‘Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960’ reviewed by Richard Fitch

Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960

Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2011. 224pp., £27.50 hb
ISBN 9780199227037

Reviewed by Richard Fitch

About the reviewer

Richard Fitch is an independent legal and political philosopher …


This volume, one of the first in a new series entitled The Oxford History of Philosophy, is primarily an introduction for advanced students. In particular it appears to be aimed at students educated in what Gutting describes as ‘anglophone analytic philosophy’ (3). As such it is an exercise in apology for its subject matter, which is usually considered the epitome of continental philosophy. Gutting, well-known for his commentaries on Foucault, writes broadly from a perspective that he has described elsewhere as that of a pragmatic liberal metaphilosophy, owing much to Rorty, MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor, as well as to his reading of Foucault (Gutting 1999, 163-93). That said, the interest of this volume is not circumscribed by its presumed target readership or its implicit philosophical commitments.

Gutting focuses on the figures of Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. These are then supplemented by a second set of thinkers comprising Emmanuel Levinas, Alain Badiou, and Jean-Luc Marion. The philosophical questions tackled are from ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. This in itself is unproblematic. It is a short, sharp, book and choices must be made, but there is still a price to be paid for the exclusion of other questions, particularly from aesthetics and feminist thought. And political philosophy only hovers in the wings, though Gutting does address its significance for the thinkers in question (19-21). These choices are the choices of analytic philosophy and are thus, to an extent, forced on Gutting, but the repressed will return.

The book has ten short chapters split into two parts, and so maps well onto a term-long course. Gutting’s opening chapter made me cheer, and may be the most important gesture in the book. It begins ‘The distinctive character of French philosophy derives, first of all, from the educational system that produces French philosophers’ (7). This realisation has been absent from too much anglophone commentary on French philosophy. Indeed, it is curious that more has not been made of it with respect to leftist thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Alain Badiou. One mustn’t fall prey to genetic or ad hominem fallacies, but it is surely worthy of further attention that such figures inhabit perhaps the most elitist, meritocratic, and thus achingly bourgeois, educational institution that has ever existed: the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Such insights are not in the service of judgement, but in that of understanding.

Gutting then sets up a narrative to structure the rest of the first half of the book. The thrust of this narrative is “that French philosophy since the 1960s has been primarily concerned with thinking the impossible’ in the sense of conceptually impossible (3). In this tale our heroes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, face, as heroes do, a challenge. As one might expect, the challenge is Hegelian, but not one issued, as is so often the case, by Kojève, but by Jean Hyppolite. While Kojève might have introduced Hegel to the salon, it was Hyppolite who introduced him, in the wake of Jean Wahl, to the university, and our heroes were all students of his. Gutting examines how they each responded to different aspects of their teacher’s reading of Hegel. Then Gutting explores why two giants remain peripheral to our tale: Heidegger and Sartre. While it is hard to deny that Heidegger’s shadow looms over our heroes, Gutting persuasively claims that most of the time his influence remained not much more than a master-thinker’s shadow cast across the Rhine. It is telling that a full French translation of Being and Time did not appear until 1985 (51). Caps were tipped more often than books were read or taught.

He next looks at how Sartre and Existentialism also seem to cast nothing more than a shadow. Part One concludes by looking at how Nietzsche was turned to in order to forge weapons to take on the Hegelian dragon. The first two chapters of Part Two examine the relationship of our heroes to the ethical work of Emmanuel Levinas. Then the relationship between Derrida and Marion is explored in order to bring to light the turn to religion in French phenomenology. And finally Badiou’s return to the ‘grand ontological style’ completes the journey, although even here half the chapter deals with Badiou and ethics.

Gutting writes with an exemplary clarity, so that if partisans of each thinker are infuriated by his interpretations, and I suspect many will be, then it should prove a productive infuriation as his prose and argumentative structure have a limpid quality which invite reasoned response. The bibliography is slight, and the suggested readings (limited to ‘accessible overviews’) even slighter, but as the book seems intended as a textbook these might be easily supplemented in class. To conclude, all those with an informed interest in recent French philosophy have something to gain from savouring Gutting’s provocative apologetics.

However, I hesitate to recommend the book as an introduction for those who are not of its presumed target readership, because there is more. The conclusion remains, and here Gutting departs from the task of writing an introduction and moves to judgement with some metaphilosophical reflections. Key to Gutting’s metaphilosophical thesis is the relationship between the project of thinking the impossible and the criteria through which the value of philosophically thinking the impossible can be judged. It is here that Gutting thinks the analytic can learn from the French, and vice versa, and thus they might be reconciled, or at least can engage in mutual plunder. In short, analytics can learn from the substance of French thought, and the French can learn from the style of analytic thought.

Gutting makes two general characterisations of analytic philosophy: that it proceeds ‘as if there is nothing that cannot be understood conceptually’ (185), and that philosophical arguments should ultimately be judged with reference to ‘the “obvious truths” of ordinary experience’ (2) or ‘intuitions’ (186). For Gutting his French are sceptical concerning the former. He then contrasts those whom he judges ‘absolute sceptics about conceivability (Levinas, Derrida, and Marion)’ with ‘relative sceptics (Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou) who claim only that there are conceptual impossibilities for any given set of concepts (but that new concepts can be developed to eliminate the impossibilities)’ (185). Gutting ties this distinction to the different ways the French react to Hegel.

