No books hold so many hostages to fortunes as those about national character. They leave themselves open to charges of crude essentialising and inevitable incompleteness. Counter examples will be brandished like trumps and gripes aired about some crucial overlooked behaviour or attitude that supposedly encapsulates a people. But in the case of the French, as Sudhir Hazareesingh’s erudite new study shows, such an approach might work.
How the French Think is not quite a book about mentalités and not quite a history of ideas. It is a book about how, in the modern era, the French have imagined their country into existence, about what aspirations they have had for it and what kind of people the French need to be to fulfil those aspirations. With the pertinent exception of Descartes, there is no room for thinkers from before the 18th