a rope fastened between
critical reflections translations language games

The Cartesian Counterpublic:
a review of François Héran’s book
Lettre aux professeurs sur la liberté d’expression

June 21, 2021


This is a book review of sociologist François Héran’s 2021 Lettre aux professeurs sur la liberté d’expression. Analyzing the current French conjuncture, marked indelibly by gruesome violence and frenzied polemics surrounding the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, Héran exhorts teachers—and citizens more generally—to work to preserve democracy. Héran proposes the judicious exercise of freedom of expression in public discourse: public critique, he stresses, must be founded in reason, valid information and respect for all beliefs. Héran’s work yields the following insight: his addressees constitute what one might term a Cartesian counterpublic, with all the fraught implications the term carries.

The book’s title: Lettre aux professeurs sur la liberté d’expression

Publication details: Paris, La Découverte, 2021

Possible English translation of the title: On Freedom Of Expression. A Letter From France, To Citizens Everywhere

The author: François Héran, sociologist, demographer, and Migrations et sociétés Chair at Collège de France

Published translation in English: Much merited, eagerly awaited, attempts underway …

Do say: What’s a counterpublic? (Response: read on!)

Don’t say: Cartesianism is plane, it lacks oomph.

The review

The time is September-October 2020, and the trial of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killers and the assassination of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. The space is that of France, in the throes of violence and polemics surrounding the caricatures of the Prophet “Mahomet.” The deeper questions involved are age-old, concerning the nature of social relations and how to ensure stable social reproduction, questions that have been contemplated the world over by generations of anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists and social theorists. Within the current French conjuncture, the book’s central concern is: given a society, given the coexistence in that society of people with diverse beliefs, given the historically rooted realities of inequality and systemic discrimination, how may social relations be constituted towards ensuring the perdurance of democracy?

Social relations today are shaped by social and mainstream media, the two feeding each other with messages that circulate among myriad publics. The exercise of freedom of expression (liberté d’expression) within these messages is therefore critical to social relations. Héran’s proposition is that, to preserve democracy in such a society, freedom of expression must be judiciously exercised in public discourse: public critique must be founded in reason, valid information and respect for all beliefs.

The book opens with Héran’s letter to history and geography teachers, published in the wake of Paty’s assassination. While his explicit addressees are schoolteachers in France, his intended addressees are a far vaster group including, essentially, citizens everywhere. For the features of the French conjuncture characterize societies across the globe today. The letter presents the main threads of Héran’s argument. His diagnosis is that the jihadists have attained their goal with the current sacralizing of desacralization in France: the caricatures of Islam’s prophet are treated as absolutes; debate about them is all but prohibited. Freedom of expression has thus been abandoned—and this, paradoxically, precisely in its ostensible pursuit. Héran ends the letter with an exhortation to teachers to inculcate in their students the capacity to read widely and to reason from texts that are well-founded, with a view to preserving democracy and freedom of expression.

The body of the book then details Héran’s analyses and arguments.

The first two chapters are ethnographic, setting the scene with a thick description of key events, institutions, actors and their views, circulating in verbal and graphical form. The context is one of collective horror and grief at Paty’s brutal murder, due to his use of the caricatures in his classroom. Héran analyzes these caricatures, sketching out the shifts in their meanings: at the moment of their first publication, caricatures typically respond to specific events. Over time, and with republication, these historical alibis tend to be lost. All that remains is the image and its caption, which take on new meanings as a function of their new contexts. Thus a caricature that originally lampooned a specific event, when republished within a new context, can end up targeting a community of believers and their beliefs. Caricaturists respond to critiques by asserting their right to freedom of expression. Discursive violence turns physical, and things rapidly spin out of control.

Héran’s analytical armature is simple, consisting in the triad of words, things and effects (le mot, la chose, l’effet; pp. 108-109). Over the course of the following three chapters, he deploys ethnographic, statistical, historical and comparative legal methods to study the relations and interstices between words, things and effects. His aim is to unveil the incongruences between prevailing views and social realities.

Consider for instance his analysis of the notion of respect for “all beliefs” (toutes les croyances). These words are enshrined in the present French constitution, begging the question: who exactly must respect all beliefs—the French state, its agents, individual citizens? For different interpretations would entail different effects in the world. Among other things, Héran considers the following three: state grants, a private institution, and educational literature drawing on caricatures offensive to Muslims. The incongruence of words, things and effects that Héran’s research reveals in this regard raises the question: when state grants are awarded to a private institution producing such literature for use in schools, is the French state going against the constitution by being involved, however indirectly, in the disrespect of a particular religious belief?

