Philosophers with dirty hands

Edward Skidelsky misses the main point of distinction between the practitioners of French philosophy, particularly post-Sartreans (whom he so much despises) and their English equivalents (Books, 21 May).

One could sum it up with the title of one of Sartre's plays, Les Mains Sales. The French are willing to get their hands dirty by a kind of participatory philosophy that doesn't shun active party politics, or public demonstrations, or underclass support, but has the courage for high-profile interventions in injustice, racism, sexism, ageism, militarism and (very recently) media voyeurism. This participation - philosophy in action - is the root of French existentialism. It argues that you can't just sail through the Nazi occupation - or the years of Thatcherism - without standing up to be counted at the time. Sartre would have picketed with the miners.

Here the cloistered freemasonry of contemporary English philosophers falls rather short. Since Bertrand Russell, there has not been a single "philosopher" (in quotes because the term is disputable) who has made any conspicuous contribution to the violent shifts in British society in the past couple of decades.

However, there are encouraging signs. The crop of cafe philos that began in Paris in the 1990s is now spreading. There are already two in London, several score in the United States and other European countries. Here, "ordinary" citizens discuss and clarify social, political and metaphysical questions, on a more or less philosophical basis. It is likely to be a better antidote to spin-doctor politics, corporate avarice, and Third Way insipidity than either throwing eggs at John Prescott or the unengaged grumpiness of the English philosophers of today.

Ian Flintoff
London SW6

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men