As the patriarch of French Romanticism, Victor Hugo is often associated with the primacy of the imagination, exhibiting a poetic creativity that seems to share little in common with the rigours of philosophical logic. However, in 'Victor Hugo, le philosophe' (1900), Charles Renouvier argued that Hugo was perhaps the French philosopher of the nineteenth century precisely because he brought the romantic and the rational to bear upon one another. Suspicious of how philosophy had become institutionalised in academic circles, Renouvier was the most prolific philosophical writer of his generation in France, whose work influenced both William James and Julien Benda. He praised Hugo as a thinker of contrast who had refused to fix his ideas within a single conceptualising framework. As a man of his times, Hugo identified and tapped into the major pulses of nineteenth-century thinking, including positivism and pessimism. But his inventive vision as a poet helped him look beyond such philosophical strictures, giving him both breadth of understanding and depth of insight as the poet-philosopher. This article highlights that both men indeed conceive of poetry and philosophy as necessarily in dialogue rather than mutually exclusive. Their focus is on an interdisciplinary practice rather than an institutional one, challenging the closed outlooks of both ‘l’art pour l’art’ and strictly practical reason to empower a much wider perspective. Crucially, I highlight how both thinkers emphasise contestation, not resolution. They keep in play the dynamic of poetic intuition and philosophical sense that they see as pivotal to man’s thinking about his world. In so doing, I foreground their relevance to current debates on the identity of the French thinker in a ‘post-theory’ world that is reclaiming philosophy as a creative rather than solely critical discourse.