Critical introduction to Alain Caillé and Marcel Gauchet

An exchange on the place of religious meaning in the self-institution of human societies

Over the last four decades, Alain Caillé, Marcel Gauchet have been two most prominent actors in the renewal of the French tradition of anthropological reflection on religious phenomena, a tradition born of the pioneering reflection conducted by Émile Durkheim (and his nephew Marcel Mauss) on the significance of the sacred and its essential connection to the symbolic dimension of human societies.i Despite the existence of common intellectual roots and enduring mutual respect, their itineraries have, however, largely remained separate and the following exchange around the notion of religion, illustrates it clearly.

This paper was first published in « Social Imaginaries », vol.3, n°2, 2017

Over the last four decades, Alain Caillé, Marcel Gauchet have been two most prominent actors in the renewal of the French tradition of anthropological reflection on religious phenomena, a tradition born of the pioneering reflection conducted by Émile Durkheim (and his nephew Marcel Mauss) on the significance of the sacred and its essential connection to the symbolic dimension of human societies. [1] Despite the existence of common intellectual roots and enduring mutual respect, their itineraries have, however, largely remained separate and the following exchange around the notion of religion, illustrates it clearly.

The rediscovery of the classics of the French anthropological tradition mentioned above first took form at the University of Caen around the teachings of Claude Lefort, in the heady days leading to the social protests of May 68 and their aftermath characterized by disillusionment. This rediscovery constituted an attempt to escape both the primarily functionalist conception of society enshrined in Marxism dominant in French intellectual debates, the cognitive understanding of symbolism put forward by French structuralism, whose influence was promoting another reductive understanding of human societies as well as the Parsonian functionalism of the so-called social sciences. Both Caillé and Gauchet (two of Lefort’s most promising students) were very much inspired by the attempt to formulate a new social theory going beyond the dominant doxa of Marxism as pioneered by Lefort and his fellow militant thinker, Cornelius Castoriadis within the originally Trotskyist movement Socialisme our Barbarie founded in 1948 (Dosse 1998, 56). Central to this movement’s critical project was the rediscovery of the power of social imagination which later found its most ambitious theoretical formulation in Castoriadis’s The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1987), published in 1975.

Whilst Castoriadis was aware of how the imaginary creativity of human societies became manifest in symbolic structures, perhaps constrained by his sustained attachment to the ideal of revolution he left the question largely unexplored, preferring to focus on the exploration of what he called democratic autonomy, a notion strongly inspired by the experience of Greek antiquity. By contrast, in the course of the 1970s, Lefort (first in contact with Lacanian psychoanalysis) made of “the symbolic” the central concern of his work (Flynn 2005, 118–24). Despite their divergent paths, towards psychoanalysis and the exploration of the subjective conditions of democratic autonomy for Castoriadis, towards the recognition of the historical significance of liberal democracy and of human rights for Claude Lefort, the work of these two authors remained connected by the notion of institution discovered though the work of Merleau-Ponty (2003, 2010), who was Lefort’s erstwhile teacher. This notion emphasized the creative dimension of human societies, their capacity to establish their own world of meaning through the work of collective imagination and as Lefort argued more specifically, through symbolic forms.

The idea of institution is very much in the background of the debate between Caillé and Gauchet regarding the historical connections that exist between religious and .political phenomena. It can be argued that Caillé remained closer to the concern with humanity’s “symbolic self-institution” evident in Lefort’s earlier work (Breckman 2012) and this led him in this exchange with Gauchet to develop the notion of “the politico-religious” to which Gauchet himself remains fundamentally resistant. This is rather paradoxical if one considers that Caillé’s reflection — inspired by Gauchet’s definition of the political in an article published shortly before this exchange, “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” (Gauchet 2002) — in fact seeks to reconnect with the insights found in a text published four decades earlier by both Gauchet and Lefort, on the basis of the notes which Gauchet had taken of one of Lefort’s course and later edited : “Sur la démocratie : le politique et l’institution du social” (Gauchet and Lefort 1971). As Caillé states at the end of the text “On the politico-religious” to which Gauchet wrote a critical response (in turn prompting Caillé to refine his argument), his objective was to build on the insights to be found in this text by Gauchet and Lefort as they potentially opened up a reflection which was in fact “never taken up again conceptually, in any explicit and systematic fashion”, either by Lefort or Gauchet.

