Secularization and Representation: the Discovery of Society

  • Brian C. J. Singer


We shall begin our analysis with the claim that the Revolution supposes the ‘discovery of society’.1 This claim may appear rather trite, but once its implications are unraveled, it proves to be of considerable importance. The claim supposes that by ‘society’ we do not mean the empirical collection of social things — objects, subjects and ideas — that populate a certain space and time; we are speaking of the construction of society as a representation that unites these factual givens into something to be discovered. It is not just that society must be made available to representation; it must be made available as an entity in and of itself, without reference to an alterior principle. If society, its order and finality, its consistency and integrity, appear as given from without, by an extra-social origin, then society will necessarily escape discovery. For its exploration will lead to the exploration of what is presented as the origin of its institution, but which itself is not of society, and which therefore is outside the reach of those who live within society. In order to be discovered society must appear as immanent to itself, the origin of its own institution. And this implies that society appear not just as something instituted, but — if one will excuse the necessarily anthropormorphic turn of phrase to which I have to resort — as something institutive of its instituted appearance.


Eighteenth Century French Revolution False Representation Secular Society Society Theory 
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  1. 1.
    I owe this idea to Marcel Gauchet, ‘De l’avènement de l’individu à la découverte de la société’, Annales, économies, sociétés et civilisations, 34 (May–June 1979).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) p. 514.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    The idea of secularization as supposing ‘an unprecedented experience of reality’ is suggested by Claude Lefort in ‘Esquisse d’une génèse de l’idéologie dan les sociétés modernes’, in Les formes de l’histoire: Essais d’anthropologie politique (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Bernard Groethuysen, Origines de l’esprit bourgeois en France (Paris: Gallimard, 1977) p. 11.Google Scholar

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© Brian C. J. Singer 1986

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  • Brian C. J. Singer

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