French Thought in a Nutshell: On Sudhir Hazareesingh’s “How the French Think”

February 10, 2017   •   By Richard Golsan

How the French Think

Sudhir Hazareesingh

THE NEWS OUT OF FRANCE these days — indeed, over the past few years — is not good. The country has been crippled emotionally by a string of horrendous terrorist attacks, beginning with the assault on the editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and is saddled with a sputtering economy and an unpopular president and political class. All this has contributed to an ongoing crisis of confidence and a sense of national “decline.” The door is open, it appears, to unsettling, not to say radical change in the upcoming presidential elections. The Socialists under François Hollande and Manuel Valls continue to lose steam, and the National Front under Marine Le Pen may make it to the second round of the presidential elections next spring. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, once detested by the electorate and plagued by scandal, is making a comeback this fall. In his best-selling new book, Tout pour la France, he makes no bones about his ambition to be France’s “strongman” and impose a reactionary regime based on French “identity” and the marginalization and exclusion of immigrants. No wonder one hears ominous comparisons with the dark days of the 1930s, and that the specter of Vichy and fascism is frequently at the margins of public discourse.

This moroseness obscures our understanding of the French national character, of its strengths and weaknesses. It is a fitting time to recall and reassess all that France and the French have accomplished as people, the richness of French culture and intellectual life, and the nation’s contribution to global politics and culture. That, of course, is a tall order — one that Sudhir Hazareesingh sets out to fill in his new book, appropriately titled How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.

Hazareesingh, a professor of politics at Balliol College, Oxford, begins by identifying several important ways in which French thought is distinctive, if not unique. The first is its “historical character,” meaning that it is notable for its “substantive continuities over time” and its reliance on “references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation.” Second, French thought stands out “in its fixation with the nation and the collective self, which provide an enduring focus of public debate and the philosophical underpinning of assorted conceptions of the good life.” Third is the intensity of its passion for ideas, not just as abstract entities but as existential sign posts. Fourth is the belief that communicating specialized forms of knowledge to a wider public is essential — hence the French veneration of their philosophes and intellos, who are mediatized to an extraordinary degree. Finally, French thought is typified by the “constant interplay between the themes of order and imagination” and a “fetish for singularity” that reflects the fragmented nature and diversity of the French people.

All of these characterizations are apposite. (One could also add a taste for paradox and aphorisms that has marked the French literary tradition for centuries.) But the real value of How the French Think is the scope and range of Hazareesingh’s demonstrations and the stunning erudition they reflect. Chapter titles include “The Skull of Descartes,” “Darkness and Light,” “Landscapes of Utopia,” “The Ideals of Science,” and “Freedom and Domination,” among others. In each of these chapters, Hazareesingh takes up a central and, indeed, crucial component or attribute that defines French history, politics, culture, or intellectual life. “The Skull of Descartes,” for example, takes up the philosophical work and legacy of the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Descartes’s Discours de la méthode originally articulated the rationalist skepticism that has defined French life and intellectual culture, as well as its political traditions, for centuries. Hazareesingh traces Descartes’s intellectual influence on such 19th-century thinkers as Auguste Comte, whose philosophy was “geared toward one overriding goal: the completion of the scientific revolution in human understanding.” For the now somewhat forgotten interwar philosopher Émile Chartier, alias Alain, Cartesian skepticism served as the cornerstone of the notion of “civic distrust,” which fostered a respectful but critical attitude on the part of citizens toward their rulers. Earlier, Hazareesingh notes, the philosopher Jacques Chevalier even “credited Descartes with inspiring France’s victory” during World War I. This would probably come as news to many of the poilus fighting and dying in the trenches. Regardless, no one doubts Descartes’s influence on French intellectual culture and the French mode of thought, which is still dominated by a passion for the kind of binary oppositions that appealed to Descartes.

In “Landscapes of Utopia,” Hazareesingh emphasizes French philosophers’ historical tendency toward utopian thinking, which is less concordant with the general mindset of today’s France. If anything, modern France inspires thoughts of dystopia; Michel Houellebecq, Jean Rolin, and Boualem Sansal, for instance, have all recently published successful dystopian novels. Hazareesingh discusses the usual suspects in this domain, including, most notably, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose reflections embraced both political utopias in The Social Contract and, in works like Emile, idealized forms of education and the cultivation of the natural goodness of humankind in its purest, most “natural” form. But Hazareesingh also examines the works of lesser-known utopian thinkers, especially the 18th-century philosophe Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Mercier’s Year 2440 envisions a future Paris and a halcyon world order with

a reassuringly Gallic flavor: The French language, the instrument of “universal reason” [Cartesianism, once again!] prevails everywhere. French moral and cultural norms have spread across the globe, causing astounding changes in the dispositions of peoples: French women’s charms have notably succeeded in “softening the melancholic character of the English,” and, thanks to the diffusion of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws in the East, there has been a dramatic fall in the national suicide rate in Japan.

While Hazareesingh’s early chapters focus on more abstract issues, later chapters address more concrete elements of French life. These include political divisions over time, schisms as well as continuities on the Left and Right, urban and rural myths and realities, and, perhaps most crucially, the unbridgeable gap between Paris and the provinces.

