Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More about French philosophy's reception of German philosophy after WWI

After WWI, British and French students were awash in the anti-German sentiments of their respective cultures. But French philosophy students were exposed to the corrective influence of the two-Germanies model. Even if that influence was diminished in the post-War years, French students (and established philosophers) were subjected to another corrective influence. To wit, in the 1920s the French professorate was more diverse than that of the UK in at least one crucial respect: it included a number of very able philosophers who had been educated by German philosophy professors shortly before the War, and the former philosophers maintained their engagement with the latter group after the War. Some of the professors in the former group were from Alsace-Lorraine, a territory that belonged to Germany before the War and to France afterwards. Most of them, though, were refugees who had fled the 1917 revolution in Russia. The influence of these figures is particularly striking when one examines how Husserl re-surfaced in French philosophy after WWI.

While there had been some French publications about Husserl before the War, there wasn't much about him in the post-War French literature until 1926, when a French translation of Lev Shestov's 'Memento Mori' appeared in Révue Philosophique. This critique of Husserl drew a reply from Jean Héring, an Alsatian professor in the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Strasbourg.

Héring received most of his education when his Alsatian homeland was part of Germany. He had studied with Husserl in Göttingen (in 1909). With the shift of borders at the end of the War, he became a French citizen. Shestov was born, raised, and educated in Tsarist Russia and fled to France in 1920. He later became a professor of Russian at the University of Paris. Shestov is said to have initiated the invitation for Husserl to lecture in Paris in 1929.

Another influential Russian figure is Alexandre Koyré, a historian and philosopher of science. He, too, had studied with Husserl before the War. After Husserl disapproved of Koyré's research direction, Koyré moved to Paris to continue his education. Koyré fought in the Russian army during the War and then returned to Paris, where he completed his education and taught in the Department of Religious Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Koyré helped with the translation into French of Husserl's 1929 Paris lectures. (Along with a younger Russian, Alexandre Kojève, Koyré would also help French philosophers to improve their understanding of Hegel.)

There was a third Russian emigré who helped to raise Husserl's profile in France between the wars: the sociologist Georges Gurvitch, who (like Koyré) had received part of his education in German universities. At the Sorbonne between 1928 and 1930, Gurvitch lectured on recent German philosophy, focusing on phenomenology (esp. that of Max Scheler). (Ethan Kleinberg, Generation Existential: Heidegger's Philosophy in France, 1927–1961 [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007], pp. 27-28) These lectures formed the basis of his book Les tendances actuelles de la philosophie allemande, (Paris: Vrin, 1930) which presented the ideas of Husserl, Lask, Scheler, and Heidegger.

Another figure who helped to disseminate knowledge of Husserl in France between the wars was Bernard Groethuysen, a German author who, both before and after the War, divided his time between Germany and France. In Germany, he taught philosophy and history courses. In France, he worked as an editor and essayist.

In the 1920s, Paris had one of the largest populations of Russian refugees. Many of these Russians had received at least part of their post-secondary education in Germany. While few (perhaps none) of the above-named Russian philosophers were employed by French philosophy departments, they were employed by other academic departments in French universities. I don't know of any comparable minority group in the British universities of the day that had both the ability and opportunity to counteract biases against contemporary German academic philosophy. (Isaiah Berlin received his education in the UK, and Wittgenstein had relatively little acquaintance with the German philosophy professors of his time.) It is especially instructive to compare the French engagement with Husserl in the '20s with the chilly reception of Husserl's 1922 lectures in London.

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