The Saga of the French Intellectuals

Joan Miró, Harlequin's Carnival, 1925.


“Introduction” of the newly published book

A gap between two dates, 1944-1989, and an immense contrast serves the temporal limits to this study: on the one hand, the feeling of being impelled by the movement of history towards the climate of exit from Nazi barbarism; on the other, the impression of the collapse of the historical experience experienced at the time of the fall of communism in 1989. In this interim, it is the very belief in the course of history – which, supposedly, would bring a better world – that ended up being denied.

The idea of ​​a future, as a goal to be inexorably reached by the march of the world – whose guides would be intellectuals – disappeared to be replaced by an indeterminate “presentism”. As stated by Jorge Semprún, when participating in the radio program radioscopy, presented by Jacques Chancel: “Our generation is not prepared to recover from the failure of the USSR”. It was the left-wing intellectuals – much more than the communist militants themselves – who, in a cruel and lasting way, suffered such a blow, ending up seeing themselves, in the course of the XNUMXth century, orphans of a project for society.

The march towards an egalitarian society had been the driving force behind the emancipatory movements of the XNUMXth century, known as the “century of history”: society was losing what gave it meaning. Intellectuals on the left were not the only ones to resign themselves to being without a future during the tragic twentieth century: those on the right had to abandon their own illusions both of a return to tradition, advocated by pre-war Maurrassism, and of a compromise with a republican regime that, for a long time, had been the object of repudiation.

To crown this crisis of historicity, the widely shared belief, both on the right and on the left, in an indefinite progress of the productive forces came up against a more complex reality with the end of the Thirty glorious and awareness of the threat weighing on the planetary ecosystem. This crisis of historicity, a phenomenon that affects all countries, North and South, took on a paroxysmal character in France, undoubtedly associated with a particularly intense relationship with history since the French Revolution.

If it was, above all, the German philosophers — Kant, Hegel, Marx — who attributed a sense of finality to history in the course of the XNUMXth century, all the speculations that aimed to divinize its march were rooted in a reflection on the universal dimension. of the Great Revolution and its values, with the following consequence: the French nation is, by essence, the depository of the capacity to embody history. It is enough to think of Michelet, who considered the French people as the philosopher's stone that gives meaning to the past and prepares the future, or of Ernest Lavisse, for whom the French homeland is the bearer of a universal mission. This conviction, current in many French historians of the XNUMXth century, was perpetuated in the following century, in what General De Gaulle designated as “a certain idea of ​​France".

In the course of the second half of the 1940th century, this vision of France as the “eldest child of history” crumbled in stages. Traumatized by the disaster of XNUMX, weakened by four years of occupation by Nazi troops and by the loss of its economic independence, in addition to having been amputated from its colonial empire, the country collapsed into the category of a modest nation, more or less reduced to the Hexagon – configuration of French territory on the European continent – ​​and limiting itself to playing a minor score in the concert of nations, dominated in a lasting way by the confrontation between the two superpowers. It is not surprising that this collapse affected, in the first place, the intellectuals in this “country that loves ideas”, to use the expression coined by the British historian Sudhir Hazareesingh. France's renunciation of its former greatness certainly exacerbated the general historicity crisis of the second half of the XNUMXth century, stirring up an intense relationship with history, even if it was at the price of denying the facts.


The journey reconstituted here is inscribed between two moments: the irruption and, then, the disappearance of the prophetic intellectual. Having appeared in the immediate post-war period, this figure is carried by the generation that went through the tragedy cherishing the expectation of re-enchanting history. As René Char underlines, in a famous aphorism: “Our inheritance was not preceded by any testament”. This poet, resistant to the Nazi occupation, intends to state that, after leaving the war – considering that the legacy had lost all legibility – it was necessary to turn to building the future. Regardless of whether they are Gaullists, Communists or Christian progressives, they are all convinced of realizing universalizable ideals. At the other end of the path, in 1989, the disappearance of this figure of the aware thinker, capable of giving a point of view about everything, is observed. There is talk of the "tomb of the intellectuals".

