This is a fascinating book on many levels.footnote It is first of all an excellent guide through the sometimes murky landscape of post-1960 French thought. Dews manages the exceptional feat of being both fair and clear in expounding Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard and Foucault. It is all too easy to make any of these sound very straightforward by giving a selectively simplified translation into familiar slogans. This seems to have been largely the fate of Derrida on the American scene. It is also fatally easy to retain the full complexity by simply reproducing their language, or at least their impenetrable style. Dews has managed, on the contrary, to get to the essentials of their respective positions through a clear exposition of the underlying arguments. This means that he relates them at the same time to their sources in Husserl, Nietzsche, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, among others. He manages his imposing cast of characters with deftness and economy. This is a work without unnecessary digression. The argument of certain passages is dense, and calls for repeated reading. But it repays the effort in clarity of understanding. The book casts floods of light on its subject.

Dews has also had to strike a balance between two other extremes which mar one’s understanding of these writers. Some commentators on these authors are breathlessly admiring of their deep and unprecedented insights; others are impatient scoffers. I confess that I sometimes find myself drawn into the latter category, partly no doubt in reaction to people I encounter in the former. These two unfortunate attitudes undoubtedly feed off each other. Dews somehow keeps away from both. He treats his authors as though they had something new and important to say, as thinkers who have explored crucial facets of the modern predicament. But at the same time, he doesn’t hide or try to gloss over the evasiveness, the sometimes wilful obfuscation of certain issues, which the style of doing philosophy then dominant in Paris seemed to encourage. Foucault’s sliding between different contradictory positions on the issues of truth and freedom is well documented, for instance.

I confess that I have not been entirely cured of the scoffer’s disease. An overview of Lyotard’s whole development, through his rapid changes of position, rather reinforces the clownish aspect. It is hard to keep a straight face when one is told that Lyotard comes to discover that the issue of truth and falsehood is important after all, because various forms of power constantly try to suppress it to insulate themselves from criticism (p. 219). No wonder Popper is now the rage in Paris. He may have understood nothing else about society, history, cultural change, the sources of power, etc., but at least he never lost sight of that.

On the other hand, Dews shows a coherence in Lacan which I hadn’t seen, and establishes a case for seeing him as an important thinker of this period. This in spite of the fact that he seems to be slipping into neglect in the way Derrida is not, for all the sharp criticism that has been directed against him. The differential fate of these two authors, which Dews treats together and compares in an interesting chapter, would be interesting to explain, but that would have taken Dews beyond his brief.

But admirable as it is as exposition, Logics of Disintegration is more than this. Dews also tries to come to grips with the major underlying themes that link these authors, and to assess where they have brought them. The book concludes with an attempt to say where the argument has got to today.

In taking on this task, of course, Dews has to be selective in a way he was not in his expository passages. He brings out an underlying range of motivations that run through the works of these authors, and then measures their work in the light of the connected implicit aims. But we could see the philosophies of this period as reflecting other concerns as well. Their underlying thrust can be seen as towards a kind of freedom which is defined in left-wing terms, interwoven with a critique of capitalism and bureaucratic power; but they also can be read as invoking another sort of freedom, which by no means has the same affinities or suggests the same alliances. This is, of course, what Habermas has pointed to in his critique of some of these writers. Dews is aware of this other side; he sees that some of the works of these writers fail to give adequate purchase to a critique of the status quo, and can even be used in a quite different cause. But he doesn’t seem to consider to what extent their underlying motivation is ambiguous.

To get to this issue, I will try to explain the distinction I have just alluded to, the different kinds of freedom which have lent various poststructuralist theories their power of attraction. There may seem to be a questionable claim here right at the start: for these theories sometimes purported to offer critiques of ‘freedom’, as well as of ‘truth’, ‘nature’, ‘meaning’, and the host of related concepts which have underpinned modern humanisms. It seemed more plausible to say, first off, that what they were about was not freedom, but a critique of subjectivity, of the beliefs in self-possession, or self-clarity, or self-presence, or self-control, which define commonly invoked goals of the humanist tradition, and often set the terms in which freedom was understood.