Commentary Magazine

The Defeat of the Mind by Alain Finkielkraut

The Global Malady

The Defeat of the Mind
by Alain Finkielkraut
Translated by Judith Friedlander Columbia University Press. 176 pp. $22.95

The French essay—the gift of a culture that values wit and paradox as much as argument and proof—is a genre adept at addressing any imaginable subject in succinct, elegant language. Brought to prominence in this century by such urbane intellectuals as Paul Valéry, Julien Benda, and Jean Paulhan, essay writing was partially eclipsed in the 1960’s and 70’s by the rise of poststructuralist authors whose works were typically lengthy, specialized, and often completely incomprehensible. But then in the 1980’s a younger generation challenged poststructuralism, both on intellectual grounds by reasserting a commitment to humanism, and on stylistic grounds by returning to a reader-friendly way of writing. Alain Finkielkraut is one of the most brilliant younger representatives of this turn, and The Defeat of the Mind offers a fine contemporary example of the virtues and charms of the French essay.

Born in the late 1940’s to a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants and raised in Paris, Finkielkraut was educated at the best schools, participated in the 1968 student rebellion, and until the early 1970’s was active in various leftist causes. Soon, however, he came to doubt radical leftism, sought inspiration elsewhere, and found it in the work of Hannah Arendt and the anti-totalitarian French-Jewish thinker, Emmanuel Levinas. Like many intellectuals of his generation, Finkielkraut became a partisan of individualism, tolerance, and reason. But while others developed their convictions within a theoretical frame of reference, be it German-idealism, French classical liberalism, or Anglo-American rationalism, Finkielkraut drew from a more particular and personal well—the experience of being both a French citizen and a Jew.

The clash between individualism and cultural identity was the principal theme of Finkielkraut’s first book, The Imaginary Jew (1980) 1. There, he recounted his own evolving relationship to Jewishness and its predicaments, To be a Jew in postwar France, he observed in that work, was disarmingly easy. During World War II, the Vichy government had actively participated in Nazi crimes against the Jews. But after the war, overt anti-Semitism subsided in France, and being a Jew came to feel less like a stigma and more like a privilege, a privilege peculiarly derived from a sense of kinship with those who perished in the Holocaust. “The war’s proximity,” Finkielkraut wrote about this period of his adolescence,

at once magnified and preserved me; it invited me to identify with the victims while giving me the all but certain assurance that I would never be one. I had all the profit, but none of the risk.

Blaming himself for being an “imaginary Jew,” because his Judaism was palpably less authentic than that of his Yiddish-speaking ancestors and because it had little to rely upon beyond the rituals practiced at home within his family, Finkielkraut embarked on a quest for a broader Jewish memory. Along the way, he acquired a deeper loyalty to Judaism.

The Imaginary Jew is both a satisfying and a disquieting book. Finkielkraut’s sense of being somehow less worthy than the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust is certainly understandable; but while one sympathizes with his passion to remember and to commemorate the sufferings of his forebears, it is impossible to accept his implied conclusion that those Jews who have never had a serious brush with anti-Semitism are less than fully Jewish—or that suffering is a prerequisite for a proper Jewish identity.



The Defeat of the Mind, Finkielkraut’s second book, takes up and expands upon another theme adumbrated in The Imaginary Jew: the precarious relationship between minority groups and the larger societies they inhabit. A democratic society that owns up to its sorry treatment of an ethnic or racial minority in its midst deserves admiration, Finkielkraut wrote in his earlier book; but when it attempts to redeem itself by bestowing favors upon that group in the present, it can easily undermine the morale of its beneficiaries, who receive compensation for an injustice they did not personally endure. This predicament is certainly a familiar one in the United States, where membership in a formerly persecuted group (of the favored sort) has indeed become an advantage that brings its share of moral perils. The name we now give to this practice is multiculturalism, and its intellectual origins and contemporary manifestations are Finkelkraut’s subject in The Defeat of the Mind.

In his first chapter, “The Idea of the Spirit Takes Root,” Finkielkraut traces the history of the belief that individual identity is linked to ethnicity and race. French philosophers in the 18th century had affirmed the universality of human nature and the autonomy of the individual. Some German thinkers, however—Herder in particular—argued that variations in natural habitat create a multiplicity of cultures, and that each culture breeds a different kind of human being.

Out of these rival French and German conceptions emerged two different definitions of the nation. Whereas the theorists of the French Revolution subscribed to the idea that nations are voluntary associations of free men, in the German lands—militarily humiliated and politically dismembered by Napoleon—the universalist French notion never gained sway. By the late 19th century, the heirs of Herder came to couch their “culturalist” definitions of the nation in a vaguely scientific language, using the terminology of environment, body, and race. The foundations were thus laid for collectivist and racialist theories that saw culture as an expression of national spirit, as something that emerges from blood and soil independently of reason or personal will.

The struggle between the two visions came to a violent and seemingly conclusive head in our time in the conflict between liberal democracies and the National Socialist Third Reich. But the defeat of Nazism did not lead to the disappearance of the culturalist approach. As Finkielkraut argues in his second chapter, “Generous Betrayal,” when Europe’s colonial empires dissolved after World War II, third-world liberation movements embraced the racialist and culturalist tradition, often fusing it with Marxian themes. In the ensuing decades, this new theoretical blend was intellectually buttressed by French structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers and given sustenance by international organizations like UNESCO. Gradually it came to extend its influence over a sprawling constellation of contested political issues, including education, immigration, and the status of minorities.

Thus was multiculturalism born—a noisy revival of some of the most obscurantist ideas of the 19th century. As Finkielkraut masterfully shows, nothing is ever new under the sun: Franz Fanon, perhaps the most prominent theoretician of third-world liberation, was hardly saying something novel when he wrote that “Truth . . . is everything that protects the natives and ruins the foreigners.” He was only repeating the words of the more eloquent 19th-century protofascist, Maurice Barrès: “Truth is what satisfies the needs of our soul.”



In his concluding chapter Finkielkraut explores some aspects of multiculturalism today. He focuses in particular on education, where, he argues, the multicultural doctrine undermines individuality, self-reliance, love of freedom, and faith in justice. As the last and most dangerous secular religion, the politics of cultural identity effectively restricts

the choices an individual can make, using threats of high treason to silence expression of doubt, irony, and reason. . . . The life of the mind has quietly moved out of the way, making room for the terrible and pathetic encounter of the fanatic and the zombie.

These are strong words, echoing those uttered in this country by Allan Bloom and Christopher Lasch, among others. With The Defeat of the Mind Finkielkraut joins their ranks, offering a vibrant, persuasive plea for individualism and reason which should fortify critics of the multiculturalist orthodoxy on today’s campuses—and enlighten anyone who thinks that multiculturalism is a strictly American affair.

Finkielkraut’s penetrating analysis of this global malady should also make one wonder about the future. The Defeat of the Mind first appeared in France in 1987; strikingly, neither the subsequent bankruptcy of third-world nationalism nor the collapse of Communism seems to have affected multiculturalism’s vitality. In the post-Communist era the politics of group identity still provides the disaffected of the earth with the most congenial channel in which to express their discontent, promising alluring rights and freedoms even as it delivers servitude and chains. The appearance of Finkielkraut’s book in English thus serves forcefully to remind us that despite everything democratic capitalism has accomplished, it has not yet durably assuaged the human heart.


1 English translation by Kevin O'Neill and David Sukoff, University of Nebraska Press (1994).

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