The University of Chicago News Office
July 14, 1997 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

François Furet

François Furet, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading authorities on the French Revolution, died Saturday in a hospital in Toulouse, France, where he was treated for a head injury he suffered while playing tennis earlier in the week.

Furet, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in Social Thought at the University of Chicago, also had been Director d’Etude at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in France. In March, Furet, 70, was elected to the Académie Française, France’s premier intellectual society.

He joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1985 and spent each autumn quarter in Chicago as a member of the Committee on Social Thought. He was a resident of Paris and Chicago.

The accident occurred July 8 in St. Pierre Toirac, a village in southern France, said Robert Pippin, Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought. Furet had been playing doubles tennis when his feet became entangled in those of his partner’s and Furet fell over backwards, injuring his head, Pippin said. He was immediately taken to the hospital, Pippin said.

Furet, one of France’s leading scholars, helped redefine the interpretation of the French Revolution through his many books, including Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), 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 Passé d’une Illusion (1995), a volume about the rise and fall of European communism, which is being translated into 16 languages.

The Académie Française, which has a membershipship limited to 40, holds an exalted place in French culture and is responsible, among other things, for determining which words should enter the French language. It also gives more than 90 literary prizes each year and manages 300 foundations that foster the diffusion of French culture.

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

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

“He was responsible, more than anyone else, for the revival of liberal thinking in France,” said Nathan Tarcov, Professor of Political Science and in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Tarcov taught a course with Furet on the French and American revolutions.

“He championed 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 Passé 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. He received the Hannah Arendt Prize in Germany for the book.

“At Chicago, Furet was responsible for revitalizing the Committee on Social Thought,” Tarcov said. He served as Chairman of the committee and has been able to demonstrate how various fields can be related in this area of study.

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

Furet also had an appointment at the Raymond Aaron Center for Political Research in Paris.

Survivors include his wife, Deborah Kan, and their daughter, both of Paris; and a son from a previous marriage.

A memorial service will be held this fall at the University of Chicago.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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