From Montaigne to Montaigne

Claude Levi-Strauss

Edited by Emmanuel Désveaux

(EHESS Éditions, 96 pages, 2016)

 

“We can now more appropriately describe Levi-Strauss’ itinerary as one that started from Montaigne and ended with Montaigne.”

                                                                         —Emmanuel Désveaux

This short volume gathers two never-before-published lectures delivered by Claude Levi-Strauss, the first one in 1937 and the second in 1992. Separated by more than half a century, they frame the long and illustrious public career of one of the twentieth century’s most prominent anthropologists. Read together, the talks broaden our understanding of Levi-Strauss’ intellectual trajectory and shed new light on the central role that Montaigne’s thought has played in Levi-Strauss’ oeuvre.

The recently discovered 1937 lecture, “Ethnography: A Revolutionary Science,” exposes Levi-Strauss’ early and previously unknown intervention in the debate prevalent in the 1920s and ’30s regarding the origins of cultural diversity and the diverse theories of cultural diffusion. In this talk, Levi-Strauss strongly rebuts a unilinear notion of evolutionism. “Humanity,” he believes, “cannot be compared to a child who develops steadily from birth to adulthood or to a seed that sprouts, grows and become a tree.” Further, he explains, we need ethnographic knowledge to dismantle simplistic notions of the ‘primitive’. More provocatively, Levi Strauss argues that ethnography is a revolutionary science that embodies the knowledge and appreciation that ways of life and worldviews other than one’s own have been and continue to be essential to developing critical perspectives towards one’s own culture. It is then that Levi-Straus turns to Montaigne in order to illustrate his point. The author of The Essays (1580) showed great interest in the “savages” of the New World and he constantly invoked them to denaturalize the customs and institutions of his time and society.

In “Return to Montaigne,” the second lecture in the book and one of the last he gave in public, Levi-Strauss proposes a close reading of three of Montaigne’s essays. He is especially concerned with Montaigne’s sources of information about the New World —and in particular how the accounts of two famous sixteenth-century travelers, André Thevet and Jean de Lery, influenced Montaigne’s thought. For Levi-Strauss, Montaigne was a social scientist avant la lettre and a pioneer of cultural relativism, whose famous essays anticipated some of the key theoretical debates in contemporary anthropology.

These two lectures are also significant for what they tell us about Levi-Strauss who knew how to share his passion for ethnology and make sophisticated themes relevant to the general public as much as to an academic audience. The first of the lectures was directed at members of a socialist trade union while the second was delivered at the Protestant Ethical Committee, composed mostly of doctors. Levi-Strauss’ renowned ability to communicate in a clear language, one that effortlessly combines theoretical depth with rhetorical eloquence is exemplified in From Montaigne to Montaigne.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) was a French social anthropologist and leading exponent of structuralism. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the College de France between 1959 and 1982 and was elected member of the Académie française in 1973. He received numerous honors from universities and institutions throughout the world and has been called, alongside James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology.”

 

 

Writing Sociology,
from Bourdieu to Latour

Jean-Louis Fabiani

(EHESS, 256 pages, 2015)
 

**Sample chapter available on request**

In his latest book, [Fabiani] analyzes the researchers who influenced [sociology] during the last quarter-century, and attempts to identify their convergences. Because all of them have one point in common: they narrate social matters. Behind this evident history of sociological ideas, we can also see a much vaster ambition, to set up a reasoned assessment of Francophone sociology since Bourdieu. Jean-Louis Fabiani calls finally for an evolution of the discipline: reposition the work of critical reading in the center of the sociological approach, take on the literary—not just scientific—dimension of this discipline, and guard against the temptation of sweeping generalities. It’s with these conditions, he believes, that sociologists will be able to clarify public debate. Sciences Humaines

“The sociologist should never cease sharpening his skill as a reader,” writes acclaimed sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani in his introduction to Writing Sociology. Fabiani begins his analysis of sociological writings since the 1970s with an examination of the intersection between the scientific and the literary. Building from there, he argues for the importance of history and storytelling in the field of sociology.

Fabiani provides us with thorough, well-reasoned analyses of the theories of some of the most influential sociologists of the past few decades: Luc Boltanski, Pierre Bourdieu, Andrew Abbott, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and Ivan Ermakoff, among others. His goal is to both explain and analyze the current theories of sociology, focusing specifically on France and America and drawing parallels whenever possible, and in doing so emphasize the importance of reading other sociologists thoroughly and critically.

He addresses a number of sociological paradigms and trends that have arisen since the seventies: interactionism, pragmatism, macrosociology, microsociology. From Jean-Claude Passeron’s and Bourdieu’s conceptions of power to Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge to Ermakoff’s contextualized theory of rational choice to Cyril Lemieux’s grammatical models, Fabiani draws upon his own aptitude as a critical reader, writer, and thinker to explain, analyze, and compare complex sociological concepts. Writing Sociology is a valuable resource for sociologists and laypeople alike.

Jean-Louis Fabiani is a director of studies at EHESS (l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales) and a professor at Central European University in Budapest, whose research focuses on the production of knowledge and the history of sociology. His most recent book, Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français?, was published in 2010 by EHESS.

A HISTORY OF HUMANISM IN THE WEST

ABDENNOUR BIDAR

(ARMAND COLIN, 288 PAGES, 2014)

Abdennour Bidar has written an intellectual history of the West, following the story of humanism as the golden thread. An over-used all-purpose word? No. A word of capital importance. And even more, an essential one. This work proves it. With panache.

Le Monde

The basic definition of humanism is the passionate interest in human beings, but the term encompasses much more. History has overloaded the word with countless meanings, and the adjective “humanist” has been used to define myriad movements and thoughts. Bidar’s groundbreaking work brilliantly succeeds in giving humanism its deserved place in history, adding power to a concept which, to our peril, we have lost faith in.

