Unstable meanings. Le Havre, France. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum


Since Derrida

A golden generation of French philosophers dismantled truth and other traditional ideas. What next for their successors?

by Peter Salmon + BIO

Unstable meanings. Le Havre, France. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

On 2 October 2020, the French president Emmanuel Macron gave a two-hour speech entitled ‘The Fight Against Separatism – The Republic in Action’ at Les Mureaux, a north-western suburb of Paris. In it, Macron described Islam as ‘a religion that is in crisis all over the world today’ due to ‘an extreme hardening of positions’. While acknowledging that France was partly responsible for the ‘ghettoisation’ of large numbers of Muslim residents (‘initially with the best intentions in the world’), and that it had failed to confront its colonial past including the Algerian war, Macron insisted that radical Islam was organising a counter-society that was ‘initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take over completely.’

Against this, Macron proposed a ‘republican reawakening’, including legislation that would defend the values of laïcité, enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution, which separates Church and state, and mandates France’s neutrality on religion – ‘Secularism,’ stated Macron, ‘is the neutrality of the state.’ One is invited to join this neutrality – an individual’s adherence to ‘the Republic’s universal principles’ gives one claim to citizenship of France. ‘We are not,’ he said, ‘a society of individuals. We’re a nation of citizens. That changes everything.’

But it was not simply the ideas of Islamic extremism that Macron identified as a threat to the Republic’s universal principles. According to Macron, France has also been ‘undermined’ by ‘theories entirely imported from the United States’. These theories, such as postcolonialism, gender studies, deconstruction and critical race theory, represent to France – as The New York Times put it in the article ‘Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So’ (2021) – an existential threat, a threat that ‘fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.’

There was a certain irony to Macron’s statement, as many of the major thinkers on gender, race, postcolonialism and queer theory are in fact French, part of the miraculous blooming of intellectual talent in late-20th-century French thinking. Far from being a US import, ‘identity politics’ – and identity, and politics – are central to the French intellectual tradition up to the present day.

It is a tradition the French president should know well. The final book of one of the key thinkers in late-20th-century French philosophy, Paul Ricœur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (2004), carries a dedication to ‘Emmanuel Macron to whom I am indebted for a pertinent critique of the writing and the elaboration of the critical apparatus of this work.’

Jacques Derrida and his cat Logos in 1987. Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty

Ricœur was part of a generation that Hélène Cixous, one of its members, called ‘the incorruptibles’. Their numbers included such thinkers as Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jean Luc-Nancy, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, to name just a few. While they were as defined by their differences as by their similarities – their work embraces the whole political spectrum, some were poststructuralist, some simply post structuralist – for each of them, questions of identity were central to their project, and their analyses opened up new ways of understanding the self.

What the self isn’t, for any of these thinkers, is the sort of stable, fully conscious, immutable generator of meaning that a certain version of Enlightenment thinking – and a certain version of both current philosophy and current ‘common sense’ – proposes. Following on from three thinkers whom Ricœur called the ‘masters of suspicion’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud – late-20th-century French philosophers looked at ways in which the self is constructed, how important or unimportant ‘consciousness’ is in that process, and how meaning is created. For each of these thinkers, we are not the absolute possessors of all our thoughts – there is a lot of work being done by preconscious, unconscious, non-conscious and subconscious impulses impacting what we regard as our ‘self-positing ego’.

To the Anglosphere, ‘this lot’ are doing ‘continental philosophy’ – a designation that, as Simon Critchley has pointed out, is as meaningless in Europe as asking for a ‘continental breakfast’ there. Their ideas are often regarded with deep suspicion, by proponents of the ‘analytic philosophy’, where the emphasis is on clarity and rigour – for instance, using formal logic to create systems of thought, often based on the analysis of language.

For Derrida, the division into analytic and continental philosophy is misnamed. For him, the division was between ‘analytic’ and ‘traditional’ philosophy – where the latter is philosophy that deals with big questions such as ethics, aesthetics, God and the meaning of life. As the English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch put it, analytic philosophy explores a world where ‘people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus, not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.’

The ‘continental philosopher’ is also given to engaging with the sort of questions of politics and identity that Macron flagged, and new generations of French thinkers continue this work, often trying to escape the legacy of the golden generation. To understand this more recent thinking, it is useful to see where it fits into the tradition of continental philosophy – a tradition stretching back to one early-20th-century philosopher’s quest to understand what a number is.

