Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gerard Delanty on Rémi Brague

Gerard Delanty

Yesterday, I linked to Gerard Delanty's article on European identity, "Conceptions of Europe: A Review of Recent Trends" (European Journal of Social Theory, 6(4) 2003), which reviews nine books presenting views of Europe. The article dates from 2003, which is not so long ago, but given the enormous changes since then, especially Europe's ongoing economic crisis and its surging immigration, the debate over European identity has probably moved on. Delanty's article remains valuable, however, especially for it succinct presentation of various views, including the summary of Rémi Brague's understanding of European identity, so I'll post it here for readers' convenience:
Europe as a Philosophical Idea
Works on Europe as a strictly philosophical idea are rare. A few notable exceptions in recent times are Derrida (1992), Gadamer (1992), Kristeva (2000) and Patočka (2001). The English translation of Rémi Brague's La voie romaine is a major contribution to the constitution of Europe as an object of philosophical reflection. Originally published in 1992 in response to the Maastricht Treaty, this subtle book can be easily misunderstood. This is an essay about the philosophical essence of Europe and it is Brague's argument that this is to be found not in the content of European traditions but in their form: the uniquely European is to be found in the nature of the transmission of culture rather than in any specific cultural content. Europe is based on a particular cultural form that transforms that which it takes over but does not have a culture of its own. The essence of Europe is its capacity to transform culture. For Brague, Europe cannot be defined by geography, by politics or by a disembodied Platonic idea. It is not a place or a particular political order. Europe is a variable notion and defined as a particular kind of cultural belonging, which Brague associates with Rome. 'Europe is not only Greek, nor only Hebrew, nor even Greco-Hebraic. It is decidedly Roman' (p. 26). This may sound extraordinary, but Rome for Brague denotes something more European than Greek, Judaic or Islamic modes of belonging because Rome is not European at all in its fundamental nature -- 'this culture is not Latin, or European, but foreign' (p. 92).

For Brague, Europe has always defined itself through otherness, a condition that he associates with Rome. 'The Romans have done little more than transmit', he argues (p. 32). Roman culture was based on innovation, commencement, a search for the new. To say that we are Romans is the contrary of identifying ourselves with a great ancestor; it is to recognize that fundamentally we have invented nothing, but simply that we learned how to transmit the cultures of others. Thus what distinguishes Europe is its mode of relating to itself, which is one of distance: 'The distance that separates us from the ancient Greeks is not in principle, less than that which separates us from other modern cultures' (p. 142). Europe constantly has to confront a consciousness of having borrowed everything from sources that can never be regained. Brague associates with Rome a form of cultural translation in which something new is always created in the act of interpretation. In contrast, in Islam, the original content is retained to a greater extent whereas in Europe the origin is always foreign. The ancient world can only be known in its traces. This leads Brague to his thesis that at the heart of the European consciousness is the phenomenon of 'secondarity': Europeanness is based on the act of cultural creation in which all cultural content is never a copy of an origin. This capacity for self-transformation leads to the interesting insight that Europe does not belong to the Europeans, who do not exist as such. 'Europe is a culture' and cannot be inherited but only created (p.149) is the conclusion Brague reaches.

