French Intellectuals Miffed at Politician's Rebuke

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Last month, the French finance minister told her countrymen they think too much. "Roll up your sleeves and get on with it," is her advice. French intellectuals of all stripes are up in arms.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

French films like French literature and much else in French life for that matter have a reputation for being philosophical. Rousseau and Descartes were national icons not action figures like Rambo, or so we're led to believe.

It's part of the image that the French liked to project as the country that not only invented the inlight event(ph) that was midwife to modernity(ph).

But Frank Browning reports from Paris that all is not settled in the land of ideas.

FRANK BROWNING: You really can't overestimate how shocking it was when Christine Lagarde, the minister of finance and economy, addressed the national assembly.

Ms. CHRISTINE LAGARDE (Minister of Finance, France): (Through translator) It's an old national habit. France is a country who thinks. There is hardly any ideology that doesn't have a theory. In our libraries, there are endless theories to last us several centuries, which is why I say, enough thinking -enough. Roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

BROWNING: It couldn't have been more shocking if she had called for banning fois gras. Ex-leftist and neocon philosopher Alain Finkelkraut found Lagarde's words outrageous and insulting. All the worse because before returning to France, she was managing director of one of Chicago's largest business law firms.

Journalist philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, known abroad for a book on his travels in America and at home for his torso-popping tailored shirts, compared her remarks to the banter of cafe drunks.

So, where better to go than the lair where today's media savvy intellectuals hangout.

Mr. PHILLIP RAPHAEL(ph) (Writer, Economist): We are at Lorentzen(ph), which is a very fancy cafe in which many fashionable intellectual come to sit and discuss.

BROWNING: Writer and economist Phillip Raphael is a keen observer of Paris intellectual fashion.

Mr. RAPHAEL: They come here to work. They come here just to sit and relax and to be seen.

BROWNING: But most of the heavyweights had all gone to the beach. Among those who frequently appear is former Le Monde editor and writer Edwy Plenel. For Plenel, Madame Lagarde's remarks gave further evidence of the decline in the role of real public intellectuals.

Mr. EDWY PLENEL (Former Editor in Chief, Le Monde): What's the role of an intellectual in the French tradition? For me, it's a critical role, a counter-power.

BROWNING: People whose work is thinking have historically challenged absolutist power, whether in the time of Louis XIV or under current President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now, they have become the stars of fan magazines and seek dinner invitations with the powerful or, says economist Phillip Raphael, they have simply disappeared into quiet scholarship.

Mr. RAPHAEL: If you mean by intellectual, somebody who is a knowledge producer with addressing public life properly, there are no more French intellectuals in the media. Producing words on interviews has nothing to do with theory. It's just to show society, and I think, Christine Lagarde confused to show society and thinking.

BROWNING: France's long tradition of treating thinking as an activity in and for itself goes back to the 17th century, says University of Chicago scholar Neil Chudgar.

Mr. NEIL CHUDGAR (Scholar, University of Chicago): The idea that the French spend too much time theorizing and not enough time working practically is one of the common themes of British 18th-century thought. The Age of Reason begins when Rene Descartes, who was a French philosopher, spent all day by himself in a room in Germany, of the day, according to legend, is November 10th, 1619. On that day, Rene Descartes spent all day in a room heated by a woodstove. And there he had the thought...

(Soundbite of ding)

Mr. CHUDGAR: ...that is taken to have begun philosophical modernity. And the thought was Je pense, donc je suis, which we all know as, I think, therefore I am.

BROWNING: Poppycock, answered Englishman John Locke, the father of English and American philosophy.

Mr. CHUDGAR: Oh, Locke had trouble with this because, after all, if you base your philosophical system on thinking, you have a problem, which is that you're not thinking all the time - at least if you're English, you're not thinking all the time; the French actually, maybe.

BROWNING: And so arose the fundamental break between French reason and so-called Anglo-Saxon action.

Mr. CHUDGAR: Locke said, really, what we should do is we should get on with things.

BROWNING: Almost exactly what Minister Lagarde told the French public, raising deep suspicions that her experience in Chicago had converted her into a closet Anglo-Saxon. But more important, thinking in the view of the French rationalists is all that distinguishes us humans from animals. And now, both naturalists and neuroscientists have placed that distinction in question.

(Soundbite of a dog barking)

BROWNING: Consider the dog, says Columbia University Neuro-Physician John Krakauer. He refers to a recent episode of David Attenborough's series "Planet Earth" in which naturalists tracked a pack of wild dogs closing in on an antelope.

Dr. JOHN KRAKAUER (Neurology, Columbia University): And what was very apparent from the aerial footage was that the dogs had come up with a plan and a contingency plan. So if they would fail with their first plan, they'd sent another set of dogs up ahead to deal with the possibility of failure and let them be the second group as it were. So it's a remarkable instance of what looks like planning, anticipation and prediction of failure. Now, how can one really not call that some form of cognition or advanced planning or thinking. In other words, somebody would be forgiven for saying they thought about what they needed to do to catch this antelope.

BROWNING: Thinking, Krakauer proposes, is a fuzzy notion at best.

Dr. KRAKAUER: Thinking is a blanket term that can encompass anticipation planning, sequencing, communication, so I'm not sure that coming up with a rigid definition of thinking is then (unintelligible) going to say a-ha. Do animals do it or do they not do it? It's not as simple as that.

BROWNING: Animals, however, so far as we know, do not sit alone in cold rooms heated by crude woodstoves and write philosophy. Like Anglo-Saxons, they seem to mark their prey and get on with it.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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