But how is this project of thinking the impossible to be judged? Here Gutting utters a cri de coeur against the difficulty of reading and teaching his French philosophers. He laments their ‘disdain for the obvious’ (202). The cries acquire vigour and purpose, and become an assault on ‘the obscurity that arises because authors do not make a sufficient effort to connect their novel concepts to more familiar (even if technical) concepts that would allow an informed and conscientious reader to make an assessment of their claims’ (200). Until this point Gutting has contrasted the familiar with the obscurity of the impossible. But now the obscurity is related to the moral failings of an indulgently hermetic style, which must be remedied by a righteous and sober analytic style. The French must simply put in more of an effort. But what if this obscurity is just the obscurity of the unfamiliar? Even before the word ‘ideology’ springs onto any tongue, what if one asks of Gutting: familiar to whom? Might not it be the case that the hinterlands of students in South Bend, Indiana might be different from those of the denizens of a Parisian salon? For example, Gutting, ever pedagogically sensitive, is at pains to point out to his target readers that there are exotic beasts who do not accept human-rights ethics or the ‘capitalist conception of the human good’ (178). What is familiar in one place might not be familiar in the other. I don’t mean to precipitously judge the respective values of these hinterlands, merely note that they might be different. With an appreciation of differences of place, it will appear no accident that the Paris of our heroes is also the city of Beckett and Boulez. Aesthetic modernism does more than bring new possibilities of expression to the attention of the philosopher. It is also, for these philosophers in this time and place, a site of philosophical questioning. And understanding this is part of understanding recent French philosophy.

However, more is at stake here. Much as one can ask of Gutting: familiar to whom? one can ask of his analytic philosopher: whose ordinary truths of everyday experience; whose intuitions? And it might appear that when this form of philosophical demonstration, which has little to do with actual analysis, reaches a moment of philosophical decision, it judges with reference to the intuitions of those who have already pre-judged the matter at hand. This circularity might result in a more rigorous pre-judice, but surely philosophy is more than a more reflective bigotry? The problem of difference, and of the familiarity, or lack or it, with difference, pulls the rug from under simple-minded pretensions to rigour. And, as one can learn from Gutting’s book, recent French philosophers have had a lot to say about difference.

All this need not amount to an uncritical capitulation to the French style. Critiques of this style can be found within French philosophy, for example in French philosophical feminism. I am thinking of work like Michèle Le Doeuff’s trenchant 1977 essay ‘Long Hair, Short Ideas’ which takes French philosophy to task, from within, for both its style and its institutions (Le Doeuff 1989, 100-128). French feminism is so strong and striking because, in many ways, it has to be, and Gutting might have looked there to make a more persuasive, and more nuanced, indictment of French obscurity. He might also have been a little more careful about conflating the work of his French philosophers with their anglophone disciples. For example, a critique of Simon Critchley is not the same as a critique of Derrida and Levinas (133-6).

In addition, Gutting could have responded by turning back to his opening chapter on philosophical education. There he notes that ‘they were trained in the hermeneutic skills of textual explication based on historical erudition’ (9). Not only does the influence of aesthetic modernism mean that complex expression is valued more in Paris than elsewhere, but with training in the explication de texte, philosophers also have the training needed to be comfortable with texts that may appear daunting to those whose philosophical training has a different focus. Without skill in explication one might well be left with reverential paraphrase or bewildered denunciation as seemingly the only options. With it, one acquires valuable tools for the philosopher operating on the margins of conceivability and demonstration.

So while Gutting has a fair point about how his French philosophers don’t make our lives easy, I do think that there are more productive ways he could have explored their unfamiliarity. Gutting himself does write with a clarity that puts almost all to shame. But this very success leaves him in danger of looking like the caricature of a liberal cosmopolitan who loves pluralism just as long as everyone else is just like him. The French have much to offer ‘but the riches of recent French thought typically require patient excavation, refinement, and development before they will meet the (legitimate) standards of analytic philosophy’ (202-203). But, if the thought of our heroes has any philosophical merit then it lies in suggesting the impossibility of those standards that Gutting still wants to judge them by. I will bracket the question as to what his parentheses signify.

Ultimately this calls Gutting’s whole project in this book into question. His apologetic approach is a welcome relief from the paranoid style that appears to have spread from American politics into much anglophone philosophy (both analytic and continental). In this style, which oozes moral indignation, people who disagree with us are simply evil and must be eliminated. When he first identified this style 50 years ago, Richard Hofstader noted that it was predicated on irreconcilability (Hofstader 1996 39). By contrast, apologetics is predicated on the possibility of reconciliation. But this is not unconnected to the matter at hand. The French are reacting against the reconciliation they find in Hegel. To them this reconciliation appears, not evil, but, in turn, illusory, impossible, and undesirable. In response they are searching for a way forward in philosophy, and in politics, which does not lapse into pre-philosophical paranoia and prejudice. For this there is no need to apologise. 

4 March 2013


  • Gutting, Gary 1999 Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Hofstadter, Richard 1996 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Le Doeuff, Michèle 1989 Long Hair, Short Ideas’ The Philosophical Imaginary trans. Colin Gordon (London: The Athlone Press).


  1. Gutting is not the only one who makes the complicated a bit more simple – thanks for this! I’m still a bit surprised that analytic philosophers keep falling into the same meta traps (obviously this is because they are the handmaidens of imminently fascist capitalism but hey!) I hope you are keeping well down in London – Edinburgh is cold and grey, as always.

  2. Hello Chris. Hope all well. Been too long. Especially when looking at its early days, I’m tempted to think that ‘analytic’ philosophy is one giant meta-trap built of a lack of awareness of the full extent of the problems that face the project of grounding thought. Not that ‘continentals’ are immune to stumbling into traps at almost every turn, but I don’t think their problem is systemic as it might be with analytic… if there is such a thing any more. And it’s so cold and grey down here in the dark heart of Tory England that my old solar calculator only works if you hold it up very close to the light.

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