American French-ness: The American Appropriation of Contemporary French Philosophy


Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte

American French-ness: The American Appropriation of Contemporary French Philosophy

From the early seventies onwards, a variety of philosophical theories produced in the “Old World,” mainly France, found a hospitable inlet into the American intellectual world, where they led to the academic current of “Theory,” first in departments of literature and later in many other fields such as cultural studies. However, what seemed, at first sight, an amicable appropriation based on close readings and sympathetic interpretations soon unveiled itself to be hiding a more complicated process. In this study, I will offer a technical and theoretical reading of the peculiar way in which so-called “Continental Philosophy” was appropriated by Theory. Enlisting post-World War II German Reception Theory and American reader-centered criticism, I will arrive at the reader-response literary criticism of Stanley Fish, which I consider to be paradigmatic for the appropriation at stake. What had left the Old World, I will argue, was not what arrived, let alone what was understood to have arrived, on the other side of the Atlantic.


THE British cultural theorist Raymond Williams once wrote that crossing the English Channel was “one of the longest cultural journeys in existence by comparison with the physical distance.”1 Within the field of philosophy, this observation can seem particularly appropriate. Thinking about the so-called Analytical and Continental divide, the physical distance indeed seems incomparably trifling next to the cultural one.

This text is about a different journey, but one that is at least equally long, if not even longer, compared to the physical distance involved: the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by the philosophy done on the European continent in the second half of the past century. Although, at first sight, the various and extremely varied philosophical theories produced in the “Old World,” mainly in France, seem to have found a hospitable inlet into the American intellectual current called “Theory” as developed in departments of literature, a closer look at this oceanic crossing does unveil the workings of a more complicated process.

What I will attempt to demonstrate here is that what left the Old World was not what arrived, let alone what was understood to have arrived, on the other side of the Atlantic. There was, furthermore, also incredibly little interest, and/or understanding, on both sides of the ocean that any sort of actual reference between the different concepts that were all supposed to redirect to the exact same “thing” (the various “plastic words,” exactly as understood by Uwe Poerksen,2 of continental philosophy, postmodernism, poststructuralism, etc.) was completely missing. What makes this philosophical crossing so surprisingly long, then, is that it consists of a dialogue between partners that are basically deaf to each other. They use the same vocabulary but their respective semantics and syntactics are worlds apart. How this happened, and what the outcome has been, is what the following pages will unveil.


In the opening lines of his A Philosophy for Europe,3 the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito—who, since the publication of his Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy,4 has come to be considered an important recent contributor to the discussion on theoretical nationalism(s), internationalisms, and expatriations—stated that the passage of French philosophy across the Atlantic from the late sixties onwards was not determined by any traumatic events and was also devoid of tragic overtones.5 Although this might at first seem radically opposed to what I have just stated, upon closer inspection it isn’t. When referring to the non-traumatic passage of French thought, Esposito was comparing it to a previous crossing, namely that of the German philosophers who had fled Nazi Germany some decades earlier. In this context, the “French” crossing is indeed much less traumatic and lacks the incredibly tragic over- and undertones of a world war and an industrially organized genocide. However, for as much as this bellicose tragedy and trauma were fortunately not present in the French crossing, there was a different form of trauma operating in the Atlantic passage of French philosophy.

An indicator regarding this peculiar trauma can be found in a confession by the American philosopher and prima donna of Theory, Judith Butler. Butler, one of the main and most profound American exponents of the appropriation of French philosophy, wrote in the 1999 Preface to her Gender Trouble6 that not only was the text “rooted in French Theory,”7 but that this same “French Theory” was a pure American construct that stood and worked “at a significant distance from France and from the life of theory in France.”8 It had taken Butler nine years—Gender Trouble was first published in 1990, but only in the Preface of the 1999 edition did she phrase this understanding—to come to the realization that the French-ness of “French Theory” was somewhat problematic. Its origins weren’t in France, and also, the theoretical works that were supposed to be its source, in the end, well, weren’t. But if French Theory wasn’t born in France, then where did it come into being? In the words of two commentators on this strange phenomenon, it “constitute[s] a creation ex nihilo of the American university”;9 more specifically, it was born in the “American humanities graduate school.”10

As can be seen, the idea of a not-quite-straightforward Atlantic crossing we invoked on the back of Raymond Williams seems to be quite accurate. But how did it come to pass? How was it even possible? And how should we interpret it?


