Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think:
An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
You may wince at the title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People. Attempting to explain in book form “how the French think” seems like an audacious if not preposterous undertaking. Yet, however improbably, Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University who also teaches in Paris, somehow accomplishes the daunting tasks he sets for himself: identifying the “cultural distinctiveness of French thinking” (p.3) and showing how and why the activities of the mind have “occupied such a special place in French public life” (p.7).
In his sweeping, erudite yet highly-readable work, Hazareesingh affably guides his readers through three centuries of French intellectual history. Hazareesingh approaches with light-hearted humor his impossibly broad and – certainly to the French – highly serious subject. He assumes that it is possible to make “meaningful generalizations” about the “shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French” (p.17). He is most concerned in presenting selected “meaningful generalizations” about how the French – and particularly France’s intellectual elite — have looked upon the country, its past, its major political institutions, and its place in the larger world. He places particular emphasis upon the theories and ideas which have sustained France’s political divisions since the 1789 French Revolution.
Hazareesingh finds French thinking to be both extraordinarily intense and, by Anglo-American standards, extraordinarily abstract. Ideas in France are “believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for” (p.17). He identifies a quintessentially French “fetish” – a term used frequently throughout his book – for “unifying theoretical syntheses and for formulations which are far-reaching and outlandish – and sometimes both” (p.111). The notion of knowledge as “continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology,” is, Hazareesingh argues, “alien to the French way of thinking” (p.21). French ideas tend to be the product of a form of thinking which is “not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” giving them a “speculative” character (p.21).
More than elsewhere, French thinking tends to look at issues as binary choices, between either A or B: nationalism or universalism; individualism or collective spirit; spiritualism or science. French thinking also reserves a special place for paradox, producing passionate rationalists, revolutionary traditions, secular missionaries and, on the battlefield, glorious defeats. France’s vaunted sense of exceptionalism, which lies in its distinct “association of its own special quality with its moral and intellectual prowess” (p.11), endures today side by side with a pervasive sense of pessimism and decline – malaise. In the 18th century, French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu observed that French thinkers had mastered “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously” (p.7), and Hazareesingh finds that the same “insouciance of manner” also endures in today’s France.
Hazareesingh arranges his work into ten chapters, working toward the present. He starts with the influence of 17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes on all subsequent French thinking. Within a Cartesian framework, he then discusses in the next five chapters distinctive 19th century modes of thought in France: exotic sects devoted to mysticism and occultism; the powerful influence of science on 19th century French thinking; the evolution of notions of a political Left and Right; and the emergence of a French view of “the Nation” and French identity toward the end of the century. Although focused on the 19th century – and in some cases, the 20th century up to the fall of Third French Republic in 1940 – these chapters also address the contemporary presence and influence of the chapter’s subject matter. Each could serve as an informative and entertaining stand-alone essay.
The chapter on the emergence of the political Left and Right in the aftermath of the French Revolution is both the thread that ties together the book’s chapters on 19th century French thinking and its link to the final four chapters, on post World War II French political and social thought. These final chapters revolve around the providential leadership style of Charles de Gaulle and the persistent attraction of communism as the heart of the French intelligentsia’s opposition to de Gaulle. Along the way, Hazareesingh discusses a host of post-World War II French thinkers, particularly the ubiquitous Jean Paul Sartre. He also provides an illuminating overview of the Structuralist movement, which gained great sway in academic circles, especially in American universities, for its grandiose analysis of human culture. Its key thinkers – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Fourcault, Jacques Derrida – seem to personify France’s proclivity for abstract if not obtuse thinking. In his final chapters, Hazareesingh describes the widespread contemporary French malaise, with French historians and its political intelligentsia looking at the country, its past and future, with a deepening sense of pessimism and despair.
