The disaster and its signs

Primitive societies, explains Lvy-Bruhl, were vigilant for signs announcing catastrophes, even though they were unpredictable. This should inspire us, we who must be on alert today.

The time of disasters as an opportunity to rediscover the primitive in us

One can to expect a catastrophe more difficult to foresee : we expect climate catastrophe or epidemics, but we cannot predict the date, the scale, the duration, or all the consequences. Thus the West must depart from the specifically Western conception of Nature as a set of phenomena. predictable, controllable And knowable accurately by humans.

By abandoning the certainties it has about Nature, the West necessarily abandons those it has about Reason. He then finds a conception of Nature and a mentality which are not or no longer its own, but which are those of the societies that the anthropologists of the last century called primitives. Lvy-Bruhl (1857-1939) maintained, in fact, that the primitive mentality ignores causal connections, all events having a mystical origin. For this mentality, there is therefore no question of trying to predict events: at most we can expect them, and show ourselves vigilant to the signs which announce them vigilance differing from ancient caution in that it is not an intellectual virtue. The primitive mentality interpretershe does not calculated not (p.130). The West (re)finds this mentality in itself when the course of events defies rational capacities for prediction. THE XXe century is full of these events, or catastrophes, the scale and horror of which could not be predicted; the most we could do was to be vigilant to the signs that announced them.

However, the French school of anthropology from Durkheim Lvy-Bruhl, including Mauss and Hertz, is contemporary with these catastrophes (the two World Wars, the outbreak of anti-Semitism, etc.). By studying the life and work of Lvy-Bruhl, F. Keck tries to demonstrate that this contemporaneity is not fortuitous: according to him, Lvy-Bruhl conceived anthropology as a science of vigilance (p.9) that is to say as a science which studies the way in which primitive societies understand the unpredictable, and as a vigilant science (p.9), which shows by example how to prepare for the unpredictable. Lvy-Bruhl's political action was consistent with his thinking: in 1934, he participated in the founding of the Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, and strove to prepare the arrival of Jewish intellectuals forced to exile in the United States (p.203).

In this book, which is based on family archives and on discussions with Lvy-Bruhl's descendants, making it a very valuable collection of information useful for a better understanding of his work, F. Keck thus contributes a genealogy of disaster preparedness (p.221).

(Re)birth of our primitive mentality: the Dreyfus affair and the Great War

F. Keck rereads all of Lvy-Bruhl's work, systematically seeking to establish a link between the historical events he witnessed and the concepts he developed. His approach has the merit of showing that the concepts of Lvy-Bruhelian anthropology are not only used to describe a heterogeneous mentality like ours: they are We that it is, and the anthropology of Lvy-Bruhl wins to be read as an anthropology reflexive.

For Lvy-Bruhl, primitive mentality does not represents not things like us: she imagines the relationships of participation between things, which constitute their being. If the Bororo can affirm that they are araras, it is because they do not have a conceptual representation of the former distinct from that of the latter, but that they have the mystical experience of a participation between them and the araras. Now F. Keck shows that Lvy-Bruhl's contemporaries are no strangers to this mentality, which may have inspired Lvy-Bruhl: are the bird caricatures of Jaurs or Dreyfus not based on a psychological mechanism similar to that of Bororos who identify with the araras (p.96sq.)? Likewise, the questions of socialists about their participation in government do not worry, like the primitive mentality, about what participation defines the being of things (p.94sq.)?

F. Keck pays particular attention to the Dreyfus affair and the Great War. He first wonders to what extent the opposition that Lvy-Bruhl will make between primitive mentality and civilized mentality has its source in the Dreyfus affair (p.59), during which two mentalities radically oppose each other: that of the Dreyfusards, driven by the rational quest for truth, and that of the anti-Dreyfusards, indifferent to objective proof. The anti-Dreyfus mentality has in common with the primitive mentality that it is indifferent to the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of causality. Bertillon, for example, who obstinately intends to demonstrate the guilt of Dreyfus, think like a savage (p.76), because Dreyfus's guilt is for him a fact of which it matters little whether it is physically, or logically, impossible. As for Dreyfus, he experiences the contradiction between feeling and reason, that is to say between the two mentalities that Lvy-Bruhl will theorize (p.64sq.).

F. Keck then sets out to demonstrate that engagement in the Great War led Lvy-Bruhl to develop a new conception of primitive mentality: it is no longer a question, as at the time of the Dreyfus affair and the Mental functions in lower societies (1910), to describe a mentality indifferent to contradiction, but a mentality inhabited by the feeling of unpredictability, and ready to face it (p.114). F. Keck maintains that it was the war and the accidents, by definition unpredictable, caused by the war effort, which determined Lvy-Bruhl to modify his first conception of primitive mentality. His thesis leads to very original views: for him, The primitive mentality (1922) is a reflection on the war, which multiplied the accidents and produced new collective representations unifying the social body (p.117).

