Ph.D. Octopus

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De Tocqueville: the Sequel

with 2 comments

by Weiner

Students of American history are probably familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville‘s famous Democracy in America, where the French political scientist (before there were political scientists) analyzed the democratic spirit of the antebellum United States. But we’re all much less familiar with William Crary Brownell, who in 1888-1889 wrote French Traits: An Essay in Comparative Criticism, which looked at French society from a more sociological perspective, and contrasted American individualism with the French “social instinct.”

Some of this he attributed to the influence of Catholicism. He compared Catholic and Protestant countries, noting:

The absence of the individual spirit, the absence of the sense of personal responsibility, the social interdependence of people, the respect for public opinion, the consequent consideration for others, the free play of mind compatible with only a certain carelessness as to deductions, and a confidence that society in general will see to it that the world roll on even if one’s own logic be imperfect.

But most of this was about France in particular, where “patriotism, in fact, takes the place of religion.” And so observed:

The preponderance thus of unifying over controversial and separatist forces has rendered [the people of France] the most homogenous in the world, and, accordingly, if it be ever excusable to speak of a people in the mass, it is excusable in the case of the French. What one notes in the individual is more than anywhere else apt to be national trait.

And thus, paradoxically, you have the classic French universalist particularism (or particularist universalism):

The French provincial spirit, like other French traits, is thoroughly impersonal. The individual, everywhere subordinated to the state and the community, appears himself curiously unrelated to the very object of his characteristic adoration. Personally speaking, his provincialism is impartial. He does not admire France because she is his country. His competence with himself proceeds from the circumstance that he is a Frenchman; which is distinctly what he is first, being a man afterward. And his pride in France by no means proceeds from her production of such men as he and his fellows, but from what France, composed of his fellows and himself, accomplishes and represents. One never hears the Frenchman boast of the character and quality of his compatriots, as Englishmen and ourselves do. He is thinking about France, about her different gloires, about her position at the head of civilization. His country is to him an entity, a concrete and organic force, with whose work in the world he is extremely proud to be natively associated, without at the same time being very acutely conscious of contributing thereto or sharing the responsibility therefor.

What shocked me reading this book is how much this analysis rings true today, 120 years later. Reading Brownell, I was reminded of Tony Judt’s social democratic call to arms:

It is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely. A willingness to pay for other people’s services and benefits rests upon the understanding that they in turn will do likewise for you and your children: because they are like you and see the world as you do.

French, and more broadly European homogeneity, xenophobia and racism have led to a greater sense of solidarity than that in America. This European solidarity is constantly being challenged by immigration. But I wonder if the roots run deeper, to Catholicism vs Protestantism, or to some other historical and structural reasons for American individualism (think Frederick Jackson Turner) vs European solidarity or communitarianism.

Brownell’s observations also found an echo in Judt’s commentary on France’s intellectual tradition:

What happened to French intellectuals? Once we had Camus, “the contemporary heir to that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes whatever is most distinctive in French letters” (Sartre). We had Sartre himself. We had François Mauriac, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the ” inénarrable Mme De Beauvoir” (Aron). Then came Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and—more controversially—Pierre Bourdieu. All could claim significant standing in their own right as novelists, philosophers, or simply “men of letters.” But they were also, and above all, French intellectuals.

Back in 1889, Brownell noted:

The great Frenchmen…. are not found isolated but in groups, whose members are mutually dependent and supporting. But for this… the eminence of many of them would be more conspicuous than it is; many merely eminent names in French history would shine heroic and grandiose on the roll of almost any other nation…. But the great accomplishments of France have, in general, been the work rather of the nation than of those heroes who “look at the stars with an answering ray.” Wherever the task of progress has demanded intellectual inspiration or moral energy, it is the Spaniard, the Italian, the Englishman who excels, but it is the French people entire.

Thus French people identified not just with specific intellectuals, but with an intellectual tradition, in a way that other countries did not, and do not. I think again that the contrast with the United States is most stark. Americans might identify with the inventiveness of Thomas Edison, but not with a particular philosophy or intellectual tradition.

Of course, Brownell’s books is filled with massive generalizations, unsupported by any sort of quantitative data. But the fact that these observations resemble the same sort of talking points we often here today when comparing America to France in particular or Europe in general seems rather telling. Either these talking points have become so ingrained in the American psyche simply through repetition, or perhaps there is something to them.


Written by David Weinfeld

June 24, 2010 at 09:00

2 Responses

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  1. Some quick thoughts, because I do think there’s a historical and structural contrast here, though one that with the rise of such ‘intellectuals’ as BHL may be nearing its end in its form of ‘center of intellectual elites’ if not in its form of laws that xenophobically target Muslim girls/women wearing headscarves or burqas under the name “universalism. I think it finds its beginnings with the founding of modern France through a revolution devoted to abstract ideals ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’ that in contrast to the American Revolution weren’t so closely tied to individuals who lived within the nation but instead demanded the sacrifice of many of their lives to that ideal. While I am no student of American history, I assume that the fight to get each state to ratify the Constitution and the strong federal structure promoted more of an idea of realistic, compromising hetereogeneity than abstract idealistic unity. I suppose you could also tie this to the way Catholics devote themselves to strict, abstract laws mandated by Rome, while Protestantism encourages a more individual relationship with the bible and god. I’m wary of facile religious explanations, but France’s Catholcism really can’t be ignored (particularly given how often it is within the country itself, which would rather paint itself as devoted to universalism and ignore the Catholic elements that seep through).

    So I think the French overtly self-represent themselves this way, and therefore grow up with a sense that they as French(wo)men should be devoted to some specific ideas. While this devotion to ideas may have promoted, perhaps produced, a Foucault or Sartre, it’s a common language that can be used as a crutch for similiar xenophobic or racist policies as American individualism can. (though a question is how do education/immigration/labor policies look different as a result of the differences in language used…)


    June 24, 2010 at 15:36

  2. I find these statements to be interesting and completely relevant even today. The comment about why social democracy or the welfare state works is a prime example of why there is so much backlash when any social program is proposed in America, because we are all so different and we see the world differently.

    I’d like to invite you to my blog


    June 24, 2010 at 15:51

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