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III. Détournements, décontextualisation et réappropriation

The Slow Reception of Marcel Gauchet

Mark Hewson
p. 171-179


L’œuvre de Marcel Gauchet reste peu connue dans le monde universitaire hors de France. Ce retard est un exemple de l’influence qu’exerce la French Theory sur la réception de nouvelles œuvres dans ce monde universitaire. En effet, la pensée de Gauchet, lorsqu’elle est discutée, est présentée comme un nouvel avatar du libéralisme politique, et donc comme un retour à l’orthodoxie politique, après la radicalité de la pensée des années 1960. Il se peut que cette présentation ait eu un effet décourageant sur les lecteurs marqués par « la pensée de 68 ». En fait, le travail de Gauchet est une analyse de la genèse et des conditions opérationnelles de la société libérale, plutôt qu’une défense de l’idéologie libérale. Sa thèse principale est que la démocratie libérale contemporaine ne peut être comprise que si elle est considérée dans une perspective historique à long terme, comme une alternative à la structuration religieuse qui a, au cours de l’histoire, façonné l’existence collective. L’opposition de la société religieuse et de la société moderne repose sur une réflexion sur la manière dont s’est constitué ce que Gauchet appelle « l’être-ensemble ». Seule une prise en compte des problèmes de traduction que pose ce terme en particulier, ainsi qu’un ensemble de termes connexes (le champ humain-social, l’espace social, etc.) renvoyant à la même problématique, permettra une meilleure analyse et réception de son œuvre. La traduction de ces termes est capitale pour débattre de la perspective historique de Gauchet ; en effet, ce sont eux qui portent la réflexion philosophique permettant de penser les conditions de l’existence collective et ainsi de reformuler la question de la modernité en termes essentiellement sociaux et politiques.

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1The reception of Marcel Gauchet in the English-speaking world has been very limited, despite his standing as one of the two or three leading philosophers in France. Still today, in English, there are only a small number of book reviews and a handful of critical articles. The majority of his work has not been translated, and remains largely unknown, including many shorter pieces, which are relatively accessible. This neglect contrasts with the rapid and enthusiastic reception given to the great figures of 1960s French thought, such as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and others. It seems that these thinkers benefitted from a period of renewed excitement about the possibilities of philosophy and even of academic research which is not so lively today. Even allowing for the shift in the conjuncture, however, one can note that Gauchet has not enjoyed the same level of translation and critical discussion as other recent French thinkers of comparable standing, such as Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, or Jacques Rancière, all of whose reputations have been enhanced and expanded by their reception in universities across the English-speaking world. There is, of course, a large element of contingency in the extent to which any given writer is taken up by the academic world, but nonetheless, I would suggest, one can relate the slow reception of Gauchet’s work to the institutional effects of 1960s French thought. The emergence of the latter as an influential avant-garde throughout the English-speaking world has been mapped by François Cusset (2003, trans. 2008). As Cusset shows, the reception of “French theory” in the English-speaking academic world not only produced a recognizeable style and terminology in academic writing, but also favoured a general critical and subversive stance in relation to established norms and powers, which allowed it to be adopted and adapted by many social movements. In a brief discussion, Cusset notes the neglect of Gauchet in the English-speaking world, and suggests that it has to do with the fact that his work does not adopt the same subversive stance or literary style that has come to be associated with the leading figures of French theory (2008: 275–276). The observation can be confirmed by an examination of the reception. Commentators have understandably sought to situate Gauchet’s work in relation to that of the preceding generation of French thinkers; the result, however, is that the discussion has been dominated by the question of the position he occupies within a cultural-political spectrum generated by the reception of the French thinkers of the 1960s. Gauchet’s large-scale historical project, defining present-day political and social forms in relation to the long-term turn away from religion, still awaits the critical assessment and debate it merits. In order for critical evaluation of this project to begin, the reception needs to free itself, at least provisionally, from pre-determined alternatives between subversion and orthodoxy. A just assessment of Gauchet’s history demands such a suspension since, along with much else, it offers an account of the political conditions under which these alternatives have come to orient the intellectual world.

