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French Culture's Concern for Relationships: Relationism


  • Howard L. Nostrand

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      HOWARD L. NOSTRAND (Docteur de l'Université é Paris, Sorbonne) is Professor of Romance Languages and Literature at the Univ. of Washington, where he also served for two successive years as Direcror of NDEA Institutes. From 1944 to 1947 he was Cultural Attaché with the U.S. Embassy, Lima, Peru. He has been awarded the Peruvian Order of the Sun and the Légion d'Honneur. He is the author of Le l'héàtre antique, The University and Human Understanding, and Research on Language Teaching. He is a member of MLA and was President of AATF two years


ABSTRACT  Intermediate between American particularism, the emphasis on the concrete case is a primary, independent reality, and Russian universalism, the tendency toward a comprehensive and closed system of ideas, stands the intellectual approach of seeking meaning in the form of an open structure of relationships. Bearers of french culture, the less educated as well as the intellectuals, manifest the relational mode of thought in their grammar's insistence upon explicit context; in their strong tendency to group perceptions in a centralizing, radial pattern or a binary contrast; in their habit of compositional form, whether the occasion is a discourse, a gesture, or the choosing of dishes from a restaurantenu; and in the highly patterned human relations that constitute the institutions of French society. Relationism became a dominant characteristic toward 1700, in the course of the culture's evolution away from its Roman parent toward the pole of particularism. Self-defense of the relational mentality against encroaching particularism may be one cause of the twentieth-century preoccupation with “the absurd,” i.e. with the percepts that refuse to fall into satisfying relationships. Existentialism was a relationistic response to the absurd: what it sought in the most certain of man's percepts–the existence of the experiencing self at the moment–was the foundation on which to reconstruct a coherent world picture.

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