Jean-Luc Nancy graduated in philosophy in 1962 in Paris. He taught for a short while in Colmar before becoming an assistant at the Strasbourg Institut de Philosophie in 1968. In 1973, he received his doctorate with a dissertation on Kant under the supervision of Paul Ricœur. Nancy was then promoted to Maître de conférences at the Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nancy was a guest professor at universities all over the world, from the University of California to the Freie Universität in Berlin. He has been invited as a cultural delegate of the French Ministry of External Affairs to speak in Eastern Europe, Britain and the United States. In 1987, Nancy received his Docteur d'état from the Université de Toulouse-Le-Mirail under the supervision of Gérard Granel and a jury including Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. It was published as L'expérience de la liberté (1988).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nancy suffered serious medical problems. He underwent a heart transplant and his recovery was made more difficult by a long-term fight with cancer. He stopped teaching and quit participating in almost all of the committees with which he was engaged, but continued to write. Many of his best known texts were published during this time. An account of his experience, L'intrus (The Intruder), was published in 2000. Nancy was a professor at the University of Strasbourg.
Filmmaker Claire Denis has made at least two movies inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy and his works. Many other artists have worked with Nancy as well, such as Simon Hantaï, Soun-gui Kim and Phillip Warnell. Nancy has written about the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and featured prominently in the film The Ister.
In 1980, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe organized a conference at Centre culturel international de Cerisy-la-Salle on Derrida and politics entitled "Les Fins de l'homme" ("The Ends of Man"). The conference solidified Derrida’s place at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, and was a place to begin an in-depth conversation between philosophy and contemporary politics. Further to their desire to rethink the political, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe set up in the same year the Centre de Recherches Philosophiques sur la Politique (Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political). The Centre was dedicated to pursuing philosophical rather than empirical approaches to political questions, and supported such speakers as Claude Lefort and Jean-François Lyotard. By 1984, however, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe were dissatisfied with the direction work at the centre was taking, and it was closed down.
During that period Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy produced several important papers, together and separately. Some of these texts appear in Les Fins de l'homme à partir du travail de Jacques Derrida: colloque de Cerisy, 23 juillet-2 août 1980 (1981), Rejouer le politique (1981), La retrait du politique (1983), and Le mythe nazi (1991, revised edition; originally published as Les méchanismes du fascisme, 1981). Many of these texts are gathered in translation in Retreating the Political (1997).
Nancy's first book on the question of community, La Communauté désœuvrée (The Inoperative Community, 1986), is perhaps his best-known work. This text is an introduction to some of the main philosophical themes Nancy continued to work with. Nancy traces the influence of the notion of community to concepts of experience, discourse, and the individual, and argues that it has dominated modern thought. Discarding popular notions, Nancy redefines community, asking what can it be if it is reduced neither to a collection of separate individuals, nor to a hypostasized communal substance, e.g., fascism. He writes that our attempt to design society according to pre-planned definitions frequently leads to social violence and political terror, posing the social and political question of how to proceed with the development of society with this knowledge in mind. La Communauté désœuvrée means that community is not the result of a production, be it social, economic or even political (nationalist) production; it is not une œuvre, a "work of art" ("œuvre d'art", but "art" is here understood in the sense of "artifice").
"The community that becomes a single thing (body, mind, fatherland, Leader...) ...necessarily loses the in of being-in-common. Or, it loses the with or the together that defines it. It yields its being-together to a being of togetherness. The truth of community, on the contrary, resides in the retreat of such a being." (Preface, xxxix).
Nancy's dissertation for his Doctorat d'État looked at the works of Kant, Schelling, Sartre and Heidegger, and concentrated on their treatment of the topic of freedom. It was published in 1988 as L'Expérience de la Liberté (The Experience of Freedom). Since then, Nancy has continued to concentrate on developing a reorientation of Heidegger’s work. Nancy treats freedom as a property of the individual or collectivity, and looks for a "non-subjective" freedom which would attempt to think the existential or finite origin for every freedom. Nancy argues that it is necessary to think freedom in its finite being, because to think of it as the property of an infinite subject is to make any finite being a limit of freedom. The existence of the other is the necessary condition of freedom, rather than its limitation.