The article co-authored by Gauchet and Lefort, it must be pointed out, was at the heart of an argument between Lefort and Gauchet which saw them break contact in the late 1970s, Gauchet himself having stated much later that his input had not been sufficiently acknowledged (Gauchet 2003, 23, 159). [2] Behind the exchange between Caillé and Gauchet, there is thus the question of how Gauchet chose to take distance from his first mentor. Following his own first line of inquiry based on the idea that human societies have a “debt of meaning” to the sacred established by religious meaning (Gauchet 2005a, 1994), Gauchet deliberately reduced the scope of the original reflection on the notion of institution by bracketing out the question of the origin of this debt of meaning, or rather by approaching it only as a historical question, reducing religious meaning to being essentially a primordial functional response to the problem of historical indeterminacy and one which was ultimately displaced by the political through the role played by the state, within a very long historical process of “religious disenchantment” (Gauchet 1997). This led Lefort to accuse indirectly Gauchet of having become blind to what he called “the enigma of institution” and of promoting instead a new kind of sociological functionalism (Vibert 2013). [3] It can be argued that Caillé makes of this enigma the focus of his discussion of “the religious” which he sees as constituting a fundamental anthropological experience, whose significance extends beyond what Gauchet himself calls “religion”, the word designating for him only a specific historical phenomenon linked to the advent of the state, the emergence of political society increasingly emancipated from the reliance on the religious principle of hierarchy and ultimately of democracy. In the brief last section of his “political history of religion”, Gauchet acknowledged in a rather oblique way what his theory had excluded by discussing the fact that “the religious” survived the end of “religion” (Gauchet 1997, 200–207)

The notion of religious disenchantment developed by Gauchet from the mid-1980s onwards opened up an extremely fertile line of inquiry for the theorization of democracy and the study of its history. At the same time, though, it made it impossible for Gauchet, in his later work, to account for subjective religious experience and its complex relationship to political phenomena, establishing a fundamental ambiguity when it comes to distinguishing between the notion of “religion” and that of “the religious” [4], an ambiguity which spills over into his definition of the notion of the political : whilst The Disenchantment of the world established the political as what comes after religion, in “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” [5] (as it was reworked and developed for publication in La Condition politique in 2005) it now appears in fact as what always underpins the capacity of human societies to “institute” themselves. This is a major shift in Gauchet’s thinking but one that is never fully theorized despite the fact that it underpins his analysis of European history, the crisis of liberalism, the appearance of totalitarian ideology and the crisis of democracy characterized by depoliticization. One can in fact only speculate on whether the shift apparent in “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” was inspired by the exchange with Caillé. The fact is that Gauchet at the end of the exchange tacitly recognizes that religious and political phenomena have been so interconnected throughout human history that the notion of the politico-religious, which he originally summarily dismisses (“There is no such thing as the politico-religious”), is not without value.

In the second version of “Les tâches de la philosophie politique”, the political is defined as humanity’s “paradoxical and enigmatic being” and assimilated with humanity’s autonomy from the natural world (Gauchet 2002, 2005b, 555). Gauchet defines this autonomy in Kantian fashion as resting on processes of symbolic representation, bringing in the role played by power and conflict on top of explicit norms but without discussing the question of knowing how these symbolic processes draw their capacity to create a social identity. For Caillé, such a capacity ultimately rests on the relationship all human societies have established to another world, an all-encompassing society of invisible entities, long before religion appeared which coincides which the appearance of specialized sphere of social life dealing with the interpretation and the maintenance of specific forms of religious meaning.

The political thus cannot be disentangled from the religious but the religious itself is the original matrix in which are produced the “symbols of origin” through which human societies come into being as they enact ritual or perpetuate narratives. Humanity’s capacity to formulate symbols cannot be distinguished from its formulation of a privileged relationship to an unknown world outside the immediate empirical framework of its biological existence, a relationship to otherness, that of a totality of invisible entities from which is derived the relationship of societies to the otherness within, to their inner diversity. Religious transcendence creates, in a variety of forms, the meaning which establishes a common, societal identity rendered visible through sacred figures. There exists a parallel structure between the relationship to religious otherness and the active process of socialization which Caillé calls “ad-sociation” (Caillé 2007, 133). Both rest on the symbolism created by the gift as first formulated by Mauss, that is, the obligation to give, to receive and give back, whose origin, he states, remains a mystery, recalling Lefort’s implicit critique of the blind spot in Gauchet’s approach to the question of institution.

