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The Empire of European Philosophy: A Talk with Matthieu Renault

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On a cold, surprisingly snowy November night, The American University of Paris hosted a talk by the celebrated philosopher Matthieu Renault (Maître de conférences at Université Paris 8) titled: The Empire of European Philosophy: A Global Perspective on the History of Philosophy. Throughout the course of the evening, Renault deftly weaved together seemingly disparate eras of philosophy to share his vision of the history of philosophy as something that emerged with the advent of the nation-state.

Renault began his discussion questioning the concept of the “first philosophers,” the oft-celebrated Greeks, as being something less than Greek. In fact, he argued, the pre-Socratics were more Mediterranean in origin, from “Italy, Asia and Africa.” It would be more helpful, Renault said, to imagine them as “sailors of the Mediterranean,” instead of walking alongside Aristotle through the cobblestone streets of Athens.

Over the course of the evening, Renault tackled the Islamophobia he found present in contemporary philosophy, the conventions of colonial and post-colonial thought, and even questioned the French-ness of René Descartes, who, he reminded the audience, wrote most of his works while living outside of France.

Much of his talk revolved around the inseparability of the inner geography of philosophy and how the history of it has been shaped by state and national borders with the emergence of nation-states, even as philosophy had long developed in historical contexts preceding the nation-state. Philosophy, Renault contended, continues to develop where it is coextensive with other modes of government and territorial rule.

Renault’s talk with followed with a lively discussion with students and faculty. Many of them were curious about Renault’s views concerning various philosophical periods as well as the question of Renault’s warning of metaphors being “not only metaphors,” but something stronger, with real-world roots and an undeniable physicality in philosophical metaphors that is too easily dismissed.