Synopses & Reviews
Why are the French such an exceptional nation? Why do they think they are so exceptional? The French take pride in the fact that their history and culture have decisively shaped the values and ideals of the modern world. French ideas are no less distinct in their form: while French thought is abstract, stylish and often opaque, it has always been bold and creative, and driven by the relentless pursuit of innovation.
In How the French Think, the internationally-renowned historian Sudhir Hazareesingh tells the epic and tumultuous story of French intellectual thought from Descartes, Rousseau, and Auguste Comte to Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida. He shows how French thinking has shaped fundamental Westerns ideas about freedom, rationality, and justice, and how the French mind-set is intimately connected to their own way of lifein particular to the French tendency towards individualism, their passion for nature, their celebration of their historical heritage, and their fascination with death. Hazareesingh explores the French veneration of dissent and skepticism, from Voltaire to the Dreyfus Affair and beyond; the obsession with the protection of French language and culture; the rhetorical flair embodied by the philosophes, which todays intellectuals still try to recapture; the astonishing influence of French postmodern thinkers, including Foucault and Barthes, on postwar American education and life, and also the growing French anxiety about a globalized world order under American hegemony.
How the French Think sweeps aside generalizations and easy stereotypes to offer an incisive and revealing exploration of the French intellectual tradition. Steeped in a colorful range of sources, and written with warmth and humor, this book will appeal to all lovers of France and of European culture.
"Hazareesingh (The Legend of Napoleon), a professor of politics at Balliol College, Oxford, comes close to producing an intellectual history of modern France, from RenÃ© Descartes to such poststructuralist thinkers as Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss and Michel Foucault. But it is not quite that; instead, Hazareesingh addresses broad themes in French thought, including the 'interplay... between the cold linearity of Descartes and the unbridled expansiveness of Rousseau'; the 'lively French tradition of dissent, contrarianism, and impertinence'; the widespread belief in 'providential leadership' that has fueled the rise of individuals from Napoleon to de Gaulle; and the 'declinist sensibility' in recent French thought as manifested in the writings of such figures as Ã‰ric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut. Hazareesingh also offers a surprising insight on the extent of supernaturalism in French thought and politics, noting that, despite a longstanding French commitment to rationalism, leaders from Robespierre to Mitterrand have consulted astrologers. The main weakness of Hazareesingh's book is that he covers too much ground in not enough space and in the process assumes of his readership too much familiarity with French thinkers. Despite this flaw, this is an equally informative and colorful tour d'horizon of the many strands of, and contradictions in, French philosophy and political thought during the past four centuries. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
[A] thoughtful, stimulating and witty historical survey of French thought.”
[An] impressive study.”
A thoughtful study
[Hazareesingh] achieves the right distance from and intimacy with his subject
A rarefied and compelling study.”
David Bell, author of The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It
Few historians would have the courage to write a book with a title like How the French Think. But few historians know France, and the French, better than Sudhir Hazareesingh. He has brought his formidable knowledge and experience of the country to bear in a book that is consistently engaging and thought-provoking, and written with a light touch that makes it a delight to read.”
Robert Tombs, Professor of French History at Cambridge University
It is unusual to laugh aloud when reading a history of ideas, but I did so more than once while reading How the French Think. Its sweep is thrilling and its expositions lucid, but it carries its learning lightly and is written with an astringent wit. Everyone interested in France and the French will enjoy and learn from this book.”
Patrice Higonnet, Professor of French History at Harvard University
Stendhal wrote that a novel was un miroir quon promène le long dun chemin. And no better mirror on the wandering path of French culture of yesterday and today could be found than this wise and gentle book, as learned as it is engaging. Péguy was worried about what God would have to think about if the French were not there to amuse and inform him. Now we know why this might still be so.”
Darrin McMahon, author of Divine Fury
In beautiful prose and with incredible sweep and range, Sudhir Hazareesingh helps to fill a void left by the passing of Tony Judt. Readers will discover in these pages a confident and graceful observer of contemporary France, whose eyes are at once sensitive and unsparing, attuned to the dilemmas of the present, and deeply informed by the long vistas of the past.”
In France, perhaps more so than anywhere else, intellectual activity is a way of life embraced by the majority of society, not just a small group of élite
thinkers. And because French thought has also shaped the Western world, Sudhir Hazareesingh argues in How the French Think
, we cannot hope to understand modern history without first making sense of the French mind-set.
Hazareesingh traces the evolution of French thought from Descartes and Rousseau to Sartre and Derrida. In the French intellectual tradition, he shows, recurring themes have pervaded nearly every aspect of French life, from the rhetorical flair once embodied by the philosophes to the countrys modern embrace of secularism. Sweeping aside generalizations and easy stereotypes, Hazareesingh offers an erudite portrait of the venerated tradition of French thought and the people who embody it.
About the Author
Sudhir Hazareesingh was born in Mauritius and educated at Oxford University. He is a Fellow in Politics at Balliol College, a Fellow of the British Academy, and author of several books about French political culture, including The Legend of Napoleon
(for which he won the Prix du Mémorial dAjaccio and the Prix de la Fondation Napoléon), and Le Mythe Gaullien
(In the Shadow of the General
), for which he won the Prix dHistoire du Sénat
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Skull of Descartes
Chapter Two: Darkness and Light
Chapter Three: Landscapes of Utopia
Chapter Four: The Ideals of Science
Chapter Five: To the Left, and to the Right
Chapter Six: The Sum of Their Parts
Chapter Seven: Freedom and Domination
Chapter Eight: Writing for Everybody
Chapter Nine: The End of History
Chapter Ten: The Closing of the French Mind
Conclusion: Anxiety and Optimism