April 20, 2021
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The Bull-Shit Detector

Luc Ferry, the philosopher who challenged Postmodern Radicalism is France's new education minister

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The Bull-Shit Detector
Chirac's cabinet -- Luc Ferry stands second from left
The Bull-Shit Detector
When French President Jacques Chirac announced his new cabinet last Tuesday, reporters scrutinized his choices to estimate their possible effect on the forthcoming parliamentary races. But one of his appointments is as likely to influence the world of ideas: The new minister of youth, education, and research is Luc Ferry, 51, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. Mr. Ferry is best known for his criticism of several French thinkers who have exercised considerable influence on scholarship in the United States. The University of Chicago Press has published a number of Mr. Ferry's books in translation -- including, earlier this month, Man Made God: The Meaning of Life, which originally appeared in 1996.

A prolific author, Mr. Ferry might be called a "public intellectual" -- if that expression were not redundant in a country where paperbacks on philosophy can be found in drugstores. He has debated the legacy of Martin Heidegger, argued against the philosophical underpinnings of the radical ecology movement, and written for mass-circulation journals such as Le Point and L'Express. In the 1980s, he published a four-volume study of modern political philosophy. He also has some experience of politics in practice -- having served under both Mr. Chirac and Lionel Jospin as president of the national council overseeing revision of the standard curriculum in higher education.

Mr. Ferry is sometimes identified as one of the "New Philosophers" -- a group of young thinkers who, in the late 1970s, challenged the hold of Marxism and other radical currents on the French intelligentsia. In 1986, in a collaboration with Alain Renaut, Mr. Ferry published an influential critique of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan, treating them as manifestations of what the book's title called "68 thought." (The reference to the mass protests by students and workers in May 1968 is unfortunately lost in the volume's English translation as French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism, published by the University of Massachusetts in 1990.)

At least part of the book's provocative effect came from treating four iconoclastic -- and presumably subversive -- thinkers as embodying a new intellectual orthodoxy. For each, according to Mr. Ferry and Mr. Renaut, the entire Western philosophical tradition from Plato to Hegel was "exhausted of possibilities ... and must be done away with." Earlier concepts had been more or less subtle disguises for domination -- even (or perhaps especially) when philosophers spoke of freedom, universal reason, or human rights. Against this, radicals conforming to "68" principles treated language or power as forces that created human beings (rather than vice versa).

While offering a thoroughgoing critique of society, "antihumanist" theoreticians left it unclear on what grounds one could protest any given instance of domination. Foucault himself was an activist in the prisoners'-rights movement and a militant supporter of dissidents in the Eastern bloc. But given his understanding of all societies as essentially totalitarian, it was difficult to know how he recognized an injustice when he saw one, or why he should care.

Against such radical criticism, Mr. Ferry and other thinkers argued that the Western philosophical tradition, far from being exhausted, remains essential to the task of developing a notion of human rights adequate for modern society. (Nor, implicitly, had there been some great leap forward, hurtling mankind into "postmodernism.") While a certain apocalyptic tone and high-flying literary quality often accompanied "68 thought," Mr. Ferry's philosophical writings have tended to be rather more dry.

That has not kept them from being controversial. In May '68 and Its Afterlives, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, Kristin Ross, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, treats Mr. Ferry's work as a triumph of advertising over analysis. His work, she argues, reflects "the transposition of the marketing concept of 'generation' and other journalistic techniques into the field of philosophy, such that the new generation emerges fully formed to render the previous one obsolete." She says the implicit message is, simply, "Get out so that we can take your place."

Mr. Ferry's "generation" has not sold that briskly in the United States, where the poststructuralists have created a surprisingly durable brand loyalty in academe. His book on "68 thought" appeared in France at about the time Allan Bloom was bemoaning the role of radical ideology in The Closing of the American Mind. Many scholars assume Mr. Ferry to be a neoconservative, if they have heard of him at all.

An exception is Charles E. Larmore, a professor of philosophy at Chicago, who discussed Mr. Ferry's work in his book Modernité et morale (Presses Universitaires de France, 1993). Mr. Larmore, who has known Mr. Ferry for nearly 20 years, dismisses the neoconservative label as inaccurate. "Politically, I would say that he is simply a liberal democrat," he says. His rapport with Mr. Ferry began because the French author "talked about the fundamental problems of political philosophy in terms akin to those current in the Anglo-American world."

The earliest notice of Mr. Ferry's work in the United States came in 1989, in essays for The Village Voice and Dissent by Paul Berman, the author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (W.W. Norton, 1996). "Once you've read Ferry and Renaut's book," says Mr. Berman, "you really can't turn back to the postmodernists with the same eager enthusiasm as before. ... He comes with a bullshit-detector. Americans like to make fun of the French, but when have we had anyone like that in our own government?"

Commenting on the new cabinet appointment by e-mail message, Mr. Berman writes, "A philosopher who did join an American administration would get denounced instantly as a traitor to intellect. But it's not like that in France. Malraux worked for de Gaulle, and Regis Debray worked for Mitterrand, and here is Luc Ferry working for Chirac, and guess what? France is none the worse for the experience. On the contrary."


(Scott McLemee is a staff writer covering the humanities for the Chronicle of Higher Education where this article first appeared. His reviews and essays have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other journals)>

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