This is a decidedly deconstructive reading of European culture as already decentred, 'eccentric' and containing alterity within it. Moreover, it reflects a processual and transformative conception of Europe -- echoing Renan, 'Europe is a continual plebiscite' (p. 5) -- since the political implication, not fully developed by the author, is that Europe is never tied to its origin but can and must constantly recreate itself. To be sure, Brague seeks to tie the idea of secondarity to some notions in Catholic theology, obscuring some of his fascinating ideas and it is indeed arguable that the condition of cultural secondarity needs to be related exclusively to Rome. In more conventional approaches this is often associated with the idea of modernity, as in the work of Blumenberg, who has clearly influenced Brague. But the central thesis that European culture needs to be defined in terms of its form rather than identified with a particular cultural content solves some of the problems of essentialism. It also gives a different twist to the idea of the uniqueness of Europe, since what is claimed is that this consists of the capacity for secondarity. But there is a philosophical slight [sic. sleight] of hand in the seductive argument that '"Eurocentrism" is a misnomer' on the grounds that 'no culture was never so little centred [sic. centered] on itself and so interested in the others as Europe' (pp. 133–4). Notwithstanding this problem which is not adequately addressed, this book offers one of the most important philosophical theorizations of the meaning of Europe. (Gerard Delanty, "Conceptions of Europe: A Review of Recent Trends," European Journal of Social Theory, 6(4) 2003, pages 485-486)
This is a rather good summary of Brague's views, but I think that Delanty exaggerates the degree to which European identity is to be found in its form rather than its content. To be European is not just to be characterized in its form of "secondarity" as a transmitter of foreign cultural contents that transform and are transformed. Europe has a more particular cultural debt to Greek and Jewish culture. I think that Delanty also misstates Brague's point about Islam concerning the manner in which foreign cultures are taken over: "in Islam, the original content is retained to a greater extent whereas in Europe the origin is always foreign." Brague's point about translation in the Islamic world is not that Muslims were more accurate in their translations of foreign materials into Arabic, but that they stuck with those original translations, holding that the Arabic language had perfected the meaning and that there was no reason to return to the foreign sources since the translations were superior. Europeans, by contrast, always sought more accurate translations because they knew that the superior text was to be found in the original. Once they had the originals, of course, they were free to transform these through reinterpretation -- the transformative part of transmission -- but the originals were never considered to be superceded.

I recommend that interested readers go directly to Brague.

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At 6:31 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Once they had the originals, of course, they were free to transform these through reinterpretation -- the transformative part of transmission -- but the originals were never considered to be superceded

Nevertheless, in the period - say - between the late Middle Ages and the 18th century, in the Catholic Church the "Vulgata" i.e. the Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome, was doctrinally, or practically at least, considered to be the TRUE Word of God. It was even forbidden to comment on the Scriptures starting from the original texts.

All in all, given the level of the current official translations "from the original texts" in Italy, they were luckier at those times...

At 7:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good point about the Vulgate. I wonder what Brague would say about that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I agree with your skepticism about Braque's claims regarding the formalism on "European" culture and its dependence on other sources of content. One particular example, which I am surprised that Braque doesn't seem to account for, is Roman law. Roman law arguably is the single most important pan-European symbolic system/institution (besides Christianity) that defines "Europe" and its other Western affines. While obviously a formal system of rules, it derives directly from ancient Roman life and custom, and probably has been the single most persistent and creatively transformative symbolic/institutional element of the West. Ignoring its substantive significance to the West by regarding it simply as an empty system of rules would be a gross error of historical judgment.

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I probably haven't been clear enough (because pressed for time and suffering the flu), but Delanty is the one overemphasizing Brague's emphasis on form to the neglect of content. Brague insists on some Greek and Jewish content to 'Romanity'.

As for Roman Law, Brague acknowledges it . . . but doesn't do enough with it:

"In one cultural domain, everyone concedes that the Romans have invented and passed on a significant contribution to posterity: the law" (Eccentric Culture, page 31).

Brague goes on to argue that "law is what regulates transactions" and thus fits his view that Rome was a transmmitter of culture. I'm not sure that I can quite buy this argument.

But generally speaking, I think Brague's argument a profound one.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

By your account, Braque DOES grossly underestimate Roman law and particularly its substantive content, incl the enormous importance of the transformation of the substance of Roman customs/culture into the regulative norms os Western Civ. Anyway, my prosecutorial zeal has been stirred; I will be reading him.

At 3:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll be interested in your thoughts. Perhaps we can have an evening at the Craftworks after the semester and discuss Brague.

By the way, I've previously posted on Brague, so you could find more material on this blog as well.

(And I think you're hitting a "q" rather than a "g" in Brague's surname.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

yeah, My head's a little cubed these days.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gee . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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