  • 1 . This review only deals with articles situating Gauchet in the intellectual scene in global terms (...)

2While there has certainly not been widespread interest in Gauchet’s work in the English-speaking world, there is by now a sufficient body of introductions, reviews and critical essays to identify a definite tendency.1 The pattern was established with the book series, New French Thought, published by Princeton University Press, which began in the mid-1990s and released the English translation of Gauchet’s book The Disenchantment of the World. The series is devoted to translating and publicizing what the editors describe (in the title page of the series) as the “new liberal, humanistic bent of French intellectual life”. Mark Lilla’s introduction to an anthology launching the series framed this as a major historical shift in direction in French thought. In the post-war period, from existentialism onwards, Lilla argues, French thinkers were shaped by Marxism, and indeed often by a personal affiliation with the French communist party (as in the case of Sartre). As a result, Lilla points out, the philosophical world became increasingly out of step with French society, which, during the 1950s and 1960s, consolidated itself as a stable liberal democracy. Intellectual movements such as structuralism or deconstruction, which emerged in the 1960s, appear to mark a retreat from the activism of figures such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and have been seen at times to register this divergence. As Lilla notes, however, the ideological systems, linguistic structures and effects of power analysed by these schools of thought converge in undermining the notion of the free individual subject on which liberal democracy is founded. The “New French Thought”, Lilla argues, takes its starting point from the historical success of Western liberal democracies and the failure of communism in Eastern Europe; hence he can frame it as a rupture with post-war French thought as a whole, and beyond this even, with the whole intellectual tradition issuing from the French revolution, which, in a perhaps too sweeping generalization, he refers to as “illiberalism” (Lilla [ed.], 1994: 3–17).

3Two long articles by the political historian, Perry Anderson, published in 2004 in the London Review of Books, situate Gauchet in similar terms, although from an ideological perspective based in Marxist thought rather than, as in Lilla, in the conviction of its desuetude. While he touches on Gauchet only briefly, Anderson’s articles present a global picture of the intellectual world of France during the last 30 years, the period in which Gauchet has been a leading figure. He emphasizes the rise to prominence of Le Débat, the periodical which Gauchet edits, and underlines his personal links with prominent historians such as Pierre Nora and François Furet. In their work as writers, editors and organizers, the latter have promoted a re-reading of French history which rejects the radical tradition, and sees liberalism as the original and ultimately successful impulse emerging from the French revolution. This movement in thought, Anderson argues, accomplished the triumph of liberalism in the French intellectual world and is correlated to the global rise of Anglo-American neo-liberalism. The shift from the subversive attitudes of 60s thought towards the recognition of liberalism as the deepest current in modern thought mirrors a wider turning in French society, from the waves of discontent and revolution of the 1960s towards an acceptance of the ideology of market democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • 2 . Two recent collections of essays discuss his work as part of the larger category of “French libe (...)

4Subsequent articles, both book reviews and scholarly expositions, have followed the trend of these analyses. Gauchet is seen as marking the transition from the thought of the 1960s, which is oriented by the possibility of revolution, and finds its political expression in the uprisings of May 68, to a philosophy that accepts the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism as a given. Ludovine Bantigny, in an article charting the decline of revolutionary discourse in French philosophy, describes Gauchet as a proponent of “centrist reformism” (2016: 654–655). It has become customary to consider his work as an example of a new French liberalism. Chapters on his work appear in two recent English collections using the term.2 This identification frequently goes by way of personal associations, linking him to the institutional grouping described by Perry Anderson. At times, this historical picture is consolidated through a biographical narrative, as in an article by Samuel Moyn, who organizes a survey of Gauchet’s political thought around a transition from a “youthful anarchism” (at the moment of his participation in May 68) to the “mature liberalism” of his philosophical writings (Moyn, 2005).

  • 3 . See Perry Anderson, “Degringolade” (2004) and also Knox Peden (2017), especially p. 142–146.