If we seek an origin story for continental philosophy, it is to be found in the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and his philosophical method ‘phenomenology’. Husserl started as a philosopher of mathematics, and his first book was an attempt to understand what a number is – whether it is a property of the mind or of the world. Does the number 2, for instance, exist if no human perceives it? Is zero a ‘thing’ that ‘exists’? And does 2 + 2 = 4 tell us anything about the Universe, or only about the laws of maths? How do, as Husserl called them, the ‘strange realms’ of the world and the self, the outside and the inside, relate to each other?

This question is not new, but his next move was. For Husserl, philosophy kept getting stuck on a simple question: ‘Does the world exist?’ In an audacious move, he argued that, while the question was legitimate and interesting, it was also on the one hand unanswerable, and on the other of minor importance compared with the difficulties it caused.

Instead, we should ‘bracket’ the question of the existence of the world and concentrate instead on how it is that we – humans – experience it. Rather than ‘Does that chair exist?’ we ask: ‘How do we perceive it?’ There are prosaic answers to this, regarding colour, shape, hardness and softness, but also less obvious answers, such as emotional relationships to it (‘my favourite chair’), economic ones (‘the expensive chair’) and ones that reveal the workings of consciousness (‘the chair I remember from my childhood’, ‘the chair that was there 15 minutes ago’, or even ‘the chair I now remember forgetting about for a while’). By describing and analysing this world of experience, we can then build outwards to establish how we ‘know’ the world.

In one sense, Husserl’s phenomenology is a continuation of the process started by another German philosopher, Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. Kant claimed he had been woken from a ‘dogmatic slumber’ by the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume had radically called into question the belief in causality. If billiard ball A striking billiard ball B causes B to move 100 times in a row, will it do so when it strikes the next time? Or if it is 1 million strikes, followed by 1 million plus one? For Hume, there is nothing in the world that guarantees the next strike will also cause the ball to move. And if we can’t trust causality, how can we trust anything? That the Sun will rise tomorrow? That the laws of mathematics will continue to work? Moreover, our entire trust in time is based on it, as well as our belief in the persistence of objects and ourselves. I’d like to be reasonably sure that the chair I am about to sit on will persist until I do, and that my ‘self’ will remain the same as well.

Kant’s solution was to situate causality not in the world, but in our experience of the world. That is, time and space are ways of encountering the world, and causality is one way in which we structure it. An event that did not follow the rules of causality would not be experienceable by human beings, any more than something that was not three-dimensional would be, or that ran backwards in time. For philosophy before Kant, ‘things appear’; after Kant ‘things appear for me’. Our world is viewed through a particular lens, and the apparatuses – the concepts – the lens uses are time and space.

Traces of phenomenology are everywhere in French thinking

Kant thus divided the world into two realms, the phenomenal – what we perceive – and the noumenal – the ‘things-in-themselves’. To the latter we have no access – the chair I see before me, persisting away, may in fact be a giant blue blob, a small dragon, or a shape inconceivable to human thought: there is no way of knowing. A different lens might see a different world. We might hope, with Kant, that God guarantees that what we see and what is there match up, but who knows?

For Husserl, then, if we cannot access the world beyond our own relationship to it, the true job of philosophy is to describe this relationship, to draw conclusions from it, and to look at how we draw these conclusions. This is ‘phenomenology’ – the study of phenomena, not of noumena.

Traces of phenomenology are everywhere in French thinking. The psychoanalyst Lacan’s tripartite division of our mental life into the Imaginary (or perceptual mental processes), the Symbolic (what we derive from culture and language) and the Real (the ‘out there’ that irrupts into us) privileges the phenomenal realm, while the Marxist thinker Althusser posits a similar schema in analysing ‘ideology’. For Althusser, ideology is a symbolic and imaginary realm, imposed on us (by the state, by schools, by family, by accepted common sense, which is never innocent), which gets between us and the real (this is the Marxist notion of ‘false consciousness’).

