Concept : Étienne Balibar

Youngsuk Suh / Let Burn
Youngsuk Suh / Let Burn

Concept / Étienne Balibar

It is an extremely perilous task to offer a paper among a collection such as this, and especially to have to do it with a tentative definition of the concept of “concept. But it is also a challenge that I take gladly, because it provides me with a unique occasion to return to some philosophical questions that have occupied me throughout my life for reasons many of which have been directly or indirectly evoked over these two days. However, as I started to gather and organize the questions I imagined should be addressed under this heading, I soon realized that I should select only one of the dimensions that intersect in any inquiry into this problem—which in a sense is the “final” one, where philosophy reflects on its own method and its specificity as a discourse (called noesis noeseôs by Aristotle). And it was also clear that, even with greater space, I could only sketch a map of analyses and arguments in a programmatic way. On the other hand, I can try to indicate right away how, in my view, these questions relate to some issues that most of us have been struggling with whenever the term “philosophy” (or one of its partial equivalents, such as theory or critique) was invoked as a necessary framework.

It seems to me that a theory of the concept, or a theory of “working with concepts,” should be investigated in four directions at least: into the problem of the scientificity of concepts, or their relationship to the idea and practice of scientific knowledge; into the problem of their discursivity, or their dependency on the properties of language and its uses (including the problems of translation and translatability); into the problem of the historicity of concepts, whether intrinsic or extrinsic (or, more probably, both); and finally into the problem of the politicality of concepts, which as I will show may become identified to some extent with the question of the status of conflict within conceptual thinking. I don’t believe that any of these four dimensions are really separable from the others, but their investigation does not proceed along the same lines, with the same references. I will focus here on the politicality of concepts, which is the aspect with which traditional epistemology (whether more positivist or more Kantian-leaning) is less comfortable—but also one that connects most directly with our objects in this group, despite the obvious paralogism that would be involved in the idea that the politicality of concepts reflects the fact that they are, one way or another, concepts of the political.

From Metalanguage to Polemic Ascent

We may begin with this remark: in contemporary philosophy the term “concept” is immediately stamped with divisions that, trace back to very ancient divides. The term “concept” in Latin (conceptus) seems to refer to an etymology cum-capire that is well rendered in the German word Begriff, denoting an appropriation or even a catching or a seizing of the “object” (or the thought-object). But this is not the only connotation. When Descartes, for instance, writes that a certain sentence is true “quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum”1 (each time I say it or I conceive it in my mind), he alludes to another etymology of concipere, which means to create or generate life within a womb.2 And when Kant attributes to “concepts” (Begriffe) as opposed to “intuitions” (Anschauungen) the active capacity to synthesize or impose unity upon a given diversity of representations, he directs our attention towards another great divide: that of intellectual activity and passive mimesis, be it in the proper form of images, or models, or through the effect of naming. Deleuze is not very far from there when—in his book written with Guattari—he distinguishes immediately a concept, an affect, and a percept, to delineate the fields of philosophy, art, and science—even if other significations are introduced afterwards in the book, which make these standard divisions less mechanical.3

For my part, I remain very stubbornly attached to the idea that inside and outside official philosophy (if there is an “outside” of philosophy, or, rather, if philosophy is not entirely a “thought of the outside”), “concept” and “conceptualization” are names for an intellectual activity, in the sense of an activity that produces intelligibility, or makes “things” intelligible, to create an “intelligible order” (ordinare ad intellectum, as Spinoza defined his “third kind of knowledge,” while immediately associating it with an ethical injunction: sed intelligere!).4 In other terms, we need concepts because we seek intelligibility, whether it is about nature, passions, or politics. I believe that the reference to concepts contains something like an injunction not to give up on the necessity of understanding, in the very middle of our affections and actions. And I interpret in this sense both the bizarre suggestion once made by Althusser to create a “party of the concept” (an expression he claimed to have found in Marx, although I can’t say where that would be), and the famous line of demarcation once proposed by Foucault between “philosophies of the concept” and “philosophies of consciousness”—which is not very different from picturing philosophy as a battlefield for antithetic “parties.”5 All this clearly inscribes the question of the concept in a conflictual horizon, but it is a far cry from identifying conceptuality and conflictuality, and a fortiori politicality. It could even mean the opposite, namely that the concept is in (external) conflict with the logic of conflict, and therefore is not itself internally conflictual.6

