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Contre Taine et Renan: Charles Péguy and the Metaphysics of Modern History

From: French Forum
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2009
pp. 17-37 | 10.1353/frf.0.0077

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

History, conceived as pure science,
once it became sovereign, would
be a kind of conclusion to
living and a final reckoning for

Nietzsche, Second Untimely Meditation

Israel Zangwill, l'homme et l'œuvre

On October 25th, 1904, Charles Péguy, editor of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, published a short story entitled Chad Gadya! written by a certain Israel Zangwill and translated from the original English by one of the Cahiers' collaborators. As neither the text nor its author were particularly well-known to the French reading public of the day—"il m'était totalement inconnu" Péguy admits—the gérant of the Cahiers felt it necessary to include a short preface introducing the man and his work to his subscribers. Before any biographical information is imparted, however, Péguy offers us his vision of the unique hermeneutic situation in which readers (here, Péguy himself) find themselves when confronted with an unknown author; a situation to which the "modern" response, Péguy tells us, is one that is "toute contemporaine, toute récente" in the history of French letters:

Quand nous ne connaissons pas le nom d'un auteur, nous commençons par nous méfier; et par nous affoler; nous nous inquiétons; nous courons aux renseignements; nous nous trouvons ignorants; nous sommes inquiets; nous demandons à droite et à gauche; nous perdons notre temps; nous courons au dictionnaires, aux manuels, ou à ces hommes qui sont eux-mêmes des dictionnaires et des manuels, ambulants; et nous ne retrouvons la paix de l'âme qu'après que nous avons établi de l'auteur, dans le plus grand détail, une bonne biographie cataloguée analytique sommaire.1

Thus, one of the first of Péguy's important longer Cahiers, the text that will come to be known simply as "Zangwill" in subsequent editions of his work, begins modestly with an attempt to establish a modern, scientific biography of an obscure English author.

As is all too often the case in his prose writings, Péguy deviates quickly from the initial, declared subject matter of his essay, treating it merely as a point of departure from which to explore any and all avenues, whether tangentially related to the topic at hand or not, of his thoughts. Naturally then, outside of the first and final paragraphs, there is no real mention of Israel Zangwill in the Cahier that bears his name. Instead, Péguy is content to describe first the presumed methodology needed to establish the aforementioned "bonne biographie cataloguée analytique sommaire," a supreme example of which can be found in Hippolyte Taine's La Fontaine et ses fables. And then, more generally, he will attempt to define, and ultimately criticize, the metaphysical underpinnings inherent to this sort of scientistic approach to knowledge found not only in the historical/critical studies of Taine, but also, and more significantly for Péguy, in the important "bookend" works—L'Avenir de la science, pensées de 1848 and Dialogues et fragments philosophiques—of Ernest Renan. Ultimately, by way of these two authors, the question Péguy will pose is one centered on history and on the epistemological ramifications that underlie the positivist approach to the social and human sciences, wherein methods developed for the natural sciences are applied to historical scholarship and the study of mankind: "je demande s'il n'est pas vrai que les méthodes scientifiques modernes, transportées en vrac dans l'histoire et devenues les méthodes historiques, exigent de l'historien des facultés qui dépassent les facultés de l'homme."2 This methodological borrowing from the physical and experimental sciences is indicative of what Péguy terms the "metaphysic" of modern, scientistic historicism, the institutionalization of which will mark the intellectual foundations of the Third Republic and whose origin Péguy traces directly back to Taine and Renan.3

In the case of Péguy, born during the initial years of political uncertainty that followed the Commune, and subsequently raised in an atmosphere of staunch republican values,4 Taine and Renan are more than mere intellectual influences, they are somehow foundational to his conception of the modern world—a world that...