The Dimming of the Light by Sudhir Hazareesingh.
There are many things we have come to regard as quintessentially French: Coco Chanel’s little black dress, the love of fine wines and gastronomy, the paintings of Auguste Renoir, the smell of burnt rubber in the Paris Métro. Equally distinctive is the French mode and style of thinking, which the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke described in 1790 as ‘the conquering empire of light and reason’. He meant this as a criticism of the French Revolution, but this expression would undoubtedly have been worn as a badge of honour by most French thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards.
Indeed, the notion that rationality is the defining quality of humankind was first celebrated by the 17th-century thinker René Descartes, the father of modern French philosophy. His skeptical method of reasoning led him to conclude that the only certainty was the existence of his own mind: hence his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). This French rationalism was also expressed in a fondness for abstract notions and a preference for deductive reasoning, which starts with a general claim or thesis and eventually works its way towards a specific conclusion – thus the consistent French penchant for grand theories. As the essayist Emile Montégut put it in 1858: ‘There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, and whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies.’