5This term “liberalism”, which recurs so frequently in the reception, operates ambiguously on multiple registers. At times, it signals Gauchet’s association with the wave of interest in writers in the French liberal tradition, such as Constant and Tocqueville, on whom Gauchet has written extensively (though not uncritically).3 More often, however, the term is often used to signify a commitment to the format of present-day Western societies. In intellectual-political terms, liberalism is the opposite of radicalism, and in this context, specifically the opposite of the radicalism of “French theory”. Warren Breckman writes that Gauchet’s concern for “effective democracy […] led him to increasingly embrace the principles of representative democracy and the existing institutions of the state” (Breckman, 2013: 167). Such claims are misleading, though not simply false. One of the more original arguments in The Disenchantment of the World, for example, is the favourable account that it gives of government bureaucracy, something that one would be unlikely to find in any of the philosophers of the 60s. It is a question, however, whether this is really a matter of an “embrace”, that is to say, whether it forms part of the kind of definite political commitment which the reception is everywhere intent on identifying. Breckman sums up in very much the same vein as Moyn: “From a youthful commitment to anarchism, Gauchet had become a liberal democrat at the time he wrote The Disenchantment of the World” (ibid.). A number of commentators (Collins, Moyn, Anderson) go further and describe Gauchet as a philosophical advocate for the ideology of neo-liberalism. The evidence for this claim is circumstantial rather than textual, however. Samuel Moyn identifies Gauchet as a neoliberal on the basis of the fact that his work “has been featured in the neo-liberal ‘New French Thought’ series” (2005: 164, 183). Jacob Collins, like Perry Anderson, places considerable weight on Gauchet’s involvement with the Fondation Saint-Simon, a “neo-liberal think-tank” (Collins, 2012: 148, 154).

6This desire to identify Gauchet’s work with a political position goes against the grain of his writings, which exhibit a studied neutrality, and are far more historical and analytic than tendentious or ideological. As a result, the major limitation of the reception is that it has tended to reproduce and re-animate pre-existing debates (such as that between Marxism and liberalism), rather than critically engage with what is most original in Gauchet’s work.

7The new element can be identified with the claim to position modern society and its contemporary transformations within a universal historical perspective. The historical perspective is also what separates his work from the generation of the 1960s (of which there are many traces in his work in other respects). The social and political form of modern society, Gauchet proposes, can only be understood once one apprehends it as an historical rupture and an exception in relation to the religious structuration of all societies hitherto. This claim depends upon a specific conception of religion, which is key to Gauchet’s work as a whole. Our ordinary understanding of religion as personal belief and commitment, Gauchet argues, is formed by our own history, and obscures the socio-political function of religion that becomes apparent if one steps back and looks at the phenomenon in a larger historical view. In thinking of religion in terms of personal convictions, we take for granted the autonomy of the individual to shape his or her own path in life. For the greater part of history, however, this autonomy was very much less than what it is at present. When considered in the light of ancient history and pre-history, Gauchet argues, religion appears primarily as a political phenomenon – not in the sense that religious leaders have also exercised political power, alongside their sacral role, but in that religion has functioned to organize and make sense of collective existence:

from the origins until very recently, religion has been the form taken by the relation of humans to their being in society, almost the sole mode in which they have assumed their being-together (leur être-ensemble). (Gauchet, 2002: 31)

8The Disenchantment of the World proposes a history of human societies organized around the gradual undoing of this filtering of communal existence through religion. Present-day liberal democracy is the end point of this history. It represents “a complete system of structuration of the collective (un système complet de structuration de l’être-ensemble) which is in rigorous opposition with systems articulated in the religious age” (Gauchet, 1985: 374).

  • 4 . See especially “Politique et socièté: la leçon des sauvages” (1976), now collected in La Conditi (...)

