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German Ideology: From France to Germany and Back.

Dumont, Louis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. x + 250 pp. $32.50 --Louis Dumont is a distinguished and versatile French social anthropologist. His Homo Hierarchicus (1966) examined the Indian caste system; in a series of writings under the general title Homo Aequalis, he has investigated modern European ideology, moving deftly through intellectual history from Aquinas to Schiller, from Adam Smith to Thomas Mann. German Ideology forms part of this general project; it comprises a number of essays, some previously published, centering on the distinctive German understanding of the individual's relation to society.

Dumont's basic approach (spelled out more fully in Essays in Individualism [University of Chicago Press, 1986]) relies on a distinction between "individualistic" and "holistic" ideology. (`Ideology' is not a dismissive term for Dumont: he does not treat ideas as a mere superstructure, but allows for their possible "truth-value" [p. 34].) Individualism, which typifies modernity, includes `primacy of the relations of men to things (as against the relations between men), absolute distinction between subject and object (opposed to a merely relative, fluctuating distinction), segregation of values from facts and ideas (opposed to their indistinction or close association), [and] distribution of knowledge into independent, homologous, and homogeneous planes or disciplines" (p. 7). Above all, modernity tends to subordinate the society to the autonomous individual; thus, the individual is "seen through the screen of the universal," humanity as such (p. 144), rather than as integrated into a particular social whole. There are national variants of modern ideology which adapt local holistic traditions to modernity by combining them--inconsistently--with individualism. In practice, these local hybrids serve only to intensify the dominant individualism (p. 15).

Dumont himself is a holist. Speaking of the ethnic theory of the nation, he writes that "it is only what it contains of a holistic perception that ensures its grip on social reality, whatever systematic incoherence it also introduces" (p. 11); when discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, he speaks of holism as "a ray of common sense" that pierced Humboldt's "arrogant cloud of ideology" (p. 140). Individualism "was never able to function without an unperceived contribution of holism to its life" (p. 8), because "when and where individualism manages to get a grip on the actual, it owes it to its contrary" (p. 11). Thus (as Dumont explains in Essays) anthropologists should become critically aware of their own individualistic milieu and the falsifications it imposes, and should concentrate on comparing concrete social wholes.

German Ideology is such a comparative effort. The heart of the book examines the notion of Bildung, a crucial element in the characteristic German combination of "community holism + self-cultivating individualism" (p. 20), through a survey of the ideas of Humboldt and a reading of Goethe's Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, in addition to short studies of Troeltsch, Thomas Mann, and Karl Philipp Moritz. A general claim is that the Reformation fostered a German interior individualism which left social holism intact, whereas in France the Revolution was able to give vent to individualism on the political level (pp. 20, 194). The concluding chapter returns to France, where the dominant ideology of the left is unadulteratedly individualistic while the right reactively defends the repressed truth of holism (pp. 208, 216). Dumont thus diagnoses some of "the diseases of modern politics" (p. x; Hitler is discussed in Essays).

While Dumont's interpretations are rich and sensitive, it cannot be said that they demonstrate either his thesis that individualism is false or his thesis that individualism cannot be consistently combined with holism. In fact, one must ask whether these theses are less discoveries of Dumont's anthropology than they are presuppositions that underlie this anthropology. We must also ask whether Dumont has fully worked out the contrast between individualism and holism as it relates to his own method--for despite his opposition to modern views of humanity as a universal, Dumont does not become a holist pure and simple, which would require giving up altogether the attempt to identify human characteristics that transcend particular social wholes. In fact, Dumont proposes several "general law[s]" (p. ix), "general patterns" (p. 21), or "sociological law[s]" (p. 65)--notably, the notion of a cultural conatus, as it were, whereby each culture "tends to persevere in its being, whether by dominating other cultures or by struggling against their domination" (p. 15). These generalizations suggest that he conceives of anthropology as a universalizing science (and hence--to invoke a German distinction--not only an interpretive, but an explanatory science). The "anthropologist's vocation" is to unify diverse phenomena (p. 110). The problem here, as Dumont notes in passing, is how we can "acknowledge the diversity of cultures and at the same time maintain the universal idea of truth-value"; he suggests we need a model "where truth-value would figure as a `regulative idea', in the Kantian sense" (p. 34). But does this Kantian suggestion not put Dumont's concept of social science squarely in the Enlightenment, whose universalism he rejects time and again (for example, p. 201)? Furthermore, it is unclear how there can be purely holistic grounds for Dumont's occasional normative statements--for example, "we must fight all claims to tyranny, be they external or internal" (p. 231; cf. p. 24).

When it comes to analyzing others' ideas, Dumont generally uses the categories of holism and individualism subtly and ingeniously (though there are exceptions, such as the trite statement that "Americans are deeply individualistic. For them [society] is definitely an aggregate of individuals" [p. 142]). The heuristic value of Dumont's categories is clear; readers will think of many cases where they can be related fruitfully to a thinker whom he does not discuss (e.g. Heidegger). Is Dumont willing, however, to move beyond these categories at the point where they exhaust their usefulness? All too late in the book, Dumont states rather disarmingly that "the opposition between individualism and holism is in all rigor inapplicable to Germany" (p. 194). This would be an opportunity to develop more refined concepts, perhaps in dialogue with the German thinkers Dumont discusses; but the overall message of the book remains that German thought is merely a "mixed up, confused" blend of his two categories (p. 25).

Dumont's work deserves a place in the important contemporary discussion of the character of modernity. However, this book's silence on questions such as the ones I have raised will make it somewhat frustrating for the philosophical reader.
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Author:Polt, Richard
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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