Kierkegaard in France

5 May 2021 - 6 May 2021


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Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal
Andrew Sackin-Poll


The influence of Søren Kierkegaard upon the emergence and development of France’s own distinct philosophical voice in the twentieth century is undeniable. It can be heard in existentialism (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, among others), phenomenology (Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion), and even novel figures of metaphysics (Jean Wahl and Gilles Deleuze). Yet there are very few works dedicated to exploring the various guises this influence takes in France. While there are good works on the reception of Hegel in France, Heidegger in France, Husserl in France, etc., Kierkegaard’s significance is almost marked out by his absence. This is something the conference seeks to correct.

The conference aims to touch upon key figures in the history of Kierkegaard’s reception in France from the 1930s to the present day. The Dane’s insistence upon the individual, existential experience and decision, the instant, and so on, can be forcefully heard in early existentialists works of Eastern European immigrants, like Léon Chestov, Rachel Bespaloff, and Benjamine Fondane, who, along with Jean Wahl, are decisive for the introduction of Kierkegaard in France. This is more than simply a footnote in intellectual history but decisive for the way in which French thought develops from this point right up until our present moment. It sets many of the key terms that form the horizon of contemporary French thought.

There are many twists and turns in the path that follow from this initial introduction. They can be seen in two distinct yet interwoven lines: existentialism and the critical stance toward idealist metaphysics. This is shown most clearly in the works of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir in the 1930s and 1940s as well as later developments in phenomenology through Levinas and Marion. In such works, Kierkegaard stands as a counterpoint to the dominance of Hegel’s idealism and Heidegger’s ontology in France. Such a counterpoint offers an alternative engagement with existence, life, and even the divine. But Kierkegaard does not only matter for existentialism and phenomenology. The metaphysical preoccupations of Wahl’s early engagement with Kierkegaard are reflected in the works of his student Deleuze, meaning that the Dane plays a curious role in the emergence of structuralism and ‘difference philosophies’ in the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, Kierkegaard continues to walk alongside contemporary French thinkers and writers, like Emmanuel Falque.

By reflecting seriously upon the reception and influence of Kierkegaard in France, this conference will draw out more explicitly an important dimension to philosophical debates taking place in France today. This conference is not only an intellectual survey of important moments in French thought but also an intervention in the way we understand the stakes of contemporary French thought, beyond the horizon of Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. In doing so, the parameters for our thinking about singularity, existence, experience, and metaphysics, can be redrawn, opening novel avenues for the future in Kierkegaard scholarship as well as distinct philosophical, theological, and metaphysical endeavours. 

Supported by:

  CRASSH 20th Anniversary   Faculty of Divinity Logo    Society for French Studies Logo


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