Friday, June 05, 2015

The French Disease

We too often forget that the name “intellectual” itself is a French invention. There is a tendency, because the French exported the concept very successfully in the past, to try to interpret any thinking phenomenon as an “intellectual” one, and to believe that where there are no proper intellectuals, there is no thinking. However, as Stefan Collini brilliantly demonstrated in Absent Minds, it is France that is the exception rather than the other way around. The way it has promoted the figure of the intellectual is unprecedented in history, and it would be pointless to try to find the same patterns in other countries which have other traditions. British thinkers, in that perspective, have been sceptical of the term “intellectual” for two reasons: they felt superior to what they saw as French immaturity or grandiloquence, but at the same time inferior to them, because they watched the exceptional treatment given to intellectuals in France with great envy.

Just because a country remains reluctant to recognise its intellectual character doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Conversely, just because a country constantly boasts about its tradition of thought doesn’t mean that the tradition is still alive. Progressive thinkers such as Sartre have always preferred — isn’t it much easier? — to paint large abstract pictures, and then, when reality contradicted them, to turn a blind eye and blame someone else — the bourgeoisie, usually.

British thinkers, from Adam Smith and David Hume to Friedrich Hayek (Britain being his adopted country), from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to John Gray, from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton, have always started from the facts and the patterns of life and tried to make sense of them, without being obsessed by the fact that they were or were not thinkers. British people think because they don’t think they think. I wish the French would do the same.