It’s a question often raised by readers of both French and English who have discovered and enjoyed his writings in the original. There’s a simple answer. Very few of his works have been translated into English, though many other languages have welcomed his writings. Only three of his books have come into English, none of which are currently available: Mars in 1930 in a very poor translation; The Gods, 1973; Alain on happiness 1978.
So the question is, rather, why hasn’t Alain been translated more than this? That’s a complex answer and I’ll try to bring out what might be the factors in this neglect.
A first factor is that between the world wars, when Alain was most widely known and read in France, there was in Anglophone philosophical circles little interest in France. As far as I can tell, little French philosophy was translated in these years. It’s true that Henri Bergson, from the previous generation, was well known, translated and read. But it was to his advantage that he knew English, had English contacts, and lectured in both England and the US.
This general lack of interest derives from the nature of Anglophone philosophy in this period, the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ associated with what has come to be called analytical philosophy. Under the influence of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, philosophers focused on language, logic and their relationship to the world. They examined concepts and language use, rejecting metaphysics, in the process turning philosophy into a quite technical subject. It pursued analytical rigour, and resisted any role in providing a guide to life. It avoided ‘moralising’ or anything that might aim to be ‘edifying’. The Socratic/Platonic question: how shall we live? was put aside. This understanding of philosophy has remained, with some qualification, to this day in England and America.
There was, of course, a renewed interest in French philosophy after the second world war. The existentialism of Sartre and de Beauvoir was translated and read. Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism was published in the UK in 1948, just two years after its French publication. For other writers, however, the process was rather slower; Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, first published in 1945 had to wait for an English translation until 1962. English publishers also began to show a wider interest in pre-war French philosophers like Jean Wahl and Gabriel Marcel, so they might also have found their way to Alain.
Some of his works had been reviewed, usually briefly, in the Times Literary Supplement over the years, beginning in 1925. The French publication of Les Dieux in 1935 was warmly welcomed by that journal, as was, in 1953, the Hommage à Alain published by the Nouvelle Revue Francaise. On the other hand, the important and difficult Entretiens au bord de la mer received in 1949 a casual and patronising review, which ended with the laughable and ignorant conclusion that Alain is “it seems, a disciple of Bergson.”
I suspect and suggest that a crucial moment came in 1958. The Times Literary Supplement gave Alain’s recently published Correspondance avec Elie et Florence Halevy its front page review, one that extended over two pages. It‘s likely that the reviewer was asked not simply to review this collection of letters but assess Alain’s reputation and worth. The reviewer evidently has a good knowledge of French culture, but under the title ‘Letters of a wilful sage’ he gave a disparaging review. He made two main criticisms, that Alain was out of date, and that his propos were not a good form of writing, because they kept him from fully developing his ideas. Criticisms such as these are likely to have dissuaded publishers from pursuing an interest and commissioning translations.
To regret that Alain had not been more explicit about his ideas is, in fact, is a charge that could equally be made against the early dialogues of Plato and the late writings of Wittgenstein. As Alain wrote ‘what matters is the idea should be formed, not given’. And it is noticeable that in this long review, the critic hardly refers to any of Alain’s major works, nor the variety of his interests, nor his ideas, not the quality of his writing. There’s no sense that Alain was an important political thinker, for example. This was a review that judged Alain by criteria he did not share; it focused on what Alain didn’t do, rather than what he did.
It might be, then, that Alain has fallen between two views of what philosophy is: an old-fashioned one that a philosopher should provide something systematic; the recent one of philosophy as conceptual analysis.
A final consideration. In France there is a tradition that doesn’t distinguish sharply between philosophy and literature, starting with Montaigne and progressing through Voltaire and Rousseau. Alain can be placed within this too; his writings have been called ‘the finest prose of ideas’ of the twentieth century. English literature comes closest to this tradition in its writers of essays, like Bacon, Hazlitt and Emerson. So one approach to Alain is to read him as an essayist, an observer of the world, moving from the particular to the general; and to see this website as a space for readers of English to begin exploring for themselves the richness and diversity of his writing and thinking.