Monday, July 23, 2007

French Intellectual Class Suffers Hard Knocks

The title of the newspaper article almost says it all: Elaine Sciolino, New Leaders Say Pensive French Think Too Much, NYTimes (July 22, 2006). The furor was provoked thus:
In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their “old national habit.”

“France is a country that thinks,” she told the National Assembly. “There is hardly an ideology that we haven’t turned into a theory. We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.”

The response? A sample (id.):
But the disdain for reflection may be going a bit too far. It certainly has set the French intellectual class on edge. “How absurd to say we should think less!” said Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host. “If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the much more splashy philosopher-journalist who wrote a book retracing Tocqueville’s 19th-century travels throughout the United States, is similarly appalled by Ms. Lagarde’s comments.

“This is the sort of thing you can hear in cafe conversations from morons who drink too much,” said Mr. Lévy, who is so well-known in French that he is known simply by his initials B.H.L. “To my knowledge this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases. I’m pro-American and pro-market, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this anti-intellectual tendency is one of the reasons that I did not.”

On the theory that one good attack on French theorizing deserves an attack on derivative French theorizing, I quote the contrarian Australian social commentator (and mathematician) James Franklin (Quadrant 43 (4) (April, 1999), somewhere between pp. 16-21):
It is customary for philosophical scholars of a continental bent to declare themselves for one or other European author, commentary on whose works provides the mass of the scholars' own output. In [the Department of] General Philosophy [at the University of Sydney], first choice of guru was Louis Althusser, author of For Marx Reading Capital Lenin and Philosophy etc. Embarrassingly, a Sydney student visited Paris, secured an interview with Althusser, and brought back bad news for his Australian disciples. He had never heard of them, and when their interpretation of his work was explained, he denounced it as a travesty. The movement of his thought, he said, was away from ideology, and he had this message: ``Go and tell the comrades down there, on my behalf, not to confuse philosophy with ideology nor to reduce philosophy to political agitation.'' In any case, a few years later, Althusser murdered his wife. It was time to move on. ...
I once suffered from a similar disease. My third year paper at law school was about (my view of) Hegel's view of the duty to die for the state. My LL.M. thesis was about Kant's philosophy of law. I later abandoned such epiphenomenal scholarship, only partly because my affection for such stuff was premature in the American legal academy. (But it is far from clear that man- and woman-kind has benefited from my change of heart and mind.)

Yet, yet, ... -- yes, I am forced to confess -- one sometimes learns a few things by being epiphenomenal. For example, it is not well known that Bertrand Russell (despite his mature aversion to German Idealism) studied neo-Hegelianism. Charles Peirce also pondered Hegel and the neo-Hegelians. Nietzsche did so as well. For a while it appeared that 19th and 20th century philosophy was not much more than a series of footnotes to adverse reactions to Hegelianism.

Indeed, I think that Kant's theory of "judgment" (Urteil) may have something interesting to say about contemporary theories about the nature of evidential inference. More about this later. I promise!

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