The Dreyfus Affair and the Great War would thus have enabled Lvy-Bruhl's contemporaries to rediscover in themselves certain traits of primitive mentality. It was by observing them that the latter would have formed his concepts.

Some reservations about the postulated link between concepts and historical events

The fact of explaining the emergence of Lvy-Bruhl's concepts by the events of his time nevertheless raises some difficulties.

First of all, the opposition between the dreyfusarde and anti-dreyfusarde mentalities on the one hand, and between feeling and reason on the other hand, undoubtedly gave Lvy-Bruhl the opportunity to note irreducible differences between the ways of thinking, or between the mental functions; will we, however, go so far as to suggest that his anthropological description of the opposition between these mental types take his source (p.59)? The explanation of this opposition, or this great sharinghad occupied anthropologists for a long time, and even constituted the main object of their considerations well before the Dreyfus affair broke out.

We can, likewise, place some reservations when F. Keck maintains that it is the Dreyfus affair which led () Mauss to conceive the passage from magic to science () as a structural tension (p.76-77), and, more generally, that one should read the essays that Hubert and Mauss devote to sacrifice and magic like reactions to the Dreyfus affair (p.238, note 120). On the one hand, in fact, the political dimension of sacrifice and its social utility are relatively marginal themes in the Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice (1899): they are only discussed in the conclusion.; on the other hand, the Outline of a Theory of Magic (1902) hardly resembles an occasional text. Anthropology can explain current events, but current events cannot completely explain the emergence of anthropological concepts.

Regarding the impact of the First World War on the reorientation of the Evy-Bruheian conception of primitive mentality, F. Keck apparently argues that the conception of a primitive mentality is inhabited by the feeling of unpredictability replaces that of a mentality indifferent to contradiction. However, Lvy-Bruhl will continue, even in its Notebooks, consider that primitive mentality accommodates contradictions. If, moreover, these two conceptions of primitive mentality are not mutually exclusive, and if, even, the feeling of unpredictability can be seen as a consequence of indifference to contradiction, then the causal relationship postulated between engagement in the Great War and the revision of the conception of primitive mentality, becomes questionable.

News from Lvy-Bruhl? Sentinels, whistleblowers and vigilance policy

One of the originalities of F. Keck's work lies in the use made there of very currentto understand the anthropology and philosophy of the last century: for him, the Durkheimian theory of the social anticipates our debates on the subject of precautionary principle; that of Bergson contains a description of the whistleblowers; and that of Lvy-Bruhl, a description of sentinels (pp.11-12). The news of Lvy-Bruhl would still be tested by reading the pages devoted to contagion (p.144sq.), which can be of great relevance for thinking about the pandemic from which we have barely emerged.

F. Keck's work thus intends show the current political thinking of Lucien Lvy-Bruhl (p. 8). But what can be current and relevant in the discourse of an anthropologist, if not pro-colonial, at least very paternalistic (pg. 169)?

F. Keck explains that the trip that Lvy-Bruhl made to the Philippines in 1920 disrupted his schema of the transition from prelogical mentality to logical mentality (p. 158). The second is neither more evolved nor superior to the first: they are radically different. This otherness is claimed by the colonial subjects within the independence movements, which Lvy-Bruhl encourages to the point that his work could be understood, for example by P. Nizan, as a harsh criticism of colonization (cited p. 182). If the history of anthropology has not retained this version, it is undoubtedly because, even when he considers societies like the Philippines, Lvy-Bruhl does not depart from an ethnocentric and paternalistic view: he defends, for example, during conferences given in Beijing, the need to bring the principles of European Enlightenment and French rationalism in the Eastern world (p. 164).

Lvy-Bruhl's speech on the colonies is in harmony with that of Jaurs (p. 152). This proximity of Lvy-Bruhl to socialism, and to Jaurs in particular, is an essential theme of F. Keck's book: the genealogy of disaster preparedness is made there starting from French socialism and its expression in the social sciences (p. 221). This is, for the author, a way of proposing another account of the genelogy of preparation than the essentially individualist one of neo-liberalism. It is a way, therefore, of update socialism (that of Jaurs and Lvy-Bruhl), who sided with Dreyfus, and, not without faults or prejudices, for emancipation.

We will ultimately remember from F. Keck's book that it provides strong answers to the questions of our time, and that, like Lvy-Bruhl's thesis on Idea of ​​responsibility (1884), it deserves to be read as a contribution to the public debate (p. 33), and not just the history of ideas. How to prepare for disasters? Thanks to a real vigilance policy ; this is the definition of socialism which this book leads to. F. Keck then describes Jaurs, for his action during the Dreyfus affair, as alert launcher (p. 69), and Dreyfus, like all those who fight for justice, for emancipation and for truth, of sentinel. The sentinels perceive the warning signals before the others; they stand on the border between the world after, to come, and the current world, from which they suffer injustice. The social ideal can only be perceived and anticipated by those who have not completely lost this mentality that social science theorizes as the science, therefore, of vigilance.