Intellectual history Think Piece

Body and Soul: Dualist Anthropology in the Christian Tradition

By Carolyn Mackie

“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love–I love–I love you.Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy never actually utters this line in her 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice but placed in the mouth of Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 movie adaptation, this line has become iconic among fans, spawning fan art, t-shirts, and whole lines of giftware. Although the meaning of Mr. Darcy’s sentiment is still clear to contemporary viewers—his whole person is completely under Elizabeth Bennet’s thrall—the framework of “body and soul” as an account of the human person would have already been out of date in philosophical circles by 1813. The rise of materialism in the last several centuries has made claims to such a framework tenuous. However, the concept and language of the “soul” as a more-than-physical element of human personhood continue to linger in popular culture and in many religious and spiritual traditions. Christianity, in particular, has a long, complicated history with the soul and played an important role in advancing this dualist body/soul anthropology in Western thought.

Birthed out of Judaism and heavily influenced by Greco-Roman thought, Christianity drew on these traditions as it established its own unique identity and doctrines. The concept of a separable, immaterial soul is not found in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word nefesh, usually rendered as psuchē in the Septuagint and “soul” in English translations, is closely tied to the terms for “breath” and “to breathe,” particularly the breath that God breathed into the first human (Gen: 2.7). Benjamin P. Blosser describes nefesh as referring to “the  totality of conscious, bodily life” (208), a definition that is consonant with the biblical text’s focus on the human as “embedded in a community, and a communal history” (208). Under Hellenistic influence, Jewish thought eventually expanded to include the idea of a soul, but this was always couched within this fulsome concept of an embodied, embedded human person (209).

In contrast to Jewish thought, Greek philosophy had well-established notions of a separable, immaterial soul, particularly in the Platonic tradition. As Christianity developed, its thinkers borrowed from Greek traditions and adopted a body/soul anthropological structure. Yet this did not entail a wholesale acceptance of Greek anthropology. Christianity’s Jewish roots, as well as its central claims of incarnation and resurrection, resisted body/soul dualisms, at least to the extent that these were hierarchical, denigrating the body and elevating the soul, or prone to divide the human person too sharply. The Christian Gospel of John opened with the outrageous (to Greek ears) affirmation that the logos had become sarkos—flesh—in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), thereby granting flesh an essential significance in the new religion. The equally startling contention that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, so central to the proclamation of the new faith, meant that bodies had enduring importance after death, a claim that ran counter to prevailing Greek anthropologies, which tended to see death as releasing the soul from the encumbrances of the material world. That bodies were good had to be accepted to make sense of these new Christian beliefs. This did not stop groups such as the Gnostic sect from arising within Christianity and asserting that human bodies were inherently evil; however, the doctrines of orthodox Christianity were formalized and articulated against such claims.

As early church fathers formulated these official doctrines, their claims about Jesus Christ were closely intertwined with ideas about human nature. Judaism has always held human beings to be created imago Dei, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), providing an explicit rationale for human dignity and the sacredness of human life (Gen. 9:6). New Testament writers such as St. Paul stated that Jesus Christ was the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), and early Christians were quick to draw the connections between the two ideas. A common theme was that one of the purposes of the incarnation was to renew the imago Dei in human nature, and correlations between Christology and human nature were explicitly forged early on. Church fathers drew on body/soul anthropologies to grapple with the complexities of articulating the incarnation, and the idea that a human being is a union of body and soul was frequently used as an imperfect analogy with which to explicate the union of divine and human in Jesus Christ. In a strange circularity of ideas, this doctrine of Christ’s two natures, which had been explicated in part by appealing to dualist anthropology, was later used to reinforce this same anthropological framework. For example, Augustine (354-430) pointed to Jesus Christ’s two natures in order to affirm the soul-body harmony of the human person. This kind of argument demonstrates how intimately body and soul were understood to be connected to one another. 

Although Christian thinkers drew on body/soul dualism to help clarify their understanding of Jesus Christ, their anthropological ideas also led to some very specific Christological difficulties. One of the big controversies was whether Christ had a human soul or whether he was just divine nature in a human body. Early ecumenical councils affirmed that to be fully human, Jesus Christ must have both a human body and a “rational soul,” in addition to a full divine nature. Similarly, the third Council of Constantinople (680-681) affirmed that Christ had a divine and a human will and a divine and a human “energy” (energeia).     

Christians in the second through fifth centuries wrestled with the question of how and when souls were created—a difficulty that Greek philosophers had contended with previously. Some Christian thinkers (such as Origen) adopted the idea, common in Platonic thought, that souls are already pre-existent before conception. (The Pixar movie Soul provides a good contemporary depiction of this theory). This was often resisted, primarily because it was associated with Gnosticism and was, frankly, too dualistic for Christian sensibilities. Another theory, traducianism, held that the soul is inherited from one’s parents and generated naturally through biological processes. This theory was popular with early church fathers (such as Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa), but as Neoplatonism gained in popularity among Christian thinkers, traducianism was looked on with increasing suspicion.

The earliest evidence of a third theory, creationism, dates to the beginning of the fourth century, in the writings of Lactantius (250-325). Innovating beyond existing Greek concepts, creationism credited God with directly creating and implanting individual souls within bodies. While this theory eased Neoplatonist concerns about organically produced souls, it created new theological problems. Many church fathers believed that sin (and thereby mortality) was an inherited quality; some went so far as to specify that it was passed down through the sexual relations that resulted in conception. (In this framework, the virgin birth of Christ was crucial to the belief that Christ was without sin.) While this theory of biologically inherited sin and mortality worked well with traducianism, it sat uneasily with creationism, which posited a divine origin of the soul without the aid of biological processes. Despite this inconsistency that could not be satisfactorily resolved, figures such as St. Jerome (c. 342-420) and Pope Leo I (c. 400-461) advanced creationism, and it became the dominant theory by the end of the fifth century.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and other prominent thinkers drew heavily on Aristotelian thought. For Aristotle, the soul informs the body as form does matter (hylomorphism). Medieval thinkers who adopted hylomorphism struggled with whether each body can be said to have a unique soul, rather than being informed by a universal soul. Although some, such as Aquinas, maintained that each person has a unique soul, there was lingering uncertainty amongst others as to how or if this could be adequately proved. Unlike the Platonic soul, Aristotle’s conception of the soul does not lend itself as readily to having a separable substance of its own. John Holdane argues that, for Aquinas, “a living human being is not a conjunction of two substances – body and soul – but a single unitary subject” (300). Caroline Walker Bynum affirms that “medieval people understood the self as a psychosomatic unity” and that “the specificity of person was understood to be carried not by soul but by body” (xvi). At the same time, we can see ways in which body and soul were sometimes divided conceptually in such a way as to legitimize horrific abuse of the body even while claiming the good of the soul. For example, the papal bull Romanus Pontifex (1454), one of the bulls that laid the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, expresses the hope that “the souls” of those enslaved “will be gained for Christ.”

With the advent of the Enlightenment, ideas about human nature shifted significantly. Many scholars have noted the “turn to the subject” that characterizes modernity, with Descartes as an obvious critical juncture in this movement. Jürgen Moltmann explains how old ideas about the soul were translated within this changing modern landscape: “Following the Christian tradition in its Augustinian form, Descartes no longer understands the soul as a higher substance: he sees it as the true subject, both in the human body and in the world of things. He translates the old body-soul dualism into the modern subject-object dichotomy” (250). Additionally, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen notes that in Descartes’ sharpened dualism, “soul” becomes essentially equated with “mind”—the climax of a longstanding urge to link the human person’s “rational” capacities with the soul and with the imago Dei.

If Descartes and his peers began to understand the soul as the true subject in opposition to the world of objects (including the soul’s own body), soon enough the idea of a “soul” itself began to be questioned. Instead of a substantial, immaterial soul, philosophers began to think about personhood in terms of a “self.” English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) represents one of the major shifts in this direction. Yet for Locke, who retained his Christian faith even as many of his philosophical beliefs changed, this shift brought weighty ethical concerns along with it. Locke worried that without the concept of a substantial soul, it would be difficult to account for the continuity of personal identity across time, particularly across the dissolution and reassembling of matter that would need to take place in the resurrection. Without maintaining personal identity, individuals could not stand before the Judgment Throne of God after death and be held accountable for their actions in life. In light of these concerns, Locke began to consider new ways of assigning identity across time, such as consciousness and memory. Locke suggested that matter might be capable of thought, paving the way for other thinkers to consider that consciousness itself might be an emergent property of matter. (Although Locke’s suggestion sparked horror among many of his peers, it arguably holds similarities to the much older Christian tradition of traducianism.)

