I continuously get awfully surprised to see so much hate and misunderstanding going around for the French philosophers of the 20th century, not only in academia, but on this forum, and elsewhere.

I am genuinely interested to find the root of all these arguments and I am looking for a true critique, and not just some senseless ad hominem arguments. I have looked everywhere but all I see is "Oh they write in an obfuscated style" or "it's all valueless gibberish" or "only big words and no substance".

I simply do not understand any of these arguments. It seems as if people spreading such ideas do not care enough to study the predecessors of the likes of Deleuze and the authors that he bases his works on.

We do not suddenly jump into the concept of Landau pole without any prior, in-depth knowledge of mathematics, physics, and electrodynamics, and then claim that quantum theory is just one huge ball of gobledygook when we do not understand the big words and concepts due to our own limited knowledge of the pre-requirements. But that's exactly what people who attack the likes of Deleuze do.

If I were to mention some names specifically I could highlight; Deleuze, Derrida, Althusser, and probably Foucault, etc. Although I wanted to keep this thread Deleuze-centered (as I am under the impression that he gets the most hatred), I thought it would be more fruitful to involve the rest of the disliked and misunderstood French philosophers.

So, if there are any sound and well-speculated attacks on the aforementioned philosophers, what are the most important and unresolved ones of them? Which authors/books/articles come to your mind that give a well-grounded argument against the likes of Deleuze?

By the way, yes. I have watched the Foucault/Chomsky debate a dozen times.

  • 2
    This might be too broad to be answered briefly here without becoming mostly opinion. If you could limit this to just one work written by Deleuze with an example of the "hatred" you object to in the form of a reference it would help narrow the question. Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 17:36
  • This J.G. Merquior wrote some interesting books, reasonpapers.com/pdf/17/rp_17_11.pdf; reading Vincent Descombe's books allow us to follow some of the history of the development. I am a fan of Guy Debord. Anyway, the French philosophers are not so hated as you describe.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 18:06
  • A good critical reading of French poststructuralists is Manfred Frank's book What Is Neostructuralism? He approaches them from within continental tradition, especially hermeneutics, and gives very detailed discussions of various works of Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze-Guattari in particular.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 18:09
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    None of the examples you give are actually ad hominem. Criticising obfuscation in writing, or saying that an argument is gibberish, or that it lacks substance, are criticisms of an argument, not ad hominem attacks against the speaker. Obviously you would want those assertions backed up, rather than just being bald assertion, so it is still important that there be a clear critique there. Still, perhaps what you are actually objecting to is bald assertion rather than ad hominem?
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 5:54
  • I would disagree that the criticism of the presentation of an argument is a "criticism of an argument". If I reject an argument because its too foreign to what i like reading (e.g. the Sokal books) and thus proceed no further than skimming for phrases I can ridicule, I've not even understood what argument Im actually supposedly critiquing. Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 13:45

3 Answers 3


I agree with Ben that calling work "obscurantism" is not ad hominem. Academic obscurantism seems to me at least a problem and possibly an important phenomenon which needs understanding.

Warning: I'm not a Deleuze expert; I'm at best an amateur epistemologiost.

I do understand, however, that obscurantism and difficulty of topic are two entirely different things that are easy to confuse. The intelligent writers on the list below generally spend time looking for ways of differentiating the two.

  • Alan Sokal does it in part by identifying episodes where prominent academics were writing obscure prose which contained glaring inaccuracies in descriptions of scientific phenomena, signalling that they were willing to write about what they did not understand - and thus there is something going on beyond "these are difficult concepts for the lay person".
  • Martha Nussbaum does it in part by identifying Judith Butler's unwillingness to examine multiple interpretations of material.
  • Chip Morningstar does it in part by noting how different the process of exploring postmodern literary criticism is from exploring other difficult material.

These three are, in order, a physicist, a noted philosopher and a noted programmer.

For all three of them, and for others, separating obscurantism from difficulty is a primary concern. They are all trying to identify the point at which meaning, rather than simply becoming more difficult, actually disappears into over-abstraction.

Here's the left-wing critic Nathan Robinson, citing a passage from a journal called Human Studies:

Now, the usual defense here is that to people within the scholar’s subfield, these words do mean something clear. But this is false. Try asking them. See if they give you the same definitions, and if those definitions are ever particularly clear, or always include yet more abstractions.

One obvious problem with Deleuze et al is that it's impossible to find people who make what they're saying understandable. If you want to understand, say, relativity, you can find a huge number of experts who make it understandable, even though it is a very difficult concept and though you will have to work at it pretty hard. Finding a writer who sets out Deleuze clearly seems, in stark contrast, pretty much impossible.

Note that Foucault is not really in this group at all. He's a fairly good writer who throws in incomprehensible passages from time to time. According to Searle, Foucault once accused Derrida of obscurantisme terroriste, explaining:

"He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying. That's the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part."

If academic obscurantism really does conceal an absence of worthwhile ideas, then one mystery is the extent to which people are doing it consciously, aware that their ideas are thin and relatively unimportant, and the extent to which they genuinely believe they are making intellectual breakthroughs, possibly because they have some different idea about what important intellectual breakthroughs actually are. It seems possible that some of them have a very non-standard conception of what ideas actually are - a conception that privileges language over the ideas that should be beneath.

