From Comte to Baudrillard

Theory, Culture and Society 17 (6):55-75 (2000)


The article offers a critical but sympathetic reflection on the development of classical and post-classical French sociology. From Comte onwards, I suggest, the modern French treatment of the social has been preoccupied with socio-theological questions; and even with the radical deconstruction of any society-god, this continues to be the case. There are distinctive historical reasons for this ; but the significance of the issues raised by this intellectual tradition as a result goes beyond the limits of national context. In an age of post-histoire and the `death' of everything, the `French' travails of social ontology, including the quasi-religious register in which these have occurred, have deep and continuing import for any would-be progressive social theory as such. We need to rethink the `we'. With such considerations in mind, the body of the article considers Comte's concept of Humanity and Baudrillard's `end of the social' as exemplifying key aspects of the beginning and ending phases of the French sociological story. What began as a detour in the `death of God', I argue, has terminated in a `second death of God' in which a replacement divinity and the rationalist faith associated with it have disintegrated and become impossible to think. But the logic of this development has not been straightforward. It is marked by a double paradox. An interrogation of Comte's `Humanity' reveals it to be a semi-conscious exercise in simulation, haunted by the implications of its own emptiness. On the one hand, then, the attempted religious founding founded nothing. On the other hand, as exemplified by Baudrillard's pronouncements about the end of the social, the moment of disintegration has itself seemed to offer a new socio-theological opening. Rather than mourn the anomic or hyper-real impossibility of a transcending `we', Baudrillard would shift terrain in a quasi-Nietzschean transvaluation. This implies not the definitive end of the French `sociological' project, but the possibility of its continuation, albeit under erasure and in a new key.

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References found in this work

La Vie d'Auguste Comte.Henri Gouhier - 1931 - Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 38 (2):8-8.
The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena.Jean Baudrillard - 1994 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52 (4):487-488.

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Citations of this work

The New Tarde.David Toews - 2003 - Theory, Culture and Society 20 (5):81-98.
Organism and Environment in Auguste Comte.Ryan McVeigh - 2021 - History of the Human Sciences 34 (3-4):76-97.
Rediscovering the Theological in Sociology.William J. F. Keenan - 2003 - Theory, Culture and Society 20 (1):19-42.
Ethics After God's Death and the Time of the Angels.Marianna Papastephanou - 2012 - Cosmos and History : The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 8 (1):94-130.
Reading Gender Futures, From Comte to Baudrillard.Mike Gane - 2001 - Social Epistemology 15 (2):77 – 89.

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