François RASTIER

A presentation for The Disappearing Society,
a conference organized by the Franco-Norwegian cultural center,
“Maison des sciences de l’homme”, Paris,  June 19th  2003


I. Inaugurating a world of things

Perhaps it all begins with a question of semantics, that of lexical reference. It is probable that Franciscan priests derived the law of parsimony from the rule of poverty. More radical still than Pierre Auriol’s, Ockham’s nominalism  could be called a realism of individuals, since it denies that universal concepts have any reality apart from the individual things signified by the universal or general term. Thus only individual  concepts truly have a meaning. And Ockham’s razor can be read as a maxim opposing the plural : Nunquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate [1].

Since he finds no reason to add any kind of metaphysical reality to the data of experience, Ockham paves the way for positivism – the world no longer displays the unity of a cosmos, and can from then on be divided into things, knowable by inventory.

Refuting the totalized universe of Scripture, the encyclopedia of the Enlightenment were an attempt at surveying the universe, which was no longer a whole, but a sum of things [2].  Later, after the grand Nineteenth century developments of positivism, logical positivism  further radicalized this stance, by defining the world as ontological furniture.

Thus over the centuries, the world of human things (Aristotle’s pragmata) changed into a world of reified things, now become mere objects [3].

1. From a world of individuals to methodological individualism.

As the cosmos was dismembered into distinct things, society was broken up into so many individuals.

The notion of the individual was born out of two social developments : private property, and legal responsibility. The former is the very basis of democracy, be it based on a poll tax, and the latter of equality (with truly exists only before the law) [4 ].  As Max Weber has suggested, the modern individual was “created” as capitalism developped. The Reformation also played a significant role, in dividing the catholic People of God (descended from the Chosen People of the Judaic tradition) into so many individually predestined persons [5].

Since the end of the Nineteenth century, genetic inheritance [6],  by determining the ways in which one belongs to a community, or even humanity, has contributed a third kind of definition of the individual. Sir Francis Crick, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the molecular structure of DNA, writes : “no newborn child should be acknowledged as a human being before he has passed a number of tests identifying his genetic characteristics (…) If he fails them, he loses his right to live.” [7] Thus social harmony can invite eugenics : when individuals are defined by their biological inheritance, that so-called inheritance is necessarily construed as a political object  (see below, the discussion of biopolitics).

From the moment society represents no more than a collection of individuals, social interaction amounts to the combination of their actions [8],  or communication between them. In fact, communication is now prized as such, whatever the content : transferring information is valuable in itself. Both the now widespread use of mobile phones, acting as  communicating prostheses, and the development of the Internet into a worldwide network potentially connecting hundreds of millions of individuals, stand as technological illustrations of an irenic ideology of communication. In a way, the Web embodies Leibniz’s dream : every monad-individual  is in synchronized communication with all the others  [9].  Without God, however, totality loses its global determination and becomes a loose conglomeration of individuals. When it comes to discussing the Internet, theology is thus adapted into  vaguely angelological  views, like those expressed by Michel Serres advertising Wap technology for Vivendi (2001), or by Pierre Levy, whose definition of collective intelligence unmistakably recalls Teilhard de Chardin.

The emergence of a world of individuals obviously has implications for epistemology, and possibly gnoseology. What sociologists call methodological individualism, since it will not take into explicit account any effect of society on persons, really reduces institutions and their constraining function to exchanges between individuals. This reduction probably bears some relation to free-market economics, since the supreme law of the market, that of supply and demand, is there understood as the temporary and unpredictable sum of individual decisions.

Refuting transcendence is naturally one of the proud aims of methodological individualism. Now, of course the critique of idealities is still justified. But Plato’s Ideas were designed to account for the unification of partial perceptions of an object [10].  However, if there is no longer a word of types, occurrences become immeasurable and the problem of categorization insoluble.

Which is the opposition between totality and individuality needs to be questioned, and replaced by the difference between global and local on the one hand, and between general and particular on the other. That is the only approach compatible with the historical and comparative epistemology of the sciences of culture. In such an approach, individuals are not a starting point for construing social phenomena scientifically : they are but the temporary outcome of a characterization method.

2. The inability to conceive of culture

Although it dominates the humanities today, methodological individualism does not allow for the examination of culture. As Geertz has shown, culture is the very embodiment of social reality ; in other words, it changes animal society into human sociality.

As a system of semiotic structures immanent in society, culture seems to stand as a whole that transcends individuals. Or at least it seems to shape them in their epigenetic development. In particular, they are established as subjects by socialization : Malinowki and Mead’s cultural anthropology had started working out a cultural typology of different kinds of subjectivity before cognitivist programs objected to all comparative methods.

In methodological individualism, all collective protocols of social integration or perpetuation (such as christenings, rites of passage, etc.) are equally dismissed as obsolete remnants of metaphysics, since man is only defined by his organism [11].  In this way, genetic inheritance comes to determine which social group you belong to.

This revives the core question of philosophical anthropology, that of the relation between body and soul. If the soul is naturalized, confined to a bodily function, it can no longer play its double role of personal individuation and link to the whole : genetic inheritance takes on that double role, since it is particular both to an individual and the species as a whole. From there, it only takes a definition of races as different species to promote a racial definition of the state.

