Anyone interested in the history of philosophy knows that France was one of the main centres of intellectual thought during the Enlightenment. It has also produced some of the most famous modern philosophers, possibly because philosophy is a subject taught in school and is tested on the Baccalauréat, the French equivalent to A-levels (though admittedly that depends on your choice of main subject).

Even if philosophers were not high on your list of famous French people, why not join us on a little tour of the most influential thinkers of Continental philosophy to come from the land of the Franks.

French Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Peter Abelard

Petrus Abelaerdus was an 11th-century theologian. He was born in 1079 in Le Pallet in Brittany as the eldest son of a nobleman. His father encouraged his love of learning, and Peter first became famous as a lecturer on dialectic, a form of philosophy based on the logical theory of Aristotle.

Peter Abelard taught dialectic.
Peterl Abelard teaching dialectic. Photo credit: The British Library on

He prescribed to the school of Realism, according to which reality exists independent of perception. After his success in logic, he studied theology and in 1115 became master of Notre Dame and canon of Sense. During this time, he had an affair with the daughter of one of the canons, which severely impacted his theological career. It ended with both Abelard and Héloïse living in convents.

Their love letters to each other have survived as one of the great love affairs of human history.

In the convent, Abelard focused more on religion but continued to teach dialectic until he died. He often came into conflict with the more traditional elements of the church.

His greatest work is the Ethica (or Ethics), or Know Thyself. In it, he made the distinction between intent and action and argued that intent is where the true sin lies. He wrote in Latin, as French language writers were still rare at that time.

Michel de Montaigne and the French Philosophy of the Renaissance

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born of a wealthy family in the region of Aquitaine in 1533. He was very influential at the French court and was known for his skill at mediation. At the age of 38, he retired to a tower room in the Château de Montaigne, where his library was located, isolating himself from friends and family. Ten years later, the noted scholar had finished his Essais.

Montaigne subscribed to Pyrrhonism, a school of sceptical thought based largely on epistomology (the most famous line from an essay is “I don’t know”); he frequently quotes the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plutarch as well as Erasmus of Rotterdam. The essays cover subjects ranging from child psychology (centuries before Freud) and education to religion to justice and politics.

The essays had a fundamental influence on the great minds of following centuries, from Francis Bacon to Pascal to Emerson.

The French Philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th century

René Descartes

Born in France (La Haye) in 1596, Descartes spent many years in the Dutch Republic, where his writings would later influence a young Baruch Spinoza.

A true polymath, Descartes is considered a founding father of Western philosophy and modern mathematics. The most famous phrase from his writings is “Cogito ergo sum” - I think therefore I am. In fact, the ontological theory of Cartesian dualism goes further and posits that the only indubitable reality is that of thought, and that the mind and body are separate and independent of each other. His moral philosophy sees ethics as a branch of science.

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René Descartes was a French philosopher
René Descartes was a mathematician and philospher of the Enlightenment. Photo credit: Frans Hals - André Hatala [e.a.] (1997) De eeuw van Rembrandt, Bruxelles: Crédit communal de Belgique, ISBN 2-908388-32-4
Descartes also ushered in an area of independent thought in philosophy, braking with tradition by refusing to base his reasoning exclusively on what others had written before him, extolling instead critical thinking.

He heavily influenced the history of philosophy, inspiring other famous philosophers such as Spinoza, Leibniz and David Hume.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Though born in Geneva in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was mainly active in France and was part of the Jacobin club during the French Revolution. He greatly influenced both Robespierre and Saint-Just’s ideology; it is thought he was their inspiration for making Deism France’s official religion during the first French Republic.

Against Thomas Hobbes’ school of thought, Rousseau did not believe that man’s natural state was an immoral one. Instead, he believed the universal ideal state of Humanity would be to live in a primitive society, according to his nature but not without discipline. There was a lot of criticism of his moral principle in the eighteenth century. It bleeds into his political philosophy of a state self-governed by the people. Such a state needs be small, making certain there is a sense of community that would make a single person strive for the good of all.

Rousseau was Jacobin philosopher.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about political philosophy and child education. Photo credit: Renaud Camus on Visual Hunt

Men are wicked, but Man is good.

His theories on child education emphasize teaching through consequence rather than punishment.