A quick sketch of the general context of American literary scholarship when Theory first came about will allow us to better understand the particular modality of appropriation so peculiar to Theory.11

The paradigm out of which, and partially also against which, Theory arose, was New Criticism. The major characteristics of New Criticism, in the words of René Wellek, one of its main proponents, can be summarized as a (re-)turn(-ing) to the texts via close reading.12 With the rise of Theory, two fundamentally intertwined things occurred. First, as Maria Ruegg already divined at the end of the 1970s, the European theories lost a lot of their “revolutionary” characteristics in the process of their assimilation.13 Second, an aspect of literary critique that had been almost completely ignored so far returned. For most, it remained a non-prevalent aspect, something that simply had to be acknowledged, but for some it became the stumbling block around which all readings had to pass. I am referring here to the importance of the reader in literary interpretation, hermeneutics, and critique.

I believe that it is in this reader-centered reception perspective (reader-response criticism, or reception theory, as it is at times also named) that we can find the key to Theory’s particular acceptance and appropriation of French thought. To reveal my central claim in advance: Theory’s appropriation of French philosophy is itself the quintessential example of a reader-centered reception theory. What stands at its core are not the supposed meanings included in texts by their authors, nor the content or form of the texts themselves, but the meanings extracted or, to put it even more radically, produced by the readers or receivers of these texts (in our case, philosophical theories and practices).

As we will come to see, if this proposed reading is correct, the meanings extracted or produced (and it was mainly the latter that occurred) did not match the (supposed) meanings included in the texts by their authors. Nor did they match the content or form of the texts themselves as we have them before us. And if this is the case, we can conclude that there is no real-life referent for the supposedly appropriated philosophy; the “Frenchness” didn’t come from France.

Before venturing into the demonstration of this provocation, it is important to remember that this understanding of Theory is not necessarily a negative one. Rather, one’s judgment will depend on how one rates the various possible readings or receptions that occurred.


An awareness of the problems related to appropriation and reader-centeredness was not an exclusively American phenomenon in the late sixties and early seventies. The importance of so-called reader-response criticism rose in many parts and humanities disciplines of the West during the second half of the past century. The field of literary criticism in West Germany (the former Federal Republic of Germany), for instance, saw the rise of what has become known as “Reception Theory” (Rezeptionsgeschichte or Rezeptionsästhetik, as it was known in Germany). The University of Constance, where the two great figures of Reception Theory, Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser, worked, played a privileged role here. And just like in the USA, it was from and against more traditional, text-oriented methods that this reader-oriented form of literary critique arose in Germany.14

It wasn’t, however, exclusively in the field of literary critique that an interest in the reader, or at least in the whole horizon of reception, was on the rise. Philosophy witnessed a similar development, which Martin Heidegger seems to have given a first nudge with his particular take on hermeneutics. How else can one understand his discussion of fore-having and fore-sight (Vorhabe and Vorsicht) in Being and Time?15 “Anything understood,” Heidegger writes, “ which is held in our fore-having and towards which we set our sights ‘foresightedly,’ becomes conceptualizable through the interpretation.” And, as he so importantly adds, that same “interpretation has already decided for a definite way of conceiving it.” Basically, “whenever something is interpreted as something, the interpretation will be founded essentially upon fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception.”16 Heidegger even takes a plunge into textual interpretation, making clear what is at stake in those conditions: “[I]f, when one is engaged in a particular kind of interpretation, in the sense of textual interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there,’ then one finds that what ‘stands there’ in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting.”17

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s importing of Heidegger’s philosophy into the field of hermeneutics, although it did downplay the more radical Heideggerian take, was a further “imperialistic” step of this reader-centered methodology. And even though Gadamer’s starting point seems far away from the reader-centered approach—Gadamer did hold to the fact that “a person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something”18this does not mean that there is some neutral possibility for the text to “enlighten” the reader. A hermeneutically trained person does not extinguish him- or herself but allows for the “foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices.”19 One needs to acknowledge, according to Gadamer, “that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice,”20 which does not necessarily have a negative under- or overtone. In fact, in Gadamer’s re-evaluation of prejudices,21 they do not form a barrier against which hermeneutics needs to battle. No, true hermeneutics will take into account the profound historical (nature of) prejudices of the human being and his understanding: “[R]eal historical thinking must take account of its own historicity.”22


Turning now to the United States, three of its most influential 20th-century critics can be listed as employing strategies that are core elements of reader-response or reader-centered criticism. These three are Jonathan Culler, Harold Bloom,23 and Stanley Fish, and although all three could have been singled out as our main example, I have chosen to take a closer look at Fish’s take on the reception of texts, as I think it is particularly relevant to Theory’s appropriation of French philosophy.

