Interview Philosophy

What is a French Philosopher?
An Interview with Luc Foisneau

by Florent Guénard , 31 March 2016
translated by Chelsea McNay

The recent publication of the Dictionnaire des philosophes français du XVIIe siècle, seven years after a renowned English first edition, gives its readers the opportunity to question the knowledge of the Grand Siècle, reputed as classical but actually quite baroque at its core. It further addresses the important question of how to define a French philosopher in the 17th century.

Luc Foisneau, political philosopher and historian of philosophy, directed the collective work of the Dictionnaire des philosophes français du XVIIe siècle, subtitled Acteurs et réseaux du savoir. This French edition, reuniting 167 authors, offers French-speaking readers a revised and expanded version of the Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers, published in New York and London in 2008: with its 690 entries, eight thematic introductions and its historical and comprehensive index historique et raisonné, this dictionary constitutes an incomparable tool for the discovery of the agents and networks of knowledge in Baroque and Classical France.

La Vie des idées: Why did you choose to direct a dictionary of French philosophers? And how should the term French be understood in this context? Many people in 17th century Europe wrote in French without being French; and we find, in this dictionary, authors such as Tschirnhaus or Rømer, who have fewer links to France.

Luc Foisneau: The primary reason for the title of the work is that the dictionary was first published, in English, in a series of dictionaries focused on modern philosophers, divided nationally. Other categories were conceivable, but, for pragmatic reasons, this is the one that was decided upon by Rudi Thoemmes, creator in Bristol of the philosophical editions of the same name in the 1980s. Initiated in 2000, continued in 2005 by Continuum and later by Bloomsbury in 2011, this editorial project, to which our dictionary is linked, originally hoped to cover global modern philosophy. The nation and era defined the parameters of the work, which allowed us to categorize our list of entries. Rudi Thoemmes presented the project to me in April 2000, at a colloquium organized by John Rogers at Keele University, with the goal of creating a worldwide encyclopedia of philosophy.

The project, originating in England, led fairly quickly to the publication of a complete series of dictionaries of British philosophers (17th century to 20th century). The extraction of pertinent entries then produced a dictionary of Irish philosophers. For evident linguistic and historical reasons that largely facilitated the task for the scientific directors, a complete series of dictionaries of American philosophers completed the series of dictionaries of British philosophers. The “continental” philosophers weren’t forgotten either, as we can also consult The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century German Philosophers and The Dictionary of Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Dutch Philosophers. Published in 2008 in New York and London, The Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers constitutes, in some manner, another piece of this incomplete puzzle. But, to be honest, this incompleteness was not solely due to the fact that Rudi Thoemmes sold his publishing house before the completion of the project; it was also the consequence of fading motivation to complete the continental section of the project, once the British and American dictionaries were finished. The creation of a version in French of the Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers, can then be seen, not only as the expression of the will to obtain such a tool in the vernacular language of its authors, but also as a method of rekindling the global project.

One of the unique characteristics of the French edition resides in the fact that the authors highlight, when pertinent, the global presence of 17th century French philosophy: it is particularly the case in the entries “Philippe Couplet” for China and “Chrétien Leclerq” for Canada. If Tschirnhaus and Rømer also had entries, it is because of their status as very active members of the Académie royale des sciences de Paris. Having said this, I understand of course that some might contest this inclusion: after a suggestion by Theo Verbeck in a review of the first edition of the dictionary, I decided to withdraw the entry “Reneri, Hendrik” from the French edition, which clearly did not belong there. More generally, reading the Dictionnaire reveals a tension in 17th century French philosophical movements which are indicative both of an opening up to the wider intellectual world, and – simultaneously – reversion to inward-looking domestic intellectual traditions. Philippe Hamou examines the former phenomenon in his introduction on sciences, exploring the creation of an intellectual European project encouraging the scientific renewal, which started in Italy and expanded progressively into the rest of Europe. By contrast, in his introduction Jacob Schmutz highlights the closing down of French scholasticism to exterior influences, and the diminution of foreign professors teaching in French university. These movements of nationalization and denationalization of knowledge indicate that we are unable to give a simple response to the question of the definition of a French philosopher in the 17th century: the latter is protean, with one foot in Aristotelian scholasticism, the other in modern science; the gaze turned, more often than not, toward what we could call the ‘secret’ sciences.

