Ruth Scurr

Guardians of an ideal

Are the French really natural-born philosophers? Sudhir Hazareesingh’s portrait in How The French Think is affectionate, familiar and fondly teasing

Guardians of an ideal
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How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Allen Lane, pp. 426, £

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s bold new book is built on the assumption that ‘it is possible to make meaningful generalisations about the shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French’. France, as General de Gaulle pointed out, has such a fetish for singularity that it produces 246 varieties of cheese. Can France be any more a nation of thinkers than England is of shopkeepers?

Hazareesingh, an Oxford don, brings specific strengths to this daunting task. He was born and raised in Mauritius, a former French and British colony, in the 1970s, where his father was principal private secretary to Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam; he was schooled on French classics; he is a historian of ideas who divides his time between Oxford and Paris; and he has a sense of humour to match his intellect. Hazareesingh’s portrait is affectionate in the fullest sense: familiar and fondly teasing.

The sharp contrast between French speculative thinking and English empiricism is captured in the classic French saying: ‘tant pis pour les faits’, roughly translated as ‘so much the worse for the facts’. Hazareesingh notes that on this side of the Channel we often bemoan the French deductive method of reasoning pioneered by René Descartes, which starts with a general, abstract proposition, then works through to a particular, sometimes specious or trivial, conclusion. The method is notoriously vulnerable to deductive fallacies of this kind: All birds have beaks. That creature has a beak. Therefore it is a bird. Gerry Cohen, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, outlined the pitfalls in his essay: ‘Why One Kind of Bullshit Flourishes in France.’

But French thinking is also potent. Hazareesingh begins by analysing the then foreign minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech at the UN Security Council debate about sanctioning the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Villepin argued: ‘We are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and the immense honour which is ours should lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament.’ He spoke eloquently of universal principles, which happened to coincide exactly with French national interests.

Villepin’s speech drew on a long tradition of French thinking that Hazareesingh traces back to the aftermath of the second world war, to the Revolution of 1789, and beyond. The tradition comprises some distinctive habits: the presentation of ideas through overarching frameworks; a preference for considering questions in their essence rather than in their particular manifestations; a fondness for apparent contradictions; and a tendency to frame issues around binary oppositions.

Hazareesingh assembles a gallery of French intellectuals who exemplify this tradition. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the father of sociology, whose admirers included John Stuart Mill, attempted to integrate all forms of scientific inquiry into an over-arching philosophical system. Among his scientific utopias Comte included: the survival of the brain in several bodies; the mutation of cows and other herbivorous creatures into carnivores; and the realisation of the ideal of the Virgin Mother through procreation without sex. Hazareesingh endorses the view of the Victorian classicist Benjamin Jowett: ‘Comte was a great man. but also mad.’

Bernard-Henri Lévy, in 1978
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), the father of modern anthropology, challenged the idea that human progress could be achieved through the autonomous choices of rational selfconscious individuals. He was directly inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) — ‘our master and our brother… the most ethnographic of philosophers’. Hazareesingh explains that Lévi-Strauss’s work was

in complete alignment with Rousseau’s social philosophy: to recover the genuine ideal of ‘fraternity’ by separating what was artificial from what was natural in human society.

He mentions playfully that despite Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual fame he regularly received letters asking him for supplies of blue jeans.

Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980), existentialist philosopher, was the flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual’. The term was first coined in the late 19th century to describe public figures such as Émile Zola who campaigned for a revision of the Dreyfus case in the name of the universal ideal of justice. Fifty thousand people followed Sartre’s funeral procession. Hazareesingh argues that ‘what died with Sartre was not only a certain type of radical universalism but also the domination of the French intellectual scene by literary figures’. Through his bohemian lifestyle and contempt for the conventions of ‘bourgeois’ existence Sartre had echoed Rousseau’s rejection of corrupt ‘civilisation’. He could also be ridiculous. In the preface to Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial work The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre wrote:

To shoot a European is to kill two birds with one stone, eliminating an oppressor and an oppressed; what remains is a dead man and a free man.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, born in 1948, is affectionately but sharply described as the living embodiment of Sartre’s posthumous reputation: ‘the frivolous Saint-Germain-des-Prés dandy and literary celebrity.’ BHL (as he is widely known) defended Sartre passionately in his book Le siècle de Sartre (2000), despite having argued previously that all progressive utopias are ‘catastrophes’. ‘Our dreams go far back but they always turn into bloodbaths,’ BHL pronounced in 1977.

Like the stone Panthéon in the Latin Quarter dedicated to France’s great men, Hazareesingh’s paper pantheon of French intellectuals is male-dominated. He quotes the American feminist Camille Paglia’s sceptical suggestion that the likes of Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Michel Foucault (1926–84) were ‘the perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality trapped in verbal formulas and perennially defeated by circumstance’. Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) makes it into the story, but mainly as Sartre’s long-term companion: there is more emphasis on her Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981) than on The Second Sex (1981).

Hazareesingh argues that in retrospect Villepin’s 2003 speech was a turning point: ‘a last piece of French bravado, the dying echo of a tradition of confident universalism whose constitutive elements have slowly dissolved’. Since 2003 there has been a radical loss of confidence in France. One measure of the nation’s cultural imprint diminishing across the globe is the decline in the number of French books translated into English, especially in the human and social sciences.

Hazareesingh’s book was finished in January this year just before the murderous attack on the editors of Charlie Hebdo. How the French Think gives some context to that atrocity. The satirical magazine named itself after the death of Charles de Gaulle in 1970. It is classically anticlerical and leftwing. After revelations in 1976 that Pope Paul VI had had a homosexual experience it carried the headline: ‘I buggered the Pope.’ The recent murders at Charlie Hebdo occurred against a backdrop of concerns about France’s place in a globalised world, the integration of post-colonial minorities, economic and social fractures in French society and declining trust in French elites, including intellectuals.

In 2012 the Magazine Littéraire asked: ‘Does France Still Think?’ Yes, Hazareesingh answers, France has always thought and always will. Its intellectual tradition is too central to national identity to be cast asunder. Even if the bestselling books in 2013 were French translations of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Dan Brown’s Inferno, Hazareesingh is confident that

as they face the challenges of the 21st century, the French will remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition.

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