There are reasons for the resistance of the concept to its own conflictuality that an ordinary positivism simply would identify with consistency or realism, but which are better understood if we trace them back to the great Platonic divide between rhetoric (or “sophistic discourse”) and philosophy (soon to become identified with ontology), a divide supposed to be foundational for rationality. As we know, this divide is not intent on separating the philosophical thinking from the political questions, far from it. But it is certainly intent on extracting philosophy from the “common” place where a multiplicity of political interests and discourses collide, considered a space for “opinions” and not for “truth”: it thus installs philosophy in a transcendent position with respect to conflicts that seems to be the condition of its critical power or its capacity to bring about an “intelligible order.” As we know, this extraction or separation entails an opposition between logos and episteme on one side, agôn and stasis on the other side, or in general what Lyotard (in an explicit return to the Sophists) called “the differend.”7 Hence the idea that there can be a “science” (or “concept” or “intelligibility”) of the political only if science, concept, intelligibility, are not themselves political. The strength of this position comes from the fact that one can hardly reconcile the search for objectivity (be it an objectivity of ideal objects or essences, or an objectivity of empirical objects, realia) with a generalization of the differend. It also comes from the fact that knowledge and intelligibility are strongly and institutionally associated with the idea of learning—a practice that requires teaching (even “self-teaching”), as indicated by the quasi-equivalence, in philosophical Greek, of the two concepts of episteme and mathesis. But learning and teaching obey rules that can be normative, even imperative, but not conflictual, unless the institution becomes destabilized, undermining its own authority.

At this point, before I undertake an examination of ideas and arguments that can undermine the separation—not in the sense of a retreat from intelligibility, but in the sense of granting the concept a greater power of knowing things and “ordering” them in an intelligible manner, i.e. increasing the capacity to know (and make know) of the concept through a recognition of its politicality— I want to indicate in a highly schematic manner two epistemological consequences of the “Platonic divide.”

The first consequence has to do with the institution of “neutrality” in science, or the identification of objectivity and neutrality. Although Plato himself is much more dialectical than that (witness his treatment of the various “hypotheses” in the Parmenides and their relationship to the “method of division” in the Statesman), the great instrument used by epistemology to prevent conflict and politics from entering the field of intelligibility and “contaminate” the concept, is the creation of a metalanguage of science. Whether in its logical or its transcendental form (or, in a weaker manner, in the form of “scientific methodology”), a metalanguage is always a system of rules that are imposed ex ante on conceptualization (for the sake of truth): in fact it is a quasi-juridical superstructure, whose function is analogous to that of a Grundnorm in legal theory, which imposes non-conflictuality in order to secure non-contradiction, or which— borrowing an expression from W.V.O. Quine—regulates semantic ascent toward generalities, in order to prevent what, conversely, we could call polemic ascent toward irreducibly conflicting ideas or hypotheses.8 It is therefore inseparable from an ideal of normal science, where the conflicts are relegated to the “subjective” realm of conjectures, refutations, and moments of paradigm change. Normal science avoids conflict, or renames it a “contradiction” to be logically eliminated, because it fears that conflict destroys objectivity.

A second consequence follows from there: it concerns the paradoxical effects of metalanguage and the isolation of the concept from conflict in the field (or the case) of “anthropological disciplines.” Conventionally I include in this field everything that ranges from history and philology to political and social theory—or rather that combines these disciplinary forms in various proportions, depending on the problems they investigate. The norm of neutral or neutralizing metalanguage is what condemns anthropology to the eternal return of the dilemma of antiscientific “critique” or “hermeneutics” (even when simply presented in terms of a critique of positivism, reification, etc.), and pseudo-scientific “objectivism” (or naturalization). This dilemma is impossible to overcome if we do not attempt a revision of the regime of knowledge, based on a different understanding of the construction and the use of concepts. Of course, we know of several ways under which the attempt to rethink conceptualization was made in the anthropological realm: dialectics was (or could be) one of them, and structuralism was another one—respectively oriented toward the thinking of processes and the thinking of relations, which means that in both cases the “object” was perceived as an epistemological obstacle, or the attempt was made to conceive something like an “objectivity without objects,” or to link concepts to an activity of problematization rather than objectification. It is this orientation that, in a sense, I want to try and radicalize, albeit through a different method that will directly discuss several attempts at bringing conflictuality into conceptuality, because I believe that dialectics and structuralism in their very symmetry or opposition are still metalanguages—or if you prefer “methodologies,” which do not focus on the concept as the unit of intelligibility within knowledge, but tend to impose abstract patterns on the construction of concepts.

I will examine (very schematically) the possibility of this unity of opposites (from the point of view of traditional epistemology) under three successive headings: first, concept and ideology; second, concept and the “subject-object” antithesis; third, concept and sensibility. As you will see, I will invent very little myself, except perhaps the order in which I assemble these discussions, relying on texts and philosophies that I found inspiring at various moments.

