Eric Brandom on Georges Sorel, education and revolution

In the latest hors d’oeuvre post about our NEW March issue, we caught up with Eric Brandom to talk about his article on Georges Sorel.

Eric Brandom is a Visiting Assistant Professor and James Carey Research Fellow in the History Department at Kansas State University. He is co-author with Tommaso Giordani of Georges Sorel’s “Study on Vico” (Brill, 2020). In addition to articles on Georges Sorel, he has published on French liberalism, and on Aimé Césaire.  

Hi Eric, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on Georges Sorel. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

Hi, thank you, glad to have the chance to chat about this. 

The first thing that’s likely to be surprising for readers is that Georges Sorel – who I think still today is associated with violence, with the general strike, maybe with Marxism – had anything at all to say about education. 

What surprised me as I looked systematically into what Sorel had to say about education, and the debates around educational reform in the Third Republic more broadly, was the continued relevance of these arguments for contemporary discussion about education in the United States (and perhaps Britain, although based as I am in the US, I won’t pretend to speak to that), especially about liberal arts, technology, and work.

Of course Sorel’s concerns are very distant in some respect from ours, but I was surprised by the degree to which Sorel was thinking about how the kinds of things we might say we want to achieve with liberal arts education might come out of a reconceived – politicized – technical education. And this was in 1900! 

The reason this particular past is able to speak to our present is, I think, that in fact there was a much more wide-ranging debate going on in France at this time over different parts of the educational system than we sometimes realize. There’s a culture-war aspect of it, to be sure, but it’s a more complicated and ambiguous set of disagreements than that, cutting across those lines, and is hardly over after the most famous reforms of the earlier years of the Republic.

Recovering the richness of these fin-de-siècle debates in political and social thought is one of my overarching scholarly goals. 

A drawing of three identical buildings, labelled prison, caserne (barracks), and lycée (school). Each flies a flag: liberté (liberty) on the prison, egalité (equality) on the barracks, and fraternité (fraternity) on the school). Below each building small figures perform similar activities whether soldiers, prisoners or schoolchildren. The image has a caption reading 'La République a construct des prisons, des casernes, des écoles... qui sent de véritables palais!' (The Republic has built prisons, barracks, and schools that are veritable palaces!'
Image from Assiette de Beurre in 1906: ‘The Republic has built prisons, barracks and schools… that are veritable palaces!’

What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

There’s so much!

Sorel is a very polemical writer, always arguing with someone – so he gets in these great zingers, but they often require too much explanation. On the more abstract or argumentative side, I would have loved to include more substantial treatment of Durkheim as an educational thinker.

Also I wish I could have included more about the Ecole polytechnique – the institution has a fascinating history, not only in terms of its politics and sociology in relation to the French state, but also in terms of what student life was like there. My way into that, I should say, was new research on Sorel and his time in school from Willy Gianinnazi and especially Tommaso Giordani, and then on Sorel’s professional life as a civil engineer from Alice Ingold. 

Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

This article has been in the works longer than I want to admit. I believe that I first thought about it seriously after talking with Michel Prat, who knows more about Sorel and the scholarship around him than anyone. I mentioned how often this theme came up in Sorel’s writing and he said something like, not much has been done there. Well, OK! 

Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

Not really. I also live in hope, so let me know. Deadlines, maybe? 

But absent those: I tell myself, never start with a blank page.  

What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?

Many kinds of feedback can be helpful, even blank incomprehension! 

But the best feedback requires that the reader engage in a conscious act of intellectual sympathy – which is hard! What is this whole text trying to do? What is good about it already that is maybe not the same thing the author thinks is good? What changes could be made that would have the best effort to return ratio? 

And for academic writing you want someone who knows a good deal, but maybe not too much about what you’re doing. Who is kind, but also not too kind in their feedback. I hope we all have one or two people in our writing lives who read in this way.  

What’s the word you can never type right?


What are you working on next?

Right now I’m working on an article about a 1903 speculative fiction novel written by Daniel Halévy, which is set in 1997-2001.

In the novel there’s a terrible plague that reorders society and also European unity achieved finally in the face of a Russian invasion. Also eugenics and antisemitism. It’s mainly about the Dreyfus Affair, and in a less round-about way than it sounds.

Éclair or saucisson?

Gif shows little girl with cartoon sunglasses shrugging with the caption 'Why not both?'

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo