The Great Bestiary of Philosophy

Christian Godin

(Les Éditions du Cerf, 397 pages, 2016)


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Since ancient times, philosophers have always used emblematic animals to illustrate their thoughts. They have found in the animal kingdom a rich source of images and metaphors. We may already be familiar with the fox, the wolf, the turtle or the swan from our favorite fables and fairytales. Here, we meet up with them again, together wih many of their fellow animals, to guide us through a mind-opening philosophical tour.

In The Great Bestiary of Philosophy, Christian Godin starts each of the eighty-six chapters of his book with an excerpt in which a philosopher structures an argument by invoking a specific animal. He then offers concise yet substantial commentaries on the topics. There are more philosophers than animals since some have been particularly popular food for thought.  The bee, for example, inspired Bacon, Saint-Simon, and Marx;  Montaigne, Locke, and Horkheimer all invoked the elephant to discuss quite different ideas. Some of these animal characters are now so intimately associated with certain philosophers that the two seem inseparable, like Buridan’s ass, Xenon‘s tortoise or the butterfly of the Taoist master Zhuangzi.  Some of the pairings may be familiar—the porcupine of Schopenhauer or the owl of Hegel. Other muses are more unexpected—Rousseau chose the orangutan, Pascal the mite, and Epictetus the snail.

Christian Godin’s pedagogical skills shine in The Great Bestiary of Philosophy. The chapters are short in length but rich in content and difficult concepts are rendered accessible without overt simplification. The Great Bestiary of Philosophy is the perfect book for dipping into, considering, discussing, and returning to for more stimulation, pleasure, and erudition.

Christian Godin is a philosopher who collaborates regularly with various newspapers and journals such as Marianne, Le Magazine littéraire, Sciences et Avenir. He is also well known for his teaching publications and pedagogic works, including a philosophical encyclopedia in seven volumes, La Totalité (Champ Vallon, 1997-2001) and La Philosophie pour les nuls (Editions First, 2006-2014). He has published numerous books including La Démoralisation: La Morale et la Crise (Champ Vallon, 2015); La Haine de la nature (Champ Vallon, 2012); Vivre ensemble: Eloge de la différence (entretien avec Malek Chebel) (Editions First, 2011); Le Pain et les Miettes (Klincksiek, 2010); L’Homme, le bien, le mal (Hachette, 2009; First ed. Stock 2008); Petit Lexique de la bêtise actuelle (Editions du temps, 2007); La fin de l’humanité (Champ Vallon, 2003); Au Bazar du vivant (Seuil, 2001) and Au fil de la philosophie (Editions du temps, 1999).


The Curative Power of Philosophy

Laurence Devillairs

(PUF, 252 pages, 2017)


Heartbreak, burnout, boredom, addiction, and illness: Our lives are made of great sorrows and setbacks, constraints, and limitations that we may or may not have chosen. Can philosophy be a remedy to all the myriad forms of suffering that are unavoidably part of the human condition? The ancient Greeks certainly thought so and recommended philosophy as medicine for the soul. The philosopher Laurence Devillairs pays homage to this long tradition. In The Curative Power of Philosophy, written in the form of a manual, Devillairs invokes the therapeutic power of philosophy and proposes a series of cures gleaned from centuries of accumulated wisdom.  

Devillairs identifies a wide variety of ailments and conditions affecting the body and troubling the mind.  Diagnostics and prescriptions are delivered in witty, and at times darkly humorous, vignettes. Arendt is called upon to enlighten us on aging, Pascal on proscrastination, and Spinoza on fear. Montaigne shares his method for escaping boring people and Nietzsche for coping with the daily grind of life. Devillairs is a specialist on René Descartes, and throughout this book she presents a different image of the champion of dualism. Who knew that Descartes had something to say about love at first sight? Or that, beyond the infamous mind/body distinction to which his thought is often reduced, he sought to illuminate the complex relationship between the body and the soul? Indeed, Devillairs considers him the inventor of psychosomatism.

In The Curative Power of Philosophy, the author insists that if philosophy can offer remedies, it is not by dispensing anesthetics or painkillers, or promoting the self-improvement techniques popularized by some current practices in psychology. Rather than smoothing over suffering, Devillairs believes that philosophy invites us instead to come closer to it. If philosophy is to help us negotiate our relationship to reality, it is by training us to formulate questions we may not have thought of before and to which there may not be ready-made answers.

Laurence Devillairs is a philosopher and specialist on René Descartes. Her publications include Un Bonheur sans mesure: petite philosophie de la vie en majuscule (Albin Michel, 2017); Fénelon: une philosophie de l’infini (CERF Edition, 2007); Descartes et la connaissance de Dieu (Vrin, 2004); and Descartes, Leibniz: Les vérités éternelles (PUF, 1998).




Open Letter to Animal Lovers

Frédéric Lenoir

(Fayard, 220 pages, 2017)


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Humans have deeply contradictory feelings toward animals; globally, and individually, the way animals are treated is peculiarly inconsistent. In some parts of the world, cats and dogs are loved and respected, in others they are mistreated. A puppy or kitten may be cherished like a child and yet the same pet owner may have no qualms about eating calves, lambs and piglets. Some people will not cook red meat but will happily eat fish. Frédéric Lenoir does not consider himself immune from this “moral schizophrenia.” But as an ardent animal lover, he is not content with brushing over those pervasive and apparently innocuous double standards.