In his highly controversial Is There a Text in This Class?,24 particularly in the second part dedicated to “Interpretative Authority in the Classroom and Literary Criticism,” Fish elaborates his own variety of reader-response criticism. What it boils down to is that, according to Fish, no words or sentences, let alone whole texts, come down to us outside of a pre-established context.25 It is this pre-established context that allows for meaning and understanding. However, as Fish claimed, this does not mean that context precedes the “construing of sense.”26 The problem of precedence is beside the point as both “(the identification of context and the making of sense) occur simultaneously.”27 This is the basic structure of Fish’s reader-oriented theory. When one is confronted with a sentence or a text (or a literary tradition even), the moment one is able to recognize the context of this sentence, text, or tradition is also the moment one is able to make sense of it.

Two essential aspects of Fish’s provocative theorization require further clarification. The first one regards the nature of the context Fish mentions. What is important here is that for Fish, these contexts were social: “meanings come already calculated,” he wrote, “not because of norms embedded in the language but because language is always perceived […] within a structure of norms. That structure […] is not abstract and independent but social.”28 It is because of this, because of the fact that “interpreters act as extensions of an institutional community,”29 that Fish could name these contexts “interpretive communities.”30 The second aspect regards the “construing” of sense or meaning these interpretive communities undertake even as they are discovered. It is important to emphasize that what is at stake here is not a “discovery,” but a “construing of sense” or meaning.31 And even though construing is not synonymous with construction, little seems to stand in the way of equating the two. In fact, Fish corrected himself, affirming that the interpretation of sentences, texts, and even traditions was “a matter of knowing how to produce what can thereafter be said to be there.”32 In fact, “[I]nterpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing.”33 And to make his point as clear as possible, he added the following example: “[I]nterpreters do not decode poems; they make them.”34

All of this, that is, the proposition that an interpretive community has the power to “constitute the objects upon which its members (also and simultaneously constituted) can then agree”35—and others about which it can disagree—should remind us of the Kuhnian paradigm in a state of “normal science.” “[A] paradigm,” Kuhn claims, “governs, in the first instance, not a subject matter but rather a group of practitioners.”36 That it does so not by setting out some coherent set of rules, but by the logic and rationale of the example, is not of primary importance (except when one acknowledges that examples of reader-centered readings were sprouting up all over the Western hemisphere). Furthermore, within a state of paradigmatic “normal science,” the set of rules that is supposed to form the guiding principle of that paradigm is simply presumed and not questioned. Once a paradigm is accepted and people are working “within” it, all debate about fundamental methodological and metaphilosophical issues comes to an end. That this interpretation of reader-response criticism is not too outrageous is confirmed by Fish himself, who considers reader-centeredness to have attained the “status of an orthodoxy”37 in circles of literary critique.


There is much to say about Fish’s provocative theory, and indeed, much has already been said about it. Regarding its merits for literary critique, I prefer to withhold all judgment. My goal in focusing on this theory is not to argue for or against it, but to saddle it with the other provocation I already phrased, namely that in its main outlines, this reader-centered theory can and even should be considered as the means through which Theory appropriated French thought.

In this provocative narrative, Theory is the paradigm, that is, the group of practitioners or interpretive community that, when confronted with a series of incompatible foreign theories and practices, received (welcomed, accepted, eventually even appropriated) these in its pre-established context (prejudice-loaded historicity, foresighted assumptions, horizon of expectations, or even the historical acceptance or readiness of which I spoke at the outset). This pre-established context (which, on this occasion, is reader- or interpreter-centeredness)38 did, consequently, not allow for a passive reception or even for a more active construing (even a re-construction was not allowed). Instead, it consisted of an actual construction of these same theories and practices–limiting, ordering, uniting, separating, that is, producing of what, from then onward, could or could not be said about them. And this, precisely, is the particular form of trauma operative in the Atlantic passage I referred to in my opening lines. It is a trauma that relates to the texts, the theories and practices, not the authors or the historical situation (context) from which they had to flee. And it is an actual trauma, as one can now see that the transatlantic appropriation was never about what the texts originally had been intended to bring forth, to mean.


As with all paradigms and interpretive communities (understood as such), the ordering principles that guide this particular paradigm or interpretive community are not visible on the surface and therefore no longer questioned. This, naturally, also means that no questions are posed about the possible referentiality of the construction of these once-foreign theories and practices. Such questions are beside the point for the normal functioning of the paradigm, also because all elements will claim an actually existing referentiality (the limiting, ordering, uniting, and separating performed during the production of what, from then onward, can or cannot be said about the material will have made sure this is indeed the case).