The problem of maintaining personal identity across time and change has proved to be a thorny philosophical issue, one of the major losses incurred by the absence of a substantial, immaterial soul. The last few centuries of Western thought have seen a flowering of theories of identity, with recognition of the significance of material conditions, other selves, linguistic communities, narratives, and so on, for the establishment of personal identity. Yet despite these significant shifts, the concept of an immaterial soul still lingers in odd places in popular consciousness and continues to carry weight in such conversations as the ethics of abortion or AI. In Christian theology, the concept of the soul still persists in many quarters, even though physicalist accounts of the human person are becoming more widely accepted. It remains to be seen whether Christian churches will incorporate these physicalist accounts doctrinally, or whether the idea of an immaterial soul will ultimately prove too bewitching.

Carolyn Mackie is a PhD candidate at the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto. She focuses her research on the connections between Christian theology of incarnation and philosophical anthropology in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. She is a regular contributor at the Women in Theology blog.

Edited by Parker Cotton

Featured Image: British Library digitised image from page 22 of “The Lamentable Vision of the Devoted Hermit (written of a sadly deceived soul and its body) [Translated by William Yates. With woodcuts.]”

Intellectual history Think Piece

Biography Under Scrutiny

By Paula Bruno

The last two decades have seen the publication of works that, when read together, make it possible to map the state of the art of what I choose to call “biographical studies”. Most of these works were published in European countries: Spain, France, England, and Italy. Thus, today we can, to contemplate a bibliographic corpus comprising the works of François Dose, Hermione Lee, Sabina Loriga, Isabel Burdiel and Roy Foster (free to download), and complement these contributions in volume format with a selection of dossiers from academic journals published in recent years. Furthermore, it is also quite common to read that the genre of biography has been renewed in different academic circles, an observation borne out by rising output rates and the recurrence of optimistic comments on the subject.

Most of the diagnoses of biography available today, as well as the space taken up by the genre within the different spheres of knowledge production, spring from a specific historical moment:  1989. The explanation? Is a familiar one: the crisis of great explanatory paradigms opened up a field that was at once chaotic and fertile, offering an opportunity to revisit political, social, cultural and historical issues. As is already known, the idea of crisis per se prompted readings colored by both pessimistic and optimistic hues at the same time. From another point of view, this seemed to be a historical moment with the possibility of a new foundation. In such a context, biography offered a way of escape or renewal.

Many of biographies’ writers have an active experience of this historiographical scenario. In fact, practically all of them have developed their careers in university lecture rooms and social spaces where the great explanatory paradigms of the 20th century (mainly, marxism, social history and structuralism) were never questioned. And yet, as the century advanced, in parallel with its scholarly output, the idea of crisis, chaos, and confusion became commonplace. These biographical marks may well appear in several of the published texts outlining post-1989 diagnoses, and, in turn, they share many optimistic assertions. It is as if the genre of biography had operated, in some cases, as an antidote to chaos and confusion. In fact, the idea of renewal and a fresh direction associated with the biographical genre seems to be a formula enabling various authors writing about biography to conjure up the ghost of the historiographical crisis. Whereas there was an attempt to recover the individual and the subjective in passing from the macro to the micro, and the historian tried to give room to faces and voices that had faded into the context of all-encompassing umbrella labels; that is to say, whereas the writer made an effort to “humanize” the Social Sciences and the Humanities, biography as a formula presented as an effective way of restoring the human visage buried by the study of collective actors. In this way, the individual or collective biography offers something akin to a redemptive logic in the passage from macrosocial history to the valuation of the micro, the individual and the subjective, in its different expressions. Thus, the expansion of biographical forms began to convey a certain confidence in the attempt to respond to a paradigmatic crisis.

Combining the arguments expressed above enables us to observe that biography as a form was considered a response to two issues. Firstly, it provided an answer to the crisis of historiographical and academic production, and secondly, it was a way of releasing academics from scientism and the parochial world of their peers. It gave them an opportunity to cross the bridge and ensure that this historical discipline, like some irreducible mandate, would definitively reach the market of readers, one that had expanded due to its interest in the past. The discipline seemed capable of responding to certain demands made by society as a consumer of historical knowledge, by offering biographical accounts, a trait that generally tends to be naturalized, as if it were obvious that there exists a common sense of widespread historical curiosity. In some diagnoses, therefore, the link between the market and academic output is key to considering the role of biography in recent decades. There seems to be an overriding optimism regarding the sentence uttered in 1989 by Marc Ferro: biography has never been a taboo subject for the general public, although it has been for professional historians.

Some of the contributions published since the late 1980s to the present have stressed the need to denature the concept of biography, and not consider it from an innocent point of view. In 1989, Giovanni Levi warned about the multiple ways in which it could occur, and only a short while later, Sabina Loriga drew attention to the concept of the biographical form as a problem. A few years ago, I attempted to deepen this analysis in the Hispanic-American sphere with the coordination and publication of a dossier in a specialized journal, entitled Biografía e historia. Reflexiones y perspectivas (Biography and history. Reflections and perspectives)”. In the introduction, I pointed out the need to establish whether, when referring to the concept of biography, one was making reference to a genre, a method, or a resource—or to some combination of these possibilities. I consider that making this differentiation is central, essentially, to thinking about the relationship between biography and history.

In some of the panoramic texts referred to above, the distinctions between biography as a genre, method, and resource overlap or are otherwise indistinguishable. Although perhaps it is somewhat schematic to state this, I think that the distinction can serve to drive a reflection on the subject. If we take biography as a genre—the biographical genre—we can group together in particular those writings that take biography as a narrative form. Starting from this main/central consideration, one can consider both the market of the broad audiences interested in reading about the past, and the relationships between different biographic and literary forms. I believe that the question of biography as a genre prompts debate about narrative forms and about the relationship—not necessarily always friendly in nature—between reality and fiction. In fact, in much of the output examining biographical studies, appeals are made to historians who turn their hand to the biographical genre, enjoining them to read more novels in order to gain additional sensibility, improve their style, enhance their attention to plot, characters, and suspense, among many other tips concerned with writing a good biography. These issues lead to the already classical debate on the relationships between content and form, and accentuate the importance of the second aspect of this formula when thinking about the effectiveness of the narration of a person’s life.

On the other hand, if we think on biography as a method, it is possible to articulate considerations about biographical issues with debates linked to the possibilities of knowledge. At this point, I think the question that arises is deceivingly simple: What, and to what extent, can be known through the study/narration of a person’s life? Telling the story of a life tells us about certain issues lying in the past; in this sense, biography is a tool of knowledge and understanding, and of course we should contemplate its scope and limits.

As a third modulation, and perhaps the most widespread, biography appears as a resource or an “excuse”. That is, profiles, character sketches or careers are used as a way of explaining historical processes or more general issues, rather than as an end in themselves. In several texts, there is an abundance of metaphors referring to biography as a “window” shedding light on an era, as a “viewpoint” from which to approach a given process, as a “magnifying glass” able to home in on certain aspects of the context, for instance. In fact, biographical portraits very often illustrate some aspect already taken as valid, in order to support regularities or generalizations—or, at the other extreme, to highlight exceptional cases and possibilities arising on the sidelines.

In short, although the three options—genre, method and resource—can coexist harmoniously in research experiences, I believe that any debates on these would be quite prolific. In other words, there is a kind of false consensus that biography is such-and-such-a-thing, or that it serves one purpose rather than another, essentially resting on gray definitions. At this point, it is convenient to draw attention to a clue lying in the name of the academic network handling these issues in Europe, whose members are the authors of works included in the Burdiel and Foster compilation; it is the “European Network of the Theory and Practice of Biography”. The compilation assembled by Burdiel and Foster, including contributions by the members of this network, explicitly takes a stand on these points of view by inverting the notion of “historical biography” and referring instead, to a “biographical history”. This approach attempts to resolve some of the more prominent methodological and narrative issues by referring to “biographical” as an adjective rather than “biography” as a noun. That is to say, the “biographical history”—a term coined by Sabina Loriga—would become yet another historical area, viz. political, cultural, social, intellectual, or biographical. In a complementary direction, authors such as Bernard Pudal have called attention to the use of the words biography as a noun and biographical as an adjective when working in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The notions generally attributed to the biographical genre, and to the biographer as an author, suggest a tension intrinsic to the analysis of the relationship between the marginal and the central within academic fields. It is quite common to find references to the genre of biography as the bearer of the attractions of “all things rare and unusual”, meaning unique and particular. This idea gives rise to considerations about biographers as if they were the only ones capable of attaining certain privileges when dealing with the past. The metaphors used tend to be recurrent: it is often pointed out that biographers are passionate, they deploy investigative, even detective-type operations, they are capable of donning the garb of mediums able to tune into a deep understanding of the intentions and emotions of those who are the subject of the biography. Sometimes, it is even suggested that biographies produce an intimate experience, at once unique, exciting, and full of rewarding surprises. Some of these aspects are emphasized and deepened, particularly when issues related to some form of “identification” enter the scene; for example, sharing a gender, the same profession, or a special form of aesthetic sensibility. There is also the idea that writing about other people’s lives arouses certain sensations and feelings, creating a vicarious sense of living certain experiences, and deciphering the intricate depths of the human soul. Accordingly, the act of composing a biography is punctuated by expressions linked to adventure, challenge, kinship and passion. In short, some considerations would suggest that the epistemological or cognitive experience prompted by biographical research is in fact a unique privilege. In tension with this view is the emphasis on the marginal importance afforded to the biographer in the academic world, sometimes expressed in the selfsame texts. I believe that this tension between attribute and stigma is sometimes indicative of the failure to take a stand concerning the claim that the study of a life—or a group of lives—can be a form of understanding or accessing the past. That is to say, perhaps, that by insisting on the particular and intimate bond established between the biographer and their subject, one omits the explicit mention of which kinds of questions lead to a certain form of biographical investigation.

