Book review: How The French Think: An Affectionate Portrait Of An Intellectual People

Rodin's The Thinker
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INTELLECTUALLY as well as politically (but perhaps not gastronomically) there is an Auld Alliance between the Scots and the French. A reader here perusing Sudhir Hazareesingh’s lively and informative account of French thought from Descartes to the present day will again and again be confronted with similarities.

How The French Think: An Affectionate Portrait Of An Intellectual People

Sudhir Hazareesingh, 
Allen Lane, £20

The French, according to Hazareesingh, like dichotomies and dualities; they revere reason while they are haunted by the eerie and the eldritch; they argue from universals to particulars and are drawn, like lost travellers in a marsh, to the will-o’-the-wisp of grand taxonomies, overarching structures and epic systems. One can easily imagine the anecdote he recites – a British Army manual given out to soldiers before the Normandy Landings, which cautioned “by and large, Frenchmen enjoy intellectual argument more than we do. You will often think that two Frenchmen are having a violent quarrel when they are simply arguing about some abstract point” – being applied to the Scots, who, as the saying goes, could start a fight in an empty room.

That such a congruence exists undermines the idea that there is an essentially French way of thinking. But Hazareesingh is careful to avoid such essentialism: his Gallic thought is by its very nature paradoxical and multiform, resolutely attached to its own terroir while insisting on its global ubiquity. But the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the French flavours of thought is nevertheless clear, even if one did not live through the so-called Theory Wars which pitted incremental British common sense against exponential French bletherations. Ask yourself: would the British ever put a philosopher on a stamp? Or to put it another way: we can refer to the French Enlightenment of Voltaire, d’Alembert, Rousseau and Diderot, or the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume, Smith, Kames and Boswell, or even the German Enlightenment of Kant, Goethe, Herder and Heine – but whoever discusses the English Enlightenment?

Two events define French thought – the Revolution and the Occupation. The meaning of the Revolution, in the oft-quoted phrase of Zhou Enlai, is too early to say. Why did it fail? Did it fail? Much French thought from Fourier to Debord has pondered the problems of liberation and anarchy, utopia and the State as psychopath. The Revolution influenced how the Occupation was viewed. Was de Gaulle a latter-day Napoleon or an Asterix? How did the Vichy Regime distort or magnify certain trends in French public life? Both the Dreyfus Affair and the Algerian War were similar points of national self-reflection. It seems to me important that many of the most significant latter-day French thinkers – Camus, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Fanon – had a vexatious relationship with Algeria, the France which was not France. It was a crucible of isms: postmodernism, postcolonialism, existentialism.

It was during the Revolution that the concepts of “left” and “right” in political discourse crystallised around the searing of the Estates General. One of the best chapters in Hazareesingh’s book is concerned with the curious nature of the French left. Marxism, ironically, was slow to find purchase, and most thinkers concerned with Communism took their lead from Lenin. Engels wrote to the theoretician Paul Lafargue, an early adopter of Communist theory, “I believe you should go back and properly read Capital from one end to the other”. Lafargue encapsulated the paradox of French particularity and universalism when he wrote “socialist internationalists everywhere have two nations, the one where chance has had them born, and France, their homeland by adoption”.

Particularly interesting are the final chapters on the French crisis of confidence. For a nation that has always valorised the intellectual, in recent years there has been much hand-wringing over whether the country retains its philosophical pre-eminence. Its universalism has frayed, with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen attributing citizens with different degrees of “Frenchness”. The militant secularism – as with the debate over banning the veil – challenges the ideals of liberalism. A narrative of French decline, as Hazareesingh shows, has proven to have remarkable traction. It is in this context that the novels of Michel Houellebecq – a writer first translated into English by the Scottish academic Gavin Bowd – have carved out their own distinctive, apocalyptic ennui. Perhaps with the rise of movements such as Occupy, Podemos and Adbusters we might see a return to the thinkers of May 68.

Any book such as this – expansive in reference, detailed in reading – carries the reader as much on anecdote as insight. Hazareesingh has a quick eye to the telling detail, the curious story that illuminates the whole. I never knew, for example, that François Mitterrand relied on astrologers, that Victor Hugo, during a séance, contacted Walter Scott (who informed him he was dead) or that Charlie Hebdo only took its name after being banned by the government for its coverage of the death of de Gaulle. There are fascinating passages on, among other things, counter-factual novels set in 25th century Paris, Napoleon expressing his regret at not solving atomic theory and the énarques – graduates of ENA – who resemble an Oxbridge of bureaucracy.

Do the French think differently? I suppose that they prioritise and admire cerebral sprezzatura. Whether a philosophical proposition is “right” matters as much as if it is elegant, and expressed fittingly. If Anglo-American philosophy aimed to make the equation the ultimate proof, continental philosophers looked to the pun and the riddle, the poetics of philosophy. That these works are written, first and foremost, is a precondition of thinking like the French.