In this work, the history of such obscuring is precisely reconstituted: not so much that of the intellectual profession, but of a certain hegemonic intellectuality. It is significant that, at the very moment when this figure disappeared, in the 1980s, the history of intellectuals emerged, approached as an object of study. After all, isn't it true that Michel de Certeau observes that, at the moment when popular culture disappears, it undertakes its census and its historicization so that “the beauty of the dead” is fully valued?

The second major change that marks this period is the disappearance of the dream that emerged in the post-war period regarding a global system of intelligibility of human societies. This dream reaches its culmination with what has been baptized as the “golden age of the human sciences”, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the absolute dominance of structuralism is verified. Taken in a broad sense, the term “structure” works, then, as a portmanteau word for a large part of the human sciences. Its triumph is so spectacular that it becomes identified with the whole of intellectual life and even far beyond it. When asked about the strategy to be used by the French football team to improve its performance, the coach replies that he intends to organize the game in a… “structuralist” way.

A period dominated by critical thinking, an expression of an emancipatory will of the incipient social sciences in search of erudite and institutional legitimacy, structuralism ended up raising the collective enthusiasm of the intelligentsia for at least two decades. Until, suddenly, on the verge of the 1980s, the building collapses: most of the French heroes of this intellectual adventure disappear within a few years. Taking advantage of the momentum, the new era hastens to bury the work of these authors, avoiding the work of mourning necessary to do justice to what must have been one of the most fruitful periods in French intellectual history. Miracle or mirage?

Playing the role of crossing borders in the service of a unitary program, structuralism had gathered a large number of names from all walks of life around its creed. For Michel Foucault, “it is not a new method, but the awakened and restless conscience of modern knowledge”. According to Jacques Derrida, it is an “adventure of the gaze”. Roland Barthes, in turn, will consider it as the passage from symbolic consciousness to paradigmatic consciousness, that is, the advent of paradox consciousness.

In this work, it is a question of a movement of thought, on the one hand, and, on the other, of a relationship with the world that is much broader than a simple methodology applied to this or that field of investigation. Structuralism presents itself as a reading grid that privileges the sign at the expense of meaning, space at the expense of time, the object at the expense of the subject, the relationship at the expense of content, culture at the expense of nature.

First, it operates as the paradigm of a philosophy of suspicion and unveiling that aims to demystify the doxa, revealing, behind the saying, the expression of bad faith. This unveiling strategy is in perfect harmony with the French epistemological tradition, which postulates a break between scientific competence and common sense. Under the liberating discourse of the Enlightenment, the call to reason of bodies and the confinement of the social body in the infernal logic of knowledge and power is revealed. Roland Barthes declares: “I reject my civilization profoundly, to the point of nausea”. In turn, the essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss the naked man  (1971) ends with the word “Nothing” [nothing], in capital letters, requiemically.


In these two decades of the 1950s and 1960s, French intellectuals renounced Western centralism, enthusiastically discovering Amerindian societies, thanks to Claude Lévi-Strauss. The irruption of wild thinking in the heart of the West contributes to the abandonment of the narrowly evolutionary conception of the Western model of society. Lévi-Strauss breaks with this vision in his text race and history, published in 1952, opening up to a more spatial than temporal awareness of the march of humanity. Globalization, with its effects of deterritorialization, will further accentuate this shift towards spatiality and the present, culminating in a world time “less dependent on the obsession with origins, more marked by transversality and, therefore, more oriented towards recent periods” .

At the same time, France struggled, between 1954 and 1962, with a war that it does not dare to say its name – the Algerian War –, which would assume aspects of the battle of writing on the side of the colonial metropolis: thus is that the positions taken by intellectuals are all the more requested insofar as the conflict adopts, already in 1957, the character of a moral scandal with the discovery of the practice of torture, in the name of France. From then on, the confrontation took place clearly on two fronts: military, in the Algerian terrain, and intellectual, in the field of writing with a moral nature, in the metropolis.