Some readings

Nathan Robinson, Academic Language and the Problem of Meaninglessness https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/07/academic-language-and-the-problem-of-meaninglessness

Filip Buekens and Maarten Boudry, "The Dark Side of the Loon. Explaining the Temptations of Obscurantism" https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/55704402.pdf

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/

Chip Morningstar, How to Deconstruct Almost Anything https://www.info.ucl.ac.be/~pvr/decon.html

John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/jean_searle_on_foucault_and_the_obscurantism_in_french_philosophy.html

Martha Nussbaum, "the Professor of Parody" https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Nussbaum-Butler-Critique-NR-2-99.pdf

Alan Sokal, Beyond the Hoax https://www.amazon.com.au/Beyond-Hoax-Science-Philosophy-Culture/dp/0199561834

  • How do you reconcile the statement "One obvious problem with Deleuze et al is that it's impossible to find people who make what they're saying understandable," with the fact that e.g. (according to a quick Questia query on books written about Deleuze) over 3,722 books apparently written about him? Are you saying none of these books present him clearly? Or are you merely speaking hyperbolically? Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 1:20
  • I'm speaking hyperbolically. I'm not a Deleuze expert. I have not read Deleuze extensively, let alone the 3722-plus accounts of his work. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 4:17
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    I should add: I'd be hugely grateful to find a book that did present him clearly. So far I have found none. Perhaps I'm just looking in the wrong places. Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 2:16

You could try :

Calvin O. Schrag, The Resources of Rationality: A Response to the Postmodern Challenge, ISBN 10: 0253350549 / ISBN 13: 9780253350541 Published by Indiana University Press, United States, 1992.

This ranges widely, as you might expect from the title, but does address Deleuze.

There's a different but equally critical angle on Deleuze (among others) in :

Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, ISBN 10: 0745606148 / ISBN 13: 9780745606149 Published by Polity Press, 1990.

Another angle of critique in which Deleuze figures is :

Somer Brodribb, Nothing Mat(t)ers: a Feminist Critique of Postmodernism, ISBN 10: 1875559078 ISBN 13: 9781875559077 Published by Spinifex Press (2003).

These texts might get you started; they are all critical but from different perspectives. None of them contains ignorant polemic; whether they carry their respective points against POMO is another question. One for you to assess.


There are a couple of (somewhat entangled) roots to this issue...

First, there is a long historical division between Empiricism and Rationalism. Put simplistically, Rationalists hold that philosophical work is primarily situated in reasoned analysis, introspection, conceptual clarification, and other purely mental activities. By contrast, Empiricists assert that all philosophical investigation must ultimately be grounded in sense experience, because sensory experience of the world is the only 'solid' (non-subjective) referent we have. The anglophone (English-speaking) world came heavily down on the side of Empiricism, and tended to de-emphasize 'deep' philosophy in favor of the empirical sciences. This led to thinkers like Russell (who wanted to bind philosophy to the natural sciences through mathematical logic) and Popper (who wanted to dismiss anything that couldn't be cast into an empirical testing model as non- or pseudo-scientific). European philosophy, by contrast, was thoroughly Rationalist, taking on 'big' questions that don't lend themselves well to empirical analysis: e.g., the nature of being, the construction of the mind, the essence of society... So we end up with people like Hegel (who wants to rationalize the human world through a precise system of dialectics) and Nietzsche (who wants us to question and ultimately discard the unquestionable moral precepts that bind us).

Second, there's a religious issue driving things behind the scenes. Empiricists dislike rationalist approaches because they feel it creates a conceptual fuzziness that allows religious ideology to sneak in: concepts like 'mind' and 'being' are too easily warped into religious conceptions like 'soul'. Europeans as a whole are more trusting of religion; they have had far less conflict with dogmatic fundamentalism than they English-speaking counterparts. At any rate, Rationalists have shown an increasing willingness to embrace empirical methods. Much of the modern social sciences is the application of empirical methods to 'big' questions that would normally be in the province of European philosophy. But Empiricists are still leery of the subjective and introspective aspects of Rationalist philosophy, and in certain quarters are quite hostile to such efforts.

Third, Rationalism has always been socially proactive. Rationalists philosophers are (as a rule) deeply interested in the human condition, and focused not merely on seeing how human life is, but on understanding how human life could be. Empiricists have always (as a rule) preferred the 'ivory tower' model, in which academia is meant to provide knowledge, not to interfere in the way society operates. As a consequence, there is a pervasive and dismissive sense among anglophone intellectuals that European philosophy — social theory and critical theory in particular — is more political firebrand material than true philosophy. In other words, a European-style philosopher might write something like "A Critical Analysis of the Narratives of Oppression in US Society", but to an Empiricist that will merely be so many words strung together, because they won't accept 'narratives' as an empirical concept and won't acknowledge the reasoning that makes the concept work.

Ultimately — to quote one of our more prominent US philosophers — "haters gonna hate". Most intellectuals get along well enough regardless of their methodological orientations, and we all have to put up with the loud minority working their own sociopolitical agenda within the intellectual community. This too shall pass, in time...

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