An unconditional collège

1The Collège International de Philosophie is an institution like no other. Perhaps it is not even an institution, strictly speaking – not what is usually understood to be “institution”. It is an institutional anomaly. Founded by decree of the Presidency of the French Republic in 1983, it constitutes a hapax in the history of philosophical institutions: it is the only institution that, being neither a university nor a research group, benefits from an endowment from a democratic State that in turn does not impose any returns or control on it. How many democratic states in the world today support perfectly independent and totally sovereign philosophical institutions?

2Founded over thirty-five years ago, the Collège has known ups and downs, glorious times and times of crisis, but it has maintained itself with astonishing constancy and perseverance despite the most pessimistic prophecies and some very real attacks. “The Collège has only friends”, declared Jacques Derrida on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, ironic and somewhat annoyed. No doubt. But the Collège also has for itself – and Derrida was not unaware of it – an asset which explains its longevity and its vitality in a general institutional context that is nonetheless difficult.

3What is that asset? The Collège is unconditional. Its extraordinary formula, which is far from being simply rhetorical, gives it its strength, and constitutes its luck.

4I have known the Collège for more than twenty-five years, having been successively an auditor, external seminar leader, program director, and president of the Collegial Assembly. Whatever my position, the experience of the Collège has always struck me as being marked by radical and immeasurable freedom.

5The Collège is thus neither a research center, nor a department of philosophy, nor a cultural association. Besides, since January 2014, it is no longer a private non-profit organization. In order to be able to benefit from state subsidies on a permanent basis, the Collège had to join, a few years ago, a community of universities – to which its history has been linked since its foundation (Paris-Nanterre and Paris 8) – and associates (museums, libraries, public establishments), the COMUE Université Paris-Lumières. This administrative transfer of the Collège had worried many in 2015. In the end, it went smoothly and allowed the Collège to develop some fruitful collaborations with museums (Louvre, Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, Beaubourg) and associated public establishments (Archives Nationales, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel).

6The Collège is an open place like few others in the world. It is open to research directors with various professional statuses, different life and career paths, multiple nationalities and languages. It is open to a composite audience that is itself in constant evolution.

7The proposition out of which the Collège was born is simple. It is formulated at the beginning of the Rapport bleu, sources historiques et théoriques du Collège international de philosophie, recently republished in the “Collège international de philosophie Collection” by the Presses Universitaires Paris Nanterre:


Therefore, if we are proposing the creation of a Collège de philosophie, it is not primarily to mark the complete belonging of this institution to what we believe we can in advance determine as its philosophical destination or essence. It is, on the one hand, to designate a place of thought where the question of philosophy would unfold: on the sense or destination of the philosophical, its origins, its future, its condition. In this regard, thought designates for the moment only an interest in philosophy, towards philosophy, but an interest which is not first of all, necessarily, and through and through, philosophical. It is on the other hand, to affirm philosophy and define what it can be and must do today in our society with regard to new forms of knowledge in general of technology, culture, the arts, languages, politics, law, religion, medicine, military power and strategy, police information, etc. [1]

9The Collège was conceived as the place where thinking is exercising a right that one of its founders, Jacques Derrida, called on the occasion of his first seminar at the Ciph “the right to philosophy” and that he glossed as: “Who has the right to philosophy? Who has the power and the privilege? [2] This right is de jure as well as de facto recognized for all. The Collège was designed for this sole purpose. This right, as the founders of the Collège understood and wished for, is a right whose prerogative belongs to no one, whose privilege must at all times be questioned and called into question. It belongs as much to those who come to follow courses and activities, as to those who lead their programs there. These asymmetric positions are, moreover, constantly called upon to be exchanged and transformed by each other. The Collège aims to be an open place, as open as possible. The fifty-two members of the Collegial Assembly, based in France and abroad, are elected for 6 years on a project to lead a program. No condition of age (of majority, or foreclosure), nationality, or academic qualifications is required to become a program director. To my knowledge, the Collège is the only institution in the world to operate in this way. The writers of the Rapport bleu heard it that way: “The originality, strength, and influence of this institution, the only one of its kind in France and perhaps in the world, are at stake.” [3] Of course, each program project is scrutinized and undoubtedly assessed according to scientific criteria of coherence and originality which are not themselves without their own particular determinations. But personal records, origin, level of education of candidates for program director are not taken into account. This formula of unconditionality is a way of not preempting interest, of not insulting the future of an elaboration of thought, of a creative contribution of research.