Hegelian theory defines the state as a whole. It was Nazism’s core contribution to link in practice the theory of state to that of race. The unity of the social group is thus founded on its racial unity (ein Volk) – on which its political unity depends (ein Reich). It is left to the Führer to mediate between these two terms [12].

Although more benign, several recent theories of social groups are grounded in the same premise. Genetic criteria are also used, for instance, to define sexual or ethnic minorities, although far removed from any theory of state. When the discovery of a so-called homosexuality gene was made public in the United States, most reactions from the gay community were favorable, because it was felt to give natural grounds for difference, and thus justify it.

The definition of minority cultures informing “cultural studies” and theoretical justifications like “queer theory” rests, in the last analysis, on a genetic definition of individuals [13].  It only reverses the value judgment, thus turning into positive discrimination.

More generally, persons are understood to be individuals trapped in their bodily condition. They lose their freedom, because in effect the genome acts as a natural sign of divine predestination ; or in any case, its determinism rivals that of God.

3. The language organ and genetic inheritance

Genetic determinism also extends to language. Even formalist theories ultimately claim to be grounded in biology : Chomsky thus describes his universal grammar as a “hypothetical component of genetic inheritance  (1984, p.21)” ( it is no joking matter that grammarians now fight over our gametes ). Still, the relation between the obviously innate language organ, or device, and the languages we acquire is seen as no more than the adjustment (a purely metaphorical one) of parameters : to learn a language is to parameterize one’s language device.

For a long time, prime attention was given to whatever it was in man that connected him to Being, that is to say the soul, or Reason, which according to Saint Thomas is precisely the shape given to the Soul. Now Being has become Matter, and the soul, which faded away with the Enlightenment, has been “replaced” by the brain. Hence the need to naturalize meaning, that is to say find a neuronal substratum for it.

Accordingly, languages and their usage are thought to be determined by the language device, with learning allowing for the setting of a few parameters. In a concrete illustration of the naturalization agenda, the ideological function  of the language organ is reduced to turning physiological substrata into absolute determinations, as if the anatomy of my hand could account for the words I am typing on this keyboard.

II. Evolutions of Darwinism

1. From Malthus to Darwin and Back

In a book praising Haeckel, the theoretician of Greater Germany who gave racism a “scientific” rationale, and soon after the events of the Paris Commune, Leon Dumont strongly advocates social Darwinism : “Darwin himself has stated, more than once, that he had but applied to the origin of species the theories of economists, and that Malthus especially had guided his inquiries. Were the conservative party not so blind, it would admit that within evolutionary theory lies the philosophical core of the conservative doctrine, and that only evolution can provide it with a scientific justification  (1873, p.6).”

Vacher de Lapouge, another theoretician of racism, takes up the same thought : “it hadn’t yet been understood that Darwinism applied to man in his social life precluded any future element of non-scientific social explanation, that is to say any notion of supernatural social causes escaping the general law of causality in the universe (1899, p.513).” Today’s scientist neo-Darwinism,  be it of the right like O.E. Wilson’s, or of the left like Chomsky’s, Dawkins’s, Changeux’s or Sperber’s, is inspired by precisely such an agenda of causal explanation.

Darwin’s reference to Malthus calls for closer examination. Malthus claims that population growth must be checked if it is not to outrun the food supply ; hence the theory of the “ good war. “ Darwinism is a metaphorical projection of that melancholy and tragic political economy  onto the living world. To shift this metaphor back to society is to restore it to its primary meaning, only dressed in a scientific authority linking it to the natural world order. Darwinism transposed to biology the principles of capitalist competition, and it is now used to vindicate it, giving ultra-liberal theories of economic predation a grounding in the sciences of life.

However, Darwinism is concerned with species, not individuals. Whereas populations were the object of Malthus’s study, the social interpretation of Darwinism outlined by engineer and philosopher Herbert Spencer leads to an ethos of the selection of individuals – only the fittest  survive, and they are identified as the fittest precisely because they survive [14].  This amounts to granting  any sort of aggression scientific legitimation, provided it is successful.

2. Replacing  Providence

Darwinism is a theory of evolution ; it wasn’t the first, and many of Darwin’s ideas had been put forward by Lamarck ; his singular contribution was to argue that evolution was regulated by two basic principles, natural selection and adaptation. To which he added an apparently progressive, or at least providential vision – the present state of things is necessarily an improvement, since it is the outcome of the selection of the best.

In such a pattern, selection comes to play the role that Providence used to play. But it does so with no overall design, and without any divine motive. As for  the ability to adapt, it plays the part of Grace, for it is a sign of perfection (although devoid of metrics), since any organism is adapted as long as it is viable , and so is any species that manages to perpetuate.

Such justification for the state of things thus comes to replace the providential explanation that is called naive in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. It remains an illusion all the same. To replace Providence and justify stability, principles of balance are required. For instance, supposing that the natural balance achieved by the law of the smallest effort could replace Providence, Maupertuis transposed Fermat’s “principle of least time” into a “principle of least action”. This was subsequently transposed to human phenomena and became the "principle of least effort”, which is used to provide an explanation for phonetic change (and was finally refuted by Meillet). Its best-known illustration at present is Sperber and Wilson’s relevancy principle, which is based on the same principle of economy.

