Gallic Bloom

The Defeat of the Mind
October 13, 1995

Recent political and social philosophy, in harmony with the resurgence of conservatism, has revived a form of communitarianism. The idea is that neither my obligations to my country nor my identity as a member of it are chosen but rather are a consequence of the accident of my birth. In this connection, we think of such philosophers as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Amelie Rorty. Contrast this with a contractarian view which takes my obligation to my country to be consequent on an implicit (or, very occasionally, explicit) contract with those who govern me, a view traditionally associated with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and, more recently, Rawls.

Alain Finkielkraut, in a book which first appeared in France in 1987 and is here translated for the second time, does not refer to these thinkers. But the distinction he makes between the German notion of the Volk and the idea of a contract nation, one he associates with the French enlightenment, is essentially similar.

This book is a passionate defence of the enlightenment conception which views each individual as primarily a human being sharing common concerns with other human beings, an individual who can liberate himself from the restrictions of his culture. Finkielkraut associates this with a tradition running from Voltaire to Benda. The conception which views an individual as primarily a member of a specific and historically situated society he associates with the tradition of the nation as an expression of the Volkgeist, a conception which began with Herder.

The traditions criss cross and Finkielkraut is ingenious in following up their ramifications. Philosophical rectitude is no respecter of nationality; Goethe exemplifies the universalism that Finkielkraut admires, while De Maistre, Fanon and Regis Debray come in for some sharp criticism.

However universalism has a corrupt form; the sort of universalism which admires equally all cultures and all practices and works of art is a main target of Finkielkraut. Value judgements are not culture relative. A pop video is not, as the post modernists would have us believe, to be equated with an opera by Verdi. The attack on post modernism broadens to a diatribe against consumerism and narrows to an attack on the current pope.

There are considerable philosophical difficulties in the idea of a social contract which Finkielkraut does not address. Likewise it seems to be an obvious truth that we value Flaubert and Proust because they speak about their own cultures as well as about universal issues. The two are compatible. Furthermore it is indisputable that French literature is likely to speak to me more immediately than Japanese or even American literature for both the latter are products of societies far more different from mine than the French. Part of the value of a film by Kurosawa is that it shows me a culture very different from mine and only partly intelligible to me. Art is both particular and universal.

One could make other criticisms of Finkielkraut but perhaps a tract is not where one expects niceties. Much of it is splendid passionate stuff; Finkielkraut is caustic in his dismissal of the view that the traditions of other non-European cultures should be automatically accorded respect: "But what if a culture teaches people to inflict corporal punishment on delinquents, to reject barren women, to kill adulterous women, to consider the testimony of one man the same as the testimony of two women, to give a sister only half as much inheritance as her brother, to perform female circumcision, to forbid mixed marriages and permit polygamy? To love our neighbor must we respect these customs?" Not the least of the merits of this book is its refreshing clarity and force. When a writer feels passionately, communication matters to him. Not for Finkielkraut the wilful obscurity we have recently come to expect from French intellectuals. Worth reading!

R. A. Sharpe is professor of philosophy, University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Defeat of the Mind

Author - Alain Finkielkraut
ISBN - 0 231 08022 0
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - $22.95
Pages - 165
Translator - Judith Friedlander

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