To understand the intellectual complexities of the question of nationality, one must take into consideration the religious aspect of a large part of French philosophy in the 17th century. Gallicanism, by and large, categorizes the religious orders to which the majority of philosophers were connected in some way. Debates over religious obedience are rarely separated from discussions of the formation of national sentiment, and philosophical development in this period was undoubtedly influenced by the conflict between religious confessions. Jansenism played a considerable role in the composition of French national identity: both through spiritual opposition to the monarchy of divine right at the heart of Catholicism, and by the seminal formation of the best esprits of the period. In his introduction dedicated to religious controversies and to the birth of the République des lettres, Antony McKenna explains how the forced exile of the Huguenots after 1685 allowed for the creation of a literary republic, a genuine intellectual response to the all-Catholic monarchy of Louis XIV, instigated by the considerable extension of the networks of correspondence, of which Pierre Bayle was a relentless leader. And Gianni Paganini, in his introduction dedicated to clandestine thought, highlights that the European circulation of clandestine manuscripts ignored national barriers. So, if the expression “French Philosopher” shouldn’t be essentialized—we have used the term pragmatically—the information that we find in the introductions and notices allows us to pose, in all complexity, the question of the relation to knowledge in Baroque and Classical France.

La Vie des idées: What should we take away from the term “philosopher” in your dictionary? Certain entries might be surprising to readers: Molière, Racine, Corneille, Malherbe, or, even more surprising, Richelieu.

Luc Foisneau: We used the habitual meaning of this term in the 17th century. Furetière, a good guide for usage, gives several definitions of the word “philosopher,” the first being, “he who applies himself to the study of the Sciences, and who searches to understand the effects by their causes and by their principles” (“[c]elui qui s’applique à l’étude des Sciences, et qui cherche à connaître les effets par leurs causes & par leurs principes”). This classic Aristotelian definition allowed us to include intellectuals in the dictionary, in any discipline, that had developed reflections on the principles of their sciences. So you’ll find, among our authors, 28 mathematicians, botanists, doctors and a large number of French representatives from Galilean physics. Furetière also clarified that chemists “should be given the title [of philosopher] in preference over all of the others” (Les alchimistes “s’appliquent ce nom [de philosophe] par préférence à tous les autres”), and so nine alchemists were added. The word “philosopher” also includes a scholarly signification: “it is said in College, of the Professor who teaches Logic, Morals, Physics and Metaphysics” (“Se dit au College, du Professeur qui enseigne la Logique, la Morale, la Physique, & la Metaphysique”). This last definition allowed us to include a certain number of philosophy professors from all of the colleges of France and of Navarre, and we include philosophers that were never philosophy professors. As the usual definition of the term “philosopher” does not have a comparable determination to that, for example, of the term “Jesuit,” the dictionary does not pretend to compete with works such as the Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, the work in which Carlos Sommervogel brought together nearly all Jesuit writers between 1540 and the end of the 19th century. As a period of establishment of new thought and the reconfiguration of disciplines, the 17th century made it difficult to proceed otherwise. Without taking a restrictive definition as a starting point, an institutional affiliation, or even an ideal type of philosophical “career,” but by using texts instead, the nature of knowledge exposed in the prints and manuscripts justify the inclusion, or not, of any particular author.