Left and Right as political terms originated, as Hazareesingh notes, during the French Revolution. They originally referred to the sides of the National Assembly on which representatives chose to sit. At the outset, those on the right were in favor of allowing the monarch a legislative veto over the decisions of the Assembly, and those opposed to this prerogative sat on the left. But as the rest of the chapter entitled “To the Left and to the Right” points out, these opposites have proven extremely fluid over the course of history, and have been subject to a variety of external and internal factors that repeatedly redefined and realigned them. These factors have included, most obviously, the role and impact of the Catholic Church, anti-Semitism, colonialism and decolonization, class distinctions and class consciousness, and, in various guises, the temptation of political authoritarianism and even fascism. In addressing these issues, Hazareesingh underscores the often paradoxical nature of French thinking, providing well-chosen anecdotes. For example, while one would think that the defense of colonialism would be a right-wing hobby horse and decolonization a cause of the left wing, this has certainly not always been the case. Hazareesingh notes that it was the socialist Guy Mollet who believed in France’s “civilizing mission” in Algeria, while the more right-wing nationalist Charles de Gaulle negotiated Algerian independence. De Gaulle’s actions in this instance resulted, of course, in several assassination attempts against him, and the legacies of Algerian independence still roil the French political landscape today.

Most of the second half of How the French Think is devoted to postwar French politics and intellectual life, and covers an extraordinary range of schools, movements, and thinkers. Existentialism, Marxism, Structuralism, and Deconstruction are all tackled in brief chapters, which, as a rule, offer pertinent and revealing observations. Several writers, however, are given surprisingly short shrift, or are even labeled misleadingly. For example, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, the World War I veteran, successful interwar novelist, fascist intellectual, and collaborationist director of the Nouvelle Revue Française during the Occupation, is described only passingly as a “conservative,” and fodder for one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s witticisms. But Drieu was hardly a “conservative.” He supported fascist movements for their energy, loathed the bourgeoisie, and decided at the end of his life that he should have supported the Stalinist Soviet Union, where, in his view, real revolutionary dynamism flourished. Hazareesingh also arguably gives inadequate attention to Albert Camus. He first refers to him simply as a “novelist” and as Sartre’s friend, before the two men fell out following the publication of Camus’s The Rebel and disagreed violently over the crisis in Algeria. Hazareesingh later discusses dubious efforts by the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy, the philosopher Michel Onfray, and others to appropriate Camus and his thought for their own purposes. It is important to stress that, as a writer, Camus was both more accomplished and varied in his output than these discussions suggest. Also, despite Hazareesingh’s characterization of both Sartre and Camus as Existentialists, Camus always rejected the term, referring to his thought as a philosophy of the absurd.

If Hazareesingh’s characterizations of Drieu and Camus are, perhaps unavoidably, schematic, the “portraits” of other intellectual figures of the postwar years are decidedly not “affectionate,” to reference the book’s subtitle. Hazareesingh is especially hard on Alain Finkielkraut, whom he skewers as

the ultimate example of this narrow-minded and parochial way of thinking — both in terms of its legitimation by the elite (he was elected to the Académie Française in April 2014) and in terms of his intellectual evolution. He is a disillusioned ex-Maoist whose oeuvre is suffused with images of death, disease, and decay; he has a fondness for schematism […] and for pursuing particular idées fixes.

While Finkielkraut is increasingly irascible and conservative, his early works about love, co-authored with Pascal Bruckner, can hardly be described as “narrow-minded and parochial”; they are, in fact, quite playful. And works such as The Imaginary Jew, Remembering in Vain (about the trial of Klaus Barbie), and The Future of a Negation (about the denial of the Holocaust in France) are probing, original, and relevant today. In another context, Hazareesingh is also notably hostile, and probably unfairly so, in remarking on “the depraved cynicism and opportunistic prudence of most French political elites.”

Nevertheless, if Hazareesingh is occasionally overly succinct and less than even-handed in his judgments, he generally does an admirable job of describing intellectual movements and characterizing the thought of other thinkers in a few short paragraphs. For example, he captures the essence of structuralism in a concise discussion of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his masterpiece Tristes Tropiques. And — although some specialists might disagree — he gets at the heart of Deconstruction and Jacques Derrida’s thought in just a few sentences. Of Derrida’s method, he writes:

For Derrida, the writings of all the major Western philosophers were so structured around binary oppositions (inside and outside, man and woman, reason and madness, freedom and domination), one element of which was generally suppressed. These polarities gave texts a semblance of meaning, yet, once identified, they undermined it and ultimately destroyed its very possibility.

It is hard to do justice to the range and erudition of How the French Think in two or three pages. Hazareesingh’s book stands alongside such classic works as Herbert R. Lottman’s The Left Bank and Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect as a reminder of the fact that, regardless of how maddening and paradoxical French politics and intellectual life can be, we ignore the nation’s extraordinary intellectual and cultural heritage at our peril.


Richard Golsan writes about 20th- and 21st-century France.