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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

by Alain Renaut, Franklin Philip (Translator), M. B. Debevoise (Translator)

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With the publication of French 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


With the publication of French 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. In The 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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Over the last 60 years, some have embraced Heidegger as one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, while others have branded him a charlatan who clothes the paucity of his ideas in impenetrable words and phrases. The depth of his involvement with National Socialism and his unapologetic maintenance of ties with its leaders have not helped matters. French philosopher Renaut contends that Heidegger was correct in voicing concerns about modernity's individualistic orientation but that modernism and the primacy of individualism should not be equated. Rather, modernist philosophy contains two opposing views of humanity. One, found in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Leibniz, views humans as individuals who have nothing in common with other individuals. The second view, developed through Descartes and Kant, argues that humans are capable of making universal moral judgments. This is not an easy book to read and requires at least some familiarity with Heidegger and poststructuralist thought. The translation reads well, however, and Renaut's study should be part of any collection that supports programs in 20th-century philosophy.Terry C. Skeats, Bishop's Univ. Lib., Lennoxville, Quebec
From the Publisher

"Alain Renaut places himself foursquare in [the] humanist tradition in a spirited and erudite attempt to retrieve what he sees as its most important legacy.... [He is] one of the brightest lights in contemporary French moral and political philosophy."--Fredrick Appel, The Boston Book Review

"Alain Renaut tells the story of the elimination of the [human] subject, bringing together, with astonishing virtuosity, pedagogical clarity and a sense of drama.... By the very virtue of its richness, this learned yet fast-paced book raises a myriad of questions.... [It is] a book that one must read ... as a moving and admirable restoration of the idea of the subject."--Alain Finkielkraut, L'événement du jeudi

"Renaut's journey through the rise of philosophical individualism is a fascinating one for those interested in modern philosophical developments."--Martin Sheehan, Australia and World Affairs

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.04(w) x 9.13(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Era of the Individual

A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity

By Alain Renaut, M. B. DeBevoise, Franklin Philip


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00637-6


Heidegger: The Reign of the Subject

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 to discuss first the principal difficulties that seem to me to be inherent in this analysis of the logic of modernity, stemming mainly from a deliberate bias toward homogenization, in order to develop a rival interpretation of the history of subjectivity.

Homogeneous Modernity

In the Heideggerian interpretation of modernity, the overarching (and, indeed, overriding) principle is that the modern consists in a relation to the world according to which mankind posits itself as capable of providing the foundation for its own acts and representations, as well as for history, of truth, and the law. This foundational capacity, or power, defines subjectivity: in becoming a subject, man claims his place as the sub-jectum, the "under-lying" reality on which everything else depends. Though this rather trivial characterization of the subjectivity of the Moderns is basically correct, Heidegger's treatment of the topic is notable mostly for its extraordinary levelling effect.

Modernity is interpreted as being fully identical with the epoch of subjectivity—fully, because Heidegger tries to show that all the faces of modernity are in fact "consequences" (Folgen) of the advent of man in the position of subject. I shall not dwell on this first aspect of the tendency toward homogenization, which relates every feature of the modern world to the emergence of subjectivity: everything from the aestheticization of art to the rise of the diesel motor, from the emergence of the consumer society to the globalization of wars and totalitarianism, is attributed to the reign of subjectivity or, what amounts to the same thing, to the rise of humanism, which represents merely the cultural expression of the philosophical inauguration of man as subject. I shall cite just one example: Heidegger (and he is not alone here) sees one of the chief cultural characteristics of modernity as what he calls the loss of gods (Entgotterung), or dedivinization—the death of God, if you prefer, or the disenchantment of the world. The linking of this phenomenon, via humanism, with the appearance of man as subject comes as no surprise: what in classical antiquity, and even more in the Middle Ages, was the "place of God" becomes in the modern era the "place of man," with the values of modernity being defined by man's claiming for himself the two traditional attributes of God, omniscience (thus the view of modern culture as scientistic, nothing in principle being beyond the grasp of science)5 and omnipotence (thus the insistence on the technical dimension of culture).

This style of analysis is now well known. One qualification, however, needs to be made on account of certain misleading formulas. Heidegger obviously did not establish purely mechanical cause-and-effect relations between the history of philosophy and the other levels of evolution. Simply put, since the metaphysics of an age makes explicit the "determined relation to being in its totality," which in turn defines the way of being-in-the-world, "every era, every human epoch, is sustained by some metaphysics." Metaphysics may thus be said to "ground an epoch insofar it establishes and maintains humankind in a truth concerning beings and as a whole this way retains it." In short, inasmuch as any human attitude toward the whole of reality is sustained by a certain way of understanding the realness of this reality, and as philosophical systems since the time of the Greeks have given expression to these successive understandings, philosophy "basically determines the most intimate course of our history"—not because it produces this course, but because the deepest meaning of "what later occurs" is expressed and lets itself be grasped by it. It is from this perspective that behind all the manifestations of a perfectly homogeneous modernity we can see the deployment of the metaphysics of subjectivity as well as the process, which defines humanism, "through which man places himself at the center of being."

