When we think of the Parisian existentialism and phenomenology of the mid-twentieth century, images of Camus, Beauvoir, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty writing and conversing in smoky Left Bank cafes and jazz bars come to mind. Unfortunately, few will include the Vietnamese phenomenologist Trần Đức Thảo in that milieu, though he was an important contributor to both popular and academic philosophical and political discussions in late-40s and early-50s France. The reasons for Thảo’s erasure from the mainstream histories of the time are many: he fell out with Sartre, the most influential figure in those circles at the time, after the pair’s attempt to collaborate on a book ended acrimoniously; he chose to return to Vietnam in 1951 to support Vietnamese independence during the height of France’s colonial war in Indochina; and while Sartre delivered “Existentialism Is a Humanism” to a packed audience eager to pick up on the latest intellectual fashion, Thao sat in a Paris jail cell where he was being held as a “threat to the security of the French state.”
It was from that jail cell in 1945 that Thảo penned “On Indochina.” It was published in the February 1946 edition of Merleau-Ponty’s and Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes. In “On Indochina,” Thao carefully applies the tools of Husserlian phenomenology, adapted for a non-specialist audience, to help elucidate the misunderstanding between French and Vietnamese in Indochina and to critique the injustices perpetrated there by French colonialism. The essay was a plea to the French government and people to leave Vietnam in peace – a plea that tragically fell on deaf ears. Later in 1946, shortly after the publication of “On Indochina, French troops arrived in Vietnam to begin the First Indochina War and set off three decades of brutal warfare in the region.
“On Indochina” and Thảo’s other writings in Les Temps Modernes influenced later, more famous decolonial thinkers such as Fanon and Césaire. It is one of the first examples of what is now termed “critical phenomenology.” This is the first English translation of any of Thảo’s political writings.
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“On Indochina.” 2021. Études Phénoménologiques. DOI: 10.2143/EPH.5.0.3288747