Concept and Ideology

My first approach to the conflictuality of concepts is through their relation to “ideology.” I am not thinking of “ideological concepts,” but of the relation of all concepts to ideology. At the same time, I assume that “ideology” always has an intrinsic relationship to the political and the conflictuality of the political, which is manifested in both typical uses of the term (concept), referring to “dominant ideology” and “rival ideologies” respectively. But it is also clear that epistemology has a tendency to relegate ideology, as a factor of conflict, either on the side of the prehistory of concepts, or on the side of their uses and applications, or both—therefore in their outside.9 Althusser’s early exposition of the idea of the “epistemological break” that was achieved by the invention of certain specific scientific concepts in the field of history, is a perfect illustration of that tendency, with the interesting exception of his later rectification as to the unfinished (perhaps even infinite) character of the break, and his references to “practical concepts” that would be located “in the middle” of the break, using contradictory languages at the same time (which bear a strange similarity with the idea of a “vanishing mediator” à la Jameson).10

But let me explore some alternative possibilities. I want to invoke, in the first place, my recent discovery (owing to the remarkable study by Nestor Capdevila on the concept of ideology)11 of the paper that was presented in 1956 before the Aristotelian Society by Oxford philosopher W.B. Gallie, with the title “Essentially Contested Concepts.”12 One could say that the title here is the most important thing, but the content is very interesting as well. It is coined in a relatively light mixture of analytical argument and social psychology, but it raises a question that is in fact independent of this language. The important word is of course “essentially,” as opposed to “contingently.”13 The idea is that the external impossibility to reach “universal agreement” on the use and meaning of certain concepts, in fact reveals an intrinsic characteristic of that meaning, which precisely generates the infinite or interminable process of their contestation. This is also the deepest reason for their use: they are not used despite their conflictual nature, but precisely because of the dissensus they provoke and crystallize. To put it a little more strongly, such concepts are not made to reconcile viewpoints, but to divide them, and to foster controversies, if not antagonism. This is linked to the fact that their internal complexity, or the composition of their parts, has no univocal form of synthesis. Playing with Deleuze’s reversal of the Kantian definition of the unifying function of concepts, we may say that their internal composition relies on disjunctive syntheses, which resonates or communicates with conflicts of interests and commitments.

Three examples are announced by Gallie in the original article: the concepts of art, democracy, and religion. But in the course of the argument, they are substituted with art, democracy, and social justice, with a special emphasis on the last two. Religion is dropped—perhaps because its way of being “contested” appears problematic to Gallie, since it could raise a symmetric question about secularism (not deprived of importance these days). Interestingly, the internal tension he identifies in definitions and uses of “democracy,” as elaborated in the Western constitutional tradition, is the tension between equality, or equal participation, and liberty, or rather liberties in the plural, which appear to be much more concrete than the former.14 And the internal tension, leading to opposite ethical choices, that he identifies in the case of social justice, is between meritocracy and cooperation (he doesn’t say solidarity), which he labels respectively “liberal” and “socialist” understandings of justice, while tracing them back conceptually to the Aristotelian disjunction of “commutative” and “distributive” justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. A weak or minimal interpretation would thus locate these antitheses on the side of “practical” reason or understanding, as opposed to speculative or cognitive reason: this is supported by his terminology of the “appraisive concepts,” i.e., concepts which incorporate value judgments or require agreement, and his idea that one passes from one interpretation to the other for the “same” concept, through a process of “conversion,” which he describes as rational or argumentative. But then there is the idea that such concepts exhibit dilemmas where it is impossible intellectually not to choose a side, thus suggesting a more radical, maximal interpretation (borrowing on a Kantian dialectical model): such concepts illustrate an antithetic of pure reason, or a logic of conflicting universalities which confer an ideological tenor to the constitution of the concept itself.

