This is the second note – the first was way back on 20 May – on the failure of public language. I propose to do it more often – say, once a week. We are surrounded by bullshit.
On what I thought was a recommendation in The Economist, I bought a book How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh, an Oxford don of Mauritian extraction. I have long been interested in the different approach to abstract thought and to intellectuals in England and across the Channel – and how those differences affect their laws, lawyers, and histories. I have written a little book on that subject.
Sadly, my first gulp came with the second sentence in the Preface. The author says that at school ‘we were served a copious diet of French classics.’ How do you get served a diet? And how is either a diet or a feed copious? This book is published by Allen Lane. Don’t they use editors now?
After a couple of pages I realised that this was not so much a work of analysis as a collection of quotes, like one of those tedious dirges that disfigure scholarship in North America. In the Introduction, the author tells us his book will explain the five ways in which French thought is distinctive. One is ‘its historical character (by which I mean both its substantive continuities over time and its references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation…)’ Another is that ‘it is striking in its extraordinary intensity (ideas are believed not only to matter, but in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for…)’ Then we are told that ‘cultural centralization’ in Paris is ‘part of the reason why French ways of thought exhibit such a degree of stylistic consistency.’
Hence the Enlightenment Radicals’ notion of popular sovereignty, the exact mirror of the precept of absolutist power; the holistic abstraction of nineteenth-century counter-revolutionary thought, which matched the essentialism of its republican rivals, and the irreducible nationalism of the communists in the modern age, despite their doctrinal opposition to this ‘bourgeois’ doctrine. This commonality is also the product of shared collective experiences. Systems of ideas and intellectual currents such as republicanism and Gaullism often represented the maturation of existing social and cultural practices, or the reactions of particular generations to defining (and traumatising) episodes such as revolutions, civil conflicts and wars.
You might, on a good day, distil some sort of sense from all that, but it would be quite untestable, which is what those brought up in the Anglo-Saxon tradition fear from the European love of abstractions, here splattered on the page so copiously. But does the reader coming into this discussion cold know whether the infection comes from the French or the author?
Next we are told that the ‘idea of knowledge as continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology, is alien to the French way of thinking.’ Since I am having trouble forming an idea of knowledge that is the reverse of continuous or cumulative, I do not know what that means.
One of the reasons for this…is the emphasis on the speculative quality of thought in France. French intellectual constructs are speculative in the sense that they are generally a form of thinking which is not necessarily grounded in empirical reality.
I do think I understand that the author wants us to follow the basic difference between rationalist and empirical philosophy, but this statement simply says that French thought is speculative because it may or may not accord with the facts. And that is what we call bullshit. It is therefore comforting to know that we may not have missed the point when we see that the paragraph concludes with reference to a paper by an Oxford Professor ‘Why One kind of Bullshit Flourishes in France.’
Next – still in the Introduction – we are told that ‘an enduring source of the French pride is their thought that their history and culture have decisively shaped the values and ideals of other nations’. This large statement prompts an Anglo-Saxon query about empirical evidence. And Lo! It comes immediately. The great Vietnamese revolutionary General Giap learned his trade from Napoleon, and then beat up and banished the French. If this is a source of French pride, they are broad-minded indeed.
Not many people have died at peace in the comfort of existentialism, that body of views that Jean-Paul Sartre became famous for dilating upon. What was it? It acknowledged a simple truth. Shit happens. The author tells us that ‘Sartre entered the fray in the aftermath of the Second World War, arguing that human beings could escape the contingency of their existence by seizing control of their destiny.’ It is hard to translate that. Can we abolish the uncertainty of Fate simply by claiming to control our own? It is hard is it not? But it is a feature of philosophy on either side of the Channel that the questions are always easier than the answers.
I was disappointed that the discussion of French historians did not touch on the luminous work of Taine or more recently Furet on the way we see the Revolution. Taine wrote most beautifully, even in translation. One remark of Taine quoted by the author does convey a large part of the message of the book. ‘All that the Frenchman desires is to provoke in himself and others a bubbling of agreeable ideas.’ That are not necessarily grounded in empirical reality.