9The same term—l’être-ensemble—is used in both of these formulations. This expression is a problem for translation since it is alien to English usage, which allows the substantivization of verbs less readily than French. In the first case, one could give the sense in a way that sounds more like English by speaking of a different structuration of the “collective”, in the second, one could add a word, and speak of the assumption of “collective existence”. Alternately, one could abandon the attempt to bring the text into normal English, and use “being-together” or “collective-being” (as the English translator does) as a technical term in both cases. The solution cannot remain at the level of the word, however. As is often the case, translation becomes most difficult at the exact point at which one comes to the core of the thought. In Gauchet, this core is located in a transcendental analysis of the conditions of social existence. In The Disenchantment of the World, he describes his work as opening on to the prospect of a “transcendental anthroposociology”. The philosophical premises of this projection had already been worked out in some detail in a number of earlier essays.4 The Disenchantment of the World is the presentation of the universal history that the transcendental analysis of social and political existence makes possible. The philosophical dimension itself is only present in a dispersed and occasional way in the book, which is organized around the historical sequence. Its presence is constantly, although implicitly, signalled by a series of terms whose sense derives from the problematic. Thus, for example, Gauchet writes of the structuring of “collective reality” or of “social space”, the “collective operation” (le fonctionnement collectif) (1999: 163), the “organization of the human-social sphere” (ibid.: 164), the “social foundation”, “the human-social phenomenon” (ibid.: 165). These examples, all chosen from a couple of pages of the text, point to one of the problems of the translation; the expressions cited do not form a terminology in the strong sense, a set of keywords that the text seeks to give its own definition, but function as indices of the infrastructure upon which the historical analysis is built, and which still awaits its definitive exposition. In the original, the substitutions and internal relations that link these terms are more evident, in part because of the slight artificiality of the expressions used. This signalling is easily missed in the translation, with the result that the work may appear to be diffuse or turgid (as some reviewers have complained) when, in fact, Gauchet’s writing is very clear and rigorous, and can be studied line by line. The term “l’être-ensemble” is at the core of this philosophical dimension. It is basically used as a synonym for “society”, but without the already constituted meanings that are clustered around this term. It is meant to bring us back to the recognition that to be in society (to be together) is not a simple fact, but has to be “assumed”, that is to say, reflected upon and appropriated by the society. For Gauchet, this process of instituting society is what is ultimately at stake in the political dimension. The political, in other words, is not merely a matter of giving laws, and organizing tasks that need to be performed in common; at a more original level, it concerns the fact that society exists, and that individuals understand themselves as belonging to society. Religion is first of all a political phenomenon, before it is an answer to metaphysical or existential questions, because for the greater part of our history, it has performed this function of constituting society as a whole. And it is only once religion is understood in this sense that it becomes possible to describe how modern society functions as an alternative mode of instituting collective existence.

  • 5 . In what follows, we bring together schematically some of the key points in Gauchet’s analysis of (...)

10The contrast between religious and modern society that emerges from this point of view can be expressed schematically through a small number of basic determinations. Taken together, these describe a revolution in the literal sense of the word, a reversal bringing about a structuration of the collective which is “in rigorous opposition with systems articulated in the religious age” (Gauchet, 1985: 374).5 The religious society is heteronomous, subject to something outside of itself, its “invisible foundation” (the term used in The Disenchantment of the World). The fact that society exists and the way it exists is willed, in advance, by the divinity. Modern society, by contrast, is autonomous: the existence and the form of the society are decided by its members, and so it has its foundation in itself.

  • 6 . For this argument, which draws on the work of Louis Dumont, see the essay “Tocqueville, l’Amériq (...)

11This difference at the foundation determines, firstly, the relation between political power and society, and secondly, the relation that links the society and the individual. In the religious society, political power (that of the king, for example) is thought of as making the society exist in accord with norms that come from above, which give the ruler his position and justify his action. Since the coherence of the society is compelled and preserved by the political power, the latter is effectively understood as preceding the society. Within such an order, there is no individual, in the full sense of an independent existence, lived without regard to the group. The members of such a society belong to it by nature; the group gives its members their very existence, not just materially, but also symbolically. The primary symbolic expression of the relation of each member to the whole is the hierarchy (the aristocracy, for example). The relations of dependence between superiors and inferiors is not only a matter of oppression or domination; it also gives each person a role and hence a place within the society as a whole. The relationship of alterity between individuals that is expressed in social superiority, Gauchet argues, is ultimately founded in the alterity of the divine, which founds the society.6