3. From Darwinism to Darwinisms

From an understanding of the competition between species, later mitigated by the environmental niche concept, we have moved on to the notion of competition between members of the same species. This is where Malthusian pessimism, and Bentham or Mill’s utilitarianism, take on their full significance : from the moment a species is nothing but a collection of individuals, social relations are understood as a struggle, or even a “deadly gladiator’s struggle” (in the words of Thomas Huxley, a late nineteenth century Darwinian).

Such a Darwinism of individuals is reinforced by a moral form of Darwinism in man. For instance, Paul Rée argued in his writings that selection weakens in man the altruistic feelings inherited from animals. This was to be one of the inaugural points of his friend Nietzsche’s thought : “ For the sake of the species as a whole, it is necessary that the uncalled for, the weak, the degenerate should die (…) What are christian virtue and charity, but a form of reciprocal conservation, of solidarity between the weak, an obstacle to selection ?  (The Will to Power, §161).”

In our times, the outcome of the neo-Darwinian current that dominates natural science has been a further atomization of Darwinism. Beyond the Darwinism of species, and then of individuals (the struggle for life), we are now moving towards infra-individual versions of Darwinism [15].

The Darwinism of genes, put forth notably by Richard Dawkins, contends that evolution is determined by the conservation of genes. Thus the rationale behind sexual strategies, and the broader range of social activity, would ultimately be an optimization of the strongest, or cleverest, genes. Which leads to the paradoxical discussion of the selfishness of genes (The Selfish Gene, 1987).

Neural Darwinism, an expression coined by Pierre Changeux, is based on the phenomenon of precocious neuronal death (confirmed by the experiments on the sight of kittens conducted by Huebel and Wiesel) – neurons that are not activated disappear, and so do, on yet a smaller scale, all unused axons.

Finally, a Darwinism of representations has been reactivated by Dawkins in his theory of memes (the most primitive transmitted representations), modeled on genes. According to Dan Sperber’s analysis, “representations” spread by contamination (the epidemic metaphor pervades biopolitical discourse), and  only the fittest are selected, in a pattern that is a perfect illustration of the academic and editorial strategies of orthodox cognitivists.

Like the previous ones, these highly metaphorical theories rest on three underlying principles : 1/ Things evolve, which Lamarck admits is a truistic statement. 2/ What drives evolution is the identity advantage (for a species, an individual, a neuron, a genome, or a representation. 3/ Whatever succeeds must be right – adaptation is progressive.  This last principle, which would amount to plain cynicism in politics, can provide justification for any successful murder or aggression, provided it is victorious.

If cultures are inconceivable [16],  they must be tied down to something that is, and that involves naturalizing meaning.  The naturalization agenda which is Dan Sperber’s Holy Grail of cognitive philosophy, is the outcome of such determinism, of which Nineteenth century positivism had seemed to be the final account. In The Contamination of Ideas (1996), Sperber really picks up Taine’s platform as  it was in 1870  when he wrote De l’Intelligence [17 ].

III. Biopolitics

1. Biological determinism and racism of the species

Far from being an aberration, E.O.Wilson’s sociobiology is a consistent application of biological determinism (Wilson likes to mention that he taught Chomsky at Harvard). This determinism is actually a racism of the species, or rather racism is one of the specifications of this determinism. Taking into account the vast range of diversification of the human genome, for which there is scientific evidence, racism artificially stops that process at the stage of ethnic groups, although interindividual variation is much more significant than group variation.

In their desire to forge a new man, Marxism and Marxism-Leninism gave precedence to acquired abilities, while Nazism and the several kinds of fascism favored the innate – a healthy will to power that would allow the übermensch to get rid of the untermensch, slaughter thus becoming only a perfected form of natural selection. The purity of the race was at stake, as in recent instances of “ethnic purification.” They had not seen that mass crime, for which there is no animal equivalent, was peculiar to men, bearing witness to the irruption of myth into history.

2. Sociobiology and biopolitics

There are two ways in which the humanities, ethics, and politics, can be tied down to natural science : sociobiology, and biopolitics. The former “explains” man as an animal species, and relates all human behavior to  supposed interests. But are they the interests of the species, or the individual ? In this way of thinking, any behavior that does not profit the individual must profit the species. The persisting phenomenon of altruism, for instance, can be explained away as some kind of ultimately profitable calculation.

As for biopolitics, it turns the performance criteria of genes in heredity into political criteria. The overarching political goal is to purify the genome. A new offshoot of nineteenth Century scientism, it  betrays the influence of the sciences of life on political theories. It inspires the dangerous desire to “perfect” the species. It steps from selection used as an explanation to selection in action. Thus it goes from theory to ethics, from Darwinism to eugenics.

Biopolitics aims at understanding and regulating social life thanks to biological determinism. Its concerns include prenatal selection, euthanasia, and gene therapy, but can  also lead to death sentences justified by biological criteria, such as supposed deficiencies in one’s genetic makeup, or “racial” characteristics.

Eugenics, from Galton to Chamberlain, had become a state policy in several countries long before Hitler rose to power [18].  In its “positive” form, it pursues the conception of healthy individuals through the selection of genitors, and /or embryos, and is an inspiration for different policies, like offering incentives for therapeutic abortion. Today’s gene therapy may be wrapped in irenic discourse that appeals to the public, but it really aims at the same type of improvement.

Similarly, the case for euthanasia, even in the name of compassion, presumes that disability or disgrace make life useless, or even shameful. The gradual acceptance of euthanasia in practice testifies to the standardization of such views.

