Do the French think too much?

Cultural Insights — By on July 27, 2007 at 7:55 am

That’s the question posed in this recent article in the International Herald Tribune, which in turn quotes from a debate taking place among some French leaders.

France is the country that produced the Enlightenment, Descartes’s one-liner, “I think, therefore I am,” and the solemn pontifications of Jean-Paul Sartre and other celebrity philosophers. But in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, thinking has lost its cachet.

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.”

Needless to say, not everyone agrees.

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 Lagarde’s comments.

“This is the sort of thing you can hear in café conversations from morons who drink too much,” said Lévy, who is so well-known in French that he is known simply by his initials BHL “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.”

Of course, perhaps the real lesson is here isn’t whether to think or not to think. What’s more interesting, from a cultural perspective at least, is that the French have found a way to think and debate about whether they should be thinking and debating.

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