I’ve been quiet these past few weeks largely because of the arrival here in the mountains of a (rare) Amazon package containing a fascinating and diverse collection of titles covering art criticism, capitalism, the European Union, populism, Denmark, the Soviet Union, France, political memoirs and…. reflections on death!! I’ve been going through them – flicking and casting the memoirs aside; and keeping a very interesting The Passage to Europe for later close study
The pick of the bunch was ” How the French Think – an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” (the link accesses a great summary of the various issues by the author) and a book which has encouraged me to explore further the issue of “national mentalities” or ”cultural thought patterns” which had been the main focus of some recent posts.
The book resists the temptation of just tracking “cultural traits” (eg that the French are “disputatious”) and chooses instead to focus on the arguments of some of the key French figures (starting with Descartes) and on the wider context of their work. Indeed, if I have a criticism, it is that the author probably resists that temptation too well – I would actually like to have seen more treatment of these supposed cultural traits……
The notion that rationality is the defining quality of humankind was first celebrated by the 17th-century thinker René Descartes, the father of modern French philosophy. His skeptical method of reasoning led him to conclude that the only certainty was the existence of his own mind: hence his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’).
This French rationalism was also expressed in a fondness for abstract notions and a preference for deductive reasoning, which starts with a general claim or thesis and eventually works its way towards a specific conclusion – thus the consistent French penchant for grand theories. As the essayist Emile Montégut put it in 1858: ‘There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, and whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies.’ The French way of thinking is a matter of substance, but also style. …….
Typically French…, is a questioning and adversarial tendency, also arising from Descartes’ skeptical method. The historian Jules Michelet summed up this French trait in the following way: ‘We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects.’ A British Army manual issued before the Normandy landings in 1944 sounded this warning about the cultural habits of the natives: ‘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.’
Yet even this disputatiousness comes in a very tidy form: the habit of dividing issues into two. It is not fortuitous that the division of political space between Left and Right is a French invention, nor that the distinction between presence and absence lies at the heart of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction. French public debate has been framed around enduring oppositions such as good and evil, opening and closure, unity and diversity, civilisation and barbarity, progress and decadence, and secularism and religion.
Underlying this passion for ideas is a belief in the singularity of France’s mission. This is a feature of all exceptionalist nations, but it is rendered here in a particular trope: that France has a duty to think not just for herself, but for the whole world. In the lofty words of the author Jean d’Ormesson, writing in the magazine Le Point in 2011: ‘There is at the heart of Frenchness something which transcends it. France is not only a matter of contradiction and diversity. She also constantly looks over her shoulder, towards others, and towards the world which surrounds her. More than any nation, France is haunted by a yearning towards universality.’
The book is so good that I began to realize how few books there are which tell a compelling and reasonably comprehensive story about a country’s intellectual journey. Theodor Zeldin has written brilliantly about French Passions; Perry Anderson has been a fairly solitary English-speaking writer paying serious attention to contemporary debates on the European continent – whether France, Germany, Italy or even Turkey.
Peter Gay wrote amazing books about the Austro-Hungary legacy; Peter Watson’s “German Genius” has the scope but lacks the narrative …it’s just a bit too much of an Encylopaedia. But I am still racking my brains to identify a book which does justice to the UK’s intellectual and political traditions in the gripping style of Hazareesingh (the author of the book on the French). There is a guy called Stefan Collini who has covered some of this ground – but I’ve never read his stuff……
The other question which Hazareesingh’s book raises for me is why so few other “knowledgeable people” seem able to write clearly….indeed seem to take positive pleasure in hiding their thoughts in impenetrable language…
In recent years I have been trying to gather my disparate thoughts on public sector reform which are currently mainly in the form of papers, blogposts and hyperlinks. Most writers on this subject are academics or consultants (with the latter being in a tiny minority) and I like to think that I have something distinctive to say by virtue of having straddled – at various times – the diverse roles of academic, political leader and consultant (and in 10 different countries). I recently developed a table which divides the huge academic literature on the subject into five schools
I’m still a firm believer in the adage that if you want to know something about a subject, you write a book about it. It sounds paradoxical but the act of writing forces you to confront your ignorance and helps you to develop the questions to allow you to identify the most appropriate books for you to read.
I may have 200 pages in the present draft but I know they are essentially random notes – there is no “dominant narrative” of the sort you can feel in Hazareesingh’s book. I don’t particularly want to begin at the beginning again but the text needs the discipline of a clear structure and set of questions…..I decided to let my thoughts run free and look at some academic books on the subject
The Sage Handbook of Public Administration was produced in 2003 by Guy Peters and Jon Pierre and is actually quite well written for an edited book – as is The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2006) but the language of Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research; D Beland and Robert Henry Cox (2011) is quite incoherent despite containing articles by authors such as Mark Blyth, Colin Hay and Vivian Schmidt for whom I have a great deal of respect.
I got so angry with the language being used that I went back to some points I had written a decade ago for a group of students in Bishkek - and tried to update and extend the argument in the light of what people like Stephen Pinker have been saying recently….
The sociologist C Wright Mills once famously took a turgid 400 page work of Talcott Parsons and reduced it to some 10 pages! And I notice that novelists (such as Benjamin Kunkel, John Lanchester and James Meek) have started to turn their hand to summarising political and economic texts and trends…..
We really do need a lot more writers helping us make sense of social science writing…..
A presentation of “How the French Think” by the author - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLpHCT8GfYk
“the pessimistic turn in French thought” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izsO2AQ7qk8
Two reviews of the book -
the British scene
the British scene