Although all of this might, at first sight, seem a little dubious, it does explain several elements involved in Theory’s operativity, elements that otherwise would be almost incomprehensible. First of all, it explains the success of certain texts in the US that were of hardly any importance on the European continent. It suffices here to think about the great fortune of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”39 and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”40 The success of Barthes’ short essay was certainly related to the simple fact that it too ante-posited, in the place of the dead author, not the text (be it either its autonomy, meaning, or form) but precisely the reader.41 Doesn’t this co-incidere (as it is obviously not coincidental), this actual reference, offer some solace to those who would doubt the actual referentiality between the “origin” and the “derivate”? The occasional referential textual confirmation, the exception to the rule, is obviously required for there to even be the possibility of any constructive production of the interpretive community. But Barthes, the dead author, and the perfectly referential reader are not the only aspects of Theory our provocation can explain.

It also explains why, among all the theories and practices that crossed the Atlantic, Derrida’s deconstruction had such an overpowering impact, even reaching cult-like status.42 Hadn’t Foucault harshly criticized deconstruction for being a “historically well-determined little pedagogy” that “gives to the voice of the masters that unlimited sovereignty that allows it indefinitely to re-say the text”?43 Many have, over the years, taken issue with Derrida’s boutade, if we can call it that, that there is “nothing outside the text”44 and which he later adjusted to “there is nothing outside context.”45 Others have considered deconstruction’s affinity with the interpretation of texts, even with the close reading of texts, as a sign of it being much less revolutionary than it proclaimed. Wasn’t this text-boundedness a sign of it being much more in line with New Criticism—and wasn’t this the reason why it had a greater grip on American critics (wasn’t this also Maria Ruegg’s stance, to which we already alluded)? Or maybe, just maybe, Foucault’s critique of Derrida’s deconstruction was much more perspicuous than most have understood. Maybe the text is not so important for deconstruction. Maybe what is at stake, and what made deconstruction so seductive for literary critics, is not the text itself but the possibility of re-saying a text—and this precisely despite the text itself.

Thirdly, all of this can also explain why the German form of Reception Theory was generally ignored in the US until the 1980s (when the metaphilosophical rules of Theory’s paradigm had been absorbed and were no longer under the spotlight) and why Fish’s theorization of the power to produce meaning via interpretative communities was so controversial. Aren’t these excellent examples of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the narcissism of minor differences?46 Was Reception Theory not too much of a mirror, not of what the Theorists were producing as literary critique, but of what they were doing in their appropriation of so-called “Continental Philosophy”? And wasn’t it the same for Fish’s reader-centered theory?


I’m aware that the importance and primacy I have given to Stanley Fish in this text will incur severe disapproval. If my point were that Theory—or at least Theorists—actively followed or implemented his particular reader-response criticism, then this disapproval would be appropriate and justified. But whether one likes it or not, Theory is F/fishy in a twofold sense—“Fishian” may be linguistically more appropriate, but with Fish’s thought, I believe one can’t leave the “fishy-ness” aside. Fish certainly had his finger on the wound, which was the downfall of the methodology of literary criticism, combined with a feeling of required innovation and a readiness on the part of the intellectual community to rethink its methods. This, as we saw, coincided (by sheer coincidence) with an influx of theoretical material from abroad (France on this occasion) and led to a productive reception of that material. In this sense, Theory could almost only have operated along this same line, thus rendering it F/fishy.

But Theory is also just fishy. Considering the “juvenile” state of those who were at the forefront of this double operation of methodological renovation and appropriation of foreign thought, an exceeding (and imaginary) weight was put on the latter to justify the former. The “juvenile” state of the major Theorists can probably explain the fact that it was considered necessary for the methodological renovation they were chasing to profess an allegiance, an affiliation, a fellowship, or, even more, a scholarly dependence, an inheritance, and an enlisting in a (the so-called “Continental”) tradition. Butler’s Gender Trouble can once again function as a perfect example. In fact, the distance accepted and probably even sought in the Preface of 1999 was, as I already mentioned, missing from the original text. No distance is ever acknowledged in 1990. In fact, an excessive and even profoundly unconvincing closeness is established between the work and a number of French theories, foremost amongst which was Foucault (a necessity if one craved the discipline-ness of all things philosophically French at that time—but absolutely inappropriate for Butler’s Gender Trouble). Butler, however, as always some steps ahead of her peers, already understood in 1999 that, rather than a proximity, a distance could/should be established where it had still been felt impossible to do so in 1990.

