'How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People', by Sudhir Hazareesingh - Review

By Scurr, Ruth | The Spectator, June 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

'How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People', by Sudhir Hazareesingh - Review


Scurr, Ruth, The Spectator


The French have always favoured grand, elegant abstractions about the human condition, says Ruth Scurr . It's part of their national identity

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People Sudhir Hazareesingh

Allen Lane, pp.426, £20, ISBN: 9781846146022

Sudhir Hazareesingh's bold new book is built on the assumption that 'it is possible to make meaningful generalisations about the shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French'. France, as General de Gaulle pointed out, has such a fetish for singularity that it produces 246 varieties of cheese. Can France be any more a nation of thinkers than England is of shopkeepers?

Hazareesingh, an Oxford don, brings specific strengths to this daunting task. He was born and raised in Mauritius, a former French and British colony, in the 1970s, where his father was principal private secretary to Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam; he was schooled on French classics; he is a historian of ideas who divides his time between Oxford and Paris; and he has a sense of humour to match his intellect. Hazareesingh's portrait is affectionate in the fullest sense: familiar and fondly teasing.

The sharp contrast between French speculative thinking and English empiricism is captured in the classic French saying: 'tant pis pour les faits ', roughly translated as 'so much the worse for the facts'. Hazareesingh notes that on this side of the Channel we often bemoan the French deductive method of reasoning pioneered by René Descartes, which starts with a general, abstract proposition, then works through to a particular, sometimes specious or trivial, conclusion. The method is notoriously vulnerable to deductive fallacies of this kind: All birds have beaks. That creature has a beak. Therefore it is a bird. Gerry Cohen, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, outlined the pitfalls in his essay: 'Why One Kind of Bullshit Flourishes in France.'

But French thinking is also potent. Hazareesingh begins by analysing the then foreign minister Dominique de Villepin's speech at the UN Security Council debate about sanctioning the use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Villepin argued: 'We are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The heavy responsibility and the immense honour which is ours should lead us to give priority to peaceful disarmament.' He spoke eloquently of universal principles, which happened to coincide exactly with French national interests.

Villepin's speech drew on a long tradition of French thinking that Hazareesingh traces back to the aftermath of the second world war, to the Revolution of 1789, and beyond. The tradition comprises some distinctive habits: the presentation of ideas through overarching frameworks; a preference for considering questions in their essence rather than in their particular manifestations; a fondness for apparent contradictions; and a tendency to frame issues around binary oppositions.

Hazareesingh assembles a gallery of French intellectuals who exemplify this tradition. Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the father of sociology, whose admirers included John Stuart Mill, attempted to integrate all forms of scientific inquiry into an over-arching philosophical system. Among his scientific utopias Comte included: the survival of the brain in several bodies; the mutation of cows and other herbivorous creatures into carnivores; and the realisation of the ideal of the Virgin Mother through procreation without sex. Hazareesingh endorses the view of the Victorian classicist Benjamin Jowett: 'Comte was a great man. but also mad.'

Bernard-Henri Lévy, in 1978

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), the father of modern anthropology, challenged the idea that human progress could be achieved through the autonomous choices of rational selfconscious individuals. He was directly inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) -- 'our master and our brother. …

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