Don’t worry, this is not going to be a xenophobic rant. I had supper with a German friend at the weekend, who has lived in France for many years, and has just spent a few weeks in London improving her English.
We got onto the difference between the French and the English, and it was interesting having her fairly objective viewpoint as someone who has lived in both countries as an outsider.
She said that the French, in the way they think and argue, are more abstract. They start with first principles and work outwards to the nitty-gritty of reality. The English are more concrete, more empirical. They start with things, stuff, examples, case-studies, and only then try to draw some more general conclusions from the specific instances.
She also put the same point in another way: that the French work by deduction, and the English by induction.
It struck me that this, if it’s true, is exemplified by our measuring systems, metric and imperial. A metre length is just an idea. It’s not based on anything ordinary or everyday or natural. Yes, there is a bar of platinum-iridium in a vault in Paris that used to be the standard measure of a metre, for reference (although this system has been surpassed now). But the bar, the metre, was created by the French mind – a mind imposing order on the world.
The imperial system – take the foot as an example – is based on (wait for it…) the foot! The whole system of measurement is based on the length of a man’s foot (a man’s and not a woman’s…). You see the world, and measure it, and understand it, in terms of something concrete; you see and understand one aspect of reality in the perspective of another aspect of reality. In the imperial system, man is – literally – the measure of all things; not a metal bar in Paris.
It sounds like I am defending the English way. Not really. There are advantages to each way; and the abstraction certainly appeals to me. And anyway, the French won! The metre rules the world. I’m just noticing the philosophical differences in world-view that are embodied in something as benign as a unit of measure; and how that connects with a German’s perception of English-French differences.
[Update: I received some good criticism in the comments, which I wanted to copy here, about my failure to mention the origin of the metre. E.g. this from Roger: ‘Sorry, Fr Stephen, as a physicist I can’t let you get away with that one – the metre was originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole. If it’s “just an idea” it’s a very practical one!’ To which I replied: ‘Thanks Roger. OK – the metre, like the foot, starts in the concrete world. I’d still say the way it was arrived at reflects a different mentality, a more abstract kind of reasoning (taking a distance that can only be established by careful scientific investigation and then dividing it by ten million to establish a length that is more connected with everyday human life) – that reflects something about the difference between a more deductive mindset and a more empirical one.’ The metre, despite the geographical origin, is definitely ‘a product of the mind’; the foot is ‘a product of experience’ – I think.]