The second dimension of the structuralist paradigm consists of the preponderant influence exerted by philosophy on the three great human sciences – namely, general linguistics, embodied by Roland Barthes; anthropology, with Claude Lévi-Strauss; and psychoanalysis, with Jacques Lacan – which share the appreciation of the unconscious as the place of truth. Structuralism presents itself as a third discourse, between science and literature, seeking to institutionalize itself by socializing itself and circumventing the center of the old Sorbonne through all kinds of expedients, from peripheral universities, publishing and the press, to an institution as venerable as the Collège de France: since then, this establishment has served as a haven for cutting-edge research.

These years are witness to a heated battle between the Ancients and the Moderns, in which ruptures were operated on several levels. The social sciences seek to break the umbilical cord that connects them to philosophy by building the effectiveness of a scientific method. On the other hand, some philosophers, understanding the importance of these works, try to monopolize them and their benefits, redefining the function of philosophy as the very place of the concept. One of the specificities of that moment lies in the intensity of interdisciplinary circulation between fields of knowledge and between authors. A true economy of intellectual exchanges is unleashed, based on incorporations, translations and transformations of conceptual operators. The expectation regarding a unitary knowledge about the individual engenders numerous discoveries that build, to the highest degree, faith in the capacity of intellectuals to elucidate the functioning of the social bond in any part of the globe. However, it will be necessary to disenchant and deconstruct, little by little, a program whose scientism practically ignored the singular human subject.


The third major change that affected the place of intellectuals in French society between 1945 and 1989 stems from the massification of the respective audiences and their increasingly accentuated media coverage. Fierce competition exists between the actors in this growing market, which is witnessing an exponential increase in the number of students, increasing in the same impetus a readership, henceforth, avid for literary and political news. Student numbers increased from 123 in 1945 to 245 in 1961; to 510 in 1967; and to 811 thousand, in 1975. Accompanying this movement, the number of professors at the university is multiplied by four, between 1960 and 1973.

Two decades later, the specialist sociologist of the media Rémi Rieffel writes that “the increase in demand naturally leads publishers to propose to this public, eager for knowledge, works at low prices and easily accessible”. The launch of the pocket book format perfectly reflects this revolution in the publishing market, which boosted the heyday of human sciences.

This golden age is also valid for the press, at a time when the Parisian daily Le Monde plays the role of France's voice in diplomatic circles and where weeklies shape public opinion, such as Le Nouvel Observateur, by Jean Daniel, or The Express, by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud. In this context of widening the public and growing interpenetration of the public and intellectual spheres, the spectacular progression of the means of social communication radically modifies the way in which intellectuals intervene, relegating the work of elucidating social mechanisms to the erudite cenacles and using, for in turn, from tribunes that privilege a simple and more easily intelligible thought.

The development of culture and media profoundly alters the relationship with time, giving primacy to the snapshot and contributing to compressing temporal thickness. Some intellectuals don't hesitate to leave the quiet of professorships and libraries to face the spotlight; the result is a new figure, under the name of “media intellectual”, of which the “new philosophers” are, at the end of the 1970s, the most spectacular expression.

This reign of the ephemeral – and, many times, of insignificance – is denounced by certain intellectuals who intend to preserve the critical spirit to which their function derives. Thus, Cornelius Castoriadis criticizes those to whom he attributes the qualifier of “entertainers”, as well as the increasingly rapid succession of fashions that, from then on, constitute the biotype of intellectual life: “Instead of a fashion, the succession of fashions is o way in which the epoch, particularly in France, lives its relationship with 'ideas'”.


The reversal of the historicity regime that takes place during the second half of the XNUMXth century is marked by the foreclosure of the future, the dissipation of collective projects and the withdrawal into a present that has become immobile, influenced by the tyranny of memory and the trampling of the past . A disoriented time took the place of a properly defined time.

As we have seen, the dates that frame our journey delimit the fall of the two great totalitarianisms of the century: Nazism, in 1944-1945, and Communism, in 1989. The contrast between the prophetic breath that impels the involvement passion of intellectuals in the immediate post-war period, the pervasive sense of the responsibility they are charged with, and the widespread disillusionment that eventually overwhelms them. Already vigorously shaken in 1956, they are led by skepticism in 1989: a year experienced, by some, as an impossible mourning and, by others, as a liberating thaw.

