Height of passion on the Continent

Contemporary French Philosophy

May 30, 2003

Caroline Williams shows how the question of the human subject continues to inform and inflect contemporary French philosophy. After pronouncements of the death of the author (Barthes), the demise of man (Foucault) and the end of humanism (Derrida and Lyotard), this book convincingly argues that the interrogation of subjectivity remains a central component of Francophone continental thought.

What is especially original about Williams' thesis is the way she shows how the persistence of the subject is not only a matter of epistemology and ontology but an urgent demand of politics. Her basic claim is that the philosophical rethinking of the human self entails fundamental ethico-political decisions.

Contemporary French thought has been able to reconfigure the paradox of the subject in productive new ways. While the old Cartesian cogito has been deconstructed, precluding any temptation to restore the humanist ego, this does not prevent the subject being reconstructed in all kinds of creative political directions.

After locating the history and genealogy of the modern subject in Descartes, Spinoza and Hegel, the author investigates four key French thinkers - Lacan, Althusser, Derrida and Foucault.

Ranging freely between the discourses of structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and deconstruction, Williams elucidates many of the most elusive aspects of contemporary continental thought. Her plea to revisit these debates from a specifically political perspective is welcome, especially in view of the common prejudice that postmodernist thinking is incorrigibly nihilistic. The book is eminently suitable for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses.

My one quibble is the use of "French" in the title - it misrepresents the multinational character of many of the thinkers discussed. Nevertheless, the author provides a challenging interrogation of some significant minds in 20th-century philosophy.

Richard Kearney is professor of philosophy, Boston College, Massachusetts, US.


Contemporary French Philosophy: Modernity and the Persistence of the Subject. First edition

Author - Caroline Williams
ISBN - 0 485 00432 1 and 00632 4
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 254

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