- Individualisme: une enquête sur les sources du mot par Marie-France Piguet
Once upon a time, ‘individualism’ — a word that now seems deeply entrenched in our vocabulary — was a novelty. It was, as Marie-France Piguet explains in her book, ‘un [End Page 668] néologisme qui a bien réussi’ (p. 10). Piguet’s study is a history of the word itself — ‘une histoire sociale du lexique’ (p. 11) — which examines the discursive configurations in which the word emerged, the homonyms under which it was subsumed, the antonyms that delimited its meaning, and the values with which it was endowed. She shows that the term began its career at a precise and circumscribable moment: in French debates over politics and religion occurring between 1825 and roughly 1840. These discussions, which primarily involved Saint-Simonian socialists and Restoration liberals, probed the nature of the society bequeathed by the tumultuous revolutionary era. A parallel conversation, overlapping with the latter, concerned the loss of a communal faith and a shared set of beliefs, notably through a reckoning with Protestantism’s enduring cultural impact. As she reconstructs these debates, Piguet arrives at a further conclusion: those who pioneered the term ‘individualisme’ used it to denounce the phenomena it named. The Saint-Simonians used the word to stigmatize ‘un système politique qui place la liberté au cœur de ses préoccupations, et très probablement de discréditer tout particulièrement la pensée de “l’individualisme”’ (especially the ideas of liberals such as Benjamin Constant; pp. 81–82). In this context, the antonyms with which ‘individualism’ was invariably contrasted were ‘socialism’ and ‘association’. Drawing on the work of lexicologists, Piguet argues that neologisms arise when users of well-defined discourses realize that they lack a readily available word for the problems they seek to address. The author demonstrates, finally, that the polemical use of this word is tied its morphology: as an ‘-ism’, it can refer to a doctrine but also to a condition, which made it possible for the Saint-Simonians regularly to attack the idea of individualité, which liberals used to describe an elusive feeling of existence, by replacing it with individualisme, with all its pejorative connotations. Piguet does not, regrettably, incorporate into her otherwise comprehensive account instances in which there was deliberate pushback against the assault on individualisme. One thinks, for instance, of Émile Durkheim’s famous 1898 essay, L’Individualisme et les intellectuels, which challenged the anti-Dreyfusards’ condemnation of the allegedly problematic individualism of Dreyfus’s champions. Furthermore, if Piguet is right that neologisms occur when discourses encounter stumbling blocks, lexical history alone cannot be equal to the task of understanding them: the tools of contextual intellectual history are also needed to reconstruct the broader discourses that make lexical innovation necessary. Even so, Piguet offers a thorough and useful lexical map of individualisme and its close semantic relatives in the period immediately following its inception. Implicitly, she also provides fascinating insight into the negative connotations with which individualisme is still saddled in French social and political discourse.