Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Dimming of the Light

With its revolutionary heat and rational cool, French thought once dazzled the world. Where did it all go wrong?

There are many things we have come to regard as quintessentially French: Coco Chanel’s little black dress, the love of fine wines and gastronomy, the paintings of Auguste Renoir, the smell of burnt rubber in the Paris Métro. Equally distinctive is the French mode and style of thinking, which the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke described in 1790 as ‘the conquering empire of light and reason’. He meant this as a criticism of the French Revolution, but this expression would undoubtedly have been worn as a badge of honour by most French thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards.

Indeed, 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. This is most notably reflected in the emphasis on rhetorical elegance and analytical lucidity, often claimed to stem from the very properties of the French language: ‘What is not clear,’ affirmed the writer Antoine de Rivarol in 1784, somewhat ambitiously, ‘is not French.’ Typically French, too, is a questioning and adversarial tendency, also arising from Descartes’ skeptical method. The historian Jules Michelet summed up this French trait in 1974 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.’

This specification of a distinct French way of thinking is not rooted in a claim about Gallic ‘national character’. These ideas are not a genetic inheritance, but rather the product of specific social and political factors. The Enlightenment, for example, was a cultural phenomenon which spread rationalist ideas across Europe and the Americas. But in France, from the mid-18th century, this intellectual movement produced a particular type of philosophical radicalism, which was articulated by a remarkable group of thinkers, the philosophes. Thanks to the influence of the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, the French version of rationalism took on a particularly anti-clerical, egalitarian and transformative quality. These subversive precepts also circulated through another French cultural innovation, the salon: this private cultural gathering flourished in high society, contributing to the dissemination of philosophical and artistic ideas among French elites, and the empowerment of women.

This intellectual effervescence challenged the established order of the ancien régime during the second half of the 18th century. It also gave a particularly radical edge to the French Revolution, compared, notably, with its American counterpart. Thus, 1789 was not only a landmark in French thought, but the culmination of the Enlightenment’s philosophical radicalism: it gave rise to a new republican political culture, and enduringly associated the very idea of Frenchness with novelty and resistance to oppression. It also crystallised an entirely original way of thinking about the public sphere, centred around general principles such as the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, the civic conception of the nation (resting on shared values as opposed to blood ties), the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the notions of the general interest and popular sovereignty.

One might object that, despite this common and lasting revolutionary heritage, the French have remained too diverse and individualistic to be characterised in terms of a general mind-set. Yet there are two decisive reasons why it is possible – and indeed necessary – to speak of a collective French way of thinking. Firstly, since the Enlightenment, France has granted a privileged role to thinkers, recognising them as moral and spiritual guides to society – a phenomenon reflected in the very notion of the ‘intellectual’, which is a late-19th-century (French) invention. Public intellectuals exist elsewhere, of course, but in France they enjoy an unparalleled degree of visibility and social legitimacy.

Secondly, to an extent that is also unique in modern Western culture, France’s major cultural bodies – from the State to the great institutions of secondary and higher education, the major academies, the principal publishing houses, and the leading press organs – are all concentrated in Paris. This cultural centralisation extends to the school curriculum (all high-school students have to study philosophy up to the baccalauréat), and this explains how and why French ways of thought have exhibited such a striking degree of stylistic consistency.

by Sudhir Hazareesingh, Aeon | Read more:
Image: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir having lunch at the "La Coupole" Brasserie, December 1973. Photo by Guy Le Querrec/Magnum