In short, there is a tension between marginality and privilege, conditions inherent to a long history of biography as a genre, amply sustained by both its admirers and detractors, and reconstructed in exemplary fashion by Sabina Loriga. This means that in some way, those interested in biographical studies end up trapped in debates designed for the few, instead of decisively intervening in more general issues linked to the production of knowledge. As Arnaldo Momigliano pointed out decades ago: “biography has acquired an ambiguous role in historical research: it can either be an instrument of social research, or it can be an escape from social research.” These words shine a light on what is possibly the main challenge facing the biographer: deciding whether biography is enough in itself as a way of understanding past events and developments, or assuming that biography must be problematic to provide an insight into the past.

Paula Bruno holds a PhD in History from Universidad de Buenos Aires. She has been a visiting researcher at School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris), European University Institute (Florence), Complutense University of Madrid, University of Barcelona, University of Girona, “José María Luis Mora” Research Institute (Mexico City), National Autonomous University of Mexico, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, University of Verona, Ibero-American Institute of Berlin, Madrid Institute for Advanced Study (MIAS), among others. 

She is founder and current Academic Director of the Network for Biographical Studies of Latin America (REBAL). Also, she has founded the first Public History Laboratory in the Southern Cone.

She has published Paul Groussac. Un estratega intelectual (2005), Travesías intelectuales de Paul Groussac (2004), Pioneros culturales de la Argentina. Biografías de una época, 1860-1910, (2011), Martin García Mérou. Vida intelectual y diplomática en las Américas (2018 ), Embajadoras culturales. Mujeres latinoamericanas y vida diplomática, 1860-1960 (whit Alexandra Pita y Marina Alvarado, 2021), among other books, and many academic articles.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Featured Image: Empty Frames, courtesy of the author.

Intellectual history Think Piece

A Positivist Critique of “Positivism”: Re-reading Auguste Comte

By Giovanni Minozzi

In one of the first ever television broadcasts devoted to the teaching of philosophy, French philosopher Georges Canguihem argued that one cannot distinguish between “true” and “false” philosophies, but only between “great” and “modest” ones; and that, in the end, “a great philosophy is a philosophy that left behind an adjective in popular language”. If we adopt this criterion, we must recognize that if there is one philosophy that was influential for the socio-political reality of his time as well as ours it is that of Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Despite having introduced the words “altruism” and “sociology”, as well as the motto “Order and Progress” which can still be read on the Brazilian flag, the adjective we tend to associate with Comte, and for which he is so (in)famous, is another: positivist. But why, then, is he such an obscure, misunderstood, if not entirely forgotten character?

Since Stuart Mill’s interpretation and its surreptitious conflation with neo-positivism, the term has been progressively reduced to a doxastic meaning and identified with empiricist epistemologies, scientistic conceptions of politics as technocratic administration, or with an optimistic, determinist and evolutionary ideology embedded in the “solutionist” faith in the technological capabilities of mankind. By adopting a historico-conceptual perspective, this piece will discuss how Comtean thought departs from this simplifying picture. Contrary to common representations of positivism, it will reactivate what the epistemologist Gaston Bachelard called the “sense of the problem” that originally animated Comte’s thought.  Namely, the all-modern problem, at least since Hobbes, of conceiving a political thought that is able to reflect in scientific terms while accounting for the political role of such science(s). In this respect, we will contend that Comte himself provides us with the tools to critique the form of “scientism” with which positivism has been equated.

In fact, Comte can be defined the “first modern epistemologist”, insofar as he refused to identify this discipline with the psychological description of a fixed set of cognitive operations ascribed to a universal subject, or with a theory of “science” (in the singular), conceived as a metalinguistic and normative paradigm to which the empirical sciences should conform. On the contrary, Comte advocated his positive philosophy was a historical and pluralistic model for understanding the sciences. In his eyes, defending the specificity of their objects and the diversity of their methods was a prerequisite for grasping their constitution and their mutual influences, as well as their convergence towards a “positive method” that, against Descartes, could only be known a posteriori.

Although Comte claimed that “ideas govern the world”, and that the progress of the sciences was the key for comprehending history, his conception of the latter was by no means intellectualistic. Sciences emerged from the complex interplay of social, political, economic, and technological processes with the increasing capacity to re-orient such processes. Though the evolutionary and teleological traits of Comte’s philosophy have often been reduced to a caricatural form of historicist eschatology, his account of the history of sciences was actually much more akin to what Althusser would call an “overdetermined” process. The “progress” of sciences is therefore neither neutral nor linear and, to that extent, positivism is actually the opposite of a scientism, insofar as it was able to anticipate some crucial themes of what would become the sociology of knowledge, as Norbert Elias noted.

This has important consequences for the “politics of science” that positivism seems to imply, which is surrounded by some major misunderstandings. Since Comte was the first to systematically describe the ideological function that the sciences and scientists had come to play in post-revolutionary societies, that is, as social forces capable of replacing the hegemony of theological thought, his vision has often been mistaken as that of a counterrevolutionary thinker, proposing an authoritarian cult of science.

The misunderstanding stems from the fact that, as he developed his sociology, Comte was actually building a radically critical science that discussed the conceptual impasses of representative democracy. The “logical mechanism” it built through concepts such as the sovereignty of the people, unlimited freedom of conscience, social contract, general will, were for Comte mere reversals of the dogmas of theological thought. Such pivotal concepts for western constitutionalism as well as for current political imagination were originally mobilized by the metaphysical rationalism of jurists [légistes] and philosophies of natural right –noticeably that of Hobbes– to disrupt an increasingly oppressive traditional authority. Rather than build a lasting political order, Comte believed these concepts gave rise to a new “despotism” that sprang from the tension between the absolute nature of laws enacted by parliaments, as representatives of the will of the people, and the increasingly unchallenged assertion of private interest, theorized by political economy which sought to be the sole regulator of society.

In other words, since the very first development of his positive philosophy, Comte became aware of the organic link between the establishment of democracy, the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the accumulation of capital. He witnessed how the societies that emerged from the French Revolution tended to remove the question of political authority by dissolving it into that of democratic legitimacy. As a political system based on a consensual concept of public opinion and on the disparity of material assets, it emerged from the aggregation of individual interests. While such historical and political transformations took place, Comte perceived that science could provide humanity with the means to progressively overriding such kinds of representative legitimacy. His positivist philosophy sought to pave the way for the construction of a new kind of authority at a time when science was gradually contesting and disagreeing with the ideal of an abstract “freedom of thought” and the decision-making mechanisms characteristic of modern democracies.

At first, Comte seemed to pin all his hopes on a new class of scientists. He attributed sociologists with the capacity of positively studying social phenomena and, consequently, orienting the political decisions of rulers. This has led notorious liberal critics such as Hayek to reduce Comte’s positivism to a technocratic and authoritarian form of “social engineering”. Following such line of thought, we could affirm Comte actually foresaw a trend that was destined to explode in the 20th century, even foreshadowing current debates that question the relationship between scientific knowledge and political decision-making today, such as discussions on epistocracy. If we attend his writings, however, we notice that Comte never proposed a simplistic idea of “scientific rule”. In fact, he saw the populist implications of sovereignty and the elitist tendencies of Guizot’s (but also Mill’s and Tocqueville’s) capacity-based liberalism as two sides of the same coin. The sociology he was conceiving had other was of interplaying and dialoguing with the transformations of power mechanisms and their relation to the society of his time.

