Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France – the next major project

Although the manuscript on Foucault in the 1960s is not complete, the end is in sight, and I hope to have most of it done by early 2022. That book will complete my four-volume intellectual history of Foucault’s entire career. That’s the main thing I’ve been working on since 2013, although parts of the work date back to much earlier – I was working on the Collège de France courses from the first publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bringing that to a close feels like the end of a significant era in my work. For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking about what might come next. 

Although I debated some other ideas, the next major project will be a study of Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France, looking at both French and émigré scholars, with a particular focus on Emile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, Mircea Eliade and Julia Kristeva. 

As people who follow the blog, and especially the ‘books received’ posts may realise, I’ve been slowly building up a collection of their books. While some of Dumézil and Benveniste’s French books are still in print, many of the early ones are very hard to find, and often expensive. The relatively few English translations of Dumézil are nearly all out of print, and again rather expensive second-hand. Benveniste’s major works in English are either available again in a new edition or about to be. But there is a lot of earlier work which is hard to find. Books by Eliade and Kristeva are generally easier to locate. There is some secondary literature on them all, but not much in English on these questions in their work. There are extensive archives in France and Eliade’s papers are in Chicago.

This project will be generously funded by a Leverhulme major research fellowship, to run for three years from 1 October 2022. Here’s the opening part of the grant proposal I submitted.

What is Europe? Where is it located, who are its people and what languages do they speak? Thinking historically about these questions usually traces a lineage from classical Greece and Rome, through the Christianization of late antiquity and the Middle Ages to the present. In this fellowship I will explore a quite different tradition of thinking. This is the pioneering research conducted on Indo-European mythology, language and thought in twentieth-century France, by both French and émigré scholars. 

Indo-European scholarship makes a central contribution to Europe’s self-understanding and its relation to the wider world. Although twentieth-century French scholarship has often been accused of Eurocentrism or orientalism, this fellowship will explore a much more complicated picture. This tradition shows the importance of extra-European sources in India and Iran, and the crucial role of Europe’s geographical peripheries – Ireland, Scandinavia and the Caucasus as well as its core of Greece, Rome, France and Germany. The vision of a classical world that emerges is much more unsettling and unfamiliar than uncritical lineages from antiquity to the modern West might suggest. This tradition therefore situates Europe within a broader heritage which challenges many of the boundaries drawn in more conventional accounts, both geographical, linguistic and racial. 

While French theory has been extensively discussed in Anglophone scholarship, with studies and biographies of nearly all the key figures and movements, the work on Indo-European thought has not been analysed in the same way, despite its importance and often obscured influence. This project will explore this body of work in detail. Four thinkers will be examined in particular: the comparative mythologist and philologist Georges Dumézil (1898-1986), the linguist Émile Benveniste (1902-1976), and two émigré scholars who worked in France, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) and the early work of Julia Kristeva (1941-). For this project I will utilise the approach I have developed and successfully employed in previous work. My research is distinguished by working with texts in their original language, comparative work between editions, the use of archival sources, and a careful contextualisation of the history of ideas. The research will therefore be historical, philological and philosophical in its approach, and political, geographical and sociological in its importance.

As expansive as this work was, one crucial and troubling question is what is meant by Indo-European? A hypothetical language, from which others developed; a civilisation, with myths and history; or, most problematically, a racial ideal? These questions are inherently political, and there are controversies around this work which need to be fully explored. Such issues remain important and pressing today with a rise of populism, nationalism and reactionary politics, as well as a crisis of democracy and the appropriate of mythology by the right. A historical study, embedding these writings in an intellectual context and a European network of ideas, is thus both timely as well as overdue.

There is a page for the project here, though at the moment it only gives the above information. I plan to update it when I begin work next year. The first major task will be a critical edition of Georges Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Concepts of Sovereignty. I have a chapter on Foucault and Dumézil forthcoming, and may write another piece on Foucault’s use of his work. But for now the focus is completing the final Foucault book.

This entry was posted in Emile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, Indo-European Thought, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Mircea Eliade, The Archaeology of Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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