12The modern mode of “being-together” is the reverse of this structuration on every point. Here, it is not society as a whole which exists first, but the individuals, each of whom is considered to exist independently, prior to existing in society. The social order, the whole, is the result of the individuals joining together in their mutual interests, and as such, is secondary in relation to the individuals. Political power no longer commands from above, and forms society. The rulers are now “politicians”; unlike the king, they do not command the society to cohere and hence exist; they are appointed by the society. The notion of equality, which is unique to modern society, derives from this reversal. Since what is first is the individual, considered as existing independently, all the members of society are inherently equal. As Gauchet argues in his essay on Tocqueville, this recognition is reflected in the gradual increase in the ability to recognize others as similar to oneself. For a knight, for example, a peasant is something essentially different from himself: in modern society, however, the notion of a real hierarchy between individuals becomes increasingly intolerable. It is essential that someone who is, in real terms, in every way superior or inferior to me, nonetheless be perceived as inherently equal to me. This perception is socially produced, however; it does not correspond to any real equality that can be perceived within or without. The otherness of the social superior in religious society was based in the otherness of the divinity, which ordained the hierarchy; social equality in modern society stems from the identical status which each of us has at the moment of the constitution of the society, as independent individuals.

  • 7 . See the opening chapter of La Crise du Libéralisme 1880-1914.
  • 8 . See the “Preface to the English edition” of Cusset’s French Theory (xi–xxi).
  • 9 . Gauchet briefly makes this point in “Les droits de l’homme ne sont pas une politique”, although (...)
  • 10 . See, for example, “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” in La Condition politique, especially (...)

13As this brief sketch shows, what is in question here is the genesis and the defining characteristics of the modern social form, and not the defence of an ideological position or the advancement of a political agenda. When Gauchet himself uses the term “liberalism”, which has so exercised the commentators, it does not refer to a particular party or political position, but designates a new mode of producing the unity of society, and thus of performing the function that, until this moment, had always been assured by religion.7 At the beginning of this paper, I suggested that the neglect of Gauchet’s work is a function of the expectations created by “French theory”, in which the link between theory and activism was always at least implicit (if only by the provocation at the level of style).8 The dogmatic effect that becomes noticeable once critique becomes orthodoxy has been discussed by Gauchet in his essay on the legacy of 1968, where he concludes by calling for a “critique of critique” (Gauchet, 2008). In this essay, and elsewhere, there are some indications as to how “the thought of 68” and its legacy could be located within the revolution in the structure of collective existence that Gauchet describes. The central axis bringing together the philosophers of this school, as well as the innumerable literary critics and social scientists who draw upon their work, is arguably the deconstruction of the unity of the subject, which is said to be created by the structures of power, the play of difference, or the work of ideology (among other categories). In terms of Gauchet’s historical scheme, the appeal of this deconstruction would signify a perception of the inadequacy of the foundation of the modern form of the collective in the equal and independent individual.9 The tension between the intellectual attitude formed by “French theory” and Gauchet’s work can be located at precisely this point: where anti-humanism is intent on dissolving the priority of the individual, Gauchet grants it a certain legitimacy. The movement away from the religious structuration of the collective, he argues, means that the individual becomes the only possible foundation on which collective existence (l’être-ensemble) can be organized. To recognize this is not to preclude critique of individualism. Although I have not been able to discuss it here, Gauchet’s work is centrally concerned to show the dependence of the “liberal reversal” that takes the individual as foundational on political structures that remain implicit and unrecognized.10 In order for such a critique to develop, however, it is essential to avail oneself of an historical understanding of the conditions that have made it necessary, and these have to be sought, Gauchet argues, in the exit from religion, and the re-structuration of the collective that it imposes.

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Anderson, Perry, 2004, “Dégringolade: the Fall of France”, London Review of Books, September 2.

