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Marcel Gauchet: Religion and Modernity

Lecturer: Mark Hewson

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

Marcel Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World, acclaimed a contemporary classic in the years that followed its publication in 1985, is an ambitious philosophical interpretation of world history, focused on the nexus of religion and politics.  Gauchet argues that the originality of the modern age can only be grasped in studying the transformations that prepare its emergence within the history of religion – a history which, as he shows, is inseparably bound up with the history of political systems.  What distinguishes this work among philosophical histories is its incorporation of the archaic: drawing on anthropological studies, Gauchet analyses religion by reference to the zero point of the primitive religions under which humanity lived for millennia, and which he sees as representing religion in the pure form.  The great transition in human history lies in the move from religion, in this “primitive” mode to the state, which he sees as having its origin with the first articulations of a religion of transcendence.

A work of great scale and ambition, Gauchet’s work merits comparison with other major interpretations of modernity, in the wake of Heidegger, such as those of Adorno/Horkheimer, Foucault or Blumenberg.
This course will provide an introduction to Gauchet's book, and to some of the contemporary debates around the idea of modernity.

Week 1: Introduction: the disappearance of religion in modernity.  The “pure” religion of archaic societies.

Week 2: The rise of the state and the transformation of religion during the “axial period” (an expression used by Karl Jaspers, to name the period during which the great religions emerged).  The comparison of archaic religions and religions of transcendence (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

Week 3: From immersion in nature to transformation of nature: the different relations to nature characterizing archaic religions and religions of transcendence.

Week 4: The powers of the divine subject: a political analysis of Judaism, Christianity and the Greek “religion of reason”.

Week 5: Figures of the human subject: A global analysis of the structure of modern society and ideology.

The course will be at an introductory level, although some prior philosophical study would be helpful.  Those interested in taking the course could begin reading Gauchet’s Disenchantment of the World – but also any reading in the history of religion or in contemporary sociological or philosophical theories of modernity would be relevant.