The centrality of the notion of gift in Caillé’s work bring us back to the formative years, for both Gauchet and himself, at the university of Caen, which saw the appearance of a new intellectual generation movement seeking to escape the sterility of the hitherto dominant intellectual currents and their solidification as a result of the disenchantment encouraged by the failure of May 68. This movement originally coalesced around the journal L’Anti-Mythe which ran from 1974 to 1978. Caillé, whose original disciplinary background was in economics was then introduced to the alternative vision of social relationships outlined in Marcel Mauss’s anthropological study of gift customs in archaic societies The Gift (Mauss 1990) through Lefort’s 1951 article “L’échange et la lutte des hommes” (Lefort 1978) [6]. This led him to establish the project which he pursue during his entire career by creating a journal and a movement whose acronym stated unambiguously its debt to Mauss’s work : the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales (Dosse 2014, 218–19).

{}The journal evolved but throughout his career, Caillé has remained faithful to this line of inquiry centered on the critique of utilitarianism in the social sciences and more broadly of the artificial divide between the social sciences and political philosophy. As Caillé himself stressed in an article published in 1992, this line of inquiry was fundamentally inspired by Lefort’s work in its attempt to find “a symbolic foundation other than utilitarian” for modern democracy (Caillé 1992, 67) . He stated that that this emphasis on symbolic foundations revealed the intrinsic limitations of contemporary liberal political philosophy apparent in the works of such influential thinks as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas and expressed regret that the influence of Lefort’s work had remained limited by its failure to engage with these two thinkers.

Gauchet’s early work can be said to have suffered from a similar lack of engagement with the classics of contemporary political philosophy but once again, in “Les tâches de la philosophie politique” whose publication triggered the debate with Caillé, Gauchet offers an analysis which he did not develop subsequently or only in a very oblique way. He offers an interpretation of the historical significance of the revival of political philosophy in the work of these two authors. It is symptomatic of a historical shift in the self-understanding of modern democratic culture away from the emphasis on the “historical” self-production of human societies – which dominated 19th century thought from Hegel to Marx and established the domination of social sciences – to the question of normative, legal foundations. This shift, he argues, is symptomatic of the appearance, form the mid-1970s onwards, of a new form of individualism and depoliticization of western societies, which must be seen in the broader context of a transformation in their relationship to historical change. Western societies having acquired unprecedented scientific and technological power and with it the capacity to shape the world to match their needs and desires (the creation of an anthropocosmos) have simultaneously lost the capacity to envisage and steer the future politically.

This thesis constitutes the argument of the last volume of Gauchet’s history of European democracy Le Nouveau monde and its analysis of its crisis under the influence of contemporary neo-liberal ideology, which echoes Caillé’s statement in his “New Theses on Religion” that “the deconstruction of religion and politics, henceforth disentangled in Europe, indicates the triumph of the economic”. In this respect one must note that that Le Nouveau monde renders explicit a point that remains obscure throughout his earlier work : in his analyses, the term “historical” linked to the emergence of the notion of society in fact incorporates economic functionalism or to use Caillé’s term “utilitarianism”. This is what allows him to define contemporary liberal democracy as a “mixed regime” (Gauchet 2007, I:7–58, 2015a, 182) defined by the historical, the political and the juridical and to interpret the current crisis of democracy as a loss of balance between these three components. Historicity is the central component of Gauchet’s theory of modern culture. It is defined as a new mode of human power defined by its orientation towards the future, its impulse to direct or even create it and as such, it incorporates economic activity whilst not being reducible to it. His analysis of the contemporary crisis of liberal democracy posits that the political has now been overwhelmed by both the economic component of the future orientation of modern culture and the law, which are but two different facets of a similar utopian project of rationalization. This brings him to mention Weber’s pioneering analysis of the religious foundations of capitalism although without any sustained theoretical engagement (Gauchet 2017). Gauchet’s work, unlike Caillé, has clearly not engaged with theorizations of capitalism, which weakens his analysis of the contemporary crisis of democracy, despite its considerable insights.