10Inseparable from its formula of unconditionality, the desire of program directors is the real engine of the institution, which admittedly operates with a few internal operating principles and a few administrative requirements but essentially leaves open the possibility to speak, to exchange, to invent, to write, to propose, to think. The Collège was not created “against”. Its proposition is fundamentally affirmative. More than ever, it is an essential place for elaborations, creations, inventions, debates, commitments, and why not, sometimes inevitable disputes.

11At a time of generalized evaluation and the demand for excellence, the Collège keeps its distance, as far away as possible, from any normative or productivist logic. This does not prevent it – quite the contrary – from sparking a host of innovative and ambitious scientific projects. Since its creation in 1983, the Collège has made the bet that freedom is the unconditional condition for the exercise of thought. It was imagined by its founders and the generations of program directors who have taken it to be a place for the deliberate exercise of indeterminacy and openness “that we refer to”, say the authors of the Rapport bleu, “in this context, using the word thought”. [4]

12In this regard, and long before the programming laws, the Collège took the opposite stance of any policy of evaluation and orientation of research and creation. In matters of research, the full and complete freedom of every individual is essential. The supervision of research is part of what Kant called the private use of reason, of a reason under the supervision of institutional and state injunctions. However, the most disruptive knowledge as well as the most original scientific discoveries result from a process which cannot be decided in advance, nor constrained: the authors of the Rapport bleu have, like others before them, bet on the unexpected and incalculable effects of the libido sciendi. The freedom available to program directors at the Collège is total: it is the condition of possibility of the public exercise of reason of which Kant speaks in “Was ist Aufklarung?” (1784): “This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom – and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”. It is the exercise of this freedom that allows the emergence of new philosophical objects. For this reason, a place such as the Collège is more than remarkable today – indispensable in the landscape of research not only in France but worldwide.

13At the Collège, program directors are free to define their research topics – what in our jargon we call “their program directions”; the themes of their seminars are not subject to the approval of any third party. Program directors only authorize themselves. This does not prevent a very real, and sometimes even conflictual, collegiality.

14The Collège does not belong – far from it – to program directors alone. It belongs just as much to its auditors. The Collège’s audience is heterogeneous: it is young and not so young, made up of students, professors, researchers, the curious, specialists as well as neophytes. There are no registration or fee requirements. Program directors never know exactly who they are addressing. They face an audience made up entirely of auditors. This situation of address, which is certainly not exclusive to the Collège, is as destabilizing as it is interesting.

15The Collège does not issue a diploma; the one that used to be issued was not recognized as a full university title. The Collège has a different type of transmission than that practiced at the University. The teaching offered there is not subject to a verification of knowledge, nor is it sanctioned by any symbolic recognition. The Collège aims to be a place of knowledge and research, halfway between teaching and research institutions and society: it deliberately occupies a median, even marginal, interstitial, even questionable space to which it serves to give shape.

16The Collège was conceived as a space where lessons, activities and projects can be invented. The astounding appeal to the scientific and creative imagination that its proposal and formula represent has not escaped the attention of its partners. Throughout my term as president of the Collegial Assembly, I was struck by the fact that even though the Collège’s resources were limited, the partners we solicited, however prestigious, were eager to collaborate with us. I often wondered why. No doubt the reasons for this enthusiasm to work with the Collège are the consequence of our prestigious history, and perhaps of the originality of our work offers. But the underlying reason for this enthusiasm for the Collège is also due to the powerful effects of the freedom from which all of our work emerges. At the Collège, almost anything is possible: creating an international and interdisciplinary research group, giving a contemporary artist carte blanche, setting up a soirée in the form of a performance on the work of a philosopher, organizing philosophical walks in a museum, engaging in debates on philosophical subjects with autistic adults, establishing links with French and international institutions, to host a radio show, etc. In all of these cases, the desire of each individual and the will of the Collegial Assembly are essential to the realization of actions outside of norms and outside of the walls.