Equally interesting is the second reference that I want now to invoke. This is an essay on the “historical-political semantic of asymmetrical antithetic concepts” by Reinhard Koselleck, dated 1975, later incorporated in the collection Vergangene Zukunft (Futures Past).15 Koselleck’s aim, in this essay, is to discuss modalities of the collective representations of Self and Other, through the examination of concepts which function as oppositional couples that draw a line of demarcation within the totality of humankind, while also “discriminating” one part on behalf of the other, or structurally instituting a denial of recognition of some humans from the point of view of others, i.e., universalizing discrimination in language itself. There are three main examples, which are presented and discussed in chronological order, therefore delineating a kind of philosophical history of otherness: the ancient Greek opposition of Hellenic and Barbaric peoples, the medieval opposition of Christians and Pagans, and finally the modern opposition of the Superhuman and the Infrahuman (Übermensch vs Untermensch). These asymmetric oppositions are presented as specifically political, and it is with respect to the last one that Koselleck also uses the category “ideology” or “ideological weapon” (Kampfmittel), in order to describe an historical effectivity (or performativity) of concepts (Wirkungsgeschichte von Begriffen) that not only is not superimposed onto their structure, but is made possible by the structure, coinciding with its construction. The very name Gegenbegriff is meaningful here, because it can be glossed in two directions: designating an internal opposition, which means that the concept here is the coupling itself, not each single “term”; it also indicates that the coupling identifies an adversary (Gegner) from the point of view of its “dominant” term.

Two circumstances are important to recall here. One is the notorious fact that Koselleck has taken much of his inspiration from Carl Schmitt, whose “scientific achievement” in formalizing the concept of the political through the antagonism of “friend and foe” is evoked in the last page of the essay as an inspiration for the study of semantic oppositions in general, in a somewhat euphemistic juxtaposition with the “linguistic manipulation” that made it possible for the Nazis to define a “potential non-existence” (Nichtexistenz, almost synonymous, but not identical with Vernichtung) of “non-Aryan” people through the racial categorization of “Aryans” as Übermenschen and “non-Aryans” as Untermenschen.16 The second circumstance is the fact that Koselleck is a founder and the main organizer of the huge encyclopedic project of Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (“Fundamental concepts of history”), whose affinities and differences with our own project of Political Concepts: A Philosophical Lexicon well deserve a discussion.17 In Koselleck’s encyclopedia, as in our own, concepts are essentially considered as unities bearing a single name—such as “Staat” or “Revolution,” which serves as the guiding thread for a more or less complex genealogy. From this point of view, the dialectical Gegenbegriffe appears as a limit-case, which crucially combines an insight into the conceptual structure itself, and connects it with ideological and political performativity. I regret not having the space to enter the proper analysis of the three oppositions, which as always in Koselleck, combines erudition with acute theoretical reflexivity, but I will indicate what seems to me certainly not to disqualify the whole construction, but to affect it with a dangerous internal vacillation, which we cannot ignore if we want to further investigate this mode of conceptual conflictuality.

For reasons that anticipate my next point, I will call this a subjective-objective vacillation. In the first place, in order to isolate the typical oppositional asymmetry, Koselleck needs to discard conceptual pairings that either are not oppositional but simply distributive, or are oppositional but not dissymmetric (i.e. discriminating). As examples of (allegedly) non-oppositional couples, he gives such anthropological differences as “man and woman,” “parents and children,” “sick and healthy.” As example of oppositional but not dissymmetric, there is “the national and the foreigner,” “the friend and the foe.” In such cases the conflictuality that may arise would be extrinsic, a matter of uses, not inherent in the concept. Then there is the fact that the three great asymmetric Gegenbegriffe discussed by Koselleck (Greeks-Barbarians, Christians-Pagans, and Human-Inhuman), which have their distinct logics and in fact express different formations of the political forming a chronological succession, inherit certain representations of Otherness from their predecessors, but also embody a continuous process of interiorization of the conflict to the Self. Barbarians are supposed to be external to the Greek in a way in which Pagans, or rather “paganism,” or “idolatry,” are not with respect to the Christians, or to the Christian redemption and messianic mission. But in the case of the Inhuman with respect to the Human—variously identified as criminal, as oppressor (particularly princes and kings in the discourse of the Radical Enlightenment), or conversely as the oppressed and underdeveloped—there is no longer any exteriority, but an inclusion or an incorporation that is perceived as the threat of a foreign body—I am tempted to say, à la Lacan, “a Thing.” The fact that, paradoxically, the Human or Humankind (die Menschheit, which can also mean Humanness) is a universal category, and must include (or perhaps annihilate, in auto-immunitarian fashion) its own negation, produces a displacement and makes room for a “supplement,” equally paradoxical: namely the idea of the Human that is more than Human (der Übermensch). Reading Koselleck symptomatically, it seems to me that this vacillation must be granted not only an ideological function in the pejorative sense, but a conceptual function, since it is what precisely permits to dispose all the previous divergences along the same line of evolution.

