Hit philosophers

After World War II, from the distant days of Sartre and Existentialism (when jazz was progressive and the mambo was thought to have the vitality disco had), we have come to expect, as a cold war tradition, a sympathy for Marxism among French intellectuals. It permitted many, Sartre included, to endorse a Castro as a soldier in the good fight against human oppression.

Things have changed here in France 40 years after D-Day. American veterans returning to this land where philosophy is an important spectator sport will not be running into that old kind of ideological anti-Americanism so much. (It is more part of West German intellectual life now.) In fact, they might be disoriented by amazing rumors of something called the New Philosophers. Not at all Existentialists like Sartre, but given to brandishing such slogans as ''Marx Is Dead!'' and ''Marxism Is the Opiate of the People!'' And not only do these French intellectuals consider communism their primary enemy but several of them are openly religious. To make them sound even more oddly familiar to Americans of the Reagan years, they fervently believe that the state is the incarnation of evil, themselves given to speaking in such biblical-sounding terms.

These New Philosophers could never endorse Castro as a defender of humanity because Marxism to them does not ever lead to the elimination of the state, Marx notwithstanding, but instead assumes it. And the state, in its power drive, cannot be anything but the natural incarcerator of man. Never the savior. As for the American state, it is no different in their eyes, also being a product of 18 th-century secular Rationalism. The state as all-pervasive culture is simply the modern world's reality.

One would not, of course, confuse the New Philosophers with the American Moral Majority (although there might be more kinship between these two contemporary groups than first meets the eye). But, in trying to make out exactly what they really are, which has been much discussed, and not always respectfully, we must first report that they have dominated the French intellectual state as nothing has since Structuralism in the 1960s.

Starting in 1977, some 10 writers, the most prominent being Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann, became Hit Philosophers, appearing regularly on TV before a great following to discuss Western philosophy in relation to them. Personally. They had produced, of all things, a series of best sellers, led by Levy's own ''Barbarism with a Human Face,'' for the happy editorial house of Grasset, all under the brilliant editorial and publicitarian direction of B. H. Levy himself. And their books were filled with grave references to each other. They also proved capable of seeing a clean, clear, uninterrupted evil line from Plato to Stalin which they hoped to interrupt. Hence their claim to being new as philosophers.

What is striking is how deeply they were marked by reading Solzhenitsyn, and how they have come to regard - Glucksmann most particularly - the likes of Auschwitz not merely as German, but as 20th-century, to be repeated in Russia, Chile, Indochina, and so on. In fact, they see this lockup of everyone as being repeated all over the world in many forms. Especially since the state - as 20 th-century culture - is so dominant in our minds as to replace all other values.

For them, the state continues to cause what Michel Foucault, perhaps their most important non-Marxist teacher, called the death of man, as every individual's own humanity is displaced by his being an incarnation of the state.

As a group, they are hardly the center of discussion anymore. But the task of assessing their meaning remains. If mentioned now, it is mostly to dismiss them, pointing out that, indebted as they are to Foucault, none showed anything like his caliber as a thinker. And their books, which tend to be declamatory and intuitive (which does not mean without brilliance), do not impress as systematic thought.

Mostly they are criticized for dispensing flashy rhetoric posing as thought, for being sloganeering intellectuals not worthy of the title of philosophers.

Their kind of logic, it has been pointed out, made too many things alike, failing to distinguish, for example, between the degrees of 20th-century oppression. And they are accused of crypto-conservatism, offering with their social pessimism the kind of high-sounding excuse for social passivity that is always popular. It does seem there should be something suspect about ''philosophy'' made to applause. And, sometimes, after hearing that God is dead and then Marx is dead and man is dead, and finally, with Levy, that the proletariat is gone, too, one might wonder nervously about who will be left.

But, worst of all, they are accused of not really being new but of having simply repackaged, with a dramatic air of personal discovery, a lot of things said by others before, without giving precursors credit, claiming that newness for their stardom.

Yet, even if all negative criticisms are true, and many are, the event of the New Philosophers remains important, at least symptomatically. And a few among them, such as Glucksmann, may well stay around on individual merit. Certainly, the old equation between mainstream French intellectuals and Marxism is no longer automatic.

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