The Age of Science and Industrialism in the Nineteenth century: French Philosopher Henri Poincaré

Born in 1854 in Nancy, Henri Poincaré is most famous for his mathematical discoveries. He worked as a civil mining engineer and taught mathematics at the Sorbonne.

Similar to Immanual Kant and against, his philosophy saw mathematics not as an analytic science, but as a synthetic science. Despite a generally deterministic view of the universe, he also saw creativity as consisting of two stages, one of random ideas followed by the critical evaluation thereof, inspiring Daniel Dewitt’s notion of free will. He was not an empiricist, but somewhere between a realist and an anti-realist.

1908: The Birth of Modern Philosophy in France

Oddly enough, three of the most influential French philosophers of the twentieth century were born in the same year: 1908.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir is known for her relationship with Sartre.
French philosopher Simone de BEauvoir poneered the distinction between gender and sex. Photo credit: Abode of Chaos on VisualHunt

One of the great French writers of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir did not consider herself a philosopher. And yet she was greatly influential in many areas of modern philosophy, especially feminist existentialism and the social theory of feminism, much in the tradition of earlier women philosophers such as Mary Wollstonecraft. She pioneered sex-gender distinction and the idea that much of what defines a woman in modern society is learned, influenced by society’s views of how a woman should think or act. She first believed that a socialist revolution would bring about the necessary changes in belief and morality to equalize the gender shift. Later, though, she would abandon her Marxist views.

She was a friend of Merleau-Ponty and had a long-time relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Another social philosopher born in 1908 was Claude Lévi-Strauss. He approached philosophy from more of an anthropologist’s viewpoint, and is in fact considered one of the founding fathers of modern ethnology and sociology. Born of French Jewish parents in Brussels, he studied law and philosophy at the Sorbonne before accompanying his wife, an ethnologist, to Brazil to teach sociology. Unlike philosophers of previous centuries, he saw no difference between the “savage” and the “civilized” mind and sought to understand the human condition and the way in which we build societies. He pioneered the theory of structuralism, or structuralist functionalism, according to which society is a complex system working in essence toward stability, through such things as political systems and social etiquette.

He looks beyond the trappings of the different societies to the fundamental aspects behind them in search of the base level of human mythological thought and the patterns into which it is translated.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Influenced by Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty subscribed to the phenomenology school of philosophical thought, which concentrated on human experience and consciousness. However, he saw certain flaws in it and developed it further into existential phenomenology. His ideas also fit into the structuralism and post-structuralism moulds.
He also delved deeply into the French language and how children acquire it, working with sociology, psychoanalysis and social anthropology. He also wrote about Art and science and their relation to consciousness.

Modern French Philosophy: French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre

Born in 1905, novelist Sartre is well-known for his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, but he is also the one of the greatest philosophers of modern times. A phenomenologist and existentialist, his ideas influenced various branches of the humanities, from sociology to literature. He combined both philosophies, seeing the possibility inherent in phenomenology to understand, not the world around us, but human existence itself. One the main aspects is the search for authenticity in the identity of the self. Since consciousness exists independently or in-itself, yet it is always conscious of itself in terms of its relationship to other things - for-itself - to prevent self-delusion, it must find a project that is a universal expression of the human condition, thus allowing it to resonate with others.

He long viewed Marxism as allowing that philosophy to unfold by striving toward the common good - a universal project based on authenticity rather than imposed power.

Michel Foucault: French Philosopher

Michel Foucault, born in 1926, focused mainly on the theory of knowledge and power. He challenges our view of power as something negative and imposed and instead re-defines it as something changing and interactive. His views correspond to the schools of poststructuralism and postmodernism. His musings range from the field of psychology, in which he argues that madness is the normal state, with mental illness resulting from alienation. In that vein, he also studied the history of mental illness and its perception and that of modern medicine; much of his work is grounded in historical analysis, analyzing the shifts of perception throughout human history and its impact on various theoretical constructs.

With these names, you will be well on your way to becoming a French citizen in your mind as well as in your heart!

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Sonia is an Egyptologist turned writer and translator. She speaks 3 and a half languages, can translate hieroglyphs and enjoys yoga, singing, embroidery and travelling through all of time and space.