Emphasizing the continuity between man and animals, and between animals and natural life, eventually makes it possible to conceive of, or even authorize, all kinds of genetic purifications or improvements – the obviously irenic argument in favor of GMOs only embodies the demiurge’s dream of controlling  all species.

Other policies however, radical ones, also rest on “positive” eugenics : for a time there was the plan for human stud farms (Lebensborn), or the theory of rape as an auxiliary to ethnic purification. Human reproductive cloning, which is supported by certain sects, is also about claiming a “pure” identity, unthreatened by adulteration or cross-breeding.

In its rightly called “negative” form, eugenics advocates the elimination of persons carrying a genetic inheritance deemed inferior : mixed-bloods from the Ruhr region, physically or mentally disabled people, social dissenters or deviants of various kinds, were all sentenced to elimination long before the Jews or Tsiganes were, and such elimination was consistently conducted under medical control – it was always a doctor who declared someone “fit” for the gas chamber.

Whether they institute a hierarchy between human races or categories or not, biopolitical theories generally submit to two general premises : genes entirely determine a person’s organic evolution, and the latter in return entirely determines human life in all its aspects.

3. Biopolitics and post-humanity

The grey area opened with extermination camps did not disappear with the end of the war. It returned in revisionist theories. And in other, more subtle discourses, the now undeniable horror is taken for granted and the argument blurred. Some claim that Auschwitz opened a new era in which values have been destroyed, the criteria for responsibility have lost their meaning, and for which we should build an after-culture and a post-humanity.

The apocalyptic theme of the end of history, a millenarian cliché taken up by Hegel and gone down in Marxist theory, was also a feature of Nazism . The thousand year Reich is a reformulation of millenarian themes. But since the end of the war, several important trends in contemporary thought have described the Holocaust – and no longer the battle of Iéna as in Hegel – as the “original moment” of the end of History. This core theme of post-modernism already informs Adorno’s understanding of Auschwitz, for instance.

Did extermination signal a threshold in history, ushering in a final, post-historical stage in the evolution of humanity, thus making it a post-humanity ? Is man, as a political creature, to resume his biological existence as an animal ? Such are the confused questions being raised today, while historical revisionism and racial hatred spreads throughout the world.

The grounding or at least the scientific justification of Nazism was biopolitical. The Nazis, whose theories rested on the genetic research of Haeckel, had set out to save the genetic inheritance of white Europe.

Once the political concept of the people and the biological concept of population had been assimilated, it became clear that all elements of the population that didn’t belong to the people had to be eliminated : aliens thus became the enemy, as expressed in the 1933 Nazi legislation on  “protecting the hereditary health of the German people.” Now if a healthy population is a notion that can make sense, a healthy people certainly isn’t. In close correlation to this,  the ethical concept of humanity and the biological concept of the human species are merged, thus leading to the conclusion that to protect its own future the species should eliminate that which flaws its genetic inheritance [19].

This explains why, starting in the thirties with the elimination of the sick, extermination was consistently conducted under medical supervision. There are heavy undertones indeed to the term selection (Selektion, selekja),  used to describe the recurring sorting sessions during which Nazi doctors would send the weakest prisoners to the gas chamber – it is derived from the phrase “natural selection”, so central to Darwin’s argument.  In fact, the camps are the only locus where the truth of Darwin’s theory could ever be actually played out : “ the Darwinian law according to which the fittest, who often happens to be the meanest, dominates and survives by feeding off the flesh of others  (Levi, 1998, p.259).”

When adapting to one’s environment comes to stand for what is good, or at least sums up all values, the ideal society is defined as one in which all individuals are perfectly adapted. In such a society, there is no place for ethical debate, since the latter requires a critical perspective on the state of things, impossible to achieve if the social state of things is taken to be natural. Thus the ideal social state is that of the ant’s nest – or  of totalitarian states.

IV. Conceiving of culture

Sociobiology is the application of a regressive agenda, and although it may claim to put down culture to a kind of evolutionary advantage, it has no way to account for the diversity of cultures, to say nothing of their interrelations. However, this inability to account for social and semiotic matters has been obscured by neo-Darwinian theories of the mind, like Sperber’s, or genocentric theories like Dawkins’s. The question of culture is thus restricted to the study of “the neuronal system of data sharing in a social group  (Changeux, 2002, p.34).”

Whereas species, according to Darwinism, evolve in time and according to necessity, cultures remain deeply anti-Darwinian in that they are born of contingency and submitted to history. Human worlds create their own laws, laid down and overturned in the non-metrical time of history.

Naturally, cultures adapt to their environment, one way or the other, and men adapt to the cultural world in which they are brought up. Thus cultures mediate between man and his environment. But on what grounds could any culture be found more adaptative than any other ? Some cultures admit infanticide, or human sacrifice, etc.

The opposition between nature and culture remains strange, for it rests on the opposition between nature and spirit , which itself reflects German idealism’s opposition between Me and the World (the Not-Me). It is nonetheless questioned in the field of anthropology itself.

Culture may belong to natural science from the perspective of phylogenies, but it evades it from the perspective of society. Indeed, not only does it rest on the transmission of knowledge through imitation, but it also involves a retroactive process in which semiotic forms have implications on epigenesis. Moreover, it includes “immaterial” but empirically semiotic occurrences like beliefs and  “other worlds”. The sciences of nature cannot think out the whole of these semiotic systems.