Nancy addresses the world in its contemporary global configuration in other writings on freedom, justice and sovereignty. In his 1993 book Le sens du monde (The Sense of the World), he asks what we mean by saying that we live in one world, and how our sense of the world is changed by saying that it is situated within the world, rather than above or apart from it. To Nancy, the world, or existence, is our ontological responsibility, which precedes political, judicial and moral responsibility. He describes our being in the world as an exposure to a naked existence, without the possibility of support by a fundamental metaphysical order or cause. Contemporary existence no longer has recourse to a divine framework, as was the case in feudal society where the meaning and course of life was predetermined. The contingency of our naked existence as an ontological question is the main challenge of our existence in contemporary global society.
All of these themes relating to world are taken up again by Nancy in his 2002 book La création du monde ou la mondialisation (The Creation of the World or Globalization), where he makes the distinction between globalization as a deterministic process and mondialisation as an open-ended "world-forming" process. Here, he connects his critique with Marx's critique of political economy, which saw "free labour" as what produces the world. Nancy argues that an authentic "dwelling" in the world must be concerned with the creation of meaning (enjoyment) and not final purposes, closed essences, and exclusive worldviews. The present system of expanding cities and nodes in the planetary techno-scientific network (tied to capitalism) leads to the loss of world, because the world is treated as an object (globe), even though the self-deconstruction of ontotheology increasingly made it the "subject" of its own creation.
In his book Être singulier pluriel (Being Singular Plural, 2000), Nancy tackles the question of how we can speak of a plurality of a "we" without making the "we" a singular identity. The premise of the title essay in this book is that there is no being without "being-with," that "I" does not come before "we" (i.e., Dasein does not precede Mitsein) and that there is no existence without co-existence. In an extension from his thoughts on freedom, community, and the sense of the world, he imagines the "being-with" as a mutual exposure to one another that preserves the freedom of the "I", and thus a community that is not subject to an exterior or pre-existent definition.
“There is no meaning if meaning is not shared, and not because there would be an ultimate or first signification that all beings have in common, but because meaning is itself the sharing of Being.”
The five essays that follow the title piece continue to develop Nancy’s philosophy through discussions of sovereignty, war and technology, identity, the Gulf War and Sarajevo. Nancy’s central concern in these essays remains the "being-with", which he uses to discuss issues of psychoanalysis, politics and multiculturalism, looking at notions of "self" and "other" in current contexts.
Nancy has also written for art catalogues and international art journals, especially on contemporary art. He also writes poetry and for the theatre and has earned respect as an influential philosopher of art and culture. In his book Les Muses published in 1994 (The Muses, 1996), he begins with an analysis of Hegel’s thesis on the death of art. Among the essays in The Muses is a piece on Caravaggio, originally a lecture given at the Louvre. In this essay, Nancy looks for a different conception of painting where painting is not a representation of the empirical world, but a presentation of the world, of sense, or of existence. Nancy has published books on film and music, as well as texts on the problem of representation, on the statute of literature, on image and violence, and on the work of On Kawara, Charles Baudelaire, and Friedrich Hölderlin.
Nancy's text L'intrus formed the basis for French director Claire Denis's film of the same name.
He has written extensively on film, including The Evidence of Film, a short work on Abbas Kiarostami.
Nancy appears in the film The Ister, based on Martin Heidegger's 1942 lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin's poem "Der Ister" (published as Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister"). The film focuses on the relation of politics, technology and myth.
Nancy has developed three films in conjunction with artist-filmmaker Phillip Warnell. He appears in their 2009 film Outlandish: 'Strange Foreign Bodies', which also features a text he wrote specifically for the project, Étranges Corps Étrangers. Nancy contributed a poem, 'Oh The Animals of Language' to Warnell's 2014 feature-length film 'Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air'. Warnell and Nancy worked on a new text-film collaboration which was completed in 2017, 'The Flying Proletarian'.