Let us begin these reflections on contemporary French philosophy with a paradox: that which is the most universal is also, at the same time, the most particular. Hegel calls this the ‘concrete universal’, the synthesis of that which is absolutely universal, which pertains to everything, with that which has a particular time and place. Philosophy is a good example. Absolutely universal, it addresses itself to all, without exception; but within philosophy there exist powerful cultural and national particularities. There are what we might call moments of philosophy, in space and in time. Philosophy is thus both a universal aim of reason and, simultaneously, one that manifests itself in completely specific moments. Let us take the example of two especially intense and well-known philosophical instances. First, that of classical Greek philosophy between Parmenides and Aristotle, from the 5th to the 3rd centuries bc: a highly inventive, foundational moment, ultimately quite short-lived. Second, that of German idealism between Kant and Hegel, via Fichte and Schelling: another exceptional philosophical moment, from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, intensely creative and condensed within an even shorter timespan. I propose to defend a further national and historical thesis: there was—or there is, depending where I put myself—a French philosophical moment of the second half of the 20th century which, toute proportion gardée, bears comparison to the examples of classical Greece and enlightenment Germany.

Sartre’s foundational work, Being and Nothingness, appeared in 1943 and the last writings of Deleuze, What is Philosophy?, date from the early 1990s. The moment of French philosophy develops between the two of them, and includes Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan as well as Sartre and Deleuze—and myself, maybe. Time will tell; though if there has been such a French philosophical moment, my position would be as perhaps its last representative. It is the totality of this body of work, situated between the ground-breaking contribution of Sartre and the last works of Deleuze, that is intended here by the term ‘contemporary French philosophy’. I will argue that it constitutes a new moment of philosophical creativity, both particular and universal. The problem is to identify this endeavour. What took place in France, in philosophy, between 1940 and the end of the 20th century? What happened around the ten or so names cited above? What was it that we called existentialism, structuralism, deconstruction? Was there a historical and intellectual unity to that moment? If so, of what sort?

I shall approach these problems in four different ways. First, origins: where does this moment come from, what were its antecedents, what was its birth? Next, what were the principal philosophical operations that it undertook? Third, the fundamental question of these philosophers’ link with literature, and the more general connection between philosophy and literature within this sequence. And finally, the constant discussion throughout this whole period between philosophy and psychoanalysis. Origins, operations, style and literature, psychoanalysis: four means by which to attempt to define contemporary French philosophy.

To think the philosophical origins of this moment we need to return to the fundamental division that occurred within French philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century, with the emergence of two contrasting currents. In 1911, Bergson gave two celebrated lectures at Oxford, which appeared in his collection La pensée et le mouvement. In 1912—simultaneously, in other words—Brunschvicg published Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique. Coming on the eve of the Great War, these interventions attest to the existence of two completely distinct orientations. In Bergson we find what might be called a philosophy of vital interiority, a thesis on the identity of being and becoming; a philosophy of life and change. This orientation will persist throughout the 20th century, up to and including Deleuze. In Brunschvicg’s work, we find a philosophy of the mathematically based concept: the possibility of a philosophical formalism of thought and of the symbolic, which likewise continues throughout the century, most specifically in Lévi-Strauss, Althusser and Lacan.

From the start of the century, then, French philosophy presents a divided and dialectical character. On one side, a philosophy of life; on the other, a philosophy of the concept. This debate between life and concept will be absolutely central to the period that follows. At stake in any such discussion is the question of the human subject, for it is here that the two orientations coincide. At once a living organism and a creator of concepts, the subject is interrogated both with regard to its interior, animal, organic life, and in terms of its thought, its capacity for creativity and abstraction. The relationship between body and idea, or life and concept, formulated around the question of the subject, thus structures the whole development of 20th-century French philosophy from the initial opposition between Bergson and Brunschvicg onwards. To deploy Kant’s metaphor of philosophy as a battleground on which we are all the more or less exhausted combatants: during the second half of the 20th century, the lines of battle were still essentially constituted around the question of the subject. Thus, Althusser defines history as a process without a subject, and the subject as an ideological category; Derrida, interpreting Heidegger, regards the subject as a category of metaphysics; Lacan creates a concept of the subject; Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, of course, allotted an absolutely central role to the subject. A first definition of the French philosophical moment would therefore be in terms of the conflict over the human subject, since the fundamental issue at stake in this conflict is that of the relationship between life and concept.

We could, of course, take the quest for origins further back and describe the division of French philosophy as a split over the Cartesian heritage. In one sense, the postwar philosophical moment can be read as an epic discussion about the ideas and significance of Descartes, as the philosophical inventor of the category of the subject. Descartes was a theoretician both of the physical body—of the animal-machine—and of pure reflection. He was thus concerned with both the physics of phenomena and the metaphysics of the subject. All the great contemporary philosophers have written on Descartes: Lacan actually raises the call for a return to Descartes, Sartre produces a notable text on the Cartesian treatment of liberty, Deleuze remains implacably hostile. In short, there are as many Descartes as there are French philosophers of the postwar period. Again, this origin yields a first definition of the French philosophical moment as a conceptual battle around the question of the subject.

Next, the identification of intellectual operations common to all these thinkers. I shall outline four procedures which, to my mind, clearly exemplify a way of doing philosophy that is specific to this moment; all, in some sense, are methodological ones. The first move is a German one—or rather, a French move upon German philosophers. All contemporary French philosophy is also, in reality, a discussion of the German heritage. Its formative moments include Kojève’s seminars on Hegel, attended by Lacan and also influential upon Lévi-Strauss, and the discovery of phenomenology in the 1930s and 40s, through the works of Husserl and Heidegger. Sartre, for instance, radically modified his philosophical perspectives after reading these authors in the original during his sojourn in Berlin. Derrida may be regarded as, first and foremost, a thoroughly original interpreter of German thought. Nietzsche was a fundamental reference for both Foucault and Deleuze.