When talking about humanism, the Renaissance is often our starting point, since the idea had its golden age in Europe when the great works of Roman and Greek thought were rediscovered. In them, the center of reflection was human—man, not God. Abdennour Bidar argues that humanism wasn’t, as is often thought, a concept started in this ancient time and then interrupted until the Renaissance. He sees it as a deeper phenomenon that infiltrated our thinking more broadly and over a greater period: twenty-five centuries.

To prove his point, Bidar highlights four incarnations of the term: monotheist humanism, the humanism of antiquity, the humanism of the Renaissance, and modern humanism. Each type is covered in a chapter, which ends with a reflection about the place—or the great need of place—of humanism in our contemporary world.

Is it possible to portray humanism as an uninterrupted thread? Historians may argue that there is no such thing as consistency in the notion of humanism, and that it was retrospectively made up by the moderns. The philosopher Abdennour Bidar holds that humanism has been and always will be the guiding thread and great hope of every civilization, and that to preserve it and help keep it alive in all parts of the globe, we must take much better care of it.

Abdennour Bidar is a philosopher. He is member of the editorial committee of Esprit, the prestigious French journal of contemporary thought. He is the author of several books on  Islam’s evolution in the contemporary world, including L’Islam sans soumission: Pour un existentialisme Musulman (Éditions Albin Michel, 2012), Comment sortir de la religion (Éditions La Découverte, 2012), and  Self-Islam (Editions du Seuil, 2006). He also writes on the philosophy of religion and secularism.

 

Islam Without Submission : For a Muslim Existentialism

Abdennour Bidar

(Albin Michel, 279 pages, 2008)

Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. It is primarily an atheistic movement, but there has been a Christian existentialism. This unexpected combination brings together the absolute primacy of freedom and human responsibility with a relationship to God, who is thereby deprived of omnipotence. Could a similar philosophy be considered for Islam? Could there be a Muslim existentialism? Islam is often boiled down to a religion of servitude—after all, the usual translation of the word Islam is submission. But Abdennour Bidar, the first philosopher to so argue, proves the contrary. According to him, Islam can and must be seen as a religion of emancipation.

For the purpose of legitimizing an attitude that gives independent beings their deserved place, as in modern Judeo-Christian thought, Abdennour Bidar parses out the Koran and comes to challenge ancestral interpretations. He particularly questions the translation of the word Islam to mean submission. Fully committed to this work of exegesis, he sheds new light on the sacred text. Among other things, he shows how the Koran establishes the human being as “Khalif” of God; that is to say, literally—and contrary to the common translations—as Its heir on earth.

In this well-documented book, Bidar calls for a self-Islam, a deep and personal Islam defined by each Muslim, as a claimed and exercised faith. According to him, every Muslim has to understand that the texts, traditions, dogmas, rites, and prescriptions are not imposed but rather proposed: Each Muslim has to choose, after a thorough examination and with a concern for self, what they really need for their spiritual development.

Philosopher and professor at the University of Nice, Abdennour Bidar is the author of many books and articles, including Un Islam pour notre temps (2004, Seuil), Self Islam (2006, Seuil), and Histoire de l’humanisme en Occident (2014, Armand Colin). He gained prominence in the days following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, when he wrote the now famous “Open Letter to the Muslim World.”
 

Michel Foucault

Olivier Dekens

(Armand Colin, 243 pages, 2014)

Foucault once said, “I am pluralistic.” Olivier Dekens takes him at his word, arguing that more than one voice can be heard in Foucault’s work. The acclaimed philosopher did write on a myriad of different subjects, in myriad ways. He said himself that he was blind to what he was doing, going so far as to acknowledge that he often contradicted himself in his books. And so Oliver Dekens, in Michel Foucault, asks a fair question: How is it possible to find coherence in such a body of work?

Dekens succeeds brilliantly in rendering consistency to Foucault’s work, taking into account both what Foucault wrote and what he said in his many classes, in particular at the prestigious Collège de France. Dekens is adamant: The right way to understand Foucault is to read his work in light of what he wrote afterward. The philosopher did so himself, reinterpreting his material in the context of new concepts he invented later in his career, such as subjectivity and governmentality.

To Dekens, it is essential to study all of Foucault’s work at once. As developed in Dekens’ book, Foucault thought nobody other than himself could clearly and properly explain his work. When Denis Huisman decided to write an encyclopedia of philosophers in 1984, Foucault wrote the article about himself, under the name of Maurice Florence.

Dekens knew he had to adapt to the diversity of Foucault’s work. As he explains, a thematic approach would not have been appropriate; it wouldn’t have reflected the evolution of a thought that aspires to not be definitive. And yet, a chronological order would be equally inappropriate, creating an artificial and false consistency. Dekens finds a way out of this dead-end by adopting a fragmented approach that tackles four different elements: Foucault’s source texts, the philosophers who have a connection with him, the different characters in Foucault’s work, and the devices, concepts, and methodological choices he made—in brief, the constituents of Foucault’s philosophy. This approach definitively sheds new light on Foucault’s work, proving, for instance, why The Order of Things is so isolated in his oeuvre. After all, as specified in Dekens’ work, Foucault said himself that The Order of Things was not his “true book.”

Olivier Dekens is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tours. He has written books about Derrida, Kant, Herder, Levi-Straus, and other philosophers; and, for students, a glossary of philosophy. His published works include, La philosophie sur grand écran (Ellipses, 2007), Apprendre à philosopher avec Marx (Ellipses, 2010), and Philosopher les Mots (Ellipses, 2014).