“Thanks to this trait [love of paradox], France has given us passionate rationalists, conservative revolutionaries (and revolutionary traditions), violent moderates, secular missionaries, spiritual materialists, spectateurs engagés [engaged spectators], patriotic internationalists, conflictual allies and collective-minded individualists – and…perhaps the most exquisite of them all: the glorious defeat.”


How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People by Sudhir Hazareesingh (2015, Allen Lane – Penguin)

For me, it was not so much philosophy or literature but film. Having checked out just a handful of movies by figures like François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Yann Samuell and Michel Gondry, I could see that there was something very singular about the way the French looked at, made sense of and depicted the world and life. The movies were too sleek, containing measured but effortless humour and oodles of intellectual action. In June 2015, I came across an article “They think, therefore they are” on The Economist, review of an interesting book called How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual Portrait by Dr. Sudhir Hazareesingha Lecturer and Tutorial Fellow in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford – and thought it was something I might want to read. The book won the 2015 Grand Prix du livre d’idées in France and was longlisted for the 2016 Orwell Prize in Britain.

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People by Sudhir Hazareesingh (2015, Basic Books)

Born and brought up in the multi-cultural and multi-religious island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Sudhir Hazareesingh first began observing French public life as an adolescent in the 1970s. He was served a copious diet of French classics at his secondary school, the Royal College Curepipe. The family setting was influential too. Hazareesingh’s father, Kissoonsingh, a Cambridge-and-Sorbonne-trained historian, worked as Principal Private Secretary to the Mauritian Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and had cultivated close ties with politico-literary elites in France and Africa. Hazareesingh’s brother, Sandip, additionally, was a devotee of Napoleonic legends. Since the early 1990s, while teaching at Oxford, Hazareesingh has spent a part of the year in Paris and continually associated with a variety of intellectual communities – this gives him an excellent vantage point from which to examine French thinking “in all its glories, complexities and idiosyncrasies”.

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People – as the title suggests, is scholarly rigorous but warm in tone, displaying flashes of humour. The principal aim of the book is to identify the cultural distinctiveness of French thinking – “a cosmology that is as much a matter of content as of temperament, style and idiom”. To accomplish his task, the author has drawn upon diverse sources: canonical philosophical and literary texts, respectable journals and magazines, informal pamphlets and posters, etc.


Hazareesingh opens his book by mentioning the former French PM Dominique de Villepin’s speech against the Iraq War at the UN Security Council on February 14, 2003 (he was then the French Foreign Minister). You can read the full address on Wikisource. It is, points the author, “the pinnacle of modern French internationalist oratory” and contains all the major stylistic elements of the French intellectual tradition: “the seductive masculinity and rhetorical verve; the appeal to reason and logic, a framing of the issue under discussion into binary oppositions (conflict and harmony; self-interest and the common good; morality and power politics); the sense of articulating an age-old wisdom resting on centuries of often painful historical experience; and a confident optimism underpinned by a belief in France’s cultural superiority.” Photo of de Villepin by User “Okki”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons


A meeting of doctors (philosopher-theologians) at the University of Paris (estd. around 1150 by cleric Robert de Sorbon, the second oldest university in the world after Bologna and major seat of the critical thought method of Scholasticism), Wikipedia [Public Domain]. See the book “Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c.1100-1330” (2014) by Bristol university academic Dr. Ian Wei for more information.
Hazareesingh articulates several unique traits of the French mind and manner of living. I will discuss only some over here. Firstly, French intellectual culture is pervaded by religious concepts, images and metaphors. Although modern/contemporary France is taken by many to be definitively, even aggressively, “secular”, it continues to live under the shadow of its once-dominant Catholicism. This means that everybody, even the most irreverent or indifferent non-believer, has access to a certain enchanted theological vocabulary. “Good” and “evil” are not abstract and distant concepts that only belong to literary and philosophical domains, but immediate and concrete realities. The terms are regularly used in political discourse.


Rue du Bourg, Chartres, France, ca. 1895 by User “trialsanderrors”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr. The Chartres Cathedral  (constructed between 1194 and 1250), located around 80 km southwest of Paris, was a major centre of learning in the medieval era. The author writes: “One of the modern French words for an intellectual is clerc (a member of the clergy), and the positions held by an intellectual have been consistently defined through concepts such as faith, commitment, heresy and deliverance.”


The Panthéon, Paris, Wikimedia Commons. “Republicanism“, Hazareesingh points out, “France’s dominant political tradition, has long operated as a civil religion, with its own cults, martyrs, missionaries and holy texts – and it is no coincidence that the hallowed Parisian cenotaph for national heroes, the Panthéon, is a deconsecrated church.”