In his Open Letter to Animal Lovers, Lenoir traces the various stages that led humans to consolidate their belief in their innate superiority over animals, from the beginnings of domestication to today’s intense exploitation fueled by modern societies’ overconsumption. One of the singularities of human beings, Lenoir observes, is an extraordinary capacity to rationalize desires. When it comes to justifying the exploitation of animals, there is a wealth of reasoning, or misreasoning, to deal with -- economic, cultural, biological, and religious. He notes that all along there have been dissenting voices, but that they are today bolstered by new research on animal behavior.

In a clear and accessible style, Lenoir reviews how, over the centuries, various religious and philosophical thoughts have explained humans’ relationship with the animal and natural world. One of the great pleasures and charms of this book is the inclusion of the many thinkers that Lenoir invokes as kindred spirits - poets and philosophers from the eighth-century Buddhist monk Shantideva, to Ovid and Plutarch, to Rousseau and Emile Zola, to Mark Twain and Isaac Bashevis Singer. We learn that Pythagoras and Jacques Derrida were vegetarians and that Voltaire linked animal cruelty with violence towards humans, an idea captured in the epigraph that Lenoir chose for this book: "We do not have two hearts, one for man, the other for animals.”

Lenoir uses modern science to show that animals are not so much inferior to man as they are simply different. The philosopher Schopenhauer, among others, had already intuited that animals experience suffering, and this and not the lack of ability to reason should be the true criterion for moral respect. The unique abilities of each species are now better understood thanks to the latest research emanating from the growing field of ethology, the study of animal behavior. These new discoveries expand what we know about animals’ intelligence, and their emotional and affective capacities.  In doing so, they challenge the dominant anthropocentric framework and provide the grounds for the development of animal rights. Further, they force the question of how we should act now that we know that animals are able to experience anger, joy, sadness, love and friendship and that they can suffer both emotionally and physically, just as we do.

Lenoir discusses the various trends in animal rights and the contributions of animal rights theorists like Tom Regan and the Australian philosopher Peter A. Singer. He navigates these often-heated debates with level-headedness.  He recognizes that there is such a thing as a misanthropic animal lover but he is also convinced that better respecting animals is not separate from better caring for our fellow human beings. As he expresses in Open Letter to Animal Lovers, Lenoir wholeheartedly believes that by extending our notion of rights to animals, we are moving toward a higher ethical stage in human consciousness.

Frédéric Lenoir is a philosopher, sociologist, writer magazine editor, France Culture radio host, and associated researcher at the L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. He is the author of many books and co-editor of three encyclopedias. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages, and he is currently the French intellectual who has sold the most books during the last five years.  He was the Literary Editor at Fayard from 1986 to 1991 then Director of Le Monde des Religions from 2004 to 2016. He is known for his multiple political engagements from animal rights, environment, and housing, as well as education. Frederic Lenoir’s Du Bonheur: un voyage philosophique (2015), (Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide), was a huge best-seller in Europe and was published in English by Melville House in 2016.



Regarding Aesthetics

Edgar Morin

(Robert Laffont, 144 pages, 2016)


Edgar Morin is one of those intellectuals on whom time has no hold. At 95, he remains one of our most fascinating thinkers. In his new essay, Sur l’esthétique, he illustrates the ability of the arts to makes us see the world in all its richness.

—Augustin Trapenard, France Inter, December 20, 2016, interview.

What is the purpose of beauty? How can we define the pleasure we feel when we encounter beauty?

For Edgar Morin, the aesthetic emotion is a sensation that fills us with pleasure and wonder. It can be sparked by a natural spectacle, a work of art, as well as by objects or works that we aestheticize. It plunges us into a kind of trance that he qualifies as “poetic.” Life does not make sense, but poetry gives our lives meaning. Life gains meaning for us in the poetic state, and the aesthetic emotion is a component of the poetic state.

Aesthetics, the hallmark of art, are a fundamental element of human sensibility. But where does artistic creativity come from? Should we call it inspiration or genius? What is the in vivo experience of the artist? The artist, in order to create, calls on many forces, both unconscious (inspiration) and conscious (revisions). In the same way, the aesthetic emotion that seizes each of us before a work of art is at once irrational and rational, since it calls on feeling just as much as cognition.

Love, and curiosity for life’s mysteries, gives meaning to our lives. In this profound and uplifting collection of thought, Morin deconstructs the complexities of some of his observations and theories. The aesthetic paradox, for example, in the adagio of Schubert’s Quintet, where the expression of the composer’s pain delights us through the beauty of the music—the sadness depicted here is not canceled by the feeling of aesthetic happiness, but in fact makes the listener share it with love.

From Lascaux to Beethoven, from Dostoevsky to Orson Welles, Morin brings to light the works and the artists that, for him, mark the aesthetic experience and help demonstrate its depth. Great works are not just “entertainment”; their comedies and tragedies give us an understanding of the human condition.