For want of room and time, I will skip here a third reference, which I hope to develop on another occasion, which would return to the Althusserian aporia of the “epistemological break,” more precisely the solution proposed by Canguilhem for that aporia in his 1970 essay “Qu’est-ce qu’une idéologie scientifique?” (“What is Scientific Ideology?”), in which he used an oxymoronic formula to liberate epistemology from the non-dialectical disjunction of “science” and “ideology”—sketching a description of the alternative moves of ideologization and de-ideologization of such concepts as “mechanism,” “evolution,” or “regulation,” which includes a transgression of disciplinary limits.18 This is, I believe, a radical dismantling of the picture of “normal science” that involves another type of intrinsic conflictuality.

The Subject-Object Distinction

I will now pass to a second approach, which is centered on the discussion and critique of the subject-object distinction, on which both the empiricist and the transcendental representations of objective knowledge are founded, in such a manner that concepts are seen either as instruments for the preservation of the divide, or a priori conditions of its production. The second case is of course philosophically more demanding, but they are in fact two sides of the same coin.

Indeed, the idea of overcoming, neutralizing, or cancelling the subject-object divide as a metaphysical heritage that can be also articulated with certain juridical and economic structures, such as private property and the commodity form, is nothing new in contemporary philosophy. It has produced particularly exciting developments in the post-phenomenological tradition—in the wake of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt (in his unfinished posthumous book, Le visible et l’invisible) to describe a pre-ontological experience of the world (called la chair, “the flesh”), in terms of a “chiasmatic” exchange of the internal and the external places, also called an entrelacs or intertwining of body and world.19 This approach was later complicated by Derrida, and is now applied by Judith Revel in France to the reading of Foucault himself.20

However, I want to try a different approach here. I will return to the Foucauldian critique of the empirical-transcendental doublet (in The Order of Things) that was chronologically preceded by his close reading of the two sides of Kant’s philosophy of knowledge: on the one side, there is the Critique of Pure Reason, with the famous Copernican Revolution, which describes the “subject” as a system of the conditions of the conditions of possibility for the perception and knowledge of all “objects,” more precisely a coincidence of the conditions of possibility of our experience of objects, and the conditions of existence of objects in general; on the other side, there is an empirical description, inspired by the method of “natural history,” of those quasi-objective characteristics of the human individuals that can be considered either obstacles or instruments for their moral education and culture.21 As Foucault perfectly demonstrates, there is a correlation between the fact that, on one side, the knowing subject is subtracted (or, as one may also say, foreclosed) from the world of objects (hence from reality and materiality), and the fact that, on the other side, processes of subjection and subjectivation are reified and objectified, i.e. they are projected and constructed as calculable phenomena, or classified in typologies of the human which also have a disciplinary function, through a range of quasi-scientific patterns of explanation (which include game theory, behaviorist psychology, or psychiatric medicine). I suggest that we push this critique one step further and state that what is in fact foreclosed from the field of science is not only the capacity or “faculty” to know (i.e., to investigate and conceptualize), but also the interests that generate the quest for the intelligibility or the “desire for knowledge” itself. By stating that the neutralization of radical conflictuality, or the type of contradiction whose development and revolution is not calculable (or even definable in advance), becomes rejected into the unknowable, for which there is no experience and no concept, that which Kant famously called the Ding an sich or the “thing in itself.”] This in turn suggests that a restoration of the desire of knowledge as such within the field of objects, and more generally problems that an anthropology must address, and a restoration of conflicts, antagonisms and contradictions (admittedly not completely identical categories) as intrinsic characteristics of objectivity—perhaps an objectivity without “objects”—are two sides of the same question, for which the oxymoronic combination “subject-object” is as good a name as any other.

Again, here, several paths are open. One is the post-Kantian, in particular the Hegelian dialectical way, which I leave aside because it restores the antagonism only to eliminate it more perfectly in the final form of the “absolute knowledge.” I prefer to indicate how the double restoration is at work in some limit-formulations of contemporary philosophers. I apologize for the very French character of this list—a limitation of my culture.22 One such formulation is Althusser’s late attempt at comparing the intrinsically conflictual development of Marxism and psychoanalysis, which, in an essay from 1976, “On Marx and Freud,” he described as “schismatic theories” or theories whose scientific (knowing) capacities, are paradoxically linked to their progressing only through “deviations” or “heresies” without a stable “orthodoxy” (incidentally, a complete reversal of his earlier exposition of the “epistemological break”), by virtue of the fact that neither a psychoanalyst nor a Marxist political theorist are external to the situation they analyze.23 Therefore their “subjective” position or interest form a direct “objective” component of this situation, of which they must give a conceptual account—whether you call it “transference” (and “counter-transference”), or “party/class position.” This is what led Althusser increasingly toward a Pascalian understanding of the risk, or the wager that is involved in knowledge, perhaps drawing on the identical meaning of pari (“wager”) and parti (“choicem,” “decision”) in Pascal’s text.24