Recovering the medieval distinction between temporal and spiritual power, which had been apparently overcome by modern democracy, Comte entrusted sociologists, “specialists of generalities” who should have a monopoly on education, with a role of intellectual guidance of the people and moral restraint towards rulers. But as he advanced in his work, he gradually became more critical of the scientific class. Indeed, scientists themselves were prey to the contemporary division of labor. Abandoned to its dynamics of self-regulation as conceived by political economists, scientific work ended up isolating science’s individuals more and more from the rest of society. Far from justifying a neutral idea of science, or a sectarian conception of “expertise”, Comte insisted on the social nature of all sciences. With an extravagant clarity, he posed the problem of articulating the relationship between their necessary autonomy while posing the need for them to respond to social concerns that could respond and be accessible to common sense.

This insistence on the “popular nature of spiritual power” became crucial during the Revolution of 1848, when Comte went so far as to propose a “spiritual coalition” between philosophers, proletarians, and women. As the classes which were systematically excluded from participation in political government, his concept of spiritual power sought to render them the source of moral authority, according to which the new “sociocracy” ought to be governed. Paradoxically, this invocation of a spiritual dimension of politics, which Comte takes up in part from counterrevolutionary thinkers but mainly from his earliest Saint-Simonian collaborations, has nothing nostalgic about it: there is no turning back from the modern revolution. On the contrary, his sociology even showed how the supposedly “secular” democratic concepts fell victim to an implicit theology, which assigned them a providential and absolute character. Rather than advocating a form of technocracy, Comte denounced it in advance as a risk inherent to the conceptual structure of nascent democracies, caught in the contradiction between the formal nature of sovereignty and the concrete exercise of power.

It is nonetheless undeniable that after the bloody June Days of 1848 and the 1851 coup d’état, Comte’s thought took a more authoritarian turn. During the first years of Napoléon III’s Empire, he increasingly placed his hopes in a form of dictatorship that would enable humanity to overcome the “great crisis” of the modern transition. Although the dictatorship could be headed by a proletarian elite, it would forcibly have to be enlightened by a growing control of spiritual power, coordinated by a positivist pope, who would be none other than Comte himself. But even in this sort of “mental degeneration”, Comte undoubtedly grasped some decisive issues, whether by anticipating debates that took place during the 20th century, or even contemporary problems that only today are appearing to us in their full extent.

As the last phase of his intellectual production shows, Comte presented the need for a new science, which he called “morality” or “anthropology”, capable of bridging the individual to his society, as well as understanding man in his complexity. This implied the need to conceive mankind’s symbolic production as a manifestation of universal laws that cut across cultures. By doing so, Comte increasingly broke with the evolutionary premises of his (in)famous “law of the three stages” (or rather states). Instead, he emphasized the role of fetishism, conceived no longer as a “primitive” form of thought, but as a logical-affective power of comprehension and invention that lingers even in the self-proclaimed advanced societies, therefore seeking to reconciling it with positivism. This may explain why an author like Lévi-Strauss would see in Comte the forerunner of a structural approach to anthropology, capable of confronting what Mauss called the “total social fact”.

Such an appreciation of fetishism, coupled with the value he attached to the life sciences as a historical threshold (let us not forget that the first Société de biologie was founded by two of Comte’s own disciples), also makes him an forerunner of ecological issues. Between science and religion, it is biology that both provides the basis for the study of the human species and establishes the limits of its actions upon a given environment without irreparably altering its “conditions of existence”. Comte’s biology was thus conceived as a modern form of cult which does not forget its scientific roots, incorporating fetishism to establish a relationship of harmonic polarity between humanity as a transformative agent and the “Great-Fetish” that is the Earth. A topic that seems to reappear, without being explicitly noticed, in the work of contemporary sociologists like Latour. Finally, by envisioning a sociocracy that would finally enable humanity to govern itself on a global level, Comte’s critique of democracy essentially turned out to be a fervent anti-slavery and anti-colonialist critique of that very “metaphysical” notion of progress with which we tend to associate it. In his eyes, such an abstract notion of progress was nothing more than an ideology that conceived of its relationship with the other in terms of predation and assimilation. As humanity united on a spiritual level, he predicted that the very modern States responsible for such policies were destined to crumble into a federation of small homelands.

In short, it is in the very movement of Comte’s thought that the critique of scientism, usually associated with positivism, is manifested. And if all his philosophy is animated by the question of what it means to be modern, we might say that positivism is, in the most proper sense, the symptom of this unresolved tension within modernity: that between sciences, and social sciences in particular, as vectors of society’s self-understanding and emancipation, or as instruments of their disciplining and technocratic control.

Giovanni Minozzi holds a joint PhD degree in political philosophy by the University of Padova and the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas (LIER-FYT) at the EHESS (Paris). His dissertation focused on the relationship between epistemology and politics in the thought of Auguste Comte. His main areas of interest are French historical epistemology, the history of social sciences, and the concept of ideology.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image showing Auguste Comte by Rocco Taglialegne (Courtesy of the author).

Intellectual history Think Piece

A Friendship Built on a Crisis of Foundations

By Dustin M. Taylor

In February 1939, the Société Française de philosophie organized a discussion in Paris between two young philosophers who had both recently defended their dissertations. These two philosophers were Jean Cavaillès (1903-1944) and Albert Lautman (1908-1944). The subject of their discussion was the foundations, or life [la vie] of mathematics, a popular and controversial topic amongst philosophers and mathematicians at the turn of the 20th century. The simultaneously clairvoyant and obscure nature of that debate was representative of the two thinkers’ lives. Intellectual rivals and good friends, Cavaillès and Lautman were original and passionate thinkers of the primordial reality of mathematical experience; however, both men had their bright careers cut short. In 1944, following their respective arrests for being members of the French resistance, both men were executed by Nazis.

Both Cavaillès and Lautman trained with the tragically forgotten philosopher and historian, Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), who assisted in organizing their debate. Brunschvicg encouraged and inspired their joint historical interests in philosophy and mathematics; however, he also harbored an idiosyncratic idealism that neither student kept up. Determined to break with both Brunschvicg and the more traditional approaches to the philosophy of science at the time (Neo-Kantianism, logical positivism, phenomenology), Cavailles and Lautman were part of an alternate current of philosophy in France known as épistémologie historique. Like the other members of this generation, their individual research was based on technical inquiries within specific branches of their field—for instance set theory, class field theory, and mathematical physics—but the common background of their investigations was a concern for the historical and everchanging nature of scientific truths.

Albert Lautman. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

While working towards their doctorate degrees in the mid-30s, they both put forward rigorous and original work of “philosophie mathématique,” combining their philosophical training and expansive knowledge of contemporary mathematics. These recently completed doctoral works, which they were expected to articulate in the debate, confronted similar issues regarding the current state of mathematics which was thought for a while to be in ‘crisis’ due to ongoing questions of its foundations. Cavaillès and Lautman felt that the most recent attempts to grasp the foundation of mathematics had missed the mark, and they endeavored to recover the grounding reality that generates mathematical thought over time.

Cavaillès’ principle thesis, Methode axiomatique et Formalisme (1938), constituted an ambitious reconstructive history of the supposed “crisis of set theory,” and aimed to reveal an inner continuity and necessity behind the appearance of antinomies within mathematical activity. Lautman’s Essai Sur les notions de structure et d’existence en mathématiques (1938) attempted to “present a metaphysics of logic,” and took up Jaques Herbrand’s notion of “structure” as well as a number of other theories and concepts such as Galois’ Theory of algebraic equations and its relation to both class field theory and “Riemannian Space.” In the essay, Lautman argued for a complex and productive, or problematic, dialectical movement of ideal notions which allow for the articulation of concrete theories.

Jean Cavaillès wearing a French lieutenant uniform, 1939. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

These represented two unique attempts to resolve the problem of la vie, but Cavaillès and Lautman were by no means the first to take it up as an issue. Among mathematicians, questions of “foundation” had been of growing interest since at least the early 19th century. There were issues which had been left unresolved, some since ancient Greece, and they began to pull the rug out from certain long held presumptions regarding the nature of and relation between mathematical objects, theories, and techniques. At the turn of the 20th century these issues were articulated to the point of crisis by a series of antinomies known as “the crisis of set theory” (Russell’s antinomy, Burali-Forti paradox, etc.).

There were valiant and productive attempts to resolve this crisis around the turn of the century—most notably in the formalist approach of David Hilbert, the Principia Mathematica system of Bertrand Russell and A.N. Whitehead in 1910, and the intuitionism of L.E.J. Brouwer—however, new difficulties and unresolvable issues continued to arise, such as Skolem’s paradox in 1922, and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems in 1931. These developments continued to expose hidden difficulties regarding the internal validity and fertility of mathematics.