Husserl identified another problem that was to be equally influential. Philosophy is not, as it generally believed itself to be, a neutral system for thinking about the world. How we inhabit, describe and think about the world when doing philosophy is, Husserl argued, different from how we do so in our day-to-day lives. Most of our normal interactions with the world are ‘pre-cognitive’. We don’t think about a chair as a collection of ‘sense data’ and debate its existence, its hardness or its colour before we sit down – we just sit down. We don’t live in a world of ‘objects’ (of which we ourselves are one), about which we are forced to assess, define and interact with mentally – we live in what Husserl memorably called ‘the flowing thisness’. When we stop to do philosophy, the mere act of stopping to do philosophy changes our way of interacting.

This aspect of Husserl’s work had an immediate impact on thinkers who would also become hugely influential, including his student Martin Heidegger, for whom consciousness remained too central to Husserl’s project, and who, in Being and Time (1927), explored in greater depth our preconscious and non-conscious ‘being-in-the-world’. Later, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) in a sense ‘re-Husserls’ Heidegger by returning consciousness to centre stage, where its freedom to decide opens the way for existentialism.

Husserl’s influence extended beyond his published works. On his death in 1938, his unpublished archive was smuggled out of Nazi Germany to Leuven in Belgium – some 40,000 manuscript pages, and 10,000 pages of transcriptions by his assistants. It was here that the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, of Sartre’s generation, first researched Husserl in depth, leading to his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), in which he introduced, in a way hinted at by Husserl, the human body into phenomenology, and explored how the self, as an incarnated thing, encounters the world.

Finally, it was this archive that would cause a revolution in Derrida’s thinking. To many who are suspicious or hostile to ‘continental’ thinking and who accuse it of undermining not only truth but morality and common sense, Derrida – along with Foucault – remains the most notorious, particularly in the Anglosphere and his method, deconstruction, a dangerous implement for taking apart both academia and the wider culture. Derrida’s influence was particularly great in the US, and if the theories imported from the US are not explicitly named by Macron, little effort is required to know what he is referring to.

What is deconstruction? Simply put – and Derrida rarely put it simply, for reasons that will become clear – it is the idea that anything that is constructed can be de-constructed, be it an object, a concept, a text – anything. This is not destruction – that which is deconstructed still exists afterwards. But deconstruction exposes its workings – so it can be analysed, for instance, for why it has been constructed in such a way, who benefits, who loses, what has been included, what has been excluded.

So far, so philosophy. But deconstruction’s radical gesture is to assert that any meaning, any concept, text or metaphysical construct (such as Truth or God) is unstable. This is not because we do not have enough knowledge, nor because at some point in the future stability can be achieved – rather, this instability is ‘always already’ there in anything that purports to be whole and coherent.

To take the case of language – philosophy (among other disciplines) has operated on the assumption that the meaning of a word can, eventually, be fixed. However, as we experience in our daily life, the meaning of words changes constantly, often radically, and they shift over both time and space. Derrida argues that this is not an accident of language – it is what language is. Every entry in the dictionary refers to another word, and round and round we go. There is no, as it were, final or original word to which all words refer that allows us out of this chain of signification.

Such a word would be an example of what Derrida referred to as a ‘transcendental signified’, and they are everywhere in how we think about the world. For example, Plato noted that our concept of a perfect circle – given that we only ever encounter imperfect ones – must require what he called a Form, a perfect circle standing outside the messy world we inhabit. Similarly, the messy world of laws (created by popular will, government or fiat) aims at Justice – which does not, can not, exist. And the messy things going round our head aim at a Self, or a Consciousness, which is not, can not, be stable. Finally, in philosophy, Truth – that dream since Plato and the ancient Greeks – is just that: a dream. Truth generates philosophy – Derrida had nothing against that – but its arrival would end philosophy, just as the arrival of God – the ultimate transcendental signified – would end religion.

Derrida has come to be associated with the sort of identity politics increasingly categorised as ‘woke’

The faith we have in these transcendental signifieds, whether as a philosopher or in our day-to-day lives, is what Derrida referred to as the ‘metaphysics of presence’. We believe that we can pin the butterfly of meaning, despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Derrida’s philosophy is ultimately about the messy business of life, rather than the clarity and coherence that, for instance, analytic philosophy wishes to postulate. Key to this, and to later thinkers, is the idea that language is not some sort of transparent window to the world.