The epistemological opposition between the sciences of culture and the sciences of nature also needs to be characterized, at least when it comes to the outdated vision that naturalizing philosophers have of the sciences of culture. This opposition lies both in the nature of the facts examined and the means for knowing them. The sciences of culture may be rigorous, but not exact. They question and argue around conditions, but cannot reach causes, in the Newtonian sense of that word. For lack of a claim to epistemological specificity when they emerged in the Nineteenth century, the social sciences were modeled on natural science, then blossoming, and found inspiration in the latter’s objective of mastering the universe.  It was Galton, for instance, who was close to Darwin and one of the instigators of eugenics, who advocated the introduction of statistics in the study of social phenomena.

However, for biology and the sciences of life, the boundary between animals and men doesn’t exist any more than the notions of a person or a society ; for the sciences of culture, these are founding distinctions. It does not determine an all or nothing, as in the time when man was defined by his soul. And among the defining characteristics of man, which have been listed time and again, everyone agrees to include signs, sociality, and the transmission of acquired behavior. But for the sciences of culture, the inquiry bears on languages and texts, rather than on mere signs, on instituting rules rather than mere sociality, and on history and tradition rather than the imitation of acquired behavior.

V. Epistemological difficulties of the social sciences

The social sciences have not yet managed to break entirely free from now obsolete scientist standards – hence the recurring success of reductionist programs, or the naive faith in non-critical formalization. They suffer from a lack of epistemological clarity, and struggle to find a collective identity. Thus the very notion of a social science remains rather vague, because it can be extended to the study of social forms of animal life : scientists working on a new current in primatology are presently asking to be included in the social sciences. Conversely, the main school of thought on human ethology studies our customs according to the same methods that are used for (other) animal species.

Both approaches are perfectly licit, but fail to address cultural matters, by treating culture as a simple extension of sociality [20].  The sciences of culture, on the other hand, can be bound by the common hypothesis that man cannot be studied separately from anthropization, in the course of phylogenies, ontogenesis, and epigenesis [21].  However, we still lack a broad coordinated research program on the genesis of cultures – this still missing link would allow a better understanding of the relation  between hominization as a form of biological evolution, and anthropization as a form of cultural rupture.

The triumph of orthodox cognitivism seemed substantiated for a long while, although in its most radical versions, and in the name of a naturalization of meaning  agenda, it acknowledged no specificity of the sciences of culture whatsoever. The blossoming of neo-Darwinian thought in the fields of cognitive anthropology and the philosophy of mind testifies to the resilience of such a program.

Reductionist programs that seek the easy way out are no longer relevant. As the most intolerant forms of scientism wane, there is a new social need for the sciences of culture. The debate that is beginning now has roots in recent results of research conducted in disciplines such as ethnosciences, anthropology, paleontology, human ethology, archeology, and comparative linguistics. Indeed, for some fifteen years now, research from different fields have been converging in an unprecedented way. Some of these results, in the field of population genetics, comparative and historical linguistics, and paleoanthropology, offer new insights into the genesis of cultures and the emergence of our semiotic world.

To overcome the false distinction between humanities and social sciences (probably a vestige of the outdated struggle between Humanism and Marxism), they must be brought together as sciences of culture and their specificity must be defined. Their wealth lies in two kinds of diversity : first the diversity of cultures, which allows them to move each in its own time and space ; and  second, for each cultural “fact”, the diversity of particular parameters, which makes any experiment, in the strict sense, impossible, thus discarding the model of physics. Even when they are declared to be the object of observation, human and social “facts” are still the outcome of interpretative constructs. This is why only the sciences of culture are fit to account for  the semiotic nature of the human universe. Attempting to know human beings through man, they have to acknowledge the part man plays in this knowledge, both as a the critically aware audience of any  possible  “result”, but also as a participant in this process, with his own emotions and sense of responsibility.

Without reviewing the whole debate between Herder and Kant, we might just  remind ourselves what is at stake when cultural diversity is chosen as the object of intellectual investigation. According to Kant, Reason can only be fully achieved in the species, and not the individual, so that differences are by and large irrelevant from the point of view of reason, which leads to a universalist and cosmopolitist stance [22]. But the concept of cosmopolitism must be rearticulated to restrict the universalist principle that bred it. Indeed the sciences of culture move away from transcendental philosophy, as they replace Reason by cultures even as a condition of knowledge, and restore to the description of cultural matters the critical distance which Kantian philosophy had borrowed from philology. If Reason may be pure, a culture never is, since its history is produced by the culture itself. Comparing cultures or comparing languages requires a passage from universal to general, and from a supposed identity to a granted equivalence, from law to fact, from universal to worldwide.

Since they aim at characterizing, the sciences of culture must be differential and comparative, for a culture can only be understood from a cosmopolitical or intercultural viewpoint : for  the study of each culture, the relevant corpus is all the other cultures, be they contemporary or past. Indeed no culture can be seen as a whole : it takes shape, evolves, and disappears in the exchanges or conflicts with others.

Cultures can only be described differentially, just like the cultural matter that they are made of, and especially the languages and texts. Moreover, in order to be understood, the diversity which, in contrast with the essential uniformity of the physical world, makes for the wealth of semiotic “worlds”, requires a critical de-centering. Rather than relativism, methodological cosmopolitism is needed to avoid ethnocentrism, or even nationalism and racism. Thus the concept of a superior culture, presently thriving, remains barbaric, if not archaic : the level of complexity specific to cultures known as civilizations in no way entitles them to precedence.

