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Jean-Luc Nancy in 2006.
Jean-Luc Nancy in 2006.

Jean-Luc Nancy (1940–2021)

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, renowned for his wide-ranging, challenging, and thoughtful writing on art, film, and politics, died August 23 at the age of eighty-one. Best known for his unfetteredly fresh takes on giants of thought, including Heidegger, Kant, and Sartre, he wrote extensively on art, taking as his subjects Simon Hantaï, Soun-Gui Kim, and On Kawara, the last of whom he especially admired for his works investigating death, time, and human existence. Nancy’s 2000 essay “L’intrus” (The Intruder), perhaps his most famous work, served as the basis for Claire Denis’s well-regarded 2004 film of the same name.

Born in 1940 in Caudéran, outside of Bordeaux, France, Nancy in 1962 graduated in philosophy from the University of Paris, going on to teach all over the world for the following two decades while writing extensively. During this time, he and his family lived communally with fellow philosophy professor Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and his family. Describing in Expert Comment the coteaching style of Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, who cowrote many texts together, John Mckeane characterized the pair’s preferred method of working “in a haze of cigarette smoke and without the rituals of authority” as “unthinkable in today’s universities.” In 1973, Nancy took up a teaching job at Strasbourg’s Université des Sciences Humaines, where he would work for the next thirty years. In 1987, Nancy obtained his state doctorate from the Université de Toulouse le Mirai; his thesis, which put forth the concept of freedom as a kind of personal property, was reviewed by Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, and was subsequently published as L’experience de la liberté in 1988.

Beset by ill health in the late 1980s and early 1990, Nancy underwent the first heart transplant to take place in France and found his subsequent recovery complicated by a diagnosis of long-term cancer caused by the drugs he was ordered to take to suppress his immune system around the organ transplant. Around this time he ceased teaching and stepped away from many of the committees in which he was a participant, but he continued writing, notably producing 1993’s Le sense du monde, which queried the idea of living in the world rather than apart from it, and the startlingly intimate “L’intrus,” about his decadelong health crisis.

Following the dawn of the new millennium, Nancy worked extensively with artist and filmmaker Phillip Warnell, collaborating on works exploring human–animal relations, among other topics. No matter with whom he was collaborating, the human condition, in regard to which he had great sympathy, remained his central theme. Asserted Mckeane, “Nancy should be remembered for seeing humans not as isolated minds, but as embodied beings who create meaning through our senses.”