Derrida always referred to himself as a phenomenologist. In fact, it was worrying away at what he felt was a problem with Husserl that gave birth to deconstruction. As we have seen, Husserl’s ambition – and his method – was to capture and describe life as it is experienced. To do so, however, requires us to hit, as it were, the pause button and analyse, fully consciously, the world of the ‘now’, of the present. But in hitting the pause button we are, in a sense, again, standing outside of life – the very thing Husserl had criticised other philosophers for doing. This putative ‘now’ is again the ‘metaphysics of presence’, the dream of a stable point from which to view and explain the glorious mess.

The dissemination of Derrida’s ideas, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s, was prolific. The artificial nature of any assumed coherence, be it that of a philosophical concept, a literary text, a film or even an identity, saw his work adopted by a huge range of non-philosophical disciplines, sometimes at the cost of the philosophical rigour of his ideas, but often in ways that opened up new possibilities in fields that the once-obscure philosopher would have been astonished to have an impact on – from deconstructivism in architecture, which sought to break ‘continuity, disturbing relationships between interior and exterior’, to hauntological music, which yearned for lost meaning, drenching itself in the nostalgia of old technologies.

What might also have surprised Derrida is how his name – often joined with that of Foucault – has come to be associated particularly strongly with the sort of identity politics that are increasingly categorised under the rubric of ‘woke’, and thought to emerge in the US – hence Macron’s animus. More often than not, the term is derogatory and used only by those who oppose it. But one can loosely and positively define it as being attentive to issues of race and individual justice.

In one sense, Derrida is rightly invoked – in his questioning of meaning, the fluidity of identity and the constructed nature of the self (and of race, and of gender) were pertinent and, to a French-speaking Jewish pied-noir from Algeria, personal. A consequence of Derrida’s thinking – that all attempts at coherence have their own failure built in, and that any ‘totalising gesture’ is always artificial – is to critique all grand narratives, all absolutist and totalitarian positions.

But in another sense, questioning fixed ideas of identity is simply continental philosophy being ‘traditional’ philosophy. The question of what ‘identity’ is and isn’t is hardly new to philosophy – one might even say it is philosophy, certainly since the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes.

Descartes was certain of only one thing, ‘I think’ – therefore I can posit that I exist. Later, John Locke introduced the idea of consciousness, absent in Descartes, so ‘I think that’. And in the late 19th century, Franz Brentano, one of Husserl’s teachers, noted that consciousness always has a content – ‘I think about’. In each case, the thinker is trying to get at what our ‘identity’ is, as was Kant, as was Husserl.

But in the tradition, at least until recently, the unquestioned assumption of all these theories is that the self is ‘neutral’ – a floating consciousness that is, once you peel away everything, the same as it ever was. It is genderless, has no political identity, no body. Basically, it is a heterosexual (European) white man (of the sort who may be given to argue against ‘wokeness’). Other identities are then deviations, to be studied from the outside, like scientific specimens.

In reality, everyone – heterosexual (European) white men included – is affected by their place in society, their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their economic conditions (some or all of which can also change). There is no ‘transcendental signified’ human either, against which we can all be measured, whatever the dreams of certain notorious politicians and philosophers. There is no final version of the self to which we can all aspire.

This non-neutral state of the self been a particularly powerful notion in feminism. The work of thinkers such as Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva and Catherine Clément – to name only French thinkers – has explored, for instance, how embodiment affects selfhood. Cixous, for instance, in her essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) examined the relationship between the psychological and cultural inscription of the female body and the differences this generated in language and text. Women, positioned as ‘other’ in the masculine symbolic order, create strategies – or, Cixous argues, should do – that disrupt this order. Where the body has been left out of much philosophical thinking, in Cixous, it is always there, always ‘speaking’.

For Irigaray, all (philosophical) writing is masculine – phallocentric – and the feminine disruption to this is a way of undermining (to use a Lacanian phrase) ‘the subject supposed to know’ (another transcendental signified). An example is her book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1980), which carries out an ‘amorous dialogue’ with the thinker’s work through the metaphor of water and feminine ‘fluidity’. Nietzsche’s work often invokes the ‘philosopher of the future’. Irigaray asks: might she not be a woman – thus exposing the unconsidered assumption in Nietzsche’s voice that he is addressing a man, not something unique to Nietzsche in much (philosophical) discourse.

