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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001) 346-348

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Book Review

Empire of Meaning: The Humanization of the Social Sciences

Empire of Meaning: The Humanization of the Social Sciences. By François Dosse. Trans. Hassan Melehy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. pp. xx + 434. $39.95.

Engaging a central concern for the contemporary intellectual, François Dosse's Empire of Meaning: The Humanization of the Social Sciences examines how French theorists, in particular, have answered to the so-called legitimation crisis, which has placed in doubt the dominant paradigms of thought, including structuralism and Marxism. These paradigms, or "grand narratives" as Jean-François Lyotard called them, posit particular versions of reality, of the knowing subject's relation to that reality, and of the relation between subjects. Postmodernity's incredulity toward these dominant narratives questions our heretofore unproblematic notions of the "human" and of the social bond formed by humans "being together," and makes problematic how one could or should theorize the social sciences. According to Dosse, this apparent impasse for the contemporary scholar is based on a "false alternative" between "the deification and the dissolution of the subject" (xv). Overcoming this false alternative, a new paradigm emerges, a paradigm that offers us "both a real path of emancipation as a social project and a fertile framework in the domain of the social sciences" (xv). Additionally, this paradigm allows scholars to establish a "common language that might interest society and participate in the public debate" (xiii). Chronicling the emergence of this new paradigm--generated by a "transdisciplinary" conversation amongst the natural sciences, philosophy, and the social sciences (341)--Dosse specifies four representative orientations: (1) work influenced by Michel Serres, such as that of the Center for the Sociology of Innovation; (2) cognitivist approaches taken, for example, by the Center for Research in Applied Epistemology; (3) pragmatic and conventionalist approaches exemplified "by the work of the new sociology and by the renewed interrogation of the standard model of economics"; and (4) reglobalization efforts through the [End Page 346] political, such as the work influenced by Claude Lefort (xvi). Dosse's discussion of these four poles and of their emerging commonplaces represents a dizzying amount of research and attention to detail. For the reader seeking rich historical detail, including names, places, schools, and research agendas, Empire of Meaning proves a veritable gold mine of information; for the reader interested less in the players than in the paradigm, its articulation, and its defense, Empire of Meaning will appear overpacked with historical minutia, lacking in theoretical metacommentary.

As the title suggests, the newly born paradigm attempts to redefine what it means to be human. However, such an attempt, according to Dosse, is not a "pure and simple return to the subject or to a form of precritical humanism," but rather an attempt to question, "on the level of the individual, what 'being together,' or the social bond, is based on" (xvi). "On the level of the individual" means a methodological concern with the "instituter" rather than the "instituted" (xvi) in order to theorize how social beings act, thereby reintroducing the social sciences to "social action" (182). Indeed, "action," according to Dosse, is the determining word of this new paradigm, a paradigm that attempts to bypass the epistemological crisis by not asking how subjects know, but how they exercise agency via a "double hermeneutic." The emphasis on hermeneutics comes as no surprise to the reader; the book is, after all, dedicated to Paul Ricoeur. Dosse explains that the new paradigm, much like a call Richard Rorty made in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, moves from epistemology to hermeneutics, from episteme to phronesis. Such a move, Dosse writes, "accords a central position to action endowed with meaning, rehabilitates the intentionality and the justifications of the actors in a reciprocal determination of doing and saying. The social is then no longer conceived as a thing; it is no longer the object of reification, for the actor and the observer are both held in a relation of interpretation that implicates intersubjectivity" (xvi).

Dosse offers his own...


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