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Capsule Review

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People

In This Review

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
By Sudhir Hazareesingh
Basic Books, 2015 352 pp. Purchase

Hazareesingh explains French intellectual life more clearly than his subjects themselves possibly could, caught up as they are in the discourses, habits of mind, and pathologies he describes. The book begins with a set of familiar stereotypes and bons mots about French thinkers: their tendency to privilege deduction over empiricism, abstraction over concreteness, and style over substance. Yet it soon delves deeper, focusing with great intelligence and subtlety on distinctively French conceptions of history, nationhood, democratic participation, existentialism, and the creative tension between order and imagination. Hazareesingh closes by discussing how a current French crisis of doubt has diluted what was once a confident intellectual universalism. He sometimes falters when linking ideas to political trends and at times fails to distinguish clearly what is essentially French and what is only coincidentally so. Yet anyone who loves, loathes, or is just perplexed by self-styled French intellectuals—that is, most educated French people—should read this book.

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