a subterranean common project, both philosophical and political, that contests the simplistic reception of their work as being a relativism. Foucault referred to Kant’s present to map out the relationship between Kant’s philosophy and the political project of the Enlightenment, whereas in Althusser, his reading of Machiavelli finds not only the solitude of the Prince in choosing his governing tactics, but the possibility to start and change institutions to produce a new situation with collective hopes (in the quest of a communist politics).

We can extend Balibar’s erudite claims with Foucault’s 1984 lectures on The Courage of the Truth when he defines philosophy as already being a discourse of telling the truth about the present, demonstrating the political roots of philosophy or, to put it differently, philosophy as one of the conditions of the possibility of democracy.

Louis Althusser has been under studied in the past decades for two reasons. First due to the fall of the USSR and his often misunderstood involvement in the French Communist Party (he was a rather marginalised figure in the apparatus), and second, as a consequence of murdering his wife. It is in this context that Andrea Cavazzini argues for a more subtle and nuanced critical reception and development of Althusser’s work. For Cavazzini, Althusser greatly influenced Deleuze and Foucault and this influence is absent from many scholarly works. One of the most valuable contributions to poststructuralism is his concept of ‘practice’, functioning, in For Marx, at the crossroads between theory, politics and ideology (238). For Althusser, there could have been no political practice without theory, and in his mind, the word ‘practice’ was used to differentiate from the 1940s’ and 1950s’ use of the Marxist word ‘praxis’. The difficult negotiation between on the one hand the scientific value of the works of Marx and on the other, the revolutionary practice and the political will of the communist tradition (Lenin and Mao), was at the centre of his thought and remains for Cavazzini dramatically unacknowledged.

This novelty consists in having both produced a determined concept of social relations, and invented a determined political practice based on the intervention at the level of these specific relations that the theory rendered objective. This means that the theoretical practice and the political practice are already under the sway of the conditions defined by this Marxian and communist specificity; this also means that from now, one will have to construct knowledges [connaissances] regarding social relations, and to invent practices to transform them, inside the frameworks imposed by the conditions of these two practices. (252)

Without developing their arguments it is worth mentioning the contributions of Jean-Michel Salanskis, who compares Jacques Derrida to the analytical tradition of Searle and Davidson, and Peter Dews, who confronts Adorno’s negative dialectics with Derrida’s deconstruction.

Lévi-Strauss introduced structuralism into social sciences, in anthropology, and Frédéric Keck provides an insightful discussion on his relationship with Auguste Comte’s thought, after Lévi-Strauss decided to amend, forty five years later, his part on Comte in The Savage Mind, for the publication of his complete works (in the prestigious collection ‘La Pléiade’ by Gallimard in 2008). The discussion (120-4) focuses on the significance of the minor text by Comte, The System of Positive Polity, on Lévi-Strauss’ ideas on totemism to overcome Durkheim’s (but also in many respects Freud’s) structural logic of signs. This is done by including the logic of affects inherent to the savage mind (and not the mind of savages). While Durkheim argued that logical thought had a social origin, Lévi-Strauss was insisting on the anthropological desire to establish a multiplicity of relations between culture and nature, man and the world. Philippe Sabot then reconstructs the implicit dialogue Foucault had with Lévi-Strauss in The Order of Things (1966), and Gilles-Gaston Granger’s Formal Thought and the Sciences of Man (1960): ‘where Granger mostly insisted on the conditions of formalisation of a ‘‘science’’ of man, Foucault emphasised the critical function of a ‘‘structural anthropology’’ that, according to the famous words of Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, rather than contributing to constitute man in its positivity, he projects to ‘‘dissolve’’ it’ (150). The attempt is to appropriate new objects (mostly from psychoanalysis and structural linguistics) for articulating ‘the real and the social in its symbolic order’ (156).

Even though Maniglier clearly states that this project ‘deliberately chose’ (32) to stay away from the crucial debate with the object ‘literature’ by focusing more specifically on other forms of arts such as cinema, painting, theatre and music, it is hard not to miss the enormous influence Blanchot, Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, Duras, Butor, Beckett but also Perec and Char had on the thinkers of the time. Also, the focus on Godard in cinema, Brecht in theatre, Boulez in music, and Manet in painting seems rather arbitrary and offers only a very small representation of the intense fizz that was the Parisian intellectual and cultural scene at the time. Having said this, the essays on Godard, Brecht, Boulez and Manet really manage to demonstrate the profound relationship of French philosophy with its outside – the arts. Dork Zabunyan finds in the legacy of 1960s French philosophy its promising engagement with cinema; Foucault, Deleuze and Rancière present three different approaches which have had an unexpected posterity in film studies.

This rich cultural and artistic environment calls to be studied thoroughly by other academic works, in order to trace the multiplicity of influences that these philosophies were exposed to in constructing their common problems. The artistic kaleidoscope of the time doubles the common gesture (and legacy) of this 1960s French philosophy, its ontology of the multiple. Maniglier in his remarkable doctoral thesis on the philosophy of Saussure and the linguistic birth of the structuralist tradition painstakingly explained that structuralists did not share common methods and epistemologies as is often claimed (Maniglier 2006, p. 16) but a common desire to study in different ways new philosophical problems emerging from their political and artistic culture. The making of a new ontology necessarily meant studying with singular methods the contemporary problems. Perhaps, Antoine Compagnon’s lectures on ‘1966 Annus mirabilis’ delivered this spring at Collège de France can complete this landscape and provide indications of other aesthetic movements from the period.

What in the Anglo-Saxon world is called ‘French feminism’ is not included here, but this can be understood as part of the deliberate exclusion of literary criticism (if we think of Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous), but one could have hoped for a discussion on Luce Irigaray’s impact on French and continental philosophy.

Finally, there is a great value in the chapters on the scientific contribution poststructuralism has made. David Rabouin argues that the debate between mathematical structuralism and philosophical structuralism (or structuralism of the human sciences) did not take place, even though the latter used some of the mathematical concepts (being then accused by the mathematicians of turning their concepts into metaphors). Yet Deleuze pointed out in his 1967 article that mathematical structuralism (especially Bourbaki’s structuralism) was of interest in set theory and axiomatics, whereas philosophical structuralism opted for Lautmanian differential calculus. Alberto Gualandi demonstrates the real contribution of Deleuze, Simondon and Serres to philosophy of science, so far as to call them new philosophies of nature. He takes seriously the criticisms of Sokal and others about the abuses of poststructuralist use of scientific terms, by answering with readings of contemporary palaeontologists and biologists (especially Gould, Lewontin and Tattersall), that metaphors had a role to play even in Darwin’s initial theory of evolution (Darwin refers to Smith, Comte and Malthus). This ‘interactionist’ understanding of sciences and ‘human’ sciences is evident in Simondon and Serres but should not be left unnoticed in Deleuze and Foucault (for instance the influence François Jacob and Jacques Monod had on their thought). Another challenging question for Gualandi is the role of the (human) symbolic order for scientists, absent in Pinker or Dawkins for instance.

We can conclude that this book is a philosophical mise-en-abyme where the philosophy of the 1960s reflective of the time is now revisited to suit the present with new protagonists. They agreed on the fact that philosophy from the 1960s’ generation has remained marginalised and subjected to many heated scholarly debates seems rather paradoxical given how much, in many respect, we are still the children of the 1960s, and that we have not yet come to terms with this period.

2 November 2011


  • Compagnon, A 2011 1966 Annus mirabilis Collège de France lectures http://www.college-de-france.fr/default/EN/all/lit_cont/audio_video.jsp
  • Maniglier, P. 2006 La vie énigmatique des signes Paris: Léo Scheer.

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