La Ville Lumiere, or the City of Light, is not a reference to Paris’s adequate street illumination infrastructure, but stems from its birthing of the Age of Enlightenment, when Europe began to transition from superstition to a reason-based society. Paris has long been a magnet for intellectuals, renowned for its progressive and radical tradition. The following is a chronological list of eminent thinkers who were drawn in by the city’s openness to ideas.
Thomas Hobbes, years spent in Paris: 1640 – 1651
Best known for his pedagogical work Leviathan, a rational defense of absolute monarchy, Hobbes fled England in 1640 and remained in Paris for 11 years, where he corresponded with many scientists and philosophers, including Rene Descartes. He had left England due to the English Civil War, out of fear of the new parliament’s opposition to his writing. In Paris, he wrote Leviathan after coming into contact with fleeing monarchists from the war. His work espoused the notion of the social contract which was an explanation for the origin of civil society, an idea that the writers of the late Enlightenment would build on.
Montesquieu, 1721 – 1755
A philosopher who wrote the seminal work The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu moved to Paris as an adult in 1721. Originally from a wealthy family in Bordeaux, he left for Paris once he inherited his family’s wealth and power, giving him financial security and freedom to follow his intellectual pursuits. The aforementioned essay codified the idea of a separation of the executive, legislative and judicial organs of government, influencing the preparation of the United States constitution, and providing the basis for many constitutions around the world. He has a road named after him in the 1st arrondissement.
Denis Diderot, 1728 – 1784
A philosopher best known for his work on the Encyclopédie, Diderot was originally from a commune in Champagne, 250km south-west of Paris. He came to Paris in his early 20s to study theology and law and escape the clerical life his father had set out for him. For a decade he worked as a freelance writer, tutor and translator. He is remembered as one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment period, so much so that one of Paris’s largest universities bears his name.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1742 – 1758
A Genevan-born philosopher, Rousseau arrived in Paris aged 30 and befriended fellow intellectual Diderot, both of them seeking to make it big in the world of literature. Whilst walking to Vincennes to visit his friend he claimed to have had a vision that informed the themes of his future influential works: that man in a state of nature was free and happy and that society had corrupted him, from which came the mantra, ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.’ Notable works include The Social Contract, Emile and Discourse on the Original of Equality.
Marquis de Condorcet, 1758 – 1794
A hugely significant figure in the history of feminism, Marquis de Condorcet wrote a piece in 1790 titled ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’, which stands as one of the most important pieces on gender equality. Coming to Paris as a young man for his studies, he would spend the majority of his life there. Opposed by many progressives of his day, he also campaigned for the emancipation of slaves in French overseas colonies. Two streets in the 9th arrondissement bear his name.
Karl Marx, 1843 – 1845
Arguably the most significant political philosopher ever, Karl Marx spent 18 months in Paris with his wife and daughter who was born shortly after arriving. Whilst his stay was short, it was in Paris that he cemented his life-long friendship with his colleague, Freidrich Engels, and refined his political theories by studying British economic thought. Undoubtedly Marx would have remained had the Prussian government not put pressure on the French to exile him for his anti-royalist writings, which they did in early 1845.
Gertrude Stein, 1903 – 1946
Moving to Paris aged 29, the novelist and poet Stein would make it her home for the remainder of her life. In the tradition of the salons of the Enlightenment period, she hosted congregations of important thinkers of the day at her Rue de Fleurus residence to discuss ideas and encourage debate. Attendees to her rigorously regular Saturday evening social (distracting impromptu visits irritated her intensely) included Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, among others. She was also an ambulance driver for the French forces during World War I.
James Joyce, 1920 – 1940
In his twenty years in Paris, from 1920 – 1940, the writer Joyce completed Ulysses and wrote the entirety of Finnegan’s Wake. Here he met various other writers during their short stays, including TS Eliot and Hemingway, through Gertrude Stein’s salon meetings. He was known for his lavish lifestyle and bourgeois habits whilst there, which actually stemmed from shame regarding his destitute past in Ireland and a desire to fit in to higher society. He fled in 1940 during the Nazi Occupation, seeking refuge in Geneva.