At its bluntest, Irigaray’s position can lead to charges of essentialism – all men are x, and all women are y – and this debate is a restless and ever-fascinating one not only in feminism, but in all debates about identity. So, for a nonessentialist thinker such as Michèle Le Dœuff, reason and rationality are not masculine – there are a ‘plurality of rationalisms’, and the danger of reducing women to their sex is to once again exclude them from proper philosophy, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau did in the 18th century by declaring that ‘abstract and speculative truths … are beyond a woman’s grasp’.

As Foucault showed in his discussions of sex, that which is silenced is often difficult to shut up

For Le Dœuff, philosophical writing (and all writing for that matter) has its own specific ‘imaginary’ that sets the limits of what it can talk about. For her, ‘images such as islands, fog, stormy seas in philosophical texts are not merely metaphorical. These images function to close off the text, making it self-contained.’ The rhetoric of philosophy has its own rules – to call a particular type of writing masculine or feminine is to talk about and critique these rules.

More recently, contemporary French feminist thinkers of colour such as Elsa Dorlin and Hourya Bentouhami have explored the intersection of feminist issues with those of race. Race is not – as scientists in fact argue – a scientific designation, but a cultural construct, and therefore a political construct. Designating a particular race as having particular attributes is to state a political position.

To the philosopher Magali Bessone, while agreeing that race is a cultural rather than scientific designation, rather than eliminating ‘discrimination’ by a pretence of neutrality, one needs to engage with and analyse how this discrimination has become ingrained. In particular, one needs to seek out where it is hidden in administrative and legal policies, as well as in language itself. We have not only adopted, often tout court, the idea of race, but have embedded it in our social and legal practices. To then call for the erasure of a difference that has real-world effects is simply to hide it, not to eradicate it.

And it is not only hidden – its ramifications are also elided. The French-Algerian philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina, in books such as Africa and its Ghosts: Writing After (2015), has drawn inspiration from Derrida’s idea of hauntology to explore the phantoms left by colonialism, both on public discourse and on individuals on both sides of the question. Where philosophy has tended to focus on ‘what there is’ – this is ontology – hauntology (a close homonym of ‘ontology’ in French), looks at what is absent or no longer present. Or as Merleau-Ponty put it, the Universe is ‘not only made out of things but also out of reflections, shadows, levels, horizons, which are not nothing.’

It was these phantoms that Macron was invoking in his speech, plus the new ones that Islam, to the French Right, calls into being. Again, ‘Secularism is the neutrality of the State’ of which one – embracing neutrality – becomes a citizen. Those who are not neutral, due to any affiliation that does not accord with this ‘neutrality’, are cast out, and are regarded not only as enemies, but as an active threat.

This idea of secularism – laïcité, from laikos, ‘of the people’ – is enshrined in the French Constitution. Religion is held to be a private matter, outside of the public sphere, and yet it haunts French discourse. This explains why such things as headscarves in schools are particularly controversial. As Foucault showed in his discussions of sex, that which is silenced is often difficult to shut up.

And is secularism itself in fact neutral? Thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood are part of a burgeoning international philosophical tradition that identifies the non-neutral nature of the secular. Like ‘neutral’ identity, secularism positioning itself as normal positions everything else as abnormal. As the French author Amin Maalouf has put it, ‘I have never understood how a country that called herself secular could call some of her citizens “French Muslims” and deprive them of some of their rights merely because they belonged to a religion other than her own.’

Derrida died in 2004. The events of 11 September 2001 encouraged him, in the last three years of his life, to re-engage with the religion he had been surrounded by in his Algerian childhood and denied access to – his lessons were all in French, and all about France – the ‘over there’, he called it. The day he was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would kill him, he engaged in a conversation with Mustapha Chérif, professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at the University of Algiers. The wide-ranging discussion included trying to square the circle of religion and the secular. Derrida admitted he had no solution. But what remained vital was to keep thinking about it. ‘If we simply knew what to do,’ he said, ‘if knowledge could simply guide our actions, then there would be no real responsibility.’

