Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why French philosophy wasn't as anti-German as British philosophy

After World War I, British philosophy, and not French philosophy, followed a trend of diminished engagement with its German counterpart. What accounts for this difference between the British and French philosophers?

First, note that by the early years of the 20th Century, France had already experienced extreme antipathy towards the Kaiserreich in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Following that war, academic philosophers in France arrived at a framework that warranted continued engagement with some German philosophy.

In developing a clearer sense of the relations between French and German philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I have found very helpful Martha Hanna's book, The Mobilization of Intellect (Harvard University Press, 1996). According to Hanna, French intellectuals developed a 'two-Germanies' hypothesis after the Franco-Prussian War. They distinguished between the good, high-culture Germany (which ended roughly with Kant) and the bad, militaristic Germany (which began with Hegel).(Hanna, Mobilization of the Intellect, p. 9) In the 1870s, French scholars began to devote more time to studying Kant. In fact, French neo-Kantianism began to grow shortly after France's loss to Prussia and reached its height in the 1890s.(Hanna, Mobilization of the Intellect, p. 35)

In France, neo-Kantianism was one strand in French philosophy's turn from scientism.(Ibid.) Another strand, which came to prominence in French right-wing, Roman Catholic circles during the early years of the 20th Century, was stridently anti-German and regarded German scholars as uncreative technicians who were embroiled in scientism. Hanna describes the activities of this French, conservative school of thought during the War, including the work of Jacques Maritain and Victor Giraud.(Hanna, Mobilization of the Intellect, pp. 184-9) In an essay that Giraud published in 1917, he characterizes 'scientisme' as 'that gross doctrine held by half-scientists or half-philosophers which has come to us from Germany and which consists in making positive science the only type of knowledge and the only rule of action.' (Giraud, 'French Civilisation', in The French Miracle and French Civilisation: Two Essays, trans. H. P. Thieme and W. A. McLaughlin [Ann Arbor, MI: The Ann Arbor Press, 1917], p. 71; first published in French in 1917)

So, in French academic circles during the early years of the 20th Century, any general bias against German philosophy was associated with a conservative, religious orientation, one which had already been disavowed by many secular philosophers. In contrast to the French right, these secular French philosophers (esp. the neo-Kantians) had endorsed a two-Germanies model in the decades before WWI, and this model encouraged the continuing engagement with some German philosophers, especially those who worked in a Kantian vein and who repudiated what the French called 'scientisme'. This might help to explain why Husserl, for instance, enjoyed a favorable reception in post-War Paris. (Husserl lectured in Paris on Feb. 23 and 25, 1929. His lectures in London in 1922 were not so well received.)

British Germanophiles could only dream of inhabiting such a congenial environment. Some of them (e.g., John Muirhead) propounded their own 'two-Germanies' doctrine during the War and its immediate aftermath. Their approach placed Hegel on the safe, good-German side of the boundary and may have been undermined by the fact that its French counterpart had positioned Hegel as a villain.(Hanna, Mobilization of the Intellect, p. 9, p. 23)

Such differences might explain why, as Stuart Wallace says, the post-War years saw 'nothing in Britain to compare with Julien Benda's scathing postwar critique, La Trahison des Clercs (1927)'. (Wallace, War and the Image of Germany: British Academics, 1914-1918 [Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988], p. v) The target of Benda's critique was the anti-German propaganda that French professors had produced during the War. Wallace adds that while similar reckonings with 'the national chauvinism of professors' appeared in Germany (Hans Wehburg's Wider den Anruf der 93! [1920]) and in the USA (H. L. Mencken's articles), no British authors produced a similar repudiation of their own nation's professorial propaganda.


Tommi Uschanov said...

Only now reading your series of posts on WWI going back to January. One paper that has remained below your otherwise impeccable radar is Allan Janik's 1984 "The Politics of Conciliation". It more or less blew my mind when I read it as an undergraduate 20 years ago, and looking at it now, it seems like quite the prolegomenon to your research on this subject.

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks, Tommi. I'll get that item ASAP.