, 2004, “Union Sacrée: the Normalizing of France”, London Review of Books, September 23.

Bantigny, Ludivine, 2016, “Flux et reflux de l’idée révolutionnaire”, in Charle, Christophe, Jeanpierre, Laurent (éds). La Vie intellectuelle en France de 1914 à nos jours, Paris, Seuil, p. 639–662.

Behrent, Michael, 2018, “Age of Emancipation”, Dissent, Winter, p. 125–131.

Breckman, Warren, 2013, Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy, New York, Columbia University Press.

Collins, Jacob, 2012, “A Metaphysics of Democracy”, New Left Review, vol. 74, March, p. 145–154.

Cusset, François, 2008, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans.Jeff Fort, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Gauchet, Marcel, 1985, Le Désenchantement du monde, Paris, Gallimard.

, 1999, The Disenchantment of the World, trans. Oscar Burge, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

, 2002, La Démocratie contre elle-même, Paris, Gallimard.

, 2005, La Condition politique, Paris, Gallimard.

, 2007a, La Crise du libéralisme 1880-1914 : l’avènement de la démocratie II, Paris, Gallimard.

, 2007b, La Révolution moderne : l’avènement de la démocratie I, Paris, Gallimard.

, 2008, “Bilan d’une génération”, Le Débat, 149, p. 101–111.

Geenens, Raf & Rosenblatt, Helena (eds.), 2012, French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Lilla, Mark (ed.), 1994, The New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Moyn, Samuel, 2005, “Savage and Modern Liberty: Marcel Gauchet and the Origins of New French Thought”, European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 4, n° 2, p. 164–187.

Peden, Knox, 2017, “The Politics of Disenchantment: Marcel Gauchet and the French Struggle with Secularization”, Intellectual History Review, vol. 27, n° 1, p. 135–150.

Sawyer, Stephen & Stewart, Iain (eds.), 2016, In Search of the Liberal Moment: Democracy, Anti-totalitarianism and intellectual politics in France since 1950, New York, Palgrave MacMillan.

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1 . This review only deals with articles situating Gauchet in the intellectual scene in global terms; I do not take into account the more specialized critical discussion of his history of religion in The Disenchantment of the World, which would need separate treatment.

2 . Two recent collections of essays discuss his work as part of the larger category of “French liberalism”: Geenens & Rosenblatt (2012) and Sawyer & Stewart (2016).

3 . See Perry Anderson, “Degringolade” (2004) and also Knox Peden (2017), especially p. 142–146.

4 . See especially “Politique et socièté: la leçon des sauvages” (1976), now collected in La Condition Politique, p. 91–181.

5 . In what follows, we bring together schematically some of the key points in Gauchet’s analysis of social and political modernity as a reversal of the structure of religious society. The Disenchantment of the World can be read as an extended demonstration of these theses, and they also reappear in other texts. For a brief summary, see the essay “Les droits de l’homme ne sont pas une politique” in La Démocratie contre elle-même, especially p.14–18. Another, more extended, treatment of the historical reversal here described is to be found in the chapter entitled “Le renversement libéral” in La Révolution moderne: l’avènement de la démocratie I, p. 199–238.

6 . For this argument, which draws on the work of Louis Dumont, see the essay “Tocqueville, l’Amérique et nous” (1980) in La Condition Politique, especially p. 346–367.

7 . See the opening chapter of La Crise du Libéralisme 1880-1914.

8 . See the “Preface to the English edition” of Cusset’s French Theory (xi–xxi).

9 . Gauchet briefly makes this point in “Les droits de l’homme ne sont pas une politique”, although his polemical élan arguably makes him over-state the case in describing theoretical anti-humanism as “totalitarian” in tendency (Gauchet, 2002: 16–17).

10 . See, for example, “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” in La Condition politique, especially p. 542–557.

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Mark Hewson

Assistant professor en études littéraires à l’université nationale des Fidji. Il est l’auteur de Blanchot and Literary Criticism (Continuum, 2011) et co-éditeur de Georges Bataille: Key Concepts (Routledge, 2016).

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