This sense of responsibility in a world that becomes ever more complex continues to inform French thinking. Failing a world in which we ‘know what to do’, French philosophy since Derrida’s generation has continued to work both within phenomenology and without, and has continued to tackle the big questions of traditional philosophy.

As we have seen, a great deal of this work serves to disrupt conventional ascription of knowledge and meaning to a neutral white consciousness or to any sort of transcendental realm, outside of the system. But attempts have also been made to move in the other direction, beyond phenomenology – or to reject it outright – by thinkers who are concerned that this becomes too much of a human-centred approach to philosophy. The world having meaning only in terms of humans, they argue, runs the risk of divorcing us completely from the ‘real world’ – the things themselves. And this at a time when we face environmental catastrophe.

A shift in the arguments of Bruno Latour is instructive here. Latour, who writes forcefully about the constructed nature of scientific theories, and the dependence of scientific organisations on funding and politics, such that discoveries were asset-led, has in recent years pulled back from his position. In his article ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ (2004), Latour calls for the ‘cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude’. To say that something is constructed, Latour argues, doesn’t mean it should be deconstructed, it means ‘it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.’

Others have gone further. Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008) was published with a foreword by his teacher Alain Badiou, who wrote: ‘It would be no exaggeration to say that Quentin Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy, hitherto conceived as the history of what it is to know…’ Badiou is not averse to hyperbole, and whether this is a new path remains open to debate, but Meillassoux’s intervention is part of what John Mullarkey has termed – with all possible caveats – ‘Post-Continental Philosophy’. These are thinkers who openly engage with the ‘scientific’ disciplines (such as Badiou and mathematics, Deleuze and biology, Catherine Malabou and neuroscience). The ‘real’, it seems, is making a comeback.

Science can know with great certainty about events that happened before the advent of consciousness

Phenomenology, argues Meillassoux, has left us with a major problem. By adopting a Kantian understanding of our ability to access – indeed, to not access – the ‘things in themselves’, philosophy fails to be able to deal with what we might be so bold as to call reality. As he puts it:

Contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere.

We have, he argues, made objects entirely dependent on subjects – this table at which I write is inconceivable if there is no me to perceive it. His term for this is correlationism – there is no being without thought, no world without perception. As he puts it, prior to Kant ‘one of the principal problems of philosophy was to think substance, while ever since Kant, it has consisted in trying to think the correlation’. Neither continental nor analytic thinking is immune to this.

Meillassoux accepts that for many philosophers this is either a non-problem or a trivial one – for the phenomenologist, we can in fact conceive of this table in the absence of a perceiving subject, even if we do it only by a form of memory and/or of consensus. That is, having previously experienced tables and rooms, I can be confident in my belief that a table can be in a room when no one is perceiving it. And I might, if I’m an odd sort of person, go on to ask some other people to confirm that this belief is the sort of thing they believe too. The table thus ‘exists’ without a human subject perceiving it.

But Meillassoux argues that such a position has one (at least) hugely detrimental problem. One of the masterpieces of human existence is science. It makes incredibly strong truth claims that, frankly, should be a credit to humanity, and that are basic to any (philosophical) understanding of being human. One of these truth claims is that science can know with great certainty about events that happened before the advent of consciousness, and objects that predate thought and perception.

How can we account for these? Again, a philosopher may propose the existence of an ‘ancestral witness’ such as God who performs the job of perception. Or she may argue that these events are actually ‘events’ only insofar as they are now present to consciousness, in the same way that it is absurd to call something a ‘rock’ before there were humans for whom there were rocks. As incessant as their existence appears to be, they still are ‘rocks’ only within the discourse of humans.

However, for Meillassoux, this ability of science to prognosticate objects and events is not simply one thing about science – it is the main thing, at least in terms of what our ability to do science means for human identity. The human USP, if you like, is that, despite our individual finitude, we can go beyond ourselves into the infinite. The ‘after finitude’ of Meillassoux’s title is the realm that our ability to make these sorts of ‘outside human’ prognostications opens up for us. To hem ourselves in by allowing only those things we can encounter is to deny what is essential to ‘human-ness’.

It is also, he argues, to ignore the fundamental gratuitousness of existence, of nature, of things beyond reason – by soaking everything in meaning, we continue to be surprised by meaninglessness, no matter how strong its claims. Echoing Derrida, we might call Meillassoux’s concern ‘the metaphysics of meaningfulness’ – philosophers bake meaningfulness into their worldview without noticing they have.

