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The Era of the Individual: A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity

The Era of the Individual: A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity

Alain Renaut
M. B. DeBevoise
Franklin Philip
With a Foreword by Alexander Nehamas
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 292
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  • Book Info
    The Era of the Individual: A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity
    Book Description:

    With the publication ofFrench Philosophy of the Sixties, Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry in 1985 launched their famous critique against canonical figures such as Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, bringing under rigorous scrutiny the entire post-structuralist project that had dominated Western intellectual life for over two decades. Their goal was to defend the accomplishments of liberal democracy, particularly in terms of basic human rights, and to trace the reigning philosophers' distrust of liberalism to an "antihumanism" inherited mainly from Heidegger. InThe Era of the Individual, widely hailed as Renaut's magnum opus, the author explores the most salient feature of post-structuralism: the elimination of the human subject. At the root of this thinking lies the belief that humans cannot know or control their basic natures, a premise that led to Heidegger's distrust of an individualistic, capitalist modern society and that allied him briefly with Hitler's National Socialist Party. While acknowledging some of Heidegger's misgivings toward modernity as legitimate, Renaut argues that it is nevertheless wrong to equate modernity with the triumph of individualism. Here he distinguishes between individualism and subjectivity and, by offering a history of the two, powerfully redirects the course of current thinking away from potentially dangerous, reductionist views of humanity.

    Renaut argues that modern philosophy contains within itself two opposed ways of conceiving the human person. The first, which has its roots in Descartes and Kant, views human beings as subjects capable of arriving at universal moral judgments. The second, stemming from Leibniz, Hegel, and Nietzsche, presents human beings as independent individuals sharing nothing with others. In a careful recounting of this philosophical tradition, Renaut shows the resonances of these traditions in more recent philosophers such as Heidegger and in the social anthropology of Louis Dumont.

    Renaut's distinction between individualism and subjectivity has become an important issue for young thinkers dissatisfied with the intellectual tradition originating in Nietzsche and Heidegger. Moreover, his proclivity toward the Kantian tradition, combined with his insights into the shortcomings of modernity, will interest anyone concerned about today's shifting cultural attitudes toward liberalism.

    Originally published in 1999.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6451-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xviii)
    Alexander Nehamas

    Until recently, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy attracted and repelled, with equal intensity, a large number of American readers. To his admirers, Heidegger was one of the great philosophers in history, the thinker who understood most clearly the impasse that Western technological civilization is supposed to have reached, who may have had a glimpse, if only dimly, of another world. To his detractors, Heidegger was an obscurantist with an odious political past, with a talent for coining impenetrable neologisms that appear to display deep understanding but really serve only as a barrier to systematic, rational criticism.

    Was he a genius? Was he...

  4. Translator’s Note
    (pp. xix-xx)
    M. B. DeBevoise
  5. Preface
    (pp. xxi-xxxii)
  6. Part One: Readings of Modernity

    • CHAPTER I Heidegger: The Reign of the Subject
      (pp. 3-28)

      The contemporary interpretation of the history of modernity, which sees this as a perpetually consolidated reign of subjectivity, is profoundly marked by the Heideggerian deconstruction of the modern history of philosophy and, more generally, of modern culture. We find direct or indirect traces of this influence in thinkers as different as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Michel Foucault, and Claude Lefort. Yet the history of subjectivity as Heidegger has accustomed us to reading it creates more problems than it solves, and introduces a number of ambiguities that seriously jeopardize the chance of finding a new role for the subject. I want...

    • CHAPTER II Dumont: The Triumph of the Individual
      (pp. 29-58)

      The attempt to bring an individualistic approach to bear upon a philosophical history of modernity runs into major methodological difficulties.

      First, the term “individualism” is notoriously imprecise. Max Weber was correct to say that it “includes the most heterogeneous things imaginable.” To get some idea of its multiplicity, think of the various terms with which it can be paired as an opposite: universalism, totalism, holism, altruism, traditionalism, and socialism. All these notions can function in various ways as opposites of individualism, leading one to wonder whether the term exists solely because of its capacity for contrast, without having any determinate...