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In Hazareesingh’s estimation, modern French thinking began in the 17th century with René Descartes and his belief in the primacy of human reason, the “defining feature of the human condition” (p.50). Descartes’ signal contribution was to “accustom men increasingly to found their knowledge on examination rather than belief” (p.33), thereby rejecting arguments based upon religious faith. The esprit cartésian, “based on logical clarity and the search for certainty” (p.33), rests on the conviction that reason is the “only source of our ability to make moral judgments and impose a durable conceptual order on the world” (p.50).
The distinction between a political Left and Right, Hazareesingh writes, has often been viewed as a manifestation of the Cartesian character of French thought and its “propensity to cast political ideas in binary terms and to follow lines of reasoning to their extremes” (p.133). The distinction originated in the early phases of the French Revolution, when supporters of the king’s prerogative to veto legislation gathered on the right side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly, while opponents of the royal veto grouped on the Assembly’s left side. Throughout the 19th century and up to the fall of the Third Republic in 1940, the subsequent debate between Left and Right was “largely between advocates and opponents of the French Revolution itself” (p.136).
Central to the mindset of the many tribes on the Left during the 19th century was a “belief in the possibility of redesigning political institutions to create a better, more humane society whose members were freed from material and moral oppression” (p.137). This entailed above all establishment of a republican form of government, with power “exercised by elected representatives in the name of the people” (p.137). Political change “could be meaningful only if it was comprehensive and cleansing” (p.143). The conceptual origins of European socialism and social democracy may be found on the left side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly.
The 18th century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a major share of the conceptual underpinning for France’s Leftist sensibilities. Rousseau concluded that it was “plainly contrary to the law of nature” that the “privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitudes are in want of the bare necessities of life” (p.79-80). Rousseau’s protean political philosophy appealed simultaneously to the “libertarian yearning for absolute freedom, the progressive quest for a better world and the collectivist desire for equality” (p.80). In the mid-19th century, the ideas of Auguste Comte further animated the Leftist vision. One of the 19th century’s “most original standard-bearers of Cartesianism” (p.33), Comte’s comprehensive attempt to unite all forms of scientific inquiry into a single overarching philosophical system inspired a republican faith in education and science as keys to building a progressive, secular and just society.
The counterpoint to the vision of the French Left was shaped by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (discussed here in May 2015 in a review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left). Burke’s Reflections constituted “such an iconic representation of anti-1789 sentiment that copies were burned in bonfires by revolutionary peasants” (p.138). Like Burke, the political Right in France defended the entrenched institutions that the French Revolution sought to uproot — notably, monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and the Catholic Church – and stridently resisted the democratic and republican impulses of the Left. The language of the Right was “typically about the avoidance of conflict, the defense of hierarchy, the appeal to tradition and religious faith. . . the Right was predominantly concerned with the preservation (or restoration) of social stability” (p.141).
In the first half of the 19th century, the most fervent proponents of the Right’s conservative vision were Catholic traditionalists and the royalists who never relinquished their dream of a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Hazareesingh credits the ultra-royalist polemicist Joseph de Maistre with encapsulating the Right’s aversion to everything associated with the 1789 Revolution. De Maistre saw the events of the 1790s as a “manifestation of divine retribution for decades of French irreligiosity and philosophical skepticism” (p.138). The notion of universal rights of man was to de Maistre a “senseless abstraction.” De Maistre is best known to history for his observation that he had “seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians. . . but as to man, I have never met one” (p.138).
A central theme in the mythological imagination of the Right in the latter half of the 19th century was the “presence of sinister forces working to unravel the fabric of French society.” These destructive agents were “all the more noxious in that they were often perceived to represent alien interests and values” (p.150). Jews in particular came to be identified as posing the ultimate existential menace to traditional conservative ideals, as manifested in the notorious affair involving Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of spying for Germany in 1896 (three books on the Dreyfus Affair were reviewed here in 2012). In the 20th century, the French political Right contributed to the “genesis of fascist doctrine” in Europe (p.147). The demise in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled much of France during the years of German occupation marked the effective end for this traditional, counter-revolutionary French Right.
