Let’s take the example of Guattari’s “garish” sentence quoted by Dawkins from Sokal and Bricmont’s book:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.

1) Many of the translations of the French post-structuralists have been made by people incompetent in science. For example, the expression “bi-univocal correspondence” should be translated “one-to-one correspondence”, and is a term used in high school maths, so not very abstruse.

2) French is much more Latin-based than English, its Latinate vocabulary comes across as much more abstract in English if it is directly transposed instead of being papraphrased.

An interesting example of this is the word “problematic” used as a noun, which some Anglophone readers have objected to, claiming it is abstract and obscure. In France, all pupils have to learn how to begin an essay by constructing a problematic in junior high school, when they are 15.

3) A related problem is that French stylistic prescriptions are different. In English we are advised to prefer the Saxon word to its Latin equivalent. This is not an option in French, where it the norm is: the more Latin the better.

4) The preferred syntax in French is hypotaxis, using complex sentences with nested subordinate clauses. This is one means to clarity. English syntax is more favorable to parataxis, juxtaposing clauses without too many indications of subordination.

5) A fifth source of obscurity is intertextual allusion. For example Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, and Lacan are indebted to the writer Maurice Blanchot both conceptually and stylistically.

6) A sixth source of the feeling of obscurity is that the French thinkers do not share the same conception of language. Language is not always and only a transparent medium for them, but can be used to uproot or to reconfigure our presuppositions.

7) A seventh obstacle may be a tough one for a scientist to swallow, but here goes. These French philosophers think that noone is the proprietor of the words of the language, not even scientists. Scientific vocabulary has been taken from the common language (usually for good reasons) and so can be taken back, if the reasons for taking it back are good stylistically and conceptually (but not necessarily scientifically). I think it usually is good scientifically, but that is not the overriding motivation. For example, Deleuze is right about the maths he uses.

8) All pupils who go through senior high school study philosophy a week in their last year. They learn a philosophical vocabulary that is different from what one learns in the first year of philosophy in English. They study different authors: Bergson, Heidegger, Saussure crop up in high school.

All this is not to say that a Continental philosopher is always right. My blog is devoted to calling out obscurantism and bullshit n Continental and in Anglophone texts.

Further thoughts on the obscurity of French philosophy can be found here. I tried to explain Zizek to Chomsky (explain, not justify) here.

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  1. JH says:

    How did you learn French before going to France?

    Liked by 1 person

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