If, for example, a formal deductive system cannot absolutely demonstrate its completeness and its consistency simultaneously, as Gödel shows of effectively generated arithmetical systems, then our overall goals or understanding about mathematical activity might be threatened. In Gödel’s wake, both the Principia and Hilbert’s famous ‘program’ of formalization were considered by some to be irretrievably compromised. The crisis of the foundation appeared to be over, and everybody had lost.

This crisis of foundations came on with a special acuteness and urgency in those decades, and it is traditionally recounted as having split the field of mathematics into three primary camps, logicism, formalism, and intuitionism. Some philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, furthermore, saw this fracturing as a symptom of a deeper crisis within western scientific culture. In this larger crisis, the European sciences had lost touch with their “meaning for being”, and relegated themselves to the sterile practice of quantifying or “mathematizing” nature for human’s use. Science was thus stripped of any creative autonomy, and philosophy was correlatively isolated, being increasingly detached from the speed and complexity of scientific innovation. If such a crisis did in fact exist, one might credit the opaqueness of their debate to the fact that Cavaillès and Lautman bridged this double isolation with rigor and breadth that few others could achieve at the time.

When reading the transcript of their debate, it seems clear that the two participants understood each other quite well, each spiritedly defending and delineating his own position against the other. Cavaillès argued in favor of an internalist conceptual necessity as the driving force for mathematics’ movement from theory to theory. He regarded mathematics as a properly autonomous being, defined by its movement, which spontaneously generates new objects and techniques as mathematicians deal with the singular intimate difficulties of their practice. He thus argued for a “dialectic of the concept” as the best way to understand the becoming of mathematics since its movement was not contingent on the conditions or decisions of any given “consciousness.”

Lautman opened by saying: “Après avoir entendu M. Cavaillès, je suis encore plus convaincu que je ne suis pas d’accord avec lui” [After having heard M. Cavaillès [just now], I am even more convinced that I do not agree with him], and went on to emphasize the “structural aspect of contemporary mathematics” which is constituted by a dynamic and reciprocal, though “dissymmetrical,” relationship between realized theories and their constitutive notions. This process, for him, situates mathematics in relation to meta-mathematics (coming from Hilbert) in a way that motivates a continuous reflexive passage from essence to existence for each singular actualized theory. While Lautman also conceived of this becoming as “dialectical,” his dialectic is motivated by the structural insolubility of “problems” and “solutions.”

During the conversations following their presentations, it seemed that the two philosophers were not fully understood by their audience, even though it was largely comprised of their elders and colleagues. Commenters from mathematics, like Elie Cartan and Paul Lévy, expressed concern about the strange philosophical renderings of concepts which to them were mainly concrete and practical. Commenters from philosophy, such as Jean Hyppolite and Paul Schrecker, claimed to have a hard time understanding each thinkers’ use of certain mathematical notions, and struggled to determine their theories’ points of contact and divergence. As an example, both Cavaillès and Lautman had an interest in Hilbert’s formalist method; however, neither accepted it wholesale. Additionally, they each found special importance in Gödel’s incompleteness theorems but they did not appear to use those influences in the same manner. Mathematician René Maurice Frechet began his own engagement:

“I will begin by agreeing with an observation that has been made before me, successively…: for a mathematician who dedicates the principal part of his activity to mathematics, it is extremely difficult to follow in all their nuances the expositions of M Lautman and Cavaillès, which were nevertheless most instructive.”

While fascinating for all involved, the discussion could not reach a high enough level of detail in so little time, and came to a close before anyone was satisfied. The spectators’ perplexity may have been slightly exaggerated, for it could simply have been the wrong time and place for a detailed critique of the proposed perspectives; however, their criticisms also may indicate that the studies of philosophy and abstract mathematics had drifted slightly too far apart for persons at the forefront of each field to communicate with each other.

Cavaillès and Lautman’s corpora are limited due to their involvement in the war, so we are unable to fully reconstruct a ‘system’ or doctrine to attribute to them. Nevertheless, it is clear that neither man entertained any kind of mathematical nihilism or relativism. Both wrote extensively on the different attempts to ground mathematics and they agreed that the established approaches were so far insufficient, but they did not see an essential deficiency or sterility signified by the supposed crisis of set theory. Instead, in the appearance of antinomies, they saw the very heart of mathematical activity as an ongoing process.

The ultimate shortcoming of an undertaking such as Russell and Whitehead’s, for example, was that their project aimed for a final and total systematization. They did not account (following standard logicist tendencies) for the historical reflexivity that generates scientific theories and concepts, and thus rejected mathematics as a creative and dynamic becoming. Such a totalizing systematization sets out what and how mathematics can be, beforehand (a critique that Cavaillès also levies against Husserl, Brouwer, and Hilbert to an extent). For Cavaillès and Lautman, the ruptures or difficulties within a system are what motivate the movement of mathematics in general, forcing it to reevaluate its objects and methods of systematization. While they characterize this process differently, both Cavaillès and Lautman attempt to reveal the nature of that movement.

Cavaillès’ necessitarian vision of autonomous mathematics is based on a productive and paradoxical incompleteness at the heart of scientific knowledge that is constantly referring to and building on itself to deal with underlying technical difficulties. A primary reference for this model of thought is Gödel, as well as Spinoza and Bernard Bolzano, since they were able to properly conceive of scientific thought as both incomplete and perfectly unified in itself. He is mainly critical of a tradition of dualism that he sees running from Descartes and Kant up through Husserl and Brouwer, an irreconcilable dualism which preserves the distinction between the act and the object of mathematical thought, concealing their generative unity.

Lautman, on the other hand, sees mathematics as comprised of interdependent levels which facilitate a simultaneously vertical (asymmetrical) and reciprocal relationship of causality between dialectical ideas, or structures, and actualized theories. Lautman was considered a mathematical Platonist but was deeply indebted to Jacques Herbrand’s developments of Hilbert’s formalism, and mentioned a strong resonance with Heidegger’s conception of the ontological difference as well. Curiously, he also cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as supportive of his own framework—although, while Cavaillès sees Gödel as deconstructing the distinction between mathematics and metamathematics, Lautman sees the distinction as gaining a newly vibrant function in which the two levels establish a communicative and productive relationship of becoming. Also, opposed to Cavaillès’ internalism, Lautman was convinced that mathematics and metamathematics were open to interaction and exchange with other fields like physics and metaphysics.

Both perspectives, in short, render the “limited” or incompletable nature of mathematics as the source of its productive power, and both men therefore seem to evade the issue of the “crisis” of set theory. Lautman sees Herbrand and Gödel as simply marking a new “critical” era in mathematical logic, moving away from the “naïve” period of Cantor and Russell; for Cavaillès it is apparently both ambiguous and unimportant whether or not the crisis of set theory constitutes a “proper” crisis since mathematical objects are in fact constituted by difficulties. If mathematics is truly autonomous, it will be fine on its own. For them, it seems, the only crisis of mathematics would be one that stops its spontaneous progression.

As mentioned, neither Cavaillès nor Lautman managed to be particularly productive once the German occupation started; nevertheless, their friendship and voracious interest in the life of mathematics persisted. Prior to the arrests in 1944 that led to their executions, each was imprisoned on earlier occasions. During Cavaillès’ first imprisonment, Lautman visited his comrade, bringing him books to aid in the writing his final work, titled and published posthumously, Sur logique et la theorie de science (recently translated).

Despite their tragically short careers, Lautman and Cavaillès retained a lasting reputation and influence throughout the French academy. Since that mercurial debate, the “life of mathematics” has fallen out of fashion as topic of inquiry for philosophers, but their contributions were key to later 20th century insights regarding of the reality and efficacy of thought. Their notions have been taken up, for instance, and expanded by thinkers such as Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou. Beyond that, Jean Cavaillès and Albert Lautman brought a seriousness, militance, and rigor that they applied to all aspects of their lives and thus should serve as examples for philosophers and scientists of any kind.

Further reading:

Duffy, Simon (Ed.).Virtual Mathematics: The Logic of difference

Peden, Knox. Spinoza contra phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze

Dustin M. Taylor is a doctoral student at the University of Memphis where he works on early modern and 20th century philosophy, specifically rationalism and French epistemology. His current research focuses on questions of truth and history in both Cavaillès and Heidegger. He does not tweet.

