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When he died in toulouse July 12, 1997, Francois Furet was the most celebrated historian of the day. He had just been named in March a member of the Academie Francaise, possibly the last significant honor that could have been bestowed on the famous "revisionist" interpreter of the French Revolution. Beginning with the seminal Penser la revolution francaise (Interpreting the French Revolution), Furet transformed the study of the Revolution, extricating it from the "revolutionary catechism," and wrenched the study of political culture away from those who endeavored to embed it in economic or social history.(1) In crafting his own persona, he called himself a nineteenth century artisan, the proof being to him that he still penned every word by long hand.(2) This artisan writer moved for the last twelve years of his life between autumn sessions at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and spring terms as Director of the Institut Raymond Aron in Paris.
He was a former communist metamorphosed into a liberal, and a leader in the exodus of French intellectuals out of Marxism and eventually toward reconciliation with some kind of political liberalism. Quite apart from this, however, historians of political thought everywhere have special reasons to honor the memory of Francois Furet. His work gave ideas a new dignity and power by demonstrating the circumstances under which ideas were autonomous agents, operating more or less independently of any of the many apotheosized notions of "society" or of "social context" that had captured mainstream historiography and the social sciences.
His capacity to ruffle feathers was evident from the beginning. The "one quality ... rarely found among modern historians in any circumstances," he acerbically noted, was "a philosophical cast of mind."(3) In contrast to "narrative" history, Furet's preferred alternative was "conceptual" history for which he found two models, the celebrated liberal, Alexis de Tocqueville, and a little-regarded, ardently Catholic antiliberal, …