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[Summer series] Michaël Foessel - Free is the night

Michaël Foessel, philosopher and professor-researcher, initiated an agreement between École Polytechnique and the University of Paris-Nanterre to allow Ingénieur Polytechnicien students to pursue a degree in philosophy.

©Silvère Leprovost

On the campus of École Polytechnique, Michaël Fœssel loves the basements in particular, with their graffiti-covered walls that remind him of street art in Berlin. “This is the most amazing place on the campus,” comments the philosopher, a professor at l’X since 2013, who spends three months a year in the German capital that he first visited as a teenager, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There he discovered a spirit of freedom that mirrors his own. Michaël Fœssel is persuaded that, “Exposure to philosophy and the social sciences makes people more lucid, and therefore freer.”

For more recognition of the human sciences

Michaël Fœssel is an active advocate of ensuring that the humanities in France receive more recognition in the professional world, as they do in Germany or in the United States, where a PhD in philosophy offers many professional prospects. This past year he initiated an agreement between École Polytechnique and Université Paris-Nanterre to allow some thirty Ingénieur Polytechnicien students to pursue a degree in philosophy in parallel with their curriculum at l’X.

This human intelligence is necessary for political decision-making, and giving pride of place to the social sciences is precisely one of École Polytechnique’s strengths,” he comments, adding: “I try to show students the historical depth of concepts mistakenly regarded as self-evident or new, along with the complexity of the issues raised by these notions.” Fœssel was known as an undisciplined student in his public school in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Mulhouse, before discovering, at the age of 16, the philosopher Paul Ricœur. He then studied in École Normale Supérieure where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Immanuel Kant and the question of the world.

Between teaching and research

If teaching for Michaël Fœssel is a guarantee of individual freedom, he nonetheless remains close to the world of research. With the teams of École Polytechnique’s Laboratory in the Humanities and Social Sciences, he conducts a seminar on the ethics of research, proposing to compare and contrasts results, issues, and methods of different fields of the human and social sciences. This interdisciplinary approach characterizes the exchanges between historians, sociologists, politicians and writers in the magazine Esprit, on whose board he is an active member, as well as in his works where he takes up poetic and literary themes, such as consolation or the night, and examines them from the standpoint of political philosophy.

His latest book La Nuit (The Night) explores this period of time when social surveillance is reduced. “There is a worrying tendency to try to organize nighttime according to the criteria of the day. It is not so much the symbolism of night that matters, but the concrete experiences that it welcomes,” argues Michael Fœssel. “Under the pretext of security or growth, the government and the market try to counter what is uncanny and unpredictable about the night. In the name of transparency, all things are brought to light. But where everything is made visible, there is not much left to experience.”

Once again the philosopher cites Berlin, where, according to him, "a night culture exists that is conceived not as an extension of the day but as a way of seeing otherwise.”

Find all the portraits of researchers of our summer series, here.