Edited by Kelby Bibler

Featured Image: The construction of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre by Maximilien Luce. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history Think Piece

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Political Paradoxes of Structural Anthropology

By Hugo Lopes Williams

In 1952, Claude Lévi-Strauss, then a respected but by no means famous anthropologist, published the short book Race and History, commissioned by UNESCO as part of its drive to present arguments against racial prejudice from a variety of social-scientific perspectives. Apart from sparking an acrimonious exchange in French intellectual circles between Lévi-Strauss and the colonial apologist Roger Caillois, the book was largely a non-event for Lévi-Strauss’s career, which would only blossom into its maturity later that decade. The book’s argument centered around the premise that evolutionist frameworks in cultural history and anthropology were overly convenient and politically suspect ways of interpreting the fact of cultural diversity, which were by then, comfortably situated in the ethical paradigm of cultural relativism developed by Franz Boas forty years earlier.

But returning to the arguments in Race and History with the perspective afforded by the future development of Lévi-Strauss’s thought raises an interesting question: Why was the explicit attention to historical interactions between societies in this book such a rarity in the anthropologist’s œuvre? By answering it, we will be able to better understand the fundamental tension in Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical ambitions, which were torn between liberating social anthropology from the evolutionist commitments that betrayed its disavowed relationship with colonialism on the one hand, and exorcizing political and historical concerns from anthropology altogether, on the other.

The main polemical strategy used by Lévi-Strauss in Race and History is to position all the discrete human cultures that history and anthropology have identified across a flat, ahistorical continuum. Any attempt to distinguish more “progressive” or “advanced” cultures from others along this continuum is fundamentally a reflection of their similarities to the culture of the observer, rather than an independent insight into the cultures themselves. He then claims we can identify cultures that, at particular moments, managed to accumulate and synthesize a wide range of technological and sociological resources and explain these instances of transformation on probabilistic, rather than evolutionist, grounds.

The problem of explaining how a relatively small number of cultures were able to synthesize various technological and sociological resources into durable and complex social forms subsequently becomes a “problem of determining the relative probability of a complex combination [of disparate social and technical elements], as compared with other similar but less complex combinations.” In other words, theories of cultural evolution mistakenly posit a cross-cultural telos unifying an arbitrarily selected set of historical instances, wherein cultures have successfully concatenated various technological and sociological innovations. What Lévi-Strauss has provided us here is not only an effective critique of evolutionism (and any justifications for racism that might emerge from it), but also the kernel of an alternative philosophy of culture that promises to integrate a wealth of anthropological and historical studies of cultural transformation into a probabilistic framework.

However, Lévi-Strauss does not stop at outlining such a framework. He offers a key explanatory principle: that a “culture’s chance of uniting the complex body of inventions of all sorts which we describe as a civilization depends on the number and diversity of the other cultures with which it is working out, generally involuntarily, a common strategy.” He illustrates this point with a gambling analogy: a coalition of roulette players at different tables gambling for the same series of numbers who agree to pool their results will be more likely to achieve a certain combination of numbers than someone playing alone. The implication is that cultures can improve their odds of synthesizing a large number of innovations by expanding their repertoire of discrete social and technical resources through cross-cultural interaction, whether that be war, trade, colonialism, or otherwise.

Lévi-Strauss therefore moves from a purely random framework of cultural transformation to one of transformation through the combination of random innovations driven by cross-cultural collaboration. In other words, he acknowledges that most significant historical and anthropological examples of cultural transformation have required an interplay between chance coincidences in sociological and technological innovations, and actions intended to increase and maintain the cross-cultural interactions, in a given culture. Once we give up the analytically incoherent task of organizing masses of historical and anthropological data into pathways of supposed cultural evolution, we see that each instance of significant cultural transformation observable in the data occurred as the result of both chance and agency through cross-cultural collaboration.

The fact that Lévi-Strauss offers chance and cultural collaboration as the two key explanatory principles of his philosophy of culture is important because of what it implies concerning the role of historical analysis in social anthropology. If most processes of widespread cultural transformation across history were almost exclusively the product of chance concatenations of various sociological and technological innovations, then inquiries into political and socioeconomic interactions in the relevant cultures at the point of their transformations would be largely unnecessary for explaining them. What would be necessary would be categorizing all the types of social structures and technologies that existed prior to and following the transformations, so as to discover the absolute historical limits of an otherwise random process. In other words, social anthropology would concern itself almost exclusively with identifying the most elementary social and technological structures underlying the various forms of social life across the world. Of course, this is the attitude that is present in most of Lévi-Strauss’s major works, which rarely concern themselves with the historical environment in which any of the structures he uncovered were situated.

However, the necessary role played by cultural collaboration in processes of societal transformation means that these underlying structures, and the random products of their interactions, can never fully explain how various cultures are similar or different. Collaboration introduces an agential dimension into the emergence and demise of social forms. It enables certain powerful actors, whether they be states, aristocracies, or roving armies, to pursue strategies that deliberately induce particular interactions between underlying structures. The results of these interactions are no longer chance cultural products, even if they were not explicitly intended by any one of the actors involved. And to explain this manipulation of chance, reference to the political and socioeconomic conditions under which the actors operated becomes necessary for anthropology.

These methodological implications for anthropology from Race and History might surprise those who have engaged with Lévi-Strauss’s most famous works. In them, he frequently proceeds as if the element of cultural collaboration was barely worth considering in ethnographic analysis. For example, in the introduction to his landmark anthology Anthropologie structurale, he writes that instances of cultural transformation are anthropologically useful because they allow us “to abstract the structure which…remains permanent throughout a succession of events.” Any particular interactions driving these transformations are of secondary importance. The most basic of these permanent structures, such as the three forms of marital exchange to which Lévi-Strauss reduces all kinship systems in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, are then identified as social expressions of the human cognitive apparatus.

What interests him in this later work is not the particular historical pathway that one kinship system might have developed in response to various social and environmental pressures, but that its laws can in principle be reduced to universal cognitive processes. By extending this structural approach from the study of kinship to mythology, Lévi-Strauss produced a dazzling array of original insights concerning the universal foundations of human creativity and its cultural expressions, and largely succeeded in sounding the death knell for perverse distinctions between “civilized” cultures capable of the highest intellectual activity and “uncivilized” cultures governed by need that had provided the ideological bedrock of evolutionist anthropology.

But the conclusions of Race and History should make clear that this approach to anthropological explanation produced a severely skewed picture of the societies studied by Lévi-Strauss. While his typologies of kinship systems and mythological narratives presented each culture as a contingent combination of social structures drawn from a finite set of sociological possibilities, it neglected to explain the actual political, socioeconomic, or environmental conditions in which particular combinations emerged. As a result, he systematically ignored one of the most important instances of (involuntary) cultural “collaboration” of his time, one that played a foundational part in the academic development of anthropology: European and American colonialism. Given that most of the cultures that Lévi-Strauss referred to in his work were in periods of acute socioeconomic and demographic crisis due to the effects of consistent colonial expansion in the Americas, this omission presented a serious flaw in any attempt to explain the social functions of the exchange structures he observed, or of the myths he recorded.

Let us take an example: Lévi-Strauss’s observations and analysis of kinship customs among the Nambikwara people, a group of indigenous societies in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. The anthropologist’s time with the Nambikwara in 1938, recounted in his 1955 memoir Tristes tropiques, was part of his only ever venture into ethnographic fieldwork. His encounters with them would provide a lifelong source of nostalgia and inspiration. In fact, in the gradual development of his theoretical claim that exchange relations provided the universal foundations of social stability Lévi-Strauss would repeatedly pepper his arguments with references to a particular occurrence from his fieldwork, when he witnessed an encounter between two Nambikwara bands that involved gift-giving, marriage promises, and a near-descent into warfare.

Lévi-Strauss was particularly interested in the marital exchanges, which were enabled by a procedure whereby men of each band would confer a particular kinship status on one another, which he approximated to the Western term “brother-in-law.” Because the Nambikwara kinship system required individuals to marry their cross-cousins, this procedure meant that the children of these newly-established brothers-in-law would intermarry, thereby fusing the two bands into one over the course of one generation. Lévi-Strauss would continuously use this example as evidence that even the simplest kinship conventions were capable of performing sophisticated sociological functions owing to their logical nature.

But what was the context in which this instance of economic and marital exchange occurred? When Lévi-Strauss recounts the story in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, he presents the encounter as a common and unremarkable feature in the lives of the Nambikwara, which revealed sophisticated sociological mechanisms in the specificities of their culture. It is only by turning to the first article in which he reported it, written in 1943, that we learn that group fusions such as the one observed were necessitated by a series of epidemics that had decimated the Nambikwara ever since their first sustained contact with Brazilian soldiers and missionaries twenty years earlier.

