ON THE FRENCH MIND
Sudhir Hazareesingh on the rise and fall of modern French thought.
Intellectual self-confidence has never been in short supply in modern France. As the great 19th-century philosopher Auguste Comte modestly asserted, ‘the philosophical spirit’ was more developed in Paris than anywhere else in the world. It’s a claim with foundation. In Descartes and Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, the Enlightenment burned at its brightest in France; ideas deepened and were died for; the French Revolution inspired liberators across the globe; and in the 20th century, French intellectuals, from Sartre to Derrida, spoke to their eras in ways few others could.
But that was then. As Sudhir Hazareesingh remarks in How the French Think(2015), a powerful, intimate intellectual history, modern French thought has marched ‘from a confident and often brazen optimism to a mood of increasing introspection marked by a sense of unease with the world and a sentimental attachment to the heroes and glories of the past’. And Hazareesingh should know. A historian and lecturer in French politics at Balliol College, Oxford, Hazareesingh has long been immersed in the modern French imagination, exploring its key aspects in The Legend of Napoleon (2004); Intellectuals and the French Communist Party: Disillusion and Decline (1991); and his study of Gaullism,In the Shadow of the General (2012).
So to find out what has happened to French thought, what lay behind its ascent, and what underpins its apparent fall, the spiked review decided to put the questions to Hazareesingh himself…
spiked review: You write that the the principal aim of How the French Think is to identify the cultural distinctiveness of French thinking. How is it possible to define the cultural distinctiveness of a thought in national terms?
Sudhir Hazareesingh: It is a bit of a challenge, particularly when you’re focusing on a country as large and diverse as France. There are always intellectual and cultural tendencies pulling in slightly different directions, and there’s also the territorial dimension, which means that developments in one part of the country may not be happening with the same intensity in other parts.
But what makes it possible to approximate an idea of a French thought is that perhaps more than any other country in the Western world, France is culturally centralised. Long before the French Revolution even, there were several important institutions based in Paris which perceived it as their mission to create a national culture. This goes back to the Middle Ages with the academies, including the Académie Française, which was formally established in 1635.
Perhaps more than any other country in the Western world, France is culturally centralisedThe French Revolution is a key moment. It gives that drive towards a national culture a much more democratic and republican quality. A very centralised education system is founded, something the Napoleonic influence intensifies. So by the time you get to the early 20th century, all the institutions of intellectual and cultural excellence are concentrated in Paris. It’s very different from the way, historically, ideas have been institutionalised in Britain or America. There wasn’t, for instance, the same kind of institutional concentration in London. In France, it really does all happen not just in Paris, but a small subsection of Paris, which contains the big lycées, the elite universities, the major newspapers and journals, indeed, this whole intellectual life, all of which acquires such a special quality from the late 19th century onwards.
It is this centralisation, this cultural concentration, that underpins the general conceptions of French thought which I discuss in my book.
review: As you explain, few, if any, other nations venerate a philosopher in the way that France venerates Descartes. So much so, in fact, that Emile Durkheim felt confident enough to assert that ‘Every French person is to some degree, whether consciously or not, a Cartesian’. So why is Descartes so central to French thought?
Hazareesingh: First, he’s a seminal influence in terms of the history of philosophy. In France, there’s a very consistent effort to separate philosophy from theology and Descartes happens to be the figure who represents the landmark separation of the two (even though Descartes was a devout Christian). Descartes’ whole method is an attempt to make that separation between philosophy and theology effective.
But Descartes is also important because he’s picked up by Enlightenment thinkers and especially republicans, who turn his idea of what it is to have learning, of what it is to show learning, of the need to cultivate a sense of moral autonomy and intellectual daring, into the cornerstone of their idea of human rationality. So, by the late 18th century, the ideal of what it is to be a citizen rests on this very Cartesian ideal of individual autonomy and rationality. Rationality comes to be the defining essence of what it is to be a Republican citizen. Hence the French state’s emphasis on education, on culture, on learning.
So it’s those two elements, the emancipation of philosophy from theology, and his focus on logical clarity and rationality, that make Descartes vital for successive generations of republicans, from the French Revolution up until the Second World War.
review: You’ve touched on it already, but just how important is the French Revolution to the development of French thought?
Hazareesingh: It’s fundamental. First of all it gives the decisive impetus to Republicanism itself. It creates a dominant culture that develops throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in which ideas of liberty, of equality, become central to French intellectual life. And the whole impetus for that comes from the revolution.
The revolution also creates a particular intellectual elite, which comes to be very closely associated with the seat of power. Sociologically speaking, this makes it very different from the political elites produced elsewhere in Europe at the same time.
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