Alain Finkielkraut’s The Defeat of the Mind

Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 432-35.

Denis Dutton

An idea as broad and diffuse as multiculturalism cannot be identified with a single origin. Multiculturalism is, after all, something that simply happens whenever cultures live with each other, a fact continuous through recorded history. Yet in European and American society today, the term has come to denote not a social given, but a political imperative: multiculturalism is ideology. What the contemporary conception of multiculturalism means and where it came from is a major theme of The Defeat of the Mind (Columbia University Press, $22.95), by Alain Finkielkraut, who was born in Poland after the war, but is now regarded as a leading French intellectual. Finkielkraut choses to begin his story in 1774, with the publication of Johann Gottfried Herder’s “Yet Another Philosophy of History Concerning the Development of Mankind.” Taking his inspiration from Montesquieu — that men are governed by “climate, religion, law, the conventions of government, the influence of things past, customs and manners” — Herder pushed the thesis to its extreme, mounting an attack on the very idea of eternal Enlightenment values of Truth, Beauty, and the Good: For Herder, “There was no absolute . . . only regional values and contingent principles.” Each epoch and every culture thus possessed its own version of “reason.”

Since The Defeat of the Mind is intended for a French readership, it is no surprise that Finkielkraut plays off good-German Herder against good-guy Voltaire. Typical of French rationalists, Voltaire thought that mankind might throw off the yoke of superstition and savagery. Future ages would witness the progressive abandonment of custom and prejudice, as the human race understood that its destiny lay in embracing universal reason. For Herder, to the contrary, reason was historical, or as we’d likely say today, cultural: “of the many forms humanity engendered over time, each possess their independent existence, their immanent necessity, their individual reason.”

This did not have much appeal to Herder’s German audience in 1774, as Kant (who gets insufficient attention in Finkielkraut’s exposition) and his Enlightenment ideals then enjoyed intellectual supremacy. But the rout of the Prussians at Jena thirty-two years later and the subsequent subjugation of a fragmented Germany meant that the nineteenth century was more conducive for the Germans to discover their cultural identity. The idea of the Volksgeist caught on, encouraged by many of the strands of German romanticism. Even prejudice and ignorance were deemed tolerable, if they were expressions of the Volksgeist. While Kant had denounced prejudice and called for broad-mindedness in “What Is Enlightenment?” Herder wrote, “Prejudice is good in its time and place, because it makes people happy. It takes them back to their center, attaches them firmly to their roots, lets them flourish in their own way, makes them more impassioned, and, as a result, happier in their inclinations and purposes. The most ignorant nation, the one with the most prejudices, is often superior in this respect.”

Finkielkraut traces the fate of the Volksgeist through some of the byways of European history. One notable reference point is Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals (1926), a prophetic book which critiqued the culture-idolotry of European intellectuals and their readiness to turn their backs on principles of freedom and rationality. The major event of Benda’s intellectual development was the Dreyfus affair, which he said allowed him “to see clearly, like a flash of lightening, the hierarchy of values that make up the very basis of my being and of my organic hatred for the other system.” That split, which marks French society to this day, was between those who saw patriotism as “part of your blood and bones,” a matter of deep feelings for ancestors, flag, and soil, and Dreyfusards like Benda, who still believed in the Enlightenment. In the 1920s, Benda was disturbed by the idea that “a people should form a conception of their rights and duties by studying their particular spirit, history, geographical position, the unique circumstances in which they find themselves; not by following the laws of so-called eternal and universal conscience of man.” The Dreyfus affair epitomizes this question by pitting “French truth” against universal truth, and today, Finkielkraut remarks, “as the philosophy used to condemn Dreyfus gains favor once again,” we hear of the primacy of cultural roots: “There are, in other words, no Dreyfusards left.” Benda, incidentally, warned that this was all taking Europe toward “the most total and perfect war the world has ever seen.”

It’s easy hindsight for us, as it was stunning foresight for Benda, to see that Herder’s conception of the Volksgeist — adopted both by the German romantics (notably not Schiller) and French diehards who still resented the Revolution — was leading toward mid-twentieth-century European fascism. What ought to give us pause is that these issues should have come to have such renewed currency fifty years after the war. Finkielkraut tracks this renewal back to the founding of UNESCO, which was originally built on ideals of liberty and the free exchange of ideas and information. Once it began meeting as an official organization, he says, its agenda began to shift: “What started out as a critique of fanaticism turned into a critique of the Enlightenment.” Enter the anthropologists, notably Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose 1951 essay, “Race and History,” commissioned by UNESCO, was a manifesto for multiculturalism. Lévi-Strauss’s target, naturally, was biological racism. Differences between peoples were matters of “geographical, historical, and sociological circumstances” instead of race. But there was more to it: we were not to see history as a march from barbarism to civilization, but rather were urged to affirm the moral equality of cultures while eschewing as imperialist the very term “civilization.” Though the point, Finkielkraut explains, was to destroy prejudice, “to achieve this goal it was no longer a matter of opening others to reason, but of opening ourselves to the reason of others.” To do this, the West had to repudiate the conceit that it possessed superior thought or values; its was just another culture like the rest of the world’s.

Where Herder spoke for his German culture, the antihumanist multiculturalists spoke on behalf of the colonized Other. From the European side, this use of the Volksgeist came from a desire to atone for past sins by knocking European values off their self-erected pedestal. From the aide of the colonized, it was an expression of cultural pride. So we arrive at the ironies that so bedevil the lives of the decolonized in the current epoch. Quoting Hélé Béji, Finkielkraut points out that the very idea of cultural identity which was used as “a means of resistance under colonial rule . . . became an instrument of repression after the Europeans left.” Just as the values that constituted indigenous cultural identity were not to be questioned by individualist universalism of Europe, once Europeans were gone they were not be challenged by anyone. In many cases, “the formerly colonized becametheir own captives, stuck in a collective identity that had freed them from European values . . . . there was no place for the individual in the logic of identity politics.” Hence, the frequency of one-party rule in former colonies: the Volksgeist triumphant.

The book concludes with a stinging attack on the shallow sentimentality of European youth culture: “the big concerts organized to relieve conditions in Ethiopia ended up paying for the deportation of the very populations they raised money to feed.” He has special contempt for Pope John Paul, whom he considers all style and no substance, dazzling everyone with a son et lumière show. Articulate speech and argument, the foundation of civilization, are being replaced in Europe by a “rock culture, rock charity, and rock religion.” It’s a dark view — too reminiscent of Allan Bloom’s shrill denunciation of popular music — but one that cannot be dismissed.

There is nothing politically one-sided about The Defeat of the Mind, which is as scathing toward the xenophobic French political right as it is toward the anti-humanist clichés of postmodernism. In this fine translation by Judith Friedlander, Alain Finkielkraut demonstrates himself to be a bracingly different voice on the French intellectual scene.

Copyright © 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.