Leibniz and the Metaphysics of Modern Times

Heidegger's first homogenization is duplicated by a second one that directly concerns the history of subjectivity, and seems to me therefore to warrant closer examination. "The metaphysics of modern times," we read in Heidegger's Nietzsche, "is characterized by the special role which the human 'subject' and the appeal to the subjectivity of man play in it," and this in a way that reduces every image of subjectivity to a prototypical model of the subject whose philosophical identity goes back to Leibniz, or rather to the way in which the emergence of the Cartesian subject found its true impact only in Leibniz. "[...] Descartes and Leibniz ... give essential shape to the first explicit metaphysical founding of modern history," he says, meaning that Leibniz's clarification of Descartes' discovery truly establishes subjectivity as the essential foundation of modernity. In this sense, "The thinking of Leibniz supports and molds the chief tendency of what, thought broadly enough, we can call the metaphysics of the modern age"—by virtue of which, Heidegger insists, "for us the name of Leibniz does not stand as a tag for a bygone system of philosophy. The name names the presence of a thinking, whose strength has not yet been experienced, a presence that still awaits to encounter us." If every manifestation of modernity is thus "deduced" from the advent of subjectivity, all the moments in the history of subjectivity could in turn be reduced to the Leibnizian moment, insofar as it determined "the more radical interpretation of the subjectivity of the subject within the philosophy of German idealism and its subsequent scions"—to the point that "only through looking back on what Leibniz thought can we characterize the present age," whether the atomic age or any other designation expressing the technical essence of modernity.

The point is important, and should be examined all the more carefully because Heidegger's version of the history of subjectivity is most often read as reducing all its moments to the Cartesian cogito—which can be true only if one adds that, for Heidegger, the truth of the Cartesian subject was found in the Leibnizian subject. Leibniz's project was to reinterpret subjectivity as a monad, the monadological cogito demonstrating the truth of the rationalist cogito—as the second volume of Nietzsche clearly attests, arguing that with the monadological perspective "the new essence of reality begins to permeate everywhere and explicitly the totality of beings," and that "the beginning of that metaphysics develops which will remain the ground of history of the modern period." Thus, in this reading of the history of subjectivity, the inaugural and truly decisive moment to which everything is reduced can be unambiguously located in the Leibnizian monadology. Homogenization, in this history, works entirely to the benefit of Leibniz.

Having identified the principle of this interpretation, we now have to understand it before we can discuss and evaluate it. Why was this formidable privilege accorded to Leibniz? The well-versed reader of Heidegger will have no trouble thinking up possible explanations, the likeliest perhaps being that Leibniz (to whom Heidegger devoted a whole book) was the thinker who "could discover the principle of reason," who could see the "the principle of reason [as] the fundamental principle of rendering reasons,"17 whose power gives to the "spirit" of the age its distinctive tonality and motifs. In addition, the Système nouveau de la nature et de la communication des substances (New System of Nature and the Communication of Substances, 1695) was the first philosophical work whose title, for reasons specific to Leibniz's philosophy, expressed that "necessity of the system" seen by Heidegger as one of the "characteristics of modern metaphysics' essential completion." Finally, redefining substance as force, Leibniz posited the dynamization of essence as characteristic of all modern philosophy "up to the completion of the modem essence of Being as the will to power." In this idea it was possible to see "the turning point in the history of Being."

All these things converged, leading Heidegger to organize his history of subjectivity around Leibniz. To understand fully the primacy he granted Leibniz, however, we have to understand the reasons for this convergence in Heidegger's thought. This means that we need to see how, in his eyes, the structure of subjectivity, once it had emerged with Descartes (as both self-consciousness and consciousness of the object), could undergo only two essential modifications for whose actualization Leibniz's contribution seemed decisive:

• On the one hand, the subsequent metaphysics of subjectivity was to make explicit the dimension of activity potentially present in the cogitatio: for Descartes, cogitare was already co-agere, that is, to bring the real close to oneself in order to subject it to rational examination—and only then to bring out its truth (as certainty). According to Heidegger, Leibniz's contribution consisted in emphasizing subjectivity as activity, making its representation (perceptio) one of the two modalities (the other being appetitus) of what essentially defines the monad, that is, force (vis). Representation, in the modern sense, was held to be based on an unfolding of activity, for the Leibnizian explanation of the essence of representation rested on subjectivity as the intrinsically active condition of any attempt to submit the real to human mastery and possession. For this reason Heidegger believed he could treat the Kantian, Fichtean, and Nietzschean moments as mere extensions of Leibniz's deepening of the dynamic, willing essence of subjectivity: Kant having extended Leibniz by redefining the concept as the activity of synthesis, and not as receptacle; Fichte by regarding the ego as spontaneity; and Nietzsche by conceiving life as the will to power.