Portrait of René Descartes (1596-1650) by Franz Hals, Wikipedia. The Cartesian legacy is exceedingly complex, the philosopher’s work having been appropriated by people of all sorts of persuasions for the promotion of their individual causes.

The French consider the act of cognition as the most fundamental characteristic of human existence. Thanks to René Descartes (1596-1650), philosopher (the founder of modern Western philosophy), mathematician and scientist, who, in his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Principles of Philosophy (1944) emphatically declared “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am). We may doubt the experiences of our senses but we cannot deny that we are creatures who can doubt – which is, a mode of thought. We think. We are, at our core, rational beings. So the French are, on the whole, rationalists. The Gallic process of reasoning begins with metaphysical propositions. It begins with a general, abstract idea and then works through to a particular conclusion (deductive/a priori method). The British – this may seem like a simplistic generalisation but is it a rather meaningful one – tend to be more of empiricists. Anglo-Saxon reasoning works exactly the other way round (inductive/a posterior method), moving from particular observed facts to broad, general conclusions. (Read more on Rational vs. Empiricism on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)


“Intellectual life in France,” writes the author, “is also distinctive in its organisation around particular patterns of sociability. The classic example of this phenomenon is the salon, a private cultural gathering, the aim of which was to entertain, exhange ideas and promote the values of civility and politeness.” Here is Madame Geoffrin’s salon in 1755, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, Chateau de Malmasion, Rueil – Malmaison, France, Wikimedia Commons


The French love to divide things into two and pull them to extremes, sometimes for the sheer thrill of contestation. This “dichotomic” thinking is also a Cartesian legacy. Descartes is famous for his sharp mind/body dualism. Probably the most significant instantiation of such a binary confrontation today is found in the political spectra of contemporary democracies. The endless duels between Leftists and Rightists, be they from Britain (Tory/Labour) or America (Republicans/Democrats) or India (BJP/INC), dominate our news feeds on social media. I find the monotony almost comedic. In one single society, half the people may want to maximise individual ‘freedom’, another half, ‘equality’ in society (the two aims taken together are incompatible). Perhaps, as the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, we need furious opposites to propel our cultures further. Clashes and collisions of interests generate social dynamism. Without contradictions, our cultures will simply decay and dissolve. The French seem to have got this point too well.


“Like much of modern French political terminology,” Hazareesingh informs us, “the concepts of Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution. In the late summer of 1789, as members of the Constituent Assembly debated whether the king should be granted a legislative veto, they spontaneously clustered on the opposing sides of the chamber in Versailles. The majority supporting the monarch’s prerogative gathered on the right, and those opposing it on the left – and so the distinction took root in the assemblies of the early Revolutionary era”. Scene from 5 May, 1789: Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles, Wikipedia [Public Domain]


Then there is the French public intellectual – an individual who must think and write for everybody, especially the oppressed who have no voice and certainly, for the entire world, not just France. Intellectuals may embrace a wide range of causes, from royalism and nationalism to pacifism and communism.


Two towering French intellectuals of the 20th century – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) [Nausea, No Exit] and Albert Camus (1913-1960) [The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus] both became celebrated symbols of ‘existentialism‘. They are similar in so far as they attempted to address the problem of meaning-making within a Godless and purposeless universe but their individual sensibilities were very different. For Camus, political violence was a necessary evil. Sartre, on the other hand, had a bleaker view of human nature and believed that political violence was a necessary good (he had embraced “the Marxian postulate that social change was possible only through collective force; violence was in this sense part of the logic of history”).


Towards the end of the book, Hazareesingh mentions the anxieties that have gripped France over the past few decades. Dominique de Villepin’s spectacular speech before the UN is not the tone-setter for the present-day French mind, it is an exception. For quite some time now, a rhetoric of “declinism” has pervaded public life in France. The French have grown pessimistic. There are concerns over the evanescence of national identity, over moral and spiritual corruption, over Islamic extremism. Moreover, French people are more than ever suspicious of their leaders. Yet the author is guarded in his optimism. He writes, “they are still capable of turning out in their millions on the streets of their cities and towns to reaffirm their republican values.” I do not disagree. Why, 3.7 million marched through the streets of Paris in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Hazareesingh closes: “…as they face the challenges of the twenty-first century, the French will remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition.” Not difficult to believe when you take, for instance, the output of recent (and original) French thinkers like René Girard.

Although there were portions in it that I found difficult, this was a book I enjoyed. Since I do not read or speak French, it was a window to a whole new other world. A whole new other world which has, unbeknownst to me, influenced mine in innumerable indirect ways.

Additional Resources:

A short talk at the RSA in London.

A lecture at the London School of Economics.

Featured Image: French flag and view of Paris from Pixabay edited together


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

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