It has now become possible to conceive of a program for semiotic anthropology, freed both from theological premises making man an elect species, and from rationalist premises endowing man with a universal and genetically determined ability to represent the truth [23].  Its main focus is on the differences of languages and the multiplicity of systems of signs. In such an undertaking, semiotics is not grounded in the much questioned unity of systems of signs, but rather in their diversity and heterogeneity – the latter reflect the diversity of practices in which these signs participate, and they lead to elaborating a praxeology.

General anthropology projects made it possible to set up and differentiate the social sciences, although sometimes they still seem to drift between arts and sciences, but the cultural meaning of social sciences is still far from being understood, just like the hermeneutical factor in the gnoseology they imply. Moreover, the epistemological argument on the kind of truths that they can yield still hasn’t been carried out to a proper conclusion.

VI. Towards linguistic anthropology

Can the study of languages shed new light on the broader question of semiotic phylogenies and the specificities of interhuman communication ? This question is relevant to the genesis of cultures, both material and symbolic : the process that separated human time from the time of biological evolution, and animal necessity from human freedom.

1. Languages and cultures

Contrary to what Jackendoff claims, linguistics is not one of the “cognitive neurosciences”, but indeed one of the sciences of culture [24].

Now that we have witnessed the move from philosophical anthropology to comparative linguistics, should we retrace our steps and aim at a historical and comparative anthropology ? Do such developments lead to a break with philosophical anthropology ? By questioning transcendental philosophy, in his theory of cultural objects, Cassirer established the specific existence and legality of the semiotic world. Culture can therefore become a field of objective investigation that brings together all the social sciences.

Semiotic anthropology, of which linguistic anthropology is a part, is thus diverted from the realm of philosophy to enter that of the social sciences. Its purpose is to pursue the movement initiated by historical and comparative linguistics and extend it to other systems of signs (comparative musicology, for instance).

On the epistemological level, however, the semiotics of culture wouldn’t even be defined as an actual discipline, but rather as the very project of redefining the specificity of the social sciences : cultures include all human matters and even the shaping of subjects. They nonetheless remain difficult to conceive of, precisely for lack of a semiotic point of view on culture. In other words, acknowledging the specificity and relative autonomy of a semiotic world will make for a clear delimitation of the reach of the sciences of culture, and make it possible to finally discard the traditional dualism informing Dilthey’s division between the sciences of nature and the sciences of the spirit (mind).

2. The epistemology of diversity

No systematic comparison of languages was conducted before the early Nineteenth century. Indeed, such comparison is underlied by a project of reciprocal characterization ; and it is often overlooked that the comparatist project was articulated from an anthropological perspective, that of a gradual characterization of humanity. Thus Humboldt’s anthropological program goes from mankind to the individual, and results in the acknowledgment of as many languages as there are men.

In correlation to this, the unicity of objects, epitomized by the non-reproducible work of art, can become the characteristic feature of cultural “facts”. Finally, as characterization is a gradual and indefinite process, it can be extended to parts of the object, and lead for instance a critic to show, when analyzing a text, why such a word in such a context is a hapax. The characterization program is of such epistemological breadth that it becomes defining of the sciences of culture.

The stakes of such an epistemology of diversity seem very high. Indeed, how can  the traditionally universalist point of view of gnoseology or epistemology be transformed into the point of view of diversity ? [25]  The diversity of languages – and their relations – was known and described, but never became the object of a comparison program, because it was generally reduced to common rational principles accounted for in general grammars claiming universal relevance. It became a scientific problem only when the universal factor waned, and the contingency of languages became significant [26].

Historical and comparative linguistics has acquired in this field a form of experience that should be elaborated and passed on. The stakes are high : how can the concept of humanity be reconstructed outside dogmatic theology or biology, which seems just as deterministic ? How can humanity be pieced together from the humanities – by which I mean the social sciences ?

As a matter of fact, the discovery, in the last two decades, of “animal cultures”, and especially regarding  primates, seems to show that innovation and its transmission do not provide an accurate definition of the specificity of human culture.

3. The tasks of semiotic anthropology

Begun by linguists like Saussure and Hjelmslev, research on general semiotics relates the general properties of languages to the properties of other sign systems and cultural constructs that Cassirer called symbolic forms. This is the course we intend to pursue [27 ]. .

The sciences of culture could be defined as idiographic sciences, interpretative and not explanatory. They are also sciences of complex objects, where the relations between local units is determined by a global architecture. Within each object, threshold effects can cause the relations between internal parameters to be entirely upset by a slight alteration of external parameters.

Finally, in the sciences of culture, the location in time and space of the observer is paralleled in the historical and cultural context of the interpreter, which forces on him the awareness of his responsibility (for instance, the mere presence of the sociologist alters whatever interactions he means to study.)

VII. Challenges for the present time 

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, naïvely progressive views have dissipated, and the sciences of culture are now pressed for answers regarding meaning. Thus the anxiety bred by recent events has increasingly prompted TV and the media to call on historians and experts of religion to provide commentary.

In the absence of epistemological clarification, the answers that the sciences of culture cannot or will not provide are sought in profitable “specialties “, such as astrology, futurology, and the like,  which take advantage of the need to believe to soothe anxieties and prevent them  from growing into real questions.