Ernest Hemingway, 1921 – 1924
One of the most famous intellectuals to have moved to Paris, Hemingway’s presence is felt in the form of commemorative plaques outside his two Paris residences (Rue Descartes and Rue Cardinal Lemoines) and an obsession amongst visitors of frequenting the same bars and cafes he did. One of his most famous works is the memoir of his time in Paris as a struggling writer, A Moveable Feast. He was a regular at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salon. Shortly after the birth of his child in late 1923 he returned to the United States.
Lev Shestov, 1921 – 1938
Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, and born into a wealthy merchant family, Shestov fled Moscow for Kiev after the 1917 revolution and left the Soviet Union altogether a year later. His philosophy was antithetical to the mechanical and naturalistic nature of the new ideology imposed on Russian territories by the revolutionary Bolsheviks: Shestov had refused their order to include defenses of Marxism in his introductions, making life difficult for him in the Soviet Union. He moved around for a few years, journeying through Crimea and Switzerland before settling in Paris with his family in 1921, making it his home until his death in 1938. He wrote extensively on philosophy and Russian literature.
Nikolai Berdyaev, 1923 – 1948
Another intellectual who left Russia shortly after the October Revolution, Berdyaev also hailed from Kiev. He was expelled by the Bolsheviks in 1922 for his opposition to the new regime’s authoritarian nature, and came to Paris with his wife after a brief spell in Berlin. He had previously been a Marxist but eventually rejected it for its erosion of human freedoms. Freedom was the common theme throughout his intellectual endeavors, and Paris’s tolerant intellectual atmosphere (for the time) encouraged him to stay.
Michel Foucault, 1946 – 1952 & 1961 – 1984
The most cited scholar in the humanities, according to The Times, Foucault is a household name in 20th century philosophy. He first arrived in Paris at age 20 to study at the Ecole Superieure Nationale, before teaching there and then holding cultural attaché roles in Uppsala, Warsaw and Hamburg. He also spent periods teaching in Clermont-Ferrand and Tunisia, but Paris was always his permanent residence. Political activist and essayist, he wrote on sexuality, incarceration, modern medicine, epistemology and literature.
James Baldwin, 1948 – 1987
Born in Harlem, Baldwin came to Paris at 24 to escape the rampant racism of the United States he was experiencing as a black intellectual. He immediately immersed himself in the Left-Bank radicalism of the 1950s. From across the channel he wrote intimately about issues such as sexuality, family relationships, and the uneasy relationship between Christianity and Black Islam in the Civil Rights movement. His 1958 novel, Giovanni’s Room, was one of the first major novels to address the topic of homosexuality, shocking many with its explicit content. France awarded him the prestigious Commander of the Legion of Honor, and he stayed in the capital until his death in 1987.
Jacques Derrida, 1949 – 2004
Born in Algeria, Derrida (right) came to Paris as a young man to study philosophy at the Ecole Superieure Nationale. He is perhaps most well-known for formulating the form of literary and philosophy analysis called deconstruction. He helped found the College Internationale de Philosophie and spent time in the United States holding teaching positions at Yale, John Hopkins and the University of California, but Paris was always his home. He is also the only intellectual on this list to have come from a former French colony.
Jean Baudrillard, 1960 – 2007
Moving to Paris to study at Sorbonne (The University of Paris), the philosopher Baudrillard would then spend the majority of his life there, interspersing it with periods in Japan and the United States. Spent a large part of his life teaching or directing in Paris learning institutes, including several lycees (French high school), the University de Paris Nanterre and the Universite de Paris-IX Dauphine. He wrote prominently on social theory, philosophy and art theory, getting more recognition in the global Anglophone intellectual world than in France.
Julia Kristeva, 1960 – Present
The only living intellectual on this list, Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher who has resided in Paris since the 1960s, currently working as a professor at the Universite Paris Diderot. She is celebrated for her works in the fields of feminism (though she hesitates to use that term to describe her work herself), psychoanalysis and political and social analysis. Marrying a French novelist in 1967, she has become a naturalized French citizen and is head of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, named after the famous Parisian intellectual.
Some social commentators today ask where the great French thinkers have gone, and speak of a decline in French intellectual culture. Undoubtedly, usurpation of French by English as the lingua franca in an increasingly Anglophone world has much to do with this, the term itselfbeing a hangover from the period of French dominance. For a city with such a rich intellectual history to be seen like this is a great shame, and questions will need to be asked about how policymakers can ensure the flourishing of intellectual life in Paris and France more widely. It would be of great benefit to the world for future generations to see this list and judge it antiquated and in need of an update.
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