But isn’t there something similar in the way in which Foucault elaborated the very strange idea or project of an “ontology of ourselves”—a veritable subversion of the philosophical grammar (even more so than an “ontology of relation”), which I also believe is a displacement and a recasting of his critique of the will to knowledge? It is through the definition of an actualité or an untimely present that Foucault sketches this “ontology.” Its object is not so much who we are, or have already become, but rather who we are becoming, without predictable end: therefore it involves an essential element of uncertainty—which in turn intensifies the quest for intelligibility. But as we also know this quest is not taking the form of an individual or collective self-consciousness: it is entirely oriented towards the “outside,” it consists in interpreting the signs of time and the mutations of our culture that are taking place “now.” For sure, a Foucauldian becoming oneself as another, and an Althusserian subject who is divided by his/her partisanship, are not exactly the same thing. But they seem to me to converge in the direction of overcoming the mirror image of subject-object in a conceptual rather than mystical or phenomenological manner, thus generating a greater rather than lesser intelligibility.25 There remains an important difference, however, between the ways in which Althusser and Foucault represent conflictuality as inevitable effect of the “chiasmatic” relationship between subject and object—making each of the two poles an “enclave” in the other: for Althusser, the conflict is a political (or ideological) oscillation affecting individual and collective agency; for Foucault it is more like an anthropological uneasiness affecting the self. Although one could say in Heideggerian jargon that in both cases “being-in-the-world” is at stake.

Division of the Sensible

To conclude this discussion in a very provisional manner, I would like to propose a third approach to the conflictuality of concepts, which I attach to what is traditionally considered the opposite or antithesis of conceptual knowledge (therefore located by Kant in his first Critique in the “elementary” position as what must become “subsumed” under the law or power of the concept), namely the sensible. I call it the division of the sensible, stealing an expression from Jacques Rancière, or trying to push its meaning in the direction of my own question. In the original French, Rancière’s title, which has also become a key category of his philosophy, reads Le partage du sensible, and each of the two terms is hard to simply translate into English, because “sensible” means both sense and sensibility, and “partage” evokes both cutting into parts, a division (or even, in Afrikaans, an apartheid), and distributing or sharing the parts.26 As we know, the idea of the division/distribution of the sensible in Rancière’s view tightly articulates aesthetics and politics, or even it introduces an aesthetics of politics, which is neither a political aesthetics nor a critique of the aestheticization of the political à la Benjamin. It rejects the Deleuzian distinction of concept, affect and percept, and, although it may in part have been inspired by the idea of a logic of sensation (Deleuze) or logic of the sensible (Lévi-Strauss), this is rather an antithetic relation because Rancière’s postulate is not that sensation or perception generates its own savage structures of intelligibility that are then expressed in the arts, but that there is a poetic or literary power of the human (called littérarité) that is historically organized in different regimes of the arts: the modern or aesthetic regime would be only one of them, which “democratizes” the genres by calling into question their hierarchic distribution. It would make it possible therefore to develop an aesthetic production based on any technique or material activity that is socially recognized. It is precisely by means of this capacity of dividing, distributing and redistributing the sensible, which includes the visible and the sayable (dicible), that the arts acquire their political function, and intersect with the political in the true sense: that of confrontation between the radical declaration of equality, which is uttered by the sans-part (the No-Part or radically unrecognized people), and the social classifications and exclusions that Rancière calls “police.” As Rancière writes “political or literary utterances are effective in the real. They define models of speech and action, but also regimes of sensible intensity.”

So, what is a redistribution of the sensible? It combines apparently two levels of conflictuality. At the most apparent level, it is a mapping or discursive representation of the social and symbolic roles of collectivities—particularly those that are public or domestic, valorized or devalorized: therefore, it coincides with a construction of the sociological conditions of the political order. And—if I am allowed to insert my own terminology—it involves the drawing and redrawing of internal borders that distribute and situate social differences and statuses or ranks. But at a more fundamental and also more decisive level, it is a pattern of the visibility or invisibility of actions, languages and subjectivities, whereby the absence of the invisible No-Part—or conversely its intrusion into the realm of the visible (and the sayable)—obliquely determines the ways in which the possibilities of representation of all the other parts are configured. This is an idea that, like it or not, owes as much to Althusser as to Foucault—both of them secretly responding to Merleau-Ponty. It is beautifully illustrated in the final chapter of Rancière’s more recent magnum opus, Aisthesis, through the interpretation of James Agee’s (and, by implication, Walker Evans’) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the picture book invented and written on the roads of America’s Southern states in the middle of the Great Depression.27 This is of course another way of conceptualizing the becoming present of “the absent cause,” that strips it as much as possible from its persistent theological resonances. Nothing to do, in Rancière’s description, with a miracle or a Parousia of the Redeemer of politics (even if called “the proletariat”), but an operation that at the same time is common, creating common notions or common sense, and exceptional, or intensely disturbing. I submit that we have to do here, through the mediation of a singular alliance of the poetic or the literary in the broad sense, and the political, with a reduction of the antithesis between concept and intuition, or a conceptual effect where there is no formal concept.28

