Harvey J Kaye: Should the French Stop Thinking?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Harvey Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America.]

"France is a country that thinks," Christine Lagarde, the nation's finance minister, observed recently. But Lagarde did not speak boastfully. She was not praising France's intellectual prowess or proclaiming its literary hegemony, but calling her fellow citoyens to the economic barricades.

"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," she insisted. As she sees it, the time has come to stop reflecting, to stop theorizing: "I would like to tell you," she declaimed, "enough thinking, enough prevaricating... Roll up your sleeves." Apparently, the radicalism of the day calls not for fresh ideas, or even a rising of the sans-culottes, but the mobilisation of the sans-manches.

Now, I don't know what the average French person has to say about Lagarde's call to bare arms and - in the Old English tongue - get to work, but celebrity philosophes were not inspired. Professor and media figure Alain Finkielkraut responded angrily: "How absurd to say we should think less! 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."

And his famous compatriot of the public-intellectual class, Bernard-Henri Lévy, proceeded to warn of anti-intellectual tendencies in the new government of Nicholas Sarkozy.

As a fellow member of the Republic of Letters, I can understand their angst and upset. Nobody likes to be told that what one does isn't worth a damn. And no French intellectual wants to hear elected officials telling them they should be more like les Americains - hell, C Wright Mills announced back in the 1950s that we Yanks had all become a bunch of "cheerful robots"....

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