Although Lévi-Strauss makes a compelling case regarding the sociological utility of the brother-in-law relationship as a longstanding feature of Nambikwara life, it is unlikely that the function of such kinship customs in the maintenance and expansion of group relations would have been unaffected by such demographic collapse. Whereas Lévi-Strauss purposely overlooks this historical context to identify a free-floating logical operation contained within the kinship custom (group fusion in one generation through artificial fraternity), it is quite simple to propose an alternative interpretive approach, based on the methodological implications of Race and History. Let’s consider the forms of cultural collaboration forced upon the Nambikwara through Brazilian colonialism. We realize that this particular custom indicates the increased sociological and political significance of kinship relations as a response to demographic collapse. Rather than an abstract structural relationship, we are left with the picture of a culture undergoing immense sociological transformation.

This does not disqualify Lévi-Strauss’s abstract structural interpretation of the brother-in-law relation among the Nambikwara. But it reveals the extent to which such analysis necessarily precludes consideration of political and historical factors affecting the cultures under consideration. Lévi-Strauss used the conclusions of this structural analysis to reveal the sophistication of the intellectual operations at the heart of sociological mechanisms across all cultures, thereby severing any connection between social anthropology and ideological justifications of colonialism. But this strategy went beyond dismantling such connections; it removed all but the most abstract political considerations from anthropological investigation. Coming back to Race and History with this perspective in mind demonstrates that Lévi-Strauss himself was, at least implicitly, aware that this had debilitating effects on anthropology, preventing a proper understanding of how cultures underwent profound social transformations upon coming into contact with each other in various ways. In fact, I would argue that this problem explains why Lévi-Strauss’s concerns shifted further and further away from political and socioeconomic life towards aesthetic and intellectual activity the more he refined his structural method. Confusingly, his vision of a politically and ethically mature anthropology required renouncing serious interest in some of the most pressing political issues and debates of his time.

Hugo Lopes Williams holds a Master’s degree in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge. His research primarily focuses on French social and political thought in the period 1945-1984, with additional interests in economic anthropology, kinship, and Marxist value theory. His Master’s dissertation interrogated the intellectual connections between Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault in the mid-1960s.

Edited by Alec Israeli

Featured Image: Levi-Strauss photographing a Nambikwara person – Luiz de Castro Faria Archive.

Intellectual history Think Piece

Reinhart Koselleck and the Century of Catastrophe

By Jonathon Catlin

This post originally appeared as the entry for “catastrophe” on the conceptual history blog Komposita, which was initiated at the University of Bielefeld in honor of Reinhart Koselleck’s centennial. 


Reinhart Koselleck’s onetime denazification instructor Eric Hobsbawm termed the years 1914–1950 the “age of catastrophe.” In a 1997 essay, Koselleck reflects on the difficulty of making sense of this era from its documentary traces, taking as an example a few thousand undelivered letters written by German soldiers dying at Stalingrad that “sought in vain to find meaning in the catastrophe” (178). While Joseph Goebbels intended to present them as heroic propaganda, in Koselleck’s view this project was doomed from the start, for the letters’ “abundance of interpretations” range from “absolute desperation to sarcastic commentaries and ironic observations” and are dominated by a sense of “abandonment and helplessness.” “Today,” he writes, “we are inclined to interpret these events in terms of meaninglessness or even as total absurdity.” Eyewitnesses also failed to invest these events with meaning: “the reality of the battle would not allow for it.” According to what Jan Eike Dunkhase has termed Koselleck’s “historical existentialism,” “attributions of meaning” (Sinnstiftungen) imposed on such inherently absurd histories for ideological purposes are often resisted by the facts (Ibid., 182). Stalingrad and Auschwitz, Koselleck says, “coalesce” in that “they had their common ground in an ideology of salvation, eagerness to make sacrifices and find victims, and the racist ideology of obliteration” (Ibid., 181.) Yet outside redemptive Nazi ideology, both events are “meaningless, or rather, absurd.”

In a late interview, Koselleck reflected on the limitations of historical reflection on the catastrophes to which his generation bore witness, especially on “the catastrophe” of the Shoah. Unlike between French and Germans, he said, there is no “common ground” between Germans and Jews that “allows you to deal with the past in equal terms,” because “the annihilation was so overwhelming” (114). Nevertheless, in his later years Koselleck became an active voice in German memory culture and proposed a number of mnemonic guidelines. Through his contributions to debates about the creation of a federal German Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Koselleck said he had “tried—but failed” to advocate for also commemorating other victim groups including Slavs, Russians, and Poles. However, claims about “the singularity of the extermination of the Jews” led to intractable disagreements; on such “a delicate subject,” he said, the “prejudice” of those still living “will inevitably contaminate memories.” As German Holocaust memory debates (Part 1 and Part 2) continue to demonstrate, what Koselleck called history’s inherent “multiplicity of meanings” (Vielsinnigkeit) (“Absurdity,” 194.) can leave individual memories tangled in knots and working-through blocked by identitarian resistance.

Koselleck dismissed Halbwachs’s notion of “collective memory,” instead employing the metaphor of historical experience as “congealed lava” filling up the individual and hardening: “I cannot transfer my experiences […] I can only communicate them.”  He developed this insight into a maxim: “One has the right to their own memory—I will not allow it to be collectivized.” Notably, the “day of liberation” in 1945 proclaimed by Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985 was for Koselleck “the beginning of slavery” as a Soviet prisoner of war held at Auschwitz and various Gulag camps. Koselleck wrote as one of the vanquished, yet he said the “deliverance” Weizsäcker implied was misleading, “as if we had all been victims,” when in fact, “we Germans were also perpetrators in a very clear sense…to say I am a victim would be a lie to me.”

As Lisa Regazzoni has suggested, it is not entirely surprising that Koselleck turned his interest from concepts to monuments and memorials: the two are analogous in that both are indexes of structural transformations in historical meaning across generations, but are also sources of ideological power, as survivors impose meaning on the deaths of their forebears. Koselleck was an outspoken critic of Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà being dedicated as Berlin’s Neue Wachememorial in 1993. The passive voice of its inscription, “to the victims of war and dictatorship,” suggested that Germans were only victims, while the statue itself imposed a redemptive Christian meaning on the Jewish Shoah. He also objected to the “hierarchy of victims” established by the proposed memorial dedicated exclusively to Europe’s murdered Jews; the lack of a singular memorial would necessitate further memorials to other groups, but the more than three million Soviet prisoners of war murdered by the Nazis have still not been memorialized. “Mourning is not divisible,” he argued in a 1998 article in Die Zeit, especially not along the pseudoscientific categories employed by the SS. Further, in Germany alone, he said, “we are politically responsible, and for that reason we must also remember and memorialize the actions and the perpetrators and not solely the victims.”

Abstract monuments represent the “aporia” of what Koselleck called “negative memory,” which came after redemptive modern memory regimes of heroic national sacrifice. “After the Second World War,” he said, “it became apparent that catastrophe can never be remembered enough and never conclusively,” thus compelling a turn to “negative monuments and process monuments.” He saw these as “attempts to show that the question of meaning has itself become meaningless” and as recognizing “the impossibility of generating meaning through memorialization itself” (“Negative Memory,” 248). Faced with catastrophic histories, “monuments of the absurd” offer “a small margin of escape” through art (20).

In Koselleck’s Bildnachlass in Marburg lie thousands of photographs he took in his journeys through the rubble of Europe’s catastrophic century. They sketch a history of aesthetic strategies for memorializing mass death: from triumphal national monuments to nineteenth-century wars, to smaller obelisks featuring the names of the local dead from World War I, to an early figurative memorial at Auschwitz, to the 17,000 stones erected at Treblinka with the place names of the murdered, to the modernist Treblinka monument in Berlin-Charlottenburg, to the Federal Republic’s monument at the concentration camp Mauthausen.

[Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Site, undated. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 090-01-0001-001-(001-024).]

The Mauthausen memorial, an exemplar of negative memory, was designed by the German sculptor Fritz Koenig, who like Koselleck fought on the Eastern Front and was held as a prisoner of war. Dated to 1982/83, it prefigures Peter Eisenman’s 2004 Berlin Holocaust Memorial Berlin in its minimalism, consisting of a large, rusted, V-shaped metal plane with stereometric forms resembling a skeletal human figure lying collapsed in the crevice. Situated overlooking quarries in which starved prisoners were worked to death, it symbolizes the absurdity of this useless labor. Yet this regime of abstract memorialization does not have the last word: In the Bildnachlass one also finds a photo Koselleck took in 2001 of a singular Stolperstein, or stumbling stone, which the artist Gunter Demnig began installing around Germany in 1992. One imagines Koselleck on a visit to Berlin, walking through Kreuzberg at night, and being struck by the glint of the brass plate marking the former residence of a single murdered victim: Sonja Kesten. He even once suggested that allmemorials are “Stolpersteine.”

[Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Stumbling Stone commemorating the deportation and murder of Sonja Kesten in Berlin-Kreuzberg, 07.2001. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 093-01-0011-001-(001).]

Another trace linking Koselleck to histories of catastrophe lies in his library, now held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach. A note in the catalog entry for his copy of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 Austerlitz states, “This volume was the last reading that Koselleck undertook, and it was still on his bedside table when he died on February 3rd, 2006.”[1] Sebald was born in 1944, making him twenty-one years Koselleck’s junior and part of a younger generation that resented the guilt and complicity of their parents. Sebald said shortly before his untimely death, “I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It’s like the head of the Medusa: you carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it you’d be petrified.” He reflected that while he found it “necessary above all to write about the history of persecution,” he was “at the same time conscious that […] to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible” (79). Sebald’s solution to this aporia resembles Koselleck’s view of negative memory: “the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed.” Direct images of the camps, he explains, “militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things, and also paralyze, as it were, our moral capacity.” Hence, he concludes, “the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation” (79-80).

Like Koselleck’s reflections on Stalingrad, Sebald’s 1997 lectures On the Natural History of Destruction stressed the cliché nature of popular reactions to the fire-bombing of German cities, which became an unmourned traumatic blockage In The Rings of Saturn (1995), he provocatively juxtaposed colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo with a large, decontextualized image of corpses found at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His final chapter discusses how the cultivation of silkworms became a popular hobby for children in the Third Reich to teach eugenic selection, and ends with a reflection on his view of “our history” as “nothing but a long account of calamities” (295). He similarly ends his lectures on Destruction by invoking Walter Benjamin’s famous description of how, from the perspective of the Angel of History, history appears not as “a chain of events” but as “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”

My ongoing project is a history of the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought and centers on Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of history as a “permanent catastrophe”—an idea, as I have argued elsewhere, that has often been prematurely dismissed as irrational and overly pessimistic. Existing histories of the German Katastrophe share the contention that ever more exaggerated and inflationary use of the term has led to its contemporary “diffuseness” and semantic “exhaustion.” As the category of catastrophe expanded and proliferated in the twentieth century, these scholars argue, it transformed from naming an event, to a process, to a permanent state (Dauerzustand). Thereby, they claim, it lost descriptive and analytical power, for, as the disaster researcher Wolf Dombrowsky warned already in 1989, “nothing is catastrophic when everything is called catastrophe” (47). Some have even concluded that the term’s inherent ambiguity may “undermine” the requirement of a “relatively stable semantic core” necessary for Begriffsgeschichte (186).

Koselleck’s reflections on the absurdity of twentieth-century history can help us grasp why these failures to conceptualize catastrophe are essential to its aporetic semantics. Koselleck observed that still in the postwar period the concept of crisis’sinflationary usage covers almost all aspects of life” (236). Yet instead of conclude from this that the concept had lost its meaning, he suggested that this discursive profusion “may itself be viewed as the symptom of a historical crisis that cannot as yet be fully gauged” (399).

Susan Neiman argues that the revelations of mass death at Hiroshima and Auschwitz in 1945 ended the era of philosophical modernity that began with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and inaugurated a “postmodern” era that corresponds to Koselleck’s claim about the meaninglessness of history after the mass death of the First World War and the mechanized genocide of the Second. In Neiman’s words, “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating,” defying existing moral, legal, philosophical, and historical frameworks and demanding a reworking of thought itself (251-2). Catastrophes, then, are not simply events causing death and destruction (like accidents, disasters, or calamities), but events or processes of “overturning” or “a subversion of the order or system of things.” Both in “natural” catastrophes like Lisbon (a “natural evil”) and what Adorno called the “natural catastrophe of society” of Auschwitz (a “moral evil”), the trauma of history overwhelms taken-for-granted powers of experience, language, and thought (105).  Thus Jean-François Lyotard compared Auschwitz to an earthquake that destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments used to measure it, so that the devastation itself cannot even be fully gauged (56). As Koselleck said in a 1988 lecture, “there are events for which words fail us, that leave us speechless, and to which we can (perhaps) only respond with silence. We only need to recall the speechlessness of the Germans when they were confronted with their catastrophe, which drew innumerable people and peoples into it. To this day, every attempt to find a language adequate to mass extermination seems to fail” (140-1). Following Neiman and also Koselleck, might we say that catastrophe occurs when concepts themselves fail?

Koselleck wrote that Critique and Crisis “represented an attempt to examine the historical preconditions of German National Socialism, whose loss of reality and Utopian self­-exaltation had resulted in hitherto unprecedented crimes” (1).  He claimed to have met Hannah Arendt in 1956 in Heidelberg, and he shared with her the view that the catastrophes of the twentieth century were rooted in utopian ideologies that claimed to know and execute the laws of history. His 1955 German edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism is extensively annotated at passages including, “It is therefore more than accidental that the catastrophic defeats of the peoples of Europe began with the catastrophe of the Jewish people.” Koselleck also initially intended to entitle his dissertation Dialektik der Aufklärung until he learned of Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944/47 foundational work of Critical Theory by that same name (170). He added that work to the bibliography of the book version he published in 1959, and in a 1973 preface he referred explicitly to a dialectic of enlightenment (x). A telling underlining in his personal copy of Dialectic reveals a thesis he shared regarding the origins of twentieth-century violence: “Enlightenment is totalitarian.”[2] The age of catastrophe was also the death rattle of the age of utopias, and Koselleck once described his own intellectual-political disposition thus: “My basic attitude was skepticism as the minimum condition for reducing utopian excess—including the utopian excess of 1968.”

The “century of the catastrophes,” in which Koselleck lived, he once reflected, was also the century of “technical-industrial expansion,” of “mass murder and exile escalated into the millions,” and of acceleration not toward progress but toward Auschwitz (227).  This was also the period before which the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe had to halt because the semantic stability of the Sattelzeit on which it was premised ran aground on what Walter Benjamin called the Trümmer, or wreckage, of history as “catastrophe in permanence” (164).

In his work on twentieth-century concepts that overstep this modern temporal frame, Anson Rabinbach has argued that “instead of an open-ended horizon of expectation,” concepts such as total war, totalitarianism, and genocide, “bring the catastrophic events of the twentieth century into the semantics of historical experience, emphasizing neither futurity nor acceleration but dystopia and deceleration” (104). The modern experience of navigating crisis by hastening the coming of progress through utopian social planning was superseded by the post-modern fear of catastrophe and the aim of slowing history down. As the construction of new utopias gave way to attempts to avert dystopia, catastrophe thus became the Grundbegriff or “structural signature” for the twentieth century that Koselleck argued crisis was for the modern period.

Adorno thus said in 1965 that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and in light of the “impending catastrophes” of the Cold War, he could continue to conceive of “progress” only in its most minimal form as “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe” (143). At the end of the “age of extremes,” in 1992, Günther Anders similarly articulated a maxim followed by many intellectuals of his generation: “it is imperative to think against catastrophe.” This anti-catastrophism was taken up with the same intensity by Koselleck. Already at the opening of his 1959 Critique and Crisis, Koselleck wrote that the whole world had drifted “into a state of permanent crisis,” while accelerating technology threatened to “blow up mankind as well in a self-initiated process of self-destruction” (5). It was a central fallacy of modern utopian philosophies of history, he wrote already in his dissertation, to believe that this political crisis could be anticipated, steered, or—“as catastrophe”—prevented. (Ibid.) Yet he also later wrote that if it is true that “from the industrial system founded on scientific-technical principles comes the infinitely increasing potential for destruction, by virtue of which mankind may annihilate itself at any moment,” then it follows that “anticipating catastrophe is a duty of politics, of the politics of the future” (229-230).

As we continue to blindly accelerate forward into the era of climate change and confront new forms of “slow catastrophe” and what Eva Horn has called “catastrophe without event,” Koselleck’s reflections on the absurdity of catastrophic history also serve as a history of the present, charting a dark course through the modern era that led us here.

[1] Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach. Signatur: BRK2.3. No. 201207689.

[2] See Koselleck’s personal copy of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente. Amsterdam: Querido, 1947, 16. Held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach. Signature: BRK2.1. No. 201202010

Jonathon Catlin is a co-editor of Komposita, a Fellow in the Berlin Program at Freie Universität Berlin, and a PhD Candidate in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is writing a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century thought. His work has appeared in History and Theory, Memory Studies, and the Los Angles Review of Books, among other venues. In 2018 he reviewed the Bielefeld exhibition “Koselleck und das Bild” for the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, where he is a contributing editor. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany at the site of the former concentration camp Mauthausen, undated. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 092-01-0001-001-(001-025).