Marcel Mauss: A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self

Marcel Mauss was a first-generation French sociologist, initially studying under his uncle Emile Durkheim, the founder of the discipline. His work however fits better under the banner of anthropology, as he studied the historical emergence of societal forces, most famously “the gift”, through ethnological research. This transcription of a one-hour lecture comes from a edited volume entitled “The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history” responding to this lecture.

In this essay (1938) Mauss gives a summarization the emergence of the “person” or “self” as a historically variegated and developed concept. He starts with North American (Pueblo in south-west US, Kwakwaka’wakw on Vancouver Island) and Australian conceptions, rooted in personnage, or role in society determining identity. As well, personnage is relative, always in relation to the one being spoken to, i.e. elder brother. While he mentions concepts of the self that move towards the “I” in India and China, it did not become as prominent as it would in Latin society. The persona or mask representing identity becomes prominent in Roman society, and the shift towards the notion of the person is completed by the legalization of identity, among all freemen of Roman. Slaves were the exception. Forenames, surnames, and nicknames were given the definitions and legalities than we still hold to today in most societies. From the Greeks, particularly the Stoics, the person is given a sense of morality inherit to oneself. Christianity added a metaphysical weight to the person, through the early debates over the nature of the Trinity, ultimately proclaiming the person as rational, individual, and indivisible. Modernity then psychologizes the person, giving them an internal consciousness through the Cartesian cogito. Kant’s Copernican revolution is the last piece, particularly Fichte’s take, making every act of consciousness an act of the “self”, of the “person”. This traces then the development of the modern “individual”, the conception of being a “person” that holds rights and is able to know the world rationally. All the wonderful stuff modernity and Enlightenment tells us is a priori.

This account is historical, anthropological, and genealogical (in the Nietzschian sense), performing the goal of making the past and our preconceptions strange. The two most important conceptions of identity in philosophy and political theory, the rational, scientific Cartesian/Kantian identity, and the political, Hobbesian legal person are laid out as historical constructions. Nonetheless, nowhere does Mauss necessarily say that by revealing their contingent and constructed nature are they rendered powerless. They are social facts, exterior and constraining, in the Durkheimian fashion.

As I am increasingly being drawn to realist (philosophical, not IR realism) ontologies, this kind of anthropological work is quite appealing. It displays the genealogical development of social/political/philosophical concepts, structures, and relations, rooted in an intransitive, material, necessary set of circumstances: the organization of human societies, in their physical environment. There’s a resistance to reductionism in this approach which I find refreshing.


~ by thenationalhum on July 2, 2009.

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