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I think, therefore I am left-wing: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the 1930s

How the British Think would make a strange title for a book — at least that is what my friends in Britain tell me. But when it comes to investigating the French way of life, an exploration of French thought is more justified. Thinking, it seems, is part of France’s history and one of the characteristics the French are famous for.

In his latest book, How the French Think, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Tutorial Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and a fin connaisseur of French politics, shares his deep knowledge of the French passion for the intellectual quest. In exploring with sharpness and humour the patterns of thought the French have developed over the centuries, he finds some interesting and unexpected relationships between eras and personalities, and explains France’s intellectual evolution. The book is rich in information and anecdotes and easy to read, and it shows a love of France — it is subtitled “An affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” — which is rare today. 

The French are rationalists, and like abstraction; they divide the world into right and wrong, and of course between Left and Right; they are fond of utopianism and believe — or believed — in progress and science. Hazareesingh shows how the main channels of French thought — for example, the revolutionary and the republican — have always coexisted with their opposite creeds — the reactionary and the religious — and share with them the same faults and qualities. Inevitably, a significant part of the book is devoted to the “intellectual”, the famous scholar, preferably living in Paris, who regularly intervenes in public matters because his quasi-spiritual position gives him the right, and even the duty, he thinks, to do so.

But today, according to Hazareesingh, because of the end of Communism, which was deeply rooted among French intellectuals, the fading of structuralism, and anxiety about France’s identity in a globalised world, the French have come to doubt themselves and their intellectual destiny. This can be seen in the decline of France’s intellectual life and in its fading intellectual influence in the world.

I think that the situation is even more depressing than that. Although Hazareesingh recognises that French intellectuals have lost some of their past lustre, he still reckons that “French culture is in many respects more open and transnational than ever” and states that creative fiction is thriving. It is true that there are still great French writers and thinkers, and that newer disciplines like economics offer new kinds of talents. But as a cultural phenomenon, I don’t think that French thought has survived.

France was never such a thing as an entire nation of thinkers; it would be absurd to say that. But there was a deep respect among ordinary people for the cultivated elite, which included politicians and teachers. Now a large part of this elite pays no attention to culture any more, as is shown by the poverty of their language. One cannot help comparing the eloquence of, say, Charles de Gaulle, and the spiritual vacuum that someone like François Hollande represents. De Gaulle said, “Hardship attracts the man of character, as it is in grasping it that he fulfils himself”; and “As for power, I couldn’t leave it before it leaves me.” Hollande says, “There will be a support that will be made” or “Soldiers, they undertake perilous missions”. (Hollande is very fond of repeating the subject of a sentence, as three-year-olds do; I hope my translation conveys its full infantile flavour.) Or open any recent fiction or non-fiction publication in French: the vocabulary range is shrinking, the sentences are three words long and the form is always fashionably deconstructed — but not à la Derrida.

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June 22nd, 2015
8:06 PM
Perhaps France's lack of Jews explains France's lack of intellectualism.

Zero de Fou
June 7th, 2015
9:06 PM
I life in a tiny village near a small town in south-west France and I cannot imagine anywhere further from intellectualism than here. It is really important to remember that when one talks of the intellectual life of France, one means only Paris - the rest of France, especially rural France, is an intellectual desert.

daniel king
June 6th, 2015
10:06 AM
It is always subjective on the judgement of the critic.Thus, in this review Levi-Strauss in the writers opinion is "great" and Foucault "interesting but strange". I personally would reverse the names and agree with the judgement.

June 4th, 2015
4:06 PM
This author clearly knows nothing beyond the European/Western world by saying things like "The way it has promoted the figure of the intellectual is unprecedented in history, and it would be pointless to try to find the same patterns in other countries which have other traditions." Whichever tradition or culture the author comes from, it is no any more hopeful than the French school. Indeed, the western mind as a whole is "closing" if they still think in a tone as if the west = the world

June 4th, 2015
3:06 AM
Think about all those people who circulated in France to find out that communism as a theory was such a fine thing and took it back home and murdered millions. It would be funny were it not for the death in the paths of these utopian intellectualists. (By the way, I think we should define Utopianisms as failed dreams of intellectuals). Shall we all get in our lotus positions and do our yoga contemplations of our navels to ignore that the French way was NOT superior and largely destructive.

June 3rd, 2015
9:06 PM
Americans liked to believe that they had imported the best of French thought and the world was aping them. But France refused to join the Coalition of the Willing and 'French theory' was dropped in US. This is just the externalist view, what really happened is an other story. Also, De Gaulle and Hollande may be French but it is a moot point if they have ever done some thinking.

June 3rd, 2015
7:06 PM
A judicious take on French intellectualism. If the fall of Communism is a recent factor that has helped unnerve France's intellectual elite, it has labored under a more persistent handicap for more than two centuries: somehow it never caught on to the fact that the French Revolution was a fiasko. Which in turn helps explain, circuitously, why the fall of Communism affected it as it did.

The Sanity Inspector
June 3rd, 2015
5:06 PM
It's no surprise that author and reviewer would have such widely differing impressions of French intellectual life. If the French character were so simple that it could be summed up in one tidy, interlaced exposition, it wouldn't be interesting enough to study, nor potent enough to have had such an influence on the world.

June 3rd, 2015
4:06 PM
If the author of this review finds Sartre, Deleuze, Bourdieu, et al so unintelligible, perhaps she should do a bit more reading or take some classes on the subject instead of prematurely publishing this angry school-boy judgment of mid/late 20th century French thought.

June 3rd, 2015
3:06 PM
funny to see Roger Scruton smuggled in as a "thinker." Or was this by way of a punchline?

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