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.
June 7, 2015 @ 10:46 am
Reminds me of how libertarians (and anarchists, Tea Partiers, radical environmentalists, etc.) can make such a strong case for how things should be, while ignoring political realities. It's a French tradition?
June 7, 2015 @ 12:26 pm
All humans, of course, can be tempted to favor an elegant idea over messy, complex reality, but as long as you don't take generalizations too seriously, then yeah, there's a fair amount of truth to the stereotype. A lot of the terrible modern academic trends in the humanities were invented by French theorists in love with their own impractical opacity and pretentious jargon.
A couple years ago, I greatly enjoyed a book by Susan Dunn, Sister Revolutions, that studied the differences between the American and French revolutions. In a nutshell, here theme was that the American founders almost all had practical political experience in governing on some level. In France, the social stratification under monarchy meant that the intellectuals didn't have any of that. When Louis XVI convened the Estates General, and his finance minister, Cardinal Brienne, convinced him to invite the "men of learning" to a competition on what the Estates General's character and procedures would be (since it had been almost 200 years since the last time anyone had called for a convention, and no one, especially not a weak king, was sure how to go about it), the result was a bunch of intellectuals with no experience in representative democracy coming up with theories on paper on how to arrange government and society as a whole.