This can also explain the presence, in the dictionary, of writers who have never held the title of “philosopher.” In reading the entry “Molière” for example, you’ll see from which perspective this writer was included: Olivier Bloch, who does not attempt to make the playwright into a philosopher, supports that this author’s work is “from one end to the other, steeped in philosophy” (“de bout en bout imprégnée de philosophie”, p. 1229). To discuss the nature of this immersion, I can highlight two points: the first is that Molière puts, into his characters’ lines, philosophical arguments and Aristotelian morals, as expected, but also a form of Epicureanism that we can formally identify in the Misanthrope by “the probable trace of a lost translation of the poem by Lucretius completed by [himself]” (“le vestige probable d’une traduction perdue du poème de Lucrèce effectuée par [lui],” p. 1230), and a libertine discourse which occupies a central position in Don Juan. The second point is that Molière makes philosophy a comic responsibility of his plotlines. We could ask ourselves, of course, if the link between Racine and Port-Royal justifies an analogous argument, or if the revolution introduced by Malherbe in the French language can be considered, or not, as a philosophy of language. The reader may judge for himself. In the introduction dedicated to “Libertins et ‘esprits forts’” Isabelle Moreau proposes even more arguments to help us understand the knotted bond, in the first half of the century, between literature and philosophy. From an editorial point of view, I can only add that I attempted to inscribe the work of writers, and also that of painters and musicians, among the philosophical forms of the century.
Did we have the right to do the same with politicians? No thematic introduction, it is true, allows for the reader to find an answer to this question, which I discuss in my general introduction. And even so, the French version of the dictionary endeavored to add new figures to those found already in the English version: to Mazarin, Louis XIV, Richelieu and Retz, we have notably added Colbert and Rohan, in order to expose the different principles which oriented political practices of the time, marked by both a will for order, and the occasional radical protestation of this will: if the “Cardinal de Retz” entry helps the reader to grasp the mindset of the Fronde, the entry “Richelieu” allows the reader to find elements of comprehension of politics led both by God and reason. We may recall in this respect one of the most famous quotes from the Testament politique: “Man must respect the rule of reason” (“L’homme doit souverainement faire régner la raison”). The entry dedicated to Richelieu also gives to the readers of the dictionary the political elements to understand this “règne de la raison” (rule of reason), which caused, undeniably, direct repercussions onto the organization of intellectual life in France by the intermediary of pensions and royal academies. The entry “Gabriel Naudé (1600-1653),” both an inventor and a theoretician of the modern library, the creator of the Mazarine and a subtle political intellectual close to erudite libertines, allows us to recall that the relationship of philosophical books was not, in the 17th century, only the affaire of the savants, but also that of politicians.

La Vie des idées: Why did you choose to limit the work to the 17th century? Is there, in philosophy, a strong break between the 17th and 18th centuries?

Luc Foisneau: I insisted in my general introduction upon the methodological function of an arbitrary chronological division: no intellectual event justified the inclusion of authors who had published at least one work or had written one manuscript between 1601 and 1700, or the nominal definition of the length of a century. It’s the work of historians to distinguish the significant scansions of this period, and we very well know that these scansions are not the same as those of Jansenism, erudite libertinism or of the Cartesians, whose periodization is discussed by Emmanuel Faye’s introduction dedicated to French Cartesians. Jansenism is a particularly significant point of view, because, if the movement started in the first half of the century, with the writing of l’Augustinus (1640), it did not disappear with the walls of the abbey of Port-Royal des Champs, destroyed on the orders of Louis XIV in 1712. The papal condemnation of 1713—the famous and little known bull Unigenitus, which committed 101 Jansenist propositions of the text of Pasquier Quesnel—nourished a strong opposition throughout the 18th century. The Jansenist debate played an important role a long time after the death of Louis XIV, providing, with theological arguments, a political conflict of Jansenist parliamentarians against royal power; a conflict that would end with the French Revolution. With political goals in mind, Louis XIV was not misguided in his perception of the followers of this proposition of Catholic reform as a “republican sect”. The Jansenist case is exemplary of why it would be foolish to establish a clear break between the 17th and 18th centuries, as one debate started in the beginning of the 17th had consequences until the end of the following century.

We could equally argue in favor of the thesis of the continuity of the two centuries, building upon the idea that the Lumières didn’t begin at the start of the 18th, but with Cartesian philosophy and its Spinozian radicalization: these radical Lumières, to use the expression loaned from Margaret Jacob by Jonathan Israel, witnessed the substantial impact of French philosophy, far beyond the end of the so-called “Classical” period. We can’t insist enough that the 17th century philosophers did not constitute only one block: works on the Baroque period have shown to which point the reputation of the classicism of this century has been largely usurped. The introduction, “Théorie des arts” by Carole Talon-Hugon and the entries consecrated to art theoreticians—“Félibien” in particular—bring indispensable precisions on this point. The project of a dictionary like this one inherits, in some ways, the drive expressed by followers of the renewal of Baroque: to take into consideration the diversity of forms of thought and artistic expression of a century which was not only, according to Voltaire’s saying, the century of Louis XIV.