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After World War II, two developments reshaped the schism between Left and Right: the emergence of a “new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centered around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia” (p.191). In their “schematic visions of the world after the Second World War, and in their bitter opposition to each other,” Gaullists and Marxists, “symbolized the French capacity for intellectual polarization and their apparent relish for endlessly reproducing the older divisions created by the Revolution” (p.196).
De Gaulle modernized French conservative thought by “incorporating more fraternal ideals into its scheme of values, notably, by granting voting rights to women and, later, ending French rule in Algeria” (p.192). Although his leadership revolved around his own charismatic persona as the incarnation of the grandeur of France — echoing Napoleon Bonaparte – De Gaulle was also relentlessly pragmatic. He “did not hesitate to discard key elements of the heritage of the French Right, especially its hostility to republicanism and its xenophobic, racialist and anti-egalitarian tendencies” (p.192).
The French intelligentsia’s “extraordinary fascination” with communist theory was “born out of the First World War and its apogee in France between the 1930s and the ‘60s coincided with one of the most troubled periods in the nation’s modern history” (p.102). Although ostensibly identifying with the Soviet Union as a model of governance, French communism “remained deeply rooted in [France’s] historic political culture” (p.107). Through the 1960s, communism offered its intellectual adherents a “way of experiencing the values of friendship, human solidarity and fraternity” (p.107).
Throughout the post-War period, Jean Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual landscape. The “flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual,’” Sartre combined high visibility interventions in the political arena with an “original synthesis of Marxism and existentialism” and a “commitment to revolution, ‘the seizure of power by violent class struggle’” (p.230). After Sartre’s death in 1980 and the election of reformist Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, Hazareesingh observes a change in the tone of the discourse between the political Left and Right.
The ideals at the heart of Sartre’s “redemptive conception of politics – communism, revolution, the proletariat – lost much of their symbolic resonance in the 1980s,” Hazareesingh indicates. Marxism “ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life as the nation elected a reformist socialist as its president, the Communist Party declined, the working class withered away and the Cold War came to an end” (p.236). By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981, the “division between Left and Right was already beginning to decline. . . the Right had moved away from its republican rejectionism . . . [and] the Left completed the movement in the 1980s by abandoning the universalist abstractions that underpinned progressive thought: the belief in human perfectibility and the sense that history had a purpose and that capitalist society could be radically overhauled” (p.158).
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Today, France grapples with a “growing sense of unease about its present condition and its future prospects” (p.21), the French malaise. The factors giving rise to contemporary malaise include the decline of the French language internationally, coupled with France’s diminished claim to be a world power. But since the late 1980s, France’s pervasive pessimism seems most closely linked to issues of multi-culturalism and integration of France’s Muslim population. Like every European nation with even a modest Muslim population, how to treat this minority remains an overriding challenge in France. Few thinkers. Left or Right, are optimistic that France’s Muslim population can be successfully integrated into French society while France remains true to its revolutionary republican principles.
Hazareesingh sees the rise of France’s nationalistic, xenophobic National Front party, originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, as not only a response to the pervasive sense of French national decline but also a telling indication of the diminished clout of today’s political intelligentsia. He chastises the “collective inability of the intellectual class” over the past decade to “confront the rise of the Front National and the growing dissemination of its ideas among the French people — a silence all the more remarkable as, throughout their history, and notably during the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals were at the forefront of the battle against racism and xenophobia. It is a measure of the disorientation of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites on this issue that some progressive figures now openly admit their fascination with Jean-Marie Le Pen” (p.256-57).
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Despite the doom and gloom that he perceives throughout contemporary France, Hazareesingh concludes optimistically that in facing the challenges of the 21st century, it is “certain” that the French will “remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition” (p.326). Let’s hope so – and let’s hope that Hazareesingh might again provide clear-headed guidance for English-language readers on how to understand these sophisticated abstractions, as he does throughout this lucid and engaging work.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 9, 2016