* * *

Indeed, this takes us to a limit of any “epistemological” discussion of concept production in terms of their conflictual character, which I have chosen as my guiding thread. I am uncertain about how to pursue such a discussion or inquiry—for which fortunately I no longer have room. And in any case, that should not take the form of a synthesis or systematic assemblage of these different modalities of conceptual conflictuality or conceptual conceptualization, to which we can attribute a political meaning. But instead of a conclusion or in guise of an opening towards other reflections, something comes to my mind that I want to share. I realize that everything I have said or hinted at tonight is a kind of deferred discussion of the issue of dialectics, and especially Hegel’s dialectics, for whom the concept as such is an exposition and a resolution of conflict. And of course, that entails the vexed question whether Marx reproduced that conceptual logic, even if under a different name or in a different field, or opened the way to its irreversible deconstruction. It was intentionally that I did not embark on that discussion before: not only because I had no time or wanted to take a detour, but because in fact I think that what Hegel calls the concept is not what we need to discuss as “concept” in the field of anthropology and philology. And in fact my implicit guiding thread, if there is any single one, is not Hegelian: it is really Kantian, or post-Kantian, or neo-neo-Kantian. It has to do with an attempt at modifying, inverting the function of “schematism,” as it were, so that the concept—der Begriff, das Begreifen, which means the formation of concepts—does not work as an instrument to distinguish, isolate the faculties or elements of intellectual activity that could generate conflicts from one another, be they ideologies, subjectivations or sensibilities, but, on the contrary, to bring them together and transport them into a single topos, in order to problematize the uncertain effects of their encounter.


Étienne Balibar is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Paris X-Nanterre and is the Anniversary Chair Professor at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University as well as Visiting Professor in the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University.


Published on January 15, 2018

1. René Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, in vol. 7 of Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrinn, 1904), p. 25.

2. See Mauro Carbone: The Thinking of the Sensible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 2014) on Merleau-Ponty, and the entry “concept” in the Dictionary of Untranslatables, by Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter et al., (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2014).

3. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), chap. 7.

4. This injunction is to be found in Spinoza’s Tractatus Politicus (I, 4): “actiones humanas non lugere, non ridere, neque indignari, sed intelligere.” A similar formula features in Letter 30 to Oldenburg. Ordinare ad intellectum is the motto that permeates Part 5 of the Ethics (after Proposition V.10 and the scholium).

5. See Michel Foucault’s preface to Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett and Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1989). The idea of philosophy as a battlefield (Kampfplatz), a formula often repeated by Althusser (especially in the “Soutenance d’Amiens” from 1975), comes from Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties.

6. Hegel will not be my main reference in this discussion, although I need to characterize his position later. His dialectical “method” means that the logic of contradiction (of which conflict, or certain modalities of conflict, can be presented as specific cases—or to which they can be reduced) is inherent in the concept. This is, I believe, a very different orientation.

7. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. George van den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

8. See Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015 [1960]), p. 56. I proposed this symmetry of “semantic ascent” and “polemic ascent” for scientific arguments in my paper (presented to the anniversary conference of the foundation of University Paris-Nanterre, 2013), published as “Que devient la théorie? Sciences humaines, politique, philosophie (1970-2010): réflexions et propositions,” in 1970-2010: Les sciences de l’homme en débat, ed. Yan Braïlowsky et Hervé Inglebert (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2013).

9. “Prehistory” became a common term in epistemology in the wake of the discussions about the “epistemological break” and the “scientific revolution” in the mid-20th century. But the idea is there already in Kant’s “history of pure reason,” which separates the “safe way” (i.e. linear progress) of science from the conflictual and uncertain vicissitudes preceding the “Copernican revolution” (see the Preface to the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason).

10. See Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: New Left Books, 1969) on “real humanism” (Marxism and Humanism). Jameson’s celebrated article “The Vanishing Mediator: Or, Max Weber as Storyteller” is reproduced in Frederic Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (New York: Verso, 2008).