La Vie des idées: The subtitle of the work is « Acteurs et réseaux du savoir ». What are these networks and how does the dictionary take them into consideration, since there are no specific articles dedicated to them?

Luc Foisneau: We added this subtitle to the French version to be able to consider the specificities of the new version: the eight thematic introductions and the historical index raisonné should allow for the reconstitution, not only of the contexts in which philosophers created their works, but also the relations that they maintained with each other, and within different intellectual milieus. We used the term réseau or “network” in a fairly general sense. The thematic introductions, particularly that of Stéphane Van Damme, give us elements of comprehension concerning the institutions of knowledge, their functions and the networks of intellectual sociability, and the index allows us to easily find the members of these networks. Certain entries of the index, in a period of transformation of the links of knowledge, allow for the identification of the segments of networks that are less institutionalized than the royal academies. So the reader will find clues in the introduction, which Jacob Schmutz has dedicated to philosophy and scholastic theology, to be able to find their way in a scholastic landscape, where the Compagnie de Jésus certainly played a determining role, but certainly was not the only figure at play. We wouldn’t have been able to understand the subtle variants of French philosophy of this century if we didn’t take religious networks into consideration. To understand Malebranche without knowing the doctrinal orientation of the order of Oratorians, and the relations of the author of the Recherche de la vérité with his coreligionists, is certainly a challenge. Disregarding the fact that Descartes studied under the Jesuits of La Flèche not only hinders the understanding of the complex relationship he upheld with the censors of the Sorbonne, but also occults the dogmatic origins of his theory of freedom. We don’t act as though we’ve put the actor-network theory into work in this dictionary. To put it modestly, we wanted to offer readers the tools that allow for the reconstitution of the institutional, religious, pedagogical and political relations between our authors. On this subject, I would like to point out the essential function that the historical index raisonné plays in the dictionary, that we owe to Christian Bachelier: the mini-entries that are included in this index summarize the information dispersed throughout the work, for all of the characters named in the principal entries, adding occasionally several indispensable precisions, notably in the matter of French translation. While the index of the Dictionary only included the names of the principal entries and place indications (24 p.), the index of the French version (345 p.) allows the reader to locate precisely the networks in question, starting with the lists of names attached to the entries “collège,” “académie,” “université,” and to discover the innumerable actors of the great work-in-progress of modern knowledge.

La Vie des idées: Your last remark leads me to a final question: the Dictionnaire has been published, in its English and French versions, in a printed form, in a period of rapid development of electronic editions and online encyclopedias. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use the web as the medium for this encyclopedic work?

Luc Foisneau: That’s a question that we asked ourselves quite often during the fifteen years of gestation of this project. An in-depth reading of the index will allow the reader to consider the advantages that exist still, in our electronic times, in the printed form. Other than the fact that it is a real pleasure to hold the beautiful Classiques Garnier edition in your hands, the problems of precision that animated the 167 authors and the editorial team of the dictionary demanded the ability to reunite complementary information in the same physical space: that of the book. Before being able to contemplate the plurality of levels in the hyper-textual electronic form, it was necessary, it seems, to constitute the three levels of the work, the three levels of the space rocket, as Cyrano might’ve said: the introductions, that describe the problems posed by French philosophy, the notices, with their authors, of which the bibliography of works was integrally verified by Élisabeth Dutartre-Michaut, and the index, which functions as a propeller of our understanding of the expansive knowledge of the Baroque and Classical periods. Once this tool has been put into place, we will certainly be able to consider its translation into an electronic form, and the integration of its discoveries into online encyclopedias, but the print form will have acquired the merit, and the pleasure of reading, to provoke the collaborative desire of the leading specialists of 17th century French philosophy.

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by Florent Guénard, 31 March 2016

To quote this article :

Florent Guénard, « What is a French Philosopher?. An Interview with Luc Foisneau », Books and Ideas , 31 March 2016. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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