Literary and Critical Theory Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
John McKeane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0020


Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (b. 1940–d. 2007) was a professor of aesthetic philosophy, but also a poet, translator, and playwright. His forceful work takes seriously the challenge of thinking comparatively, blending rigor in philosophical discourse with a sensitivity to the contributions made by literature and art. His work was marked by its times: he experienced May ’68 as a young lecturer in the city of Strasbourg, which was strongly influenced by Situationism. There he, Jean-Luc Nancy, and their families shared a living and thinking community for almost two decades, which led to an outpouring of publications, often around the theme of a shared political existence. He also collaborated closely with Jacques Derrida and a range of other figures including Sarah Kofman, Alain Badiou, Michel Deutsch, Mathieu Bénézet, Jean-François Lyotard, Roger Laporte, Jean-Christophe Bailly, and Avital Ronell. But while historicization can have its uses, Lacoue-Labarthe is valuable today precisely because so much of his work is only beginning to be unpacked. As this process unfolds, it is becoming clear that long-standing narratives of French thought since the 1970s will require reworking. He wrote only rarely on structuralism, post-structuralism, or psychoanalysis, and was critical of catch-all labels such as “theory” and “the avant-garde.” Instead, his relation to contemporary thought passes over lonely and sometimes tortuous paths. One of these is his career-long attention to, and increasing criticisms of, the work of Martin Heidegger: he ignores Sartre’s existentialism, preferring instead to explore deconstruction and particularly the importance it places on poetry and literature. He also provides a significant body of work on Heidegger and the political, relevant both to controversies of the 1980s, and those of today. The explosive force of Nietzsche was important to him, not least insofar as a critique of metaphysics was allied to an appreciation for music. But it is perhaps with the nexus of early-19th-century German thought (Hegel, the Jena Romantics, Hölderlin) and ancient Greece (tragedy, philosophy) that Lacoue-Labarthe’s thought is at its most striking. Here it takes the form of critical or philosophical essays, of translations, and of stage productions. And this proliferation of activity sees his thought penetrate into areas such as philosophy’s inaugural struggle against literature, the theology or post-theology present in Sophoclean tragedy, theories of the ancient and the modern, and much more besides.

Lacoue-Labarthe’s Writings

This section presents a selection of Lacoue-Labarthe’s most significant writings. The divisions should be taken only as a guide: for Lacoue-Labarthe’s career was spent exploring how categories such as literature and philosophy inevitably cross over into one another. On the one hand, philosophy has a form, a language, an existence-in-the-world; on the other, poetry is more than capable of providing new insights and advances in thought. Such crossings-over mean that the subsection Literature and Philosophy is based around a relationship that is also crucial in the thinking of poetry by the texts in the Heidegger subsection. It also means that the Tragedy subsection presents work that addresses that relationship, and often does so in order to respond to Heideggerian thinking. The pieces referred to in Poetry, Music, Art again deepen similar lines of inquiry. In order to provide a way into Lacoue-Labarthe’s work, we begin with two subsections that present his short but forceful autobiographical writings (see Autobiography), and those Works Coauthored with Jean-Luc Nancy. Finally, a selection of his Translations is included.

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