In the absence of epistemological education, the technology-related spheres are especially vulnerable to the neo-medieval obscurantism of science-fiction. Sects like Aum or Al Qaeda are peopled by engineers  and science PhDs. Technology and barbarism now complement each other, and the powers in charge are not necessarily the least frightening in this respect.

At present, three types of global answers are being articulated :

1) Cultural Studies have successfully proposed to occupy the field of culture in Anglo-American academia, but they lack a scientific project, or epistemological justification. Doctoral dissertations on cruising bars or the role of black lesbians in New York films are welcome (all genuine subjects). And the very concept of culture becomes a caricature, when it is used to describe a “rock’n roll culture”, or an “IBM culture” ; in his preface to the Dictionnaire des cultures gays et lesbiennes (« The Dictionary of Gay and Lesbian Cultures », Paris, Gallimard, 2003), Didier Eribon claims that these cultures are transmitted “from one generation to the next.”

Thus Cultural Studies are the academic war machines of a number of lobbies willing to divide humanity into a series of victim minorities according to sexual, racial and national criteria. University departments grow increasingly separate and hostile, with no common project, in a demagogic rivalry to attract students.

The humanities, to the contrary, were grounded in a cumulative and naturally internationalist conception of knowledge (furthered in the Renaissance and Classical age by the use of Latin.) The identity-based agenda of Cultural Studies (we need to study what we are) seems natural enough ; however, studying was never a matter of expressing oneself, but rather of educating oneself by facing the alien nature of other times, other places, and other cultures.

2) Several nationalist movements, some of which can be called totalitarian, wrongly claim to be descended from the Humboldtian tradition, and consider the realm of language as a closed off totality, self-justified and incomprehensible from the outside. In this way, neo-slavophile culturology posits that the Russian language reflects the Russian soul – so that the worldview embedded in the Russian language is naturally beyond the reach of non-Russians [28].

Culturology has replaced dialectic materialism in Russia, and it is taught by the same professors, who apparently happen to have converted just at the right time. The viewpoint it conveys is a simplistic one: to each people corresponds one language and one mindset. Accordingly, mentalities are shaped or determined by the language and the nation, so that a non-Russian cannot understand a Russian text – which is strongly reminiscent of certain theories of Heidegger on the Grund, that national and traditional common ground without which there is no comprehension. Moreover, each culture is viewed as a besieged monad, inspiring in the others either overestimation or repulsion, according to their “degree of development.” Such ambivalence, although it is not new in Russian intellectual history, cannot be erected as a definition of culture. Culturology seems in danger of replacing the dialectics of class antagonism by that of antagonist cultures, which makes the drift towards nationalism all too easy.

3) Europe, which new barbarians have called “old Europe”, bears heavy responsibility in the setting up of the sciences of culture.

Difficulties should not be underestimated. Academia is broken down into ever smaller fields, and there is a growing tendency to watch over one’s discipline with jealous intolerance ; European bureaucracy doesn’t seem much interested in projects that have no direct outlets in the cultural industry. And the world centers of positive cosmopolitism used to be in Mitteleuropa, Vienna at the turn of the century, or Berlin in the twenties. The intellectual milieus which gave them life were decimated at the same time as Mitteleuropa was politically dismembered.

The sciences of culture are rooted in the cosmopolitism of the Enlightenment and the creation of comparative linguistics. Kant, F. Schlegel, W. Von Humboldt, Saussure, Geertz, Levi-Strauss, these are the grand initiators of this demanding project. It has met support in the world wherever there is opposition to brutal globalization, and wherever cultural diversity is being rediscovered as a value that transcends identity politics and ethnocentrism.

The sciences of culture open  onto the ethology of human societies, on the one hand, and a philosophy of symbolic forms on the other. In the face of reductionist programs, their development is a major challenge to be met in the coming years : first because only  federating the sciences of culture can provide the global perspective needed to dispute the computationalism that has now endangered the rationale for and results of cognitive research. Second because understanding the semiotic mediation between the physical world and the world of representations remains indispensable to describe the cultural factor in cognition, which has been seriously underestimated up to now by cognitive research. To culturalize cognitive science, we also need to reckon with the necessarily cultural locus of any activity linked to knowledge, be it scientific.

In this sense “cultural” almost becomes a synonym for “human”, for semiotic mediation remains characteristic of human cognition and defines it as such. This is how we can open up a field for reflection on the genesis of cultures that evades neo-Darwinian description. The distinction of symbolic forms, the diversification of languages, of social practices, and of the arts – all these processes are continuations of hominization by humanization. Taking on autonomy from the evolutionary time of species, they contribute to the shaping of historical time but reverberate further than its fast-paced periods.

(translated by Anne-Lorraine Bujon)


[1] To this day, the realism of individuals gives precedence to proper nouns, as the paragon of perfect meaning.

[2]  Leibniz may have wished to found a universal characteristic to be used in encyclopedic projects, but his Monadology was really one of the last attempts at reconciling the totality of the cosmos with the individuality of monads :  each  monad communicates with and partakes of all the others.

[3]  In Meinong’s theory of objects, metaphysics becomes the logic of any object.

[4] Today’s consumer-citizens are defined by their property, income, status, and in the United-States, lawsuits. Lawyers thus take on a significant social function, making up for a missing civility-oriented social contract, since only  the rights of the individual are guaranteed by the Constitution.