17The Collège is committed to the City: it wants to be on the same level as the world. The contemporary is as much its object as its subject. It reaches out to new audiences and engages with issues that the philosophical institution traditionally does not address.

18The Collège has set itself a double mission: to engage in thought as experience and to situate itself in the contemporary world. Remotely but resolutely Kantian in inspiration, the Collège’s birth certificate – its Rapport bleu – reaffirms that philosophy cannot turn away from what surrounds it, and must engage and question its practice. This is the reason why the research topics have continued to transform since its creation. New or still marginal questions tend to be formulated over the course of a program’s direction. The archive and climate issues have emerged in recent years to give rise to collaborative projects of international scope. The Collège has the ability to generate and federate around itself research networks that are greater in number and older than it is: the lightness of its structure and the simplicity of its internal functioning, the originality of its transversal proposals give it a real acuity and plasticity in the identification, setting up, and direction of even very ambitious projects. Such was the case with the “Archive Project” developed between 2017-2020 and supported by the COMUE Université Paris-Lumières. Aiming to bring theory and practice together, this project consisted of bringing together practitioners and theorists of what is called archives – or what philosophers with their incorrigible tendency towards conceptual abstraction refer to as the “archive” – around a problem at the heart of the Collège’s project. For three years, at the rate of three seminars per year, archivists from major French and international archival, museum and heritage institutions (the Louvre Museum, the Académie des Sciences, the Archives nationales, the Archives diplomatiques, the INA, the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, the IMEC, etc.), philosophers, historians, sociologists, literary critics, and psychoanalysts from the Collège and other institutions met to discuss technical and political issues related to archives in the contemporary era. A book – Dialoguer l’archive, co-authored by the members of the group, and published by the INA in 2019 – as well as an international colloquium “Défis de l’archive: rencontres internationales” held at the Archives nationales and the Collège de France in January 2020, were born from this working group.

19What are we doing at the Collège? Teaching, research – teaching immediately resulting from research, training and self-training in research – experiments, even experiments which the authors of the Rapport bleu rightly foresaw could, if necessary, turn out to be artisanal: “The speculative attitude and the artisanal experimentation will find here the most welcoming place for their cohabitation”. [5] One has only to leaf through the Ciph’s paper or electronic program to be convinced that this wish has not gone unfulfilled. The program directions and seminars cover specific or oblique fields, revisit old problems or put forward – at the risk of certain errors, of encountering certain dead ends – new “objects”. The advances in knowledge and the creativity of thought are at such a price that the Collège had the merit of recognizing even before it came into being: “This Collège will not be an establishment, an immobilized institution in which one would seek to cover fields recognized by programs assured of their efficiency, of their performance and their productivity. Rather, it will be a place of provocation, of incitement to research, of speculative or experimental exploitation, of proposals and stimulation in new directions.” [6]

20Teaching holds a central place at the Collège and takes many forms: seminars, colloquia, book Saturdays, and major conferences. But teaching is not the only thing that is transmitted in the philosophical or around the philosophical. Since its creation, the Collège has never stopped thinking about new methods of intervention and incursion into the cultural, artistic, and social field, taking up spaces outside the classroom, meeting spectators in cinemas (the Écrans philo), theaters or dance halls (the Bords de Plateaux), or in museums (the Promenades philosophiques). These formulas provide the opportunity for experiences that are sometimes perilous for those who lend themselves to them, but are always enriching. I am thinking in particular of the Philosophy in the museum [Philo au musée] evenings organized at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, which were an opportunity for program directors to comment on contemporary works of art or to imagine tour routes, thus responding to the wishes expressed in their time in the Rapport bleu: “Freedom, mobility, inventiveness, diversity, even dispersion, such would be the characteristics of these new philosophical ‘training courses”. [7] Such an experience was for everyone an opportunity as well as a risk. That of occupying unknown spaces to the point of losing one’s bearings, of letting oneself be disoriented in one’s discourse, one’s habits of thought:


These new incursions oblige the philosopher to question a certain type of authority (fundamentalist, transcendental or ontological) which sometimes accommodated itself to a certain exteriority (and thus a relative incompetence) with regard to such or such determined field of knowledge; they oblige him, in any case, to change style and rhythm, and sometimes language, without for that matter disavowing philosophy and without believing in its pure and simple invalidity. Without ceasing to question the meaning and the destination of philosophy and of what continues to affirm itself under this name, the philosopher seems to have to transform today his modes of questioning to answer the provocations and the expectations coming from places still ignored, most often, of the philosophical institutions, excluded by the issues they recognize and legitimize. [8]

22The Collège is a place where one can expose oneself to the limits of what one knows and what one can do, where one can try new thought experiments born of new or singular situations. From these encounters, new avenues of research may emerge that one had not previously thought of.

23Collegiality is one of the pillars of the Collège, along with internationality and intersectionality. Debates can be fierce. Oral memory, now fully digitized and accessible [9], or the editorial archive – for example, the colloquium “Lacan with the philosophers” (1990), which is about to be republished in the Collège international de philosophie collection – bears the imprint of disputes that were not purely formal, but attest to the expression of sometimes irreconcilable positions on theoretical or filial problems that shake the collegial Assembly and to which it does not necessarily respond with a unanimous voice. This culture of debate at the risk of dissensus is also inscribed in the history of the Collège since its foundation.

24The Collège can do a lot, but cannot do anything without a minimum of material resources. Research requires time. The loss of the time off that program directors in secondary schools were able to benefit from until the beginning of the 2010s – and which, despite our repeated attempts, has not been compensated for by any alternative arrangement – prevents many members of the Collegial Assembly from being able to direct their programs in normal conditions. This point is not a mere detail: the Collège international de philosophie is itself historically linked to an association founded by Jacques Derrida in 1974, the GREPH (Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Supérieur Philosophique), created to defend the teaching of philosophy and the possibility for secondary school teachers to pursue their research. This mission is in fact written in black and white in the Rapport bleu:


The most rigorous and the most creative thought would be represented there in the person of the so-called thinkers, philosophers, scholars, writers, artists, of course, but also analysts or practitioners competent in the most diverse fields, from law to medicine, from computer science to military strategy, from industry and commerce to urban planning, etc. The Collège’s activities will be open to all. They will be both research and research training for students or non-students, academics or secondary and primary school teachers, who would obtain from their administration the means to free themselves for this purpose, under certain conditions to be specified, from part of their teaching obligations. This last point is crucial and responds to a demand as well as a need deeply felt by teachers. [10]

26All teachers, whether they are schoolteachers, certified teachers, agrégés, today those who are on contract with the French Ministry of Education and higher education, or university professors, also have a place at the Collège. The only difference between them is that some of them—teachers in higher education and in large research organizations – have the necessary time in their professional activity to exercise this need that is also recognized for all the others. The need we all feel to be able to free up time for research and research training, according to the subtle distinction made in the Rapport bleu, has been recognized and supported by the Collège since its inception. The discharge system – or any other alternative system that has the same effect – is and remains consubstantial with the Collège’s project and vocation.

