Philosophy and May ’68 (Part 1)

Fifty years ago a spontaneous youth movement erupted and spread across the world, threatening to undermine the very foundations of prosperous nations, enjoying full employment and growing consumerism. This student revolt echoed, in scope, the short-lived 1848 revolutions in Europe and like them, ended up in frustration and disillusionment for millions of students and workers. The French ‘events’ of May ’68 encapsulated the essence of a profound social and political ‘malaise’ felt from Paris to San Francisco and Tokyo. Philosophy, in the guise of sociology, psychology and anthropology played a crucial part in the emergence of new ways of thinking and the demise of obsolete moral codes and political paradigms controlling the lives of millions since the end of the Second World War.

French philosophers found themselves at the centre of this haphazard movement although the ghosts of two dead German thinkers continued to haunt the minds of its revolutionary leaders. The sixties were still, for the most part, under the hegemony of Marxism and Freudianism, the former supplying a ready-made ideological grid of social and political interpretation of all past and recent history; the latter offering a scientific method of analysis of the deepest inner drives and tensions of the human psyche. Prior to 1968, a new generation of French thinkers introduced a range of new concepts aimed at redefining what constitutes linguistic and social ‘structure’. Opposed to structuralists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser who claimed the absolute preeminence of ‘structures’ over individual lives, the thinkers of ‘difference’ lead by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault approached the foundations of linguistics and sciences from a profoundly radical perspective. 

Structuralists resented any attempt at reading human events in a chronological and determinist way thus condemning any Marxist-style philosophy, such as Sartre’s political writings. Lévi-Strauss famously quipped: ‘In Sartre’s system, history plays exactly the role of a myth’, the latter word representing a key-concept in the anthropologist’s conception of the impossibility of a closed, predetermined definition of human history. In his famous study of mythical thought, ‘The Savage Mind’ (1962), Lévi-Strauss remarked: ‘in general, native terms can be said to constitute a well-conceived system, and, with a pinch of salt, they can be said to bear some resemblance to our scientific nomenclature.’ The age-old image of the all-knowing Western philosopher was irrevocably shattered in the light of this all-inclusive conception of human cultures. 

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