An appeal to protect every citizen’s right to philosophy

The future of the Collège International de Philosophie, a legacy of Jacques Derrida, is at risk, warns Martin McQuillan

October 30, 2014

In the month where several international conferences mark the 10th anniversary of the death of the Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida, one of his lasting legacies, the Collège International de Philosophie, was under imminent threat of closure.

The Collège was established in 1983 by the Minister of State for Research and Technology at the time, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, acting on recommendations from Derrida and the philosophers François Châtelet, Jean-Pierre Faye and Dominique Lecourt. From its inception it was imagined as a flexible, interdisciplinary and responsive institution promoting critical thought in and beyond the academy, funded by the ministries of Education, Culture, Foreign Affairs and Research. It has been the means by which an impressive legacy of modern French thought has been sustained, involving volunteer directors of programmes such as Sylviane Agacinski, Alain Badiou, Régis Debray, Michel Degy, Catherine Malabou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Bernard Stiegler and of course Derrida. It has also promoted outreach and training projects for schoolteachers and the public, in France and internationally, for 30 years, and runs an open-access journal, Rue Descartes.

Funding for the Collège has been in decline in recent years and the €240,000 grant that remains supports the cost of maintaining an administrative base. Reforms to French higher education have required the once independent Collège to be incorporated within the Université Paris Lumières. Seemingly without explanation the promised funds for the Collège did not arrive in this year’s allocation to Lumières. The Collège then had no means to pay the salaries of its staff or meet its other commitments. Had no solution been found by 5 November, the Collège would have been forced to announce a cessation of payments, in effect declaring itself bankrupt.

On 17 October the president of the Collège, Diogo Sardinha, and the collegiate assembly of 50 programme directors (35 in France and 15 in other countries) launched an international appeal and petition to save the work of this unique institution. It called on French president François Hollande to honour the original commitments that founded the Collège and so to guarantee the place of critical thought in French public life.

The benefit-to-cost ratio of this volunteer-led institution has been impressive. Last year it provided 720 hours of free public seminars in libraries, cultural centres, cinemas and high schools, as well as organising 19 conferences and workshops, and 12 debates based on recently published books.

On 22 October the French Ministry of Education issued a press release stating that the Collège would after all receive its funding for the year, but there has been no direct contact between the Ministry and the Collège or Lumières, and the situation remains uncertain.

The potential disappearance of the Collège represents an intellectual disaster not only for France but also for the wider world. The philosophical tradition that runs through the debates, forums, seminars and publications of the Collège has irrigated thinking across the disciplines of the humanities internationally.

The Collège fosters the essential relation between critical thinking and civil society, providing training opportunities for the public to engage fully in the questioning and reasoning necessary to any democracy. As its founders put it, the Collège is the guarantor of every citizen’s “right to philosophy”.

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