Today, heavy obstacles, as well as insidious standardization, often get in the way of the poetry of life. In these times of violence and mediocrity, beauty is a powerful antidote.

Born in 1921, philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin is still active as one of France’s preeminent contemporary thinkers. Research Director Emeritus of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, he also holds an itinerant UNESCO Chair of Complex Thought. He has received honorary doctorates from universities in twenty-seven countries. Morin’s work has been awarded numerous literary prizes and has been translated into many languages, including Chinese, English, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish. His large body of work includes the six volumes of Method (1977–2004); Homeland Earth (Hampton Press, 1999); The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2005); On Complexity (Hampton Press, 2008); California Journal (Sussex Academic Press, 2008); Vidal and His Family (Sussex Academic Press, 2009), among others.


Mythology and Philosophy: The Meaning of the Great Greek Myths

Luc Ferry

(Editions Plon, 2016, 580 pages)


***12,000 copies sold in the first three months***

This book takes a new look at Greek mythology, illuminated by Luc Ferry’s perspective as a philosopher and expert on the subject.

“Our everyday speech is peppered with dozens of expressions which come directly from Greek mythology: having an “Achilles’ heel” or “the Midas touch,” making a “Herculean effort,” “opening Pandora’s box,” being caught “between Scylla and Charybdis,” fearing a “Trojan horse,” remembering to “beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” etc. Hundreds of references to Sirens, Typhon, Ocean, Mentor, Python, Sibyl, Stentor, Laius, Argus, Oedipus, and other mythical characters still slip into our daily conversations.

Luc Ferry invites us to rediscover them with the retelling of the wonderful stories they come from. He goes further, explaining that the great myths are more than just “tales and legends.” They also offer profound wisdom and life lessons.

Mythology is an inspired attempt to provide answers to the ages-old metaphysical question of the “right way for mortals to live.” The leap is not far from this to philosophy, and this philosopher could not be better placed to help us make the leap with him.

Luc Ferry is a philosopher, former Minister of Education, and the author of numerous bestsellers, including Apprendre a vivre (Plon, 2006), La sagesse des mythes (Plon, 2008), La revolution de l’amour (Plon, 2010), L’innovation destructrice (Plon, 2014) and La revolution transhumaniste (Plon, 2016).


Black Physics

Vincent Bontems and Roland Lehoucq

Illustrations by Scott Pennor

(Les Belles Lettres, 2016, 208 pages, with black-and-white line drawings)


A philosopher and a physicist come together to try to shed light on the “black” or “dark” concepts of physics. Indeed, so many of physics’ phenomena are named using the words “black” or “dark” that Bontems, a philosopher, and Lehoucq, an astrophysicist, decided to examine why we use those words to describe so much of the universe. There are of course the oft-mentioned black holes, but there are also black sky, black body, dark matter, dark energy, and more.

But why, if most of the universe is dark matter that can only be detected by its gravitational effects, and which does not absorb, reflect, or emit light, should we call it black or dark? Are there connotations that develop from so naming these phenomena, and do their names influence the way we study them, imagine them, and research them?

For every term designated by black or dark, the authors explain the denotation, not only what it means to a physicist, but also what it metaphorically, and at times unconsciously, brings to the layperson’s  mind.

Vincent Bontems is a philosopher specializing in the sciences. He graduated from the Ecole Nationale Superieure, and works in a research laboratory. His interviews with Bernard Stiegler were published in 2008.

Roland Lehoucq is an astrophysicist at the Atomic Energy Commission, specializing in cosmic topology. He also teaches at the Institut de Sciences Politiques in Paris.


The Red Line of Ecology

André Gorz in conversation with Willy Gianinazzi

(Editions E.H.E.S.S., 107 pages, 2015)


André Gorz’s thinking has crystallized, through his philosophical and sociopolitical books, on how life is fought by the capitalistic mega machine which reduces human beings to consuming and working functions.

—Willy Gianinazzi

André Gorz answered questions and discussed increasingly important social subjects in three unpublished interviews in 1990, 2003, and 2005. As the founder of political ecology, he recalled his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre (who appreciated their equal-to-equal relationship), and talked about how their conversations contributed to his reflections on a wide range of topics: wage labor issues, such as the reduction of work time; social alienation; guaranteed basic income; and the works of Karl Marx, the French sociologist Alain Touraine, and Austrian philosopher and priest Ivan Illiche.

 Willy Gianinazzi is a historian and was close friends with Gorz, as well as a specialist of Gorz’s work. He edited and chose to publish these three interviews in one publication, in order to demonstrate how Gorz’s thinking has always been contemporary, always current, and how his philosophical reflections were always driven by people and their well-being in society.

André Gorz (1923–2007) was a philosopher. He was a journalist for Les Temps Modernes (Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal), L’Express, and founder of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (still one of the most prominent news magazines in France). His books include Le Traître (The Traitor, Verso, 1989) and one of his latest, Lettres à D. Histoire d’un amour (Letter to D: A Love Letter, Polity, 2009) in 2006, an ode to his sick wife, before they committed suicide together a year later.