11. Nestor Capdevila, Le concept d’idéologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004).

12. See W.B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.56, (1956), pp. 167–98; reprinted in W.B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964).

13. I am aware of a subsequent discussion of the difference between “concept” and “conception” (to which contributed such luminaries as H.L.A Hart, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Steven Lukes —all quoted in the Wikipedia article “Essentially contested concepts” ( It seems to me that emphasizing a distinction between the semantic and the pragmatic (or the objective and the subjective) sides of the question, this discussion essentially serves to deflect the fact that Gallie pointed at conflicts originating in the concept itself, as indicated by Jeremy Waldron in his later commentary “Is the Rule of Law an Essentially Contested Concept (in Florida)?” (Law and Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 2 [March 2002], pp. 137–64).

14. In a more recent book, Nestor Capdevila has pursued his critical use of Gallie’s methodology, returning to the twin issues of democracy and revolution in a discussion of Tocqueville and Marx (Tocqueville ou Marx. Démocratie, capitalisme, revolution [Paris: PUF, 2012]).

15. Reinhart Koselleck, Zur historisch-politischen Semantik asymmetrischer Gegenbegriffe, in Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1979).

16. I speak of “euphemism,” but it is difficult not to read it as a concealment of the “place of enunciation” where, within historical discourse itself, a reference to the subject for whom (qua historian trained inside the conflict that he describes), the “antithetic concepts” appear dissymmetric: perhaps a subject who “changed side” during his lifetime . . .

17. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland.  (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972–1997), 8 vols. See Elias José Palti, “Reinhard Koselleck, His Concept of the Concept and Neo-Kantianism,” in Contributions to the History of Concepts 6:2 (Winter 2011) pp. 1–20. Koselleck’s introduction to the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe is translated and commented upon in Contribution to the History of Concepts 6:1.

18. Georges Canguilhem, “What is Scientific Ideology?,” with an introduction by Mike Shortland, Radical Philosophy 029 (Autumn 1981); see my essay,  “Science et vérité dans la philosophie de Georges Canguilhem,” in Georges Canguilhem, philosophe, historien des sciences (Paris: Albin Michel, 1993).

19. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

20. See Judith Revel, Foucault avec Merleau-Ponty: Ontologie politique, présentisme et histoire (Paris: Vrin, 2015).

21. See Foucault’s commentary of Kant’s Anthropology in Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, trans. and ed. Daniel Defert, François Ewald, and Frédéric Gros (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008).

22. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics certainly should be discussed here, but this is a whole world of thought in itself. For most of us, the combined concept “subject-object” owes its definition and prestige to contemporary post-Marxian thinkers such as Lukacs and Ernst Bloch (who applies it to his reading of Hegel). The genealogy traces back to Hegel, but above all to Schelling.

23. My main reference here is an essay written by Althusser in 1976 for the first conference on Psychoanalysis to be held in the USSR (Tbilisi Conference) (which he did not attend in person). See, Louis Althusser, “On Marx and Freud,” trans Warren Montag, Rethinking Marxism 4:1 (Spring 1991). In the French original, Althusser did not exactly use the quasi-theological category “schismatic,” but the more politically oriented “scissionist.” This term was introduced in the German translation. Althusser’s reformulations involve an often dramatic confrontation with the Great Schism of the international Communist movement, in which he found himself caught, but also a complex confrontation with Lacan, which I cannot discuss here.

24. “Or quel mal vous arrivera-t-il en prenant ce parti ? . . . je vous dis que vous y gagnerez en cette vie, et que à chaque pas que vous ferez dans ce chemin, vous verrez tant de certitude de gain, et tant de néant de ce que vous hasardez, que vous connaîtrez à la fin que vous avez parié pour une chose certaine, infinie, pour laquelle vous n’avez rien donné” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, §418 [Lafuma Edition]).

25. I developed this comparison at greater length in my paper “La philosophie et l’actualité: au-delà de l’événement ?,” in Le Moment philosophique des années 1960 en France, ed. Patrice Maniglier (Paris: PUF, 2011).

26. Jacques Rancière, Le Partage du sensible. Esthétique et politique (Paris: La Fabrique-éditions, 2000); The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. and ed. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

27. Jacques Rancière, “The Cruel Radiance of What Is (Hale County 1936 – New York 1941),” in Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul (New York: Verso, 2013).

28. That would of course include Rancière, although in an indirect way, in the great discussion about the theses of Kant’s third Critique, that of Aesthetic Judgment, that has so deeply determined recent philosophy.