The University of Chicago News Office
March 27, 1997 Press Contact: William Harms
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Chicago Professor Francois Furet receives France’s Top Scholarly Honor

Francois Furet, a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading authority on the French Revolution, has been elected to the Academie Francaise, France’s highest intellectual body.

“There is no American equivalent to the Academie Francaise,” said Nathan Tarcov, Professor in Political Science and Social Thought. “There are only 40 members of the academy, and the only way new members are inducted is if one of the current members dies.”

The Academie Francaise holds an exalted place in French culture and is responsible, among other things, for determining through the dictionary it produces which words should enter the French language. It also manages 300 foundations that foster the diffusion of French culture, and it gives more than 90 literary prizes each year.

Members of the Academie Francaise are known as the “Immortals.” The academy was founded in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu. Its membership of distinguished academics and writers has included Pierre Corneille, Victor Hugo, Jean Racine and Voltaire. Furet succeeds to the seat held by Jean de la Fontaine, Georges Buffon and, most recently, former prime minister Michel Debre.

Furet, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in Social Thought at the University, helped redefine the interpretation of the French Revolution through his many books, including Interpreting the French Revolution (1970), Marx and the French Revolution (1986), The Revolution 1770-1880 (1988) and A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1988), which he co-edited.

He is also the author of Le Passe d’une illusion (1995), a volume about the rise and fall of European communism, which is being translated into 16 languages.

In writing about Furet’s election, the Paris newspaper Le Figaro called him “a revolutionary of the Revolution.” According to the newspaper, “One could even say that there is a Furetian school (of the Revolution),” with a “galaxy” of professors and writers, influenced by Furet, living in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The newspaper said Furet was able to help the French realize that there were actually two revolutions in the events that began with the uprising against the Old Regime in 1789. The first revolution established a doctrine of human rights. The second resulted in a 1792 coup d’etat that led to the execution of Louis XVI and to the Reign of Terror.

Furet contends that the French should not immediately connect the ideas of revolution with democracy, but rather should see revolution as an idea linked to the overthrow of the aristocracy. In making the distinction, he was able to help the French move into a new way of conceptualizing their past. He told them that “the Revolution is over,” meaning the country needed a new focus on its political theory.

“He is responsible, more than anybody else, for the revival of liberal thinking in France,” said Tarcov, who taught a course with Furet on the French and American revolutions.

“He champions the European concept of liberalism, one that honors representative democracy, individual rights and a mixed economy,” Tarcov said. Previously, French intellectuals focused on the tensions between communism and right-wing politics, he said.

Furet, himself a former communist, explored those tensions in Le Passe d’une illusion, which caused something of a sensation in France, where it sold more than 100,000 copies. The book examined Western intellectuals’ fascination with communism and concluded that the thinkers had been deceived.

At the University of Chicago, Furet revitalized the Committee on Social Thought. He served as Chairman of the committee and demonstrated how various fields can be related in this area of study.

“His own work and teaching spans political theory, history and literature. He exemplifies the committee’s aspiration toward the unity of the human sciences,” Tarcov said.

Furet, who has an appointment at the Raymond Aron Center for Political Research in Paris, spends autumn quarter at the University as well as several weeks in the spring. He was elected to the Academie Francaise earlier this month in the first round of voting by its members. He received 18 of the 31 votes cast, with smaller numbers of votes going to other candidates.

He joined the University faculty in 1985.

 

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