• A second and, in Heidegger's opinion, even more decisive change in the structure of subjectivity took place after Descartes, and here too Leibniz was seen to have played a decisive role as the first thinker to realize fully the spirit of modern metaphysics by applying the structure defining the human subject to all reality. This mechanism, which Heidegger calls "anthropomorphy" and which consists in conceiving substance itself as a subject (that is, as monad), radicalizes the spirit of metaphysical modernity, expressed only incompletely by Descartes. If indeed the spirit of the metaphysics of subjectivity (or, culturally, of humanism) lies in the attempt to conceive of reality exclusively in relation to man, posited as foundation (as subject), this spirit was already present in Descartes. The same spirit is realized more fully still when being is itself conceived as a subject, that is, when subjectivity defines the very structure of reality. Thus, in Leibniz, force (vis) as perceptio and appetitus—the essential property of human subjectivity (understood as activity, as self-production)—became the essence of every being (thought of as a monad): "With Leibniz, the thought arises that every being which is somehow self-contained as a being must have the true character of Being which makes itself known after Descartes in man's experience of himself as ego cogito sum, that is, as subject, as I think, I represent." And insofar as Leibniz reinterpreted representation in the sense of activity, will, or force, "the essence of force is the original essence of the beingness of beings." In this sense, because every being becomes owing to its "subjective nature," that is, aspires to represent and thus becomes effective ("because each being is subiectum, monad"), "the metaphysics of subjectivity had its decisive beginning in the metaphysics of Leibniz." Thus Hegel's and Nietzsche's contributions to the metaphysics of subjectivity are in fact a twofold exploitation of Leibnizian anthropomorphy: with Hegel's proclamation in the preface to the Phenomenology of Mind that "everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject, the "True"—also called the "Whole"—therefore acquires the very structure of subjectivity as the self-deployment of the identity of identity and difference; and in Nietzsche we find the equivalence asserted of being with life ("we have no other representation of being than the fact of living") and of life with the will to power ("everywhere I have encountered the living, I have encountered the will to power").

Heidegger's major thesis about the history of subjectivity consists in the decision to make this whole history (and, with it, the whole history of modernity) hinge on the monadological cogito as the twofold deepening of the Cartesian subject, both in the sense of the activist reinterpretation of the cogitatio and in that of the monadological (meaning anthropomorphic) reinterpretation of substance: Every subiectum is determined in its esse by vis (perceptio—appetitus). Every substantia is monad. Thus the essence of the reality of the res cogitans developing in the light of truth as certainty attains its scope in which it rules everything real"—and since the principle was to have the effect of consolidating the reign of the subject at its height, "it is only in this way of understanding that the initial positing of the metaphysics of modern times is reached."

The Completion of the Metaphysics of Subjectivity after Leibniz

Heidegger drew on this thesis to show how the logic of this history needed to be reconstructed in relation to the Leibnizian perspective. We can identify three distinct insights.

First, the Hegelian reduction of the real to the rational was already foreshadowed in Leibniz. Such a reduction was not conceivable in Descartes, owing to the Cartesian emphasis (the exploitation of which by Heidegger's followers can now be understood) on the creation of eternal truths: the idea that God could have created a world that was inconsistent with the principles of our rationality profoundly relativized the identification of the real with the rational. Leibniz, on the other hand, reduced the real to the possible, using a well-known line of argument, whose application is strongly underscored by Heidegger: If the real is only the possible (meaning the noncontradictory, and hence the rational) actualizing itself (solely on condition of its compatibility with other possibles), we can already have an inkling of the absolute identification of the real with the rational that in Hegel was the culmination of the campaign to assert subjectivity as imposing its law on the real and subjecting reality to reason, both literally and figuratively.

Second, a result also (on Heidegger's reading) due to Leibniz, the notion of a system is seen to play a major role in carrying out the program for a metaphysics of subjectivity developed by German idealism. Following in the steps of Leibniz, rather than Descartes, the real—now virtually reduced to the rational—came typically to be represented as totally governed by principles of order that make the whole of being into a totality, and hence a system. But the emergence of the system was also, and perhaps more profoundly, required by the monadological interpretation of substance as force: "The necessity of the system ... lies in the essential constitutents of the will understood in this way." If the basis of all being is substance as subject (that is, in Leibniz's sense, as a monad having the force to generate everything that happens to it—its history), it became indispensable—unless one accepted the possibility of a wholly chaotic universe (a hypothesis incompatible with God's choice of this world from among the infinity of possible worlds)—to assume the existence of a preestablished harmony, a prior ordering of the monads by God, acting as the monad of monads. The idea of preestablished harmony thus anticipated the notion of system, whose development in German idealism was required by its dynamic conception of substance as subject.


Excerpted from The Era of the Individual by Alain Renaut, M. B. DeBevoise, Franklin Philip. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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