[5]   The Jewish tradition merges divine predestination, through election, and membership of the elect people through heredity (matrilineal). Genetic determinism probably transposed this tradition.

[6]  The word echoes private property law, and none of the commentators who like to reproach the human sciences for using metaphors seem to object to that.

[7]  Quoted in Rifkin and Howard, 1979, p. 274. This is not an isolated case of such thinking going awry. An individual is sometimes valued according to his genome, judging for instance by the Perruche case in France, in which a disabled child was compensated simply for having been born. Health issues are also involved, and in the US genetic information is now taken into account in one out of three recruitments. Some models’ ovules are now sold on the Internet. William Shockley, a Nobel prize winner who donated sperm to the geniuses’ sperm bank, suggested encouraging people with an IQ below 100 to be sterilized, in exchange for a financial compensation.

[8] Such combination is a transposition in the social world of the logical rule of compositionality (according to which any given expression’s meaning results from the meanings of its sub-expressions), which is still a basic rule of modern positivism.

[9]  “Due to this connection or accommodation of all things created to each and all the others, each simple entity expresses all the others in its relations (Monadology, §56) .”

[10]    In Phaedra, Plato, defines man as he who has seen Forms : he would not otherwise have the ability of unifying different perceptions in a common Idea. Since then, and despite Aristotle’s refutation of this separation of Ideas, the relation between types and occurrences has pervaded philosophers and scientists’ imaginations.

[11] There is much truth to be found in the anecdote of the little boy, abandoned on Wall Street and crying : when he was asked « Where are your parents ? », he cried even louder and answered « I am a self-made man ! ».

[12]   In State, Movement, People, (1930) Carl Schmitt says of the Führung that it positively demands the unconditional racial identity of the Führer and his followers.

[13]  It seems however that the constructionist theory of gender, in which social roles are distinguished from sexual ones, is a reaction to genetic determinism : sex is not pre-determined, it must be chosen.

[14]   As suggested in his Principles of Ethics (1892 ; translated into French in 1905 as Morale Evolutioniste). This was followed in 1911 by a scientific apology of individualism, “Selfishness, the only grounds for society,” by  the Lamarckian philosopher Felix le Dantec.

[15]  As distinct  from intra-individual process, in the sense that it relates parts of individuals to their environment, while discarding the individual  as an entity.

[16]  At a conference he attended, Sperber once solemnly said :  “I have nothing to do with cultures.”

[17]   “In the struggle for life that is constantly taking place between our images, that which was originally endowed with more energy retains, in each conflict, and by virtue of the very law of repetition on which it is founded, the ability to prevail over its rivals (De l’Intelligence, quoted by Changeux in Raison et Plaisir, Paris, Jacob, 1994).”

[18]   “Any person who suffers from a chronic inability, in comparison with normal persons, to remain a  useful member of society through her own efforts, can be considered unfit for social life. The following social groups are unfit : 1) the mentally impaired ; 2) lunatics ; 3) criminals (including delinquents and deviants) ; 4) epileptics ; 5) drunkards, 6) sick people (afflicted with tuberculosis, syphilis, leper, and other chronic diseases…) ; 7) the blind ; 8) the deaf ; 9) the misshapen ; 10)the good-for-nothing, the homeless, and the destitute.” Report  from the psychopathologic laboratory of the Chicago City Courthouse, 1922, quoted by Pichot, 2000, p.215 ; my commentary relies on the whole of chapter 2.

[19]  It could be added that the very expression genetic inheritance supposes the cultural transmission of the chance factors of heredity ; it thus contains a « "scientific" metaphor, that has proved a thousand time more dangerous than a poetic image.

[20] See Lestel, 2001.

[21] Such study is necessary to understand how an individual becomes aperson, how a child, genetically born a human, becomes a man through the acculturation process ; all societies symbolize this passage by a symbolic ritual (circumcision or baptism for instance).

[22] See Idée d’une histoire universelle d’un point de vue cosmopolitique, 1784. [Fr. Translation by Ferry, L., Oeuvres, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, t. II]

[23] See Changeux, 2002.

[24]   I  am adapting Cassirer’s expression, from Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften, 1942, Fr. tr. 1991.

[25] Since the Seconds Analytiques were rediscovered in the Thirteenth century, Aristotle’s argument that there can be no science other than that of the general has been interpreted as a principle of universality.

[26] In the Twentieth century, several universal grammars were conceived as continuations of the medieval and classic project (Chomsky for instance traces some of his work back to the grammarians of Port Royal)., so that characterizing the diversity of languages is beyond their scope. In presenting Chomsky’s minimalist program, Pollock for instance writes : “ vernacular languages like French, Chinese, and Italian do not fall within the competence of linguistics; indeed, they are not individual psychological /neurophysiological realities, but historical, political and sociological entities, just like the nations that they sometimes correspond to  (1997, p.11).”

[27] See author, 2001 a.

[28] The same theme cas be expressed in less ingenuous ways, as in Heidegger’s theory of the Grund. Thus national determinism can esily fit in with biological determinism. In Russia for instance, the determinism of cognitivists like Wierzbicka has met with a very favorable reception.


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Bibliographical reference: RASTIER, François. Society and Post-Humanity : Questions to the Sciences of Culture. Texto ! June-Sept 2002 [online]. Available on : <>. (Consulted ...).