27The intersectionality that the Collège has been promoting and practicing for nearly forty years is not a simple interdisciplinarity. The notion of external and internal “borders” to which the authors of the Rapport bleu resort leads to a philosophical type of questioning of plural disciplines, including philosophy. What is at stake is the questioning of philosophy as a discipline and of the philosophical in its disciplinary sovereignty:


The philosophical recourse in this case no longer has its classical hierarchical form: arbitration of an ontological or transcendental authority legislating on questions of possibility, etc. What is now being sought is perhaps another philosophical style and another relation of the philosophical language to the other discourses (more horizontal, without hierarchy, without radical or fundamental recentering, without architectonics and without imperative totalization). Will it still be a philosophical style? Will philosophy survive the test of these new knowledges, of this new topology of limits? This will be the test and the very question of the Collège. [11]

29The founders were not mistaken. The resistance of the philosophical to its exposure to the outside, in the friction with other disciplines, other discourses and practices, including social, artistic, and cultural ones, is neither easy to overcome nor to dissipate once and for all. It is constantly at stake and in question within the Collegial Assembly, in the collegial as well as individual activities of the program directors – philosophers by training or not. This putting to the test of hospitality, but even more so of the hegemony of the philosophical in the face of the stranger, is a necessary test for a democratic society as well as for the future of philosophy itself. Far from weakening it, the Collège’s formula allows philosophers and others to question their disciplinary unthought [impensés] and their institutional blind spots. It is not by chance that the authors of the Rapport bleu refer in several places to the text of the Conflict of the Faculties (1798) where Kant notes that if philosophy is considered the queen of the faculties, the department of philosophy is subject to the disciplines representing the power of the State, in this case theology, law, and medicine. It is this “Kantian paradigm” that the Collège, instituted and subsidized by the State, intends to question: “a certain hegemony of the philosophical goes hand in hand with the confinement, even the repression of philosophical teaching and research by civil society or by the State apparatus”. [12] It is understandable that some guardians – philosophers or not – of the temple of the history of philosophy did not all see the creation of the Collège in a positive light. Yet the Collège is anything but a threat to institutional philosophy. It is next to the university, and in no way competes with it. At the very most, it enriches it by displacing it and by the dialogue that it addresses to it.

30The Collège is the place of the between. It lies at the jointing of disciplines and lives. This is the sense of program directions that last only a short time and are not renewable. They offer those who benefit from them the possibility of using them as a springboard for research, for a thematic reconversion in the most literal sense of the term. The Collège is a place of passage, the occasion for a possible displacement, for what the authors of the Rapport bleu call a “transferment” [“transfèrement”]. It is the place where the question of the universal can be criticized and posed anew. In the Collège, rhythms and forms for thought are invented, philosophical styles and individual and collective lifestyles are renegotiated.

figure im1

31What can the Collège do today? This is the question that the Collegial Assembly is asked, whose average age is currently that of the institution (just under forty). This rejuvenation can only be welcomed. The current program directors have not experienced the early days of the institution: the culture or the conflicts that marked the Collège’s beginnings. They are now occupying an institution that they will be responsible for keeping alive according to their own desires and the means that they give themselves. What does the Collège want? This is the question that each generation has had to answer. To reinvent itself, to appropriate a place that is open and free, based on what nearly forty years of thought and experience have given them. Unconditionally.


  • [1]
    François Châtelet, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Faye, Dominique Lecourt. Le Rapport bleu. Paris: Éditions des Presses universitaires de Nanterre, 2019. p. 31. [Translated here from the original French.]
  • [2]
    J. Derrida. Du Droit à la philosophie. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1990. p. 10. [Translated here from the original French.]
  • [3]
    Le Rapport bleu. op.cit., p. 49.
  • [4]
    Ibid., p. 37.
  • [5]
  • [6]
    Ibid, p. 37.
  • [7]
    Ibid., p.35.
  • [8]
  • [9]
    The recordings of the seminars and colloquia of the Collège international de philosophie can be freely consulted on INA terminals throughout France in libraries and media libraries, in particular at the Inathèque (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and at the IMEC (Caen). List of consultation locations:
  • [10]
    Ibid., p. 52.
  • [11]
    Le Rapport bleu, op. cit., p. 46.
  • [12]
    Ibid., p. 48.