In one sense, this is not a new problem. It is here, after all, that Husserl started, and the question of whether the ‘out there’ was actually out there drove phenomenology. Among Husserl’s 1934 Leuven papers was an envelope, on the outside of which was written: ‘Overthrow of the Copernican theory in the usual interpretation of a world view. The original ark, earth, does not move.’ In three frankly wild pages, Husserl considers a glorious range of topics – such things as the phenomenology of being a bird and the idea of what it is like, phenomenologically, to be born on a ship and never see land (‘Different’).

But he also looks upwards to the stars – what does ‘knowing stars exist’, and believing on sound evidence that they predate and postdate us, mean to our way of being in the world? If they were so distant that we could not see them, could we predict them? If not, would that affect our contemporary understanding that the Earth is just another object in space? And, thus, our understanding of ourselves?

Meillassoux’s teacher and advocate Badiou shares this concern, both with ‘the real’ as it seems to be left out of contemporary philosophy, and how we access infinity – understood as a concept that allows humans to both go beyond themselves and help define their being. For Badiou, mathematics – and, in particular, set theory – provides a way of working through problems in ways that do not see us trapped by the sort of philosophical dead-ends Meillassoux conceives.

For Badiou, crucially, philosophy has never been able to think in multiples – there is something, there is nothing, there is an I, there is a you, and so on. Multiples are then extrapolated (and often cast as deficient), treated as secondary. Indeed, Being (or ‘will’ or ‘non-being’ or ‘consciousness’) is always conceived as being singular.

Badiou argues that set theory allows us to think in multiples – something is a set only if it identifies a similarity (or similarities) between two things (objects, concepts and so on). The set, then containing multiples, now counts as ‘one’. And, thus, the multiple elements that belong to that set are secured as one consistent concept (say, ‘tableness’ or ‘humanity’), but only in terms of what does not belong to that set. This gives us a pattern for looking at multiples as fundamental.

It is only through the ‘recent’ invention of set theory that we are able to – truly – experience infinity. Most of our previous encounters with infinity (for instance, God) are in fact based on ‘not-finity’. We experience the finite in our daily lives – and the infinite in most versions is just a lot of that. This is the ‘false infinite’ that the philosopher G W F Hegel mocked – the merely endless. An assertion that we can always add another number (n+1, n+2) is a platitude, not an experience of infinity. Set theory, however, gives us total infinity – ‘the set of all cardinal numbers’, ‘the set of odd numbers’, ‘the set of fractions’ (that these are different-size infinities was recognised by the late-19th-century mathematician Georg Cantor).

Badiou argues that set theory is not to be thought of as an analogy, but as a producer of new ways of thinking that creates unimaginable quantities and unpredictable outcomes. Mathematics does not represent truth – it performs it. He goes further; in some sense, mathematics generates philosophy – he sees no coincidence in the near-simultaneous birth of mathematics and philosophy. It is the former’s intervention in the ‘mytheme’ of Greek thought, taking us out of the world of gods and into the world of science, that produces philosophical thinking.

This, for Badiou, is an example of an ‘event’. An event is a situation where the multiplicities of that situation – of the set – become so inconsistent as to transform the situation completely. They are, in a sense, unnatural – time has no holes in it, it flows ‘naturally’ – so this disruption breaks the normal order of things. It both belongs to a situation and transforms it. The birth of philosophy. Newton. Einstein. The fall of the Berlin Wall.

Rather than the search for truth, philosophy is the creation of concepts

One criticism of Badiou is the lack of any criteria for what is an Event, rather than an event. Me writing this essay, you reading this essay, both are events, but then so is me standing up. And Badiou’s political hope for an event that produces an egalitarian society surely circumvents infinity. Why stop at a certain point and call that event definitive? Or good? This seems to be the sort of transcendental position – a standing outside – that French philosophy had attempted to put behind it.

Can we then escape the transcendental? As Mullarkey has argued, if we remove the transcendental, we must try to philosophise the immanent, that is, the great mess of life. But how can a philosophy of pure immanence claim to be correct, without an external criterion? Derrida in a sense, while identifying the chimerical nature of the transcendental signified, still thought it guaranteed the system, even if it was only as a hope. What if we lose this hope?