Although the “juvenile” state of the Theorists can help explain their stress on affiliation, among other things, I’m not so certain it can justify it as well—certainly, it cannot justify the three decades of its fishy operativity. The paradox of an extreme craving for affiliation, fellowship, and shared heritage in combination with a reader-centered appropriation where any form of actual reference to the “origin” becomes moot can only be considered as extremely fishy. A similar process can lead—and, unfortunately, has all too often led—to unhealthy forms of sectarianism and inbreeding. Considering the cultural wars in which some forms of Theory have participated and been invoked, it is only “natural” that some highly Inquisitorial navel-gazing intellectual derivations have arisen within this philosophical culture (“natural,” perhaps, but also profoundly sad and detrimental to intellectual culture tout court).

If there is any merit to Theory, and there certainly is, then it is not in (any of) its possible dependencies on or allegiances to so-called “Continental” thought (besides the fact that there is no such thing as “Continental” philosophy/thought), but in what it has achieved on its own, in the full understanding of its independence and in conversation with all other philosophical and intellectual traditions, especially the enormously varied philosophical theories from the European continent.

KRISTOF K.P. VANHOUTTE is a core faculty member at the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT) and Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of the Free State. His most recent books are Saramago’s Philosophical Heritage (2018), co-edited with Carlo Salzani, and Limbo Reapplied: On Living in Perennial Crisis and the Immanent Afterlife (2018).

dePICTions volume 2 (2022): U.S. vs. … (Un-)American Crossings and Appropriations

1. Raymond Williams, “The Writer: Commitment and Alignment,” in Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope, London and New York: Verso, 1989, 77-87, here 78.
2. Uwe Poerksen, Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
3. Roberto Esposito, A Philosophy for Europe: From the Outside, Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
4. Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
5. See Esposito, A Philosophy for Europe, 8.
6. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 2002.
7. Butler, Gender Trouble, x.
8. Butler, Gender Trouble, x.
9. François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 26.
10. Ian Hunter, “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry 33.1 (2006), 78-112, here 80.
11. Theory did, de facto, emerge in the field of literary studies. Only later did it land in and conquer other disciplines or scholarly fields.
12. René Wellek, “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra,” Critical Inquiry 4.4 (1978), 611-624, here 619.
13. See Maria Ruegg, “The End(s) of French Style: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism in the American Context,” Criticism 21.3 (1979), 189-216, here 197-198.
14. Robert C. Holub, Crossing Borders: Reception Theory, Poststructuralism, Deconstruction, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, 8.
15. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
16. Heidegger, Being and Time, 191.
17. Heidegger, Being and Time, 192.
18. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, London and New York: Continuum, 2004, 271.
19. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 271.
20. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 272.
21. As Gadamer stated: “[I]f we want to do justice to man’s finite, historical mode of being, it is necessary to fundamentally rehabilitate the concept of prejudice and acknowledge the fact that there are legitimate prejudices.” Gadamer, Truth and Method, 278.
22. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 299.
23. I am aware that Bloom’s critical readings have been considered as different from reader-response criticism (see, for instance, Robert C. Holub, Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge, 1984, 157-159). I do, however, believe that the commonalities (particularly Bloom’s stress on “misinterpretations”) largely outweigh the differences. For this reason, I believe he can correctly be placed on our shortlist.
24. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1980.
25. See Fish, Is There a Text, 310.
26. Fish, Is There a Text, 313.
27. Fish, Is There a Text, 313.
28. Fish, Is There a Text, 318, emphasis added.
29. Fish, Is There a Text, 321.
30. Fish, Is There a Text, 322.
31. Fish, Is There a Text, 313.
32. Fish, Is There a Text, 327, emphasis in the original.
33. Fish, Is There a Text, 327, emphasis added.
34. Fish, Is There a Text, 327.
35. Fish, Is There a Text, 338.
36. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 180.
37. Fish, Is There a Text, 344.
38. Isn’t the interpreter, in fact, the ideal reader (see Holub, Crossing Borders, 15)? And isn’t this also something which allows us to let deconstruction, as we will soon come to discover, enter the scene?
39. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press, 1977, 142-148.
40. Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” in James D. Faubion (ed.), Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Essential Works of Foucault vol. 2, New York: The New Press, 1998, 205-222.
41. Barthes, The Death of the Author, 148.
42. See, for instance, Holub, Crossing Borders, 94.
43. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, 557.
44. The original states “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” which would lead to the following translation: “there is no outside-text.” See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, 158.
45. Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988, 136, 152.
46. Sigmund Freud, “The taboo of virginity,” in Angela Richards (ed.), On sexuality. The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 7, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991, 261-283.