Héran similarly focuses on systemic discrimination and Islamophobia: rooted in France’s fraught colonial past, regularly denied in public discourse, these two haunt social reality, as revealed by statistical, intersectional analyses. Symptomatic of this haunting was the invective hurled by the French education minister in the wake of Samuel Paty’s assassination. To the bemusement of many, Jean-Michel Blanquer’s reaction on the heels of the brutal event was to unleash vituperation against several strands of academic research—particularly postcolonial and intersectional studies. He claimed that these modes of analysis were imported from the United States, and that they furnished jihadists with an intellectual vocabulary. The analyses vilified focus essentially on the Other, whether considered along gender, race, historico-political or class lines. Examining the events, the polemic and these strands of research, Héran diagnoses a generalized lack of respect for the Other, particularly the Muslim Other, in France today: Muslim believers must respect all beliefs though the same is not demanded of non-believers. The latter’s disrespect of Muslim beliefs is regularly understood as the exercise of freedom of expression.

Invoking Paul Ricoeur on the inevitability of pluralism in societies today, Héran proposes that this asymmetry be replaced by an ethic of mutual respect: he advocates the exercise of freedom of expression within reasoned, informed public debate that is rooted in respect for all beliefs. This, he argues, would nurture social relations and help preserve democracy.

A Cartesian Counterpublic

At first glance, Héran’s proposition seems to smack of utopian longing for a rational public sphere. A closer, contextualized reading reveals the layers of complexity.

On the one hand, the key characteristic of Héran’s addressees—the public that pays attention to his words to any degree—is that they favor well-founded reason and respect for others’ beliefs. Those who do not favor these modes of thinking would fall outside Héran’s public. One might therefore categorize Héran’s addressees as being, after a fashion, Cartesian: they think rationally and critically (valuing respect for all beliefs), therefore they are his public.

On the other hand, Héran’s call for well-founded, respectful reasoning in public discourse indicates the relative paucity of such rationality therein today. This is noteworthy given that, as recently as 2002, critical theorist Michael Warner could write that dominant public discourse was ideologized as a form of “rational-critical discussion”1. In other words, as recently as 2002, rational critique was highly valorized in public discourse, to the point that it was generally claimed to be its characteristic feature (whether rightly or not).

Héran’s proposition shows us that that moment is past: ration-critical dialogue is no longer the highly valorized form it once was. Dominant public discourse no longer cares to claim it for its own—not in France, not in the US, not in any number of countries the world over. Far from it.

Héran’s proposition shows us that calls for ration-critical dialogue today address not a public, but rather a counterpublic, in Warner’s sense of the term2.

I invoke here Warner’s notion of counterpublics that stand in opposition to dominant publics: counterpublics are a specific type of public. Warner delineates their specificity thus:

“Counterpublics … like dominant publics … are ideological in that they provide a sense of active belonging that masks or compensates for the real powerlessness of human agents in capitalist society…. A counterpublic maintains at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status. The cultural horizon against which it marks itself off is not just a general or wider public, but a dominant one. And the conflict extends not just to ideas or policy questions, but to the speech genres and modes of address that constitute the public and to the hierarchy among media. The discourse that constitutes it is not merely a different or alternative idiom, but one that in other contexts would be regarded with hostility or with a sense of indecorousness.”

The counterpublic that Héran addresses, favoring rational-critical dialogue as it does, is restricted to those who value such thinking, and who believe that mutual respect between self and other is possible. Such a counterpublic today stands in opposition to other, more dominant publics that view such thinking with hostility—populist publics for instance.

In sum, yes, Héran’s proposition does smack of a utopian longing for rational-critical dialogue that would pervade public discourse. Crucially though, this longing today characterizes not the dominant public as was apparently the case until fairly recently. Instead, this longing today characterizes a counterpublic. One might term it a Cartesian counterpublic. To recapitulate its key features: the Cartesian counterpublic values critical thinking rooted in well-founded texts and information, and in mutual respect between self and other—unlike dominant publics today. This is the counterpublic that Héran’s book addresses, whose perdurance he seeks via his pedagogical prescription to French teachers, that they teach their students critical thinking.


Héran’s text is powerful because it operates on several levels.

At a surface level, it reads as a manifesto: its fluid prose and crystal-clear argumentation make it accessible to the concerned citizen who, moved by it, may put into practice Héran’s proposition.

On a deeper level, the text is performative, performing its proposition of reasoned, informed and respectful public critique in the finest tradition of scholarly rigor, engaging in debates within sociology, anthropology, history, and comparative legal studies. Focused on French republicanism, laïcité, and social inequity and discrimination rooted in France’s colonial past, Héran’s book affords a critical, comparative light on democracy, secularism and populism in the present moment.

Finally, the book reveals a key shift in public discourse: from an erstwhile valorizing of rational-critical dialogue to the present, wherein well-founded reason rooted in the critique of disrespect for others’ beliefs can only appeal to a counterpublic. This is the Cartesian counterpublic that Héran addresses. It sets itself up in opposition to the dominant publics of the day, the latter including populists and those who pander to them for political ends.

As the present conjuncture unfolds, in France and elsewhere, Héran’s work is not merely timely; it is urgent.

  1. Warner, Michael, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture, 14, no. 1 (2002): 82. ↩︎

  2. Warner, Michael, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture, 14, no. 1 (2002): 81, 86. ↩︎