Thinking and Working

July 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Early in my teaching career, I was talking casually after class one day with a student. “What are you, some kind of intellectual?” he asked, more challenging than curious.

Well yes, I thought. Isn’t that a legitimate thing to be at an institution of higher learning? I had not yet gotten used to the very practical orientation most of my students had towards their education. They weren’t interested in ideas as such. They wanted to learn stuff that would allow them to get better jobs and make more money.

I was reminded of this again by a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. “Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.” So said France’s new finance minister recently.
France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was elected on a platform of more work for the French people, who by law have 30 paid vacation days and one paid holiday each year. (The US, by contrast, has no law requiring employers to give workers even one paid vacation day. See my earlier blog post.) Apparently, M. Sarkozy’s government sees thinking as antithetical to working, and they are trying to change a long-standing French view about abstract thought.

It may be hard for those of us in the US to appreciate the status that thinking and ideas have in France. Intellectuals and philosophers become famous there – a line that goes from Descartes through Sartre to today’s Bernard-Henry Lévy, a name virtually unknown here but so familiar in France that he’s known by his initials, BHL. Sort of like ARod and JLo.

Intellectuals appear regularly on French TV and are allowed to speak at length, not the three-and-a-half minute interview or crossfire shouting match that passes for discussion on the US airwaves. We Americans want our answers short and, if not sweet, at least easy to grasp and to use. We are generally suspicious of intellectuals and of abstract ideas. Our orientation has always been more pragmatic.

Things haven’t changed much since deTocqueville, 170 years ago, opened Book II of Democracy in America with this:

Chapter I

    I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

A few chapters later, “The Americans show a less decided taste for general ideas than the French. This is especially true in politics.”
DeTocquville attributes this disdain for abstract ideas to democracy, equality, and individualism. In an egalitarian society, where nobody is better than anyone else, each person relies on himself and winds up being able to manage very well, thank you. So if a person’s ideas are sufficient for his own life, what need does he have of other ideas?
As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of their understanding.
This orientation also leads to a focus on the concrete and a vague suspicion of abstractions, especially those that have no practical application
They like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness . . . . This disposition of mind soon leads them to condemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth.
But the French are more concerned with ideas and the logical connections among those ideas. Americans might reject a line of thought because it leads to nothing useful. The French might reject it if it is pas logique. Americans, on the other hand, are much more concerned with concrete facts.

Adam Gopnik, a journalist who lived in Paris for a while, describes his difficulties in France when he had to “fact check” an article. Fact-checking is standard procedure in American magazines: you call people mentioned in the article to make sure that the facts – dates, quotations, etc. – are correct. The French had never heard of such a thing (“What do you mean, une fact checker?”) and were suspicious when Gopnik explained.

Dubious look; there is More Here Than Meets the Eye. . . .There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.

I was baffled and exasperated by this until it occurred to me that you would get exactly the same incomprehension and suspicion if you told American intellectuals and politicians, post-interview, . . . .

“In a couple of weeks a theory checker will be in touch with you.”

Alarmed, suspicious: “A what?”

“You know, a theory checker. Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

. . . A theory checker? What an absurd waste of time, since it’s apparent (to us Americans) that people don’t speak in theories, that the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation, that the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of theoretical constancy is an absurd denial of what conversation is. (pp. 95-96)

Well, replace fact (and factual) for theory in that last sentence, and you have the common French view of fact checking.

Apparently President Sarkozy has his work cut out for him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The difference is easily explained: Americans operate in the tradition of British empiricism. The French operate in the Cartesian tradition (which I admit I don't completely understand) whereby the process and the form of reasoning are important.

But there are obviously exceptions-- my French boyfriend, for instance, fancies himself a scientist, and so he is much more empirical than I; he will in fact not believe a thing or a process to exist unless he has seen it for himself (this is more stubbornness than empiricism). But depending on the topic, my process of analysis will be far more empirical than his.

I also think this idea that the French think too much is ridiculous. Most of them are as non-reflective as your average American. And they don't necessarily have any more respect for philosophy, either.