How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh

A far more academic book than I first understood it would be, How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh dives into the psyche of the French people. He presents French thought in its historical context, how it "stands out it its fixation with the nation and the collective self," in its intensity and desire to reach a wider public, and its "constant interplay between the themes of order and imagination." Hazareesingh is a man unafraid to critique the French, but within and between the lines, it is clear he also greatly admires French thinking and its thinkers.

Beginning with Descartes and Rousseau, Hazareesingh first introduces the rise of Republican rationality and the ideal of democracy in France, underlining both nationalism and the collective spirit. Reason was the "defining feature of the human condition," above all else. Despite this reason, however, there was also the occult phenomenon that occurred in France, a belief in the progressive spirit and harmony in the universe, in darkness and light. Rationalism and spirituality were intertwined. 

It was this utopian vision of reason that further defined French thought: "a penchant for defining the good life around metaphysical ideals; a thirst for novelty and for departing from conventional reasoning; a capacity for introducing broad, sweeping visions and a generous embrace of universalistic horizons: a love of paradox and a willingness to develop lines of argument to their furthest possible conclusions..."

Of course, there was also French scientific thought, but even this aimed to demonstrate the existence and influence of a higher power, paving the way for the French Revolution, which in turn began to separate French though to the Left and to the Right. Once more defined, the lines between Left and Right blurred over time - French thought was too bound by suffering and the collective will to accomplish great things together.

Those great things included universal domination and freedom. An example of this is language - the French hated any tainting of their vocabulary with English words, but simultaneously wished to spread French far beyond their borders. French thought did, for a time, have an easy was of extending far and wide, particularly with leading writers like Satre, Foucault and Camus. Though, at present time, the author noted that these names, outside of France, have become a "fading memory." 

But French thought must not fade. Under Charles de Gaulle, France was a nation of resistors. French historical thought was not to be extinguished. This fear led to a closing of the French mind, and a growth in ethnic nationalism (though Hazareesingh acknowledges this was part of an overall "European malaise" at the time). Presently, Hazareesingh writes that the great divide in France is not at all Left and Right, but rather between those who remain optimistic, and those who do not at all. Those who are open, and those who are closed. A confident France and an anxious France. What remains, however, is the "singularity of the French way of seeing the world."

... the French remain a recognizably intellectual people, lyrical and pugnacious, energetic and impatient, filled with generosity, pride and an insatiable yearning for perfectibility - but riven, too, with contradictions.
— Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think