By Philip Smith (University of Queensland)

In, Contemporary Sociology, American Sociological Assoc., May 1994, vol. 23, number 3.


"It is high time to say that Jean-Marc Ferry’s book Les Puissances de l’expérience is one of the most important works recently published in the field of social philosophy — indeed in philosophy tout court" (Paul Ricœur, Libération, March 12, 1992). As Ricœur’s comment attests, Les Puissances de l’expérience (The powers of experience) is an outstanding

achievement. Situated between social theory and moral philosophy, the book brings to mind the work of Ricœur himself, as well as that of figures like Rorty and Apel. It is, however, to Jürgen Habermas that Ferry owes his greatest intellectual debt. Like Habermas, Ferry accords to communicative action a privileged moral and emancipatory status. Yet Ferry steps out in a different direction from Habermas, locating his thesis around the topic of identity as opposed to rationality.

At the outset, Ferry states that his aim is to discover the conditions under which it is possible to confer identity and recognition on individuals and nations. In a highly innovative series of chapters, Ferry shows that the answer to this question lies in the grammar of personal pronouns. In everyday language usage, I, you, and it carry with them differing ethical and moral baggage as they participate in a grammatical classification of the world. While the first two categories recognize subjectivity and make ethical demands for dialogue, the objectifying it is associated with instrumental reason. Drawing on a body of literature from the pragmatist semiotics of Pierce, to Ricœur’s existential hermeneutics, Piaget’s developmental psychology, and, of course, Locke, Ferry locates the origins of this grammar and its accompanying morality in sensation and action — the "powers of experience". The underlying purpose of this argument is to provide Ferry with a moral and ethical anchor for language and intersubjectivity in the realism of the life world as opposed to a morally vacuous, free-floating Saussurian sign system or a formalistic universal generative grammar. The approach Ferry takes here could provide real dividends for microsociology in its attempt to theorize norms as an emergent property of interaction and lived experience.

In the second section of the first volume Ferry provides a typology of the forms of discourse through which identity is constructed : narration, interpretation, argumentation, and reconstruction. Historical and discursive progress from narration toward reconstruction is associated with increasing reflexivity about identity and the grounds upon which it is established. Narration, in Ferry’s view, consists of ossified traditional myths which define identities in a more or less prescriptive, taken-forgranted way. Interpretation, on the other hand, involves the assimilation of identity to universal categories like law and justice and is exemplified in early Christian and ancient Greek thought. Argumentation opens up claims of identity to rational dialogue as embodied, for example, in the Enlightenment. Reconstruction, the final step toward reflexivity, involves hermeneutic attempts to understand the historical grounds behind the "good reasons" offered by others in argumentation. This is in part a logical and ethical consequence of the shift from it to you (acknowledging subjectivity) which emerges with argumentation itself.

At a metatheoretical level, the great utility of Ferry’s schema is that it enables us to locate contemporary research agendas on identity within an overarching division of labor. While narration and interpretation have been primarily explored by structuralist semioticians, anthropologists, and theologians, argumentation has traditionally been the province of critical theory and dialectics, and reconstruction the territory of social historians. As a contribution to theory itself, the typology is handicapped by Ferry’s ambiguity about whether he is proposing an ideal-type model, a historical account of the evolution of identity-forming discourses, or is making a moral-philosophical case for dialogue. As Ferry tends to make all three claims at once, the typology has about it the aura of a Spenserian grand theory which oversimplifies in the interests of a conceptual clarity which it never quite attains.

Perhaps Ferry’s model is most useful as a set of ideal-types, for the historical and moral claims he makes are open to dispute. In part, this is because the elevation of argumentation and reconstruction as sources of reason and truth is attained at the cost of a caricature of narration and interpretation. Ferry does not give due attention to the voices of scholars like Ricoeur who have forcefully argued for the moral centrality of narration as well as for the complexity, ambiguity, and subtlety of narrative forms. Equally important is the empirical inadequacy of some of Ferry’s claims which (like Habermas’s account of the "linguistification of the sacred" upon which it builds) rest upon an overly dichotomized conceptualization of traditional and modern society. For years, anthropologists and historians have documented the omnipresence of argumentation, interpretation, reflexivity, and so on in nonmodern societies, and sociologists are increasingly acknowledging the continuing centrality of quasi-religious narrative and myths for modern societies.

The second volume of the work turns to an examination of the social system and the types of identity that it confers in socioeconomic, sociopolitical, moral, and cultural fields. The argument here is more derivative, using Habermas’s familiar life-world/system-world perspective to understand how organizational and theological rationality dominates the structuring of contemporary identities. Ferry, like Habermas, makes the case that in confronting alienating systemic tendencies, it is necessary to avoid the temptation of simply reverting to divisive, nonrational or primordial sources of solidarity. In a particularly interesting discussion which exemplifies this outlook, Ferry examines the place of reconstruction and argumentation in the formation of a new "postnational" European identity that is mediated by utopian moral universals.

In sum, Les Puissances de l’expérience extends Habermas’s ideas in several novel directions, not only in social linguistics and discourse analysis, but also in the analysis of social systems and identity. In places the book is exceptionally abstruse and demands considerable concentration form the reader. As the rewards for this investment are substantial, however, Les Puissances de l’expérience should be read by anyone engaged in research about identity that is inspired by Habermas’s work on communicative actions.


Sommaire du tome 1, Le Sujet et le verbe :

Sommaire du tome 2, Les Ordres de la reconnaissance :


Retour à la page d’accueil.