Here we move into the realm of a sort of performative philosophy, where the philosophy itself generates the thought, and shifts in metaphor cause shifts in understanding. Life is a process, a ceaseless happening that never ‘is’. To think, as Badiou puts it, is to break with sensible immediacy.

Deleuze, whose work Foucault regarded as theatrical, has been hugely influential here. For Deleuze, we live in a world of heterogenous continuity, and the present in which we live is a sort of smudged becoming. Rather than the search for truth, philosophy is the creation of concepts, but these concepts are not ‘things’, rather they define a range of thinking. Deleuze was both prolific and frankly carnivalesque in his creation of concepts. One is the concept of the machine – everything is a machine, desiring machines, producing machines – another the rhizome, an image borrowed from botany of a mass of roots, as opposed to the hierarchical ‘arborescent’ – the structure of a tree. The rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions. A rhizome ‘has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’

Thus, having acknowledged that we live in the mess of the metaphorical, where metaphors are ways of thinking, our task is in a sense to wallow in this unrestricted becoming, and produce better metaphors as we do so. Better, in some readings, means ‘having more explanatory power’ or ‘correlating better to lived experience’. One often feels with Deleuze that, at times, a better metaphor is simply one that is more interesting or exciting – once all language is metaphorical, why not enjoy?

If biology and botany inform Deleuze, the work of Malabou takes neuroscience as its inspiration, particularly in generating the concept of ‘plasticity’. The brain, she notes, is rarely mentioned in philosophy, and yet in the way that the brain constantly re-forms itself – building pathways, creating new synapses – we have a model for human-ness. Plasticity of this sort is the ability both to take form (we mould clay into a form) and to give form (as in plastic surgery).

One can see how this notion is fertile for those who want to question sovereign ideas of selfhood. The malleability of identity both allows those living within it to self-create, but also allows changes that are imposed to be analysed, and power relations exposed and, possibly, resisted. That this antagonises those for whom such transformation is threatening enters Malabou’s work into the realm of politics. Further, in French, plasticity has the additional meaning of ‘explosive’ (le plastic) or ‘bombing’ (le plastiquage): her latest collection of essays is Plasticity: The Promise of Explosion (2022).

Perhaps the most radical take on the question of where to next for French philosophy is the work of François Laruelle, if you can call it philosophy – which Laruelle does not. His work is, in his own formulation, non-philosophy, which is to philosophy what non-Euclidean geometry is to geometry – ‘constitutively incomprehensible’ to those who work within the conventional field. Derrida himself described Laruelle as a terrorist within philosophy.

Like Meillassoux, Laruelle holds that philosophy, in asserting that everything can be interpreted, has already made a decision – the decision that every phenomenon to be explained must be explicable. This is not a position: it is an imposition. The history of philosophy is a history of philosophies. Just as we have come to accept that a number of different branches of psychology can be ‘effective’ – psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology – so we must come to accept that a number of different branches of philosophy can be ‘effective’. A philosophy is a way of seeing, and none is better than another. Each continues to ferret out the explicable with more or less success. Meanwhile, life goes on.

So where to now? At one end, we have those grasping for the noumenal; at the other, those who work within the phenomenal. It is hard not to think that Derrida is right, this is ‘traditional philosophy’, and these are traditional problems, with traditional oscillations between one end of the spectrum and the other. These oscillations have produced, and continue to produce, some of the most controversial and fascinating thinking of our or any era, across philosophy, religion, ethics and aesthetics, to name a small sample. Both of Husserl’s ‘strange realms’ and their relationship to each other continue to generate new ways of seeing and thinking about philosophy.

Is any reconciliation possible? Or is this moving between poles the very task of philosophy, the source of its creativity? Perhaps across the spectrum of ‘continental’ philosophy are thinkers who ultimately share Derrida’s position that ‘if things were simple, word would have gotten around’. Or as he genially put it towards the end of his life:

Thus I say … that deep down I, more than anyone else (or at least as much as anyone else) am a metaphysician of presence: I desire nothing more than presence, voice, all of these things I have questioned; therefore I am, as it were, a counterexample of the very thing I am advocating.