  7. Part Two: Logic of Philosophy

    • CHAPTER III Leibniz: The Monadological Idea and the Birth of the Individual
      (pp. 61-87)

      By setting this philosophical history of subjectivity in the context of a “logic of philosophy,” I mean both to indicate the sort of usefulness it might have and also to expose it straight away to the kind of objections that it cannot help but invite. To my mind, it is clear that the logic of philosophy brings out the interpretative dimension of history: that is to say, themeaningof history over and above its purely archaeological dimension, which aims, sometimes naively, only at accurately restoring some particularcorpus. Need I add that I neither scorn nor neglect to concern...

    • CHAPTER IV Berkeley and Hume: The Empiricist Monadologies and the Dissolution of the Subject
      (pp. 88-114)

      The discussion of classical empiricism that follows is intended to sharpen my chief working hypothesis: if the decisive turning point in modern philosophy leading from the affirmation of the subject to that of the individual is found in the emergence of the monadological problem, we should find signs of this problem outside of its original setting—outside the context given it by Leibniz, in a form certainly altered by the shift of context but one that still contains the main elements and effects, perverse or otherwise, of the monadological theme.

      It may seem at first disconcerting to look for a...

    • CHAPTER V Hegel and Nietzsche: Development of the Monadologies
      (pp. 115-138)

      What justification is there for associating Hegel and Nietzsche, who in many ways—beginning with their antithetical positions on rationality—are philosophical opposites?¹ We know Heidegger’s verdict: united by what separated them, Hegelianism and Nietzscheanism matched up as two indissolubly linked moments of a consummated metaphysics displaying that double absolutization of knowledge and of the will which would bring to an end the modern process of reality’s submission to the subject. Or, if you prefer, in proceeding on the basis of that subjectivization of every being which follows from the Leibnizian definition of substance as the unity of representation (perceptio)...

  8. Part Three: Transcendence and Autonomy:: The End of the Monadologies

    • Preamble: Phenomenology and Criticism
      (pp. 141-142)

      Contemporary philosophy is full of attempts to overcome its past: one consequence of the dominant interpretation of this past has been that “overcoming metaphysics”—a move that for the great post-Hegelian philosophies has been almost obligatory (if only to the extent that, in Hegel, the completion of the system claimed to bring the history of philosophy to an end)—often gave the impression, first in Nietzsche and Heidegger, of radically calling into question the idea of the subject. If, however, it is agreed that since the Leibnizian turn, philosophical modernity has consisted more in the forgetting of subjectivity than its...

    • CHAPTER VI Lévinas: The Rupture of Immanence
      (pp. 143-166)

      It is well known that the theme of otherness is central to the thinking of Emmanuel Lévinas. I shall not review all its underpinnings here, nor attempt to point out all its ramifications; instead I shall concentrate only on the antimonadological import of this theme and its relation to a possible revival of the question of the subject. Alluding to “the crisis of humanism in our age,” Lévinas refuses to deal with the fact that such a crisis must inevitably open the way to “the antihumanism that will reduce man to a medium”:¹ on the contrary, it seems to him...

    • CHAPTER VII Kant: The Horizon of Transcendence
      (pp. 167-200)

      The need for the subject to think of itself asauto-nomousis inseparable from a modernity in which ethical, juridical, and political values are notreceivedfrom a natural order of things already containing them, but areself-groundedorself-establishedas norms that humanity gives itself, constitutive of intersubjectivity and based on the idea that humanity creates for itself of its own dignity. Paradoxically, this idea (or value) of autonomy is undermined both by the logic involved in completing metaphysics and by a certain logic involved in overcoming it.

      Along the road to its completion, modern metaphysics after Leibniz assumed...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 201-240)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-250)
  11. Index
    (pp. 251-258)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-259)