Another point of difference which must be noted concerns the way other authors such as Freitag (2002) of Lefort (2007) have interpreted the significance of this deconstruction and in particular of the loss of relevance of religious belief. Whilst Caillé himself questions the capacity of European societies to function without any reference to religious belief (thesis 38), Gauchet remains faithful to the conviction that has inspired his entire intellectual project, that the symbolic foundations of human societies do not necessarily depend on a conception of the sacred. In full opposition to interpretations of the current crisis of European democratic societies that equate desacralization with de-symbolization, Gauchet offers an optimistic analysis that points rather to a transformation in their symbolic framework and the possibility of democracy being “re-imagined” (Gauchet 2017).

To sum up, the significance of the exchange between Caillé and Gauchet is perhaps not to be found in the exchange itself but the developments it later inspired and here the work of Johann Arnason must be singled out. Though a civilizational approach which makes the work of Castoriadis, Lefort, Gauchet, Clastres as well as Maurice Godelier bear on the debates first opened up by the work of S.N. Eissenstadt and Robert Bellah, Arnason has laid the foundations for a theoretical analysis of the ideological and institutional intertwining of religion and politics in human history which can be said to constitute the meta-institutional cultural framework within which human societies create their forms and institutions (Arnason 2014, 19). Acknowledging the contribution of Gauchet’s “political history of religion” in its debt to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and what it reveals about the primacy of the religious framework within which a political understanding of society took form, Arnason does not speak of “the politico-religious” as does Caillé but of the “religio-political nexus”. His own reflection, however, clearly explores the field first adumbrated in Caillé’s pioneering text.

As Arnason’s article in the present issue demonstrates, the French anthropological reflection on religious phenomena founded by Durkheim provides the Weberian tradition with a complementary theoretical framework. A dialogue between these two traditions potentially allows, for example, a new perspective on the relationship that exists between contemporary capitalism and religion as explored by such authors as Christoph Deutschmann (2001). Caillé’s own reflection on utilitarianism points to it. As for Gauchet, the considerable insights of his critique of “generalized capitalism” in the last volume of his history of European democracy (Gauchet 2017) only connect superficially with Weber’s work but the discussion of the “neo-liberal imaginary” within which they are framed also calls for a deeper discussion of the way the “religious” still informs aspects of contemporary social life, even if no longer within the hierarchical all-encompassing symbolic mode which Gauchet identifies with “religion”.


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// Article publié le 28 avril 2019 Pour citer cet article : Natalie J. Doyle , « Critical introduction to Alain Caillé and Marcel Gauchet , An exchange on the place of religious meaning in the self-institution of human societies », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 28 avril 2019 [en ligne].

[1One must also note the influential theory of religion of René Girard (1977) based on the notion of sacrificial violence which is mentioned briefly in Caillé’s attempt to define religion..

[2Gauchet argues that he introduced into the text published with Lefort a more substantial critique of Marxism (Gauchet 2003, 23)

[3The critique was expressed in Lefort’s discssion of the significance of the work of the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, another former student of Lefort in “L’oeuvre de Clastres” (Lefort 1987). Sam Moyn (Moyn 2012) discusses the intellectuals tensions between Lefort and Gauchet around the interpretation of Clastres’s work.

[4This ambiguity is discussed by André Cloots (2007) It appears most clearly in the 2004 foreword to the discussions which Gauchet pursued with a number of French scholars of religion in 1985 after the publication of The Religious Disenchantment of the world where Gauchet uses the term “the religious” in a way which implicitly presents it as an anthropologically universal experience. He also states that the radical critique of “bourgeois society”, i.e. modern utilitarianism which assumed a materialistic form in the 19th and 20th (Gauchet 2004, 19) may well take on a “spiritual” one in the future, which can be taken to imply that the way “religion” , understood as a force structuring society through a heteronomous principle of hierarchy, is in fact only one aspect of the way religious meaning can inspire modes of social cohesion. The question remains unresolved in Gauchet’s discussion of the contemporary transformation of religious meaning, especially in his recent pronouncement on the attraction exercised by Islamic fundamentalism on some youth in fully “disenchanted” European societies (Gauchet 2015b, 2016).

[5The article was first published in the journal Revue du MAUSS.

[6This article was reprinted in 1974 in L’Anti-mythes.

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