Between these two moments, there are numerous ruptures that, like so many other cadences, end up making the horizon of expectation become opaque. According to the different generations that follow each other and the uniqueness of the paths of each one, certain events, more than others, constitute initiating ruptures that, little by little, feed the shock of historicity that results in social anomie and, sometimes, in intellectual aphasia: the years 1956, 1968 and 1974 are some milestones that allow us to understand, in better conditions, how this withdrawal took place.

In order to apprehend its evolution, it is convenient to beware, on the one hand, of any rewriting of history in the light of what is possible to know about the future, failing to consider the indetermination of the actors; and, on the other hand, to avoid the temptation to use present categories as grids for reading the past. British historian Tony Judt neglects such precautions when he stigmatizes the repeated mistakes made by French intellectuals based on a teleological reading of their engagements between 1944 and 1956.

Indeed, it is all too easy to re-read this second twentieth century in terms of the cleavage that, little by little, was imposed between the defenders of democracy and the supporters of a totalitarian regime whose character was gradually discovered. Without trying, in any way, to excuse the deviations and mistakes of the intellectuals of that time, we will not stop trying to understand their reasons. Judt, in turn, refuses any form of contextual explanation that aims to understand this French enthusiasm for communism after the war, limiting himself to considering such a posture as a global adherence to a totalitarian perversion.

Disqualifying, moreover, as historicist and insufficient any approach that emphasizes the situation of the Liberation to clarify behavior and practices, he believes to find in this period the “germs of our present situation”. If we give him credit, the context is nothing more than a scenario reduced to insignificance; in this way, Judt's position coincides with the theses of the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell, who attributes the fascist qualifier to any search for a third way between capitalism and Bolshevism in the years before the war.

At times, a singularity of French intellectual life has been evoked due to its propensity for violence, excesses and, therefore, misunderstanding. Such an analysis runs the risk of overlooking the denial of reality by a large number of intellectuals during this long period. Obsession – sometimes voluntary – seems to us to have as its essential spring the refusal to resign oneself to being without eschatology in a modern world that has become post-religious by a kind of transference of religiosity to history that, supposedly, promises , for lack of individual salvation, a collective salvation. To apprehend these avoidances of the real, it is convenient to take the actors seriously and pay careful attention to the context of their utterances.

It seems to us that, at this point, the notion of “intellectual moment” is essential, all the more so as the current era is marked by the fading of historical experience. In a situation where we have the impression that the past is tragic and the future opaque, the utopia of transparent communication makes the present the only possible entry into history. Since the 1980s, the resulting crisis has affected all fields of knowledge and creation; according to Olivier Mongin, director of the magazine Mind, it is at work in the repudiation of what politics is, in identity withdrawal, in the lack of inspiration in novelistic fiction, in the substitution of the image for the visual, or even in the concealment of information in favor of communication.

Intellectuals are progressively reconciling themselves with Western democratic values, which until then were considered mystifying and purely ideological. The irony regarding these values ​​becomes more difficult, in such a way that the deconstruction of democratic apparatuses must be reconsidered in relation to their positivity. Privileging different moments requires returning to the precise contexts of positions taken and controversies. The chronological approach proves to be pertinent to give certain “moment-words” – which embody the spirit of time – their specific tone. We will thus pass, successively, in volume I, from the initial existentialist thought to the triad Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, which inaugurates the era of suspicion; then, in volume II, the triad Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Aron — which inspired the liberal moment — and, finally, the triad Benjamin, Levinas, Ricœur, which marks the thought of evil.

*François Dosse is Professor of Contemporary History at the Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres at Créteil. Author, among other books, of History against the test of time: from history in crumbs to the rescue of meaning (Unesp).


François Dosse. The Saga of the French Intellectuals (1944-1989). Translation: Guilherme João de Freitas Teixeira. São Paulo, Liberdade Station, 2021, 704 pages.


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