Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France

Now the last of my Foucault books is in production, 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.

This project is 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.

Updates

Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France – the next major project – 10 December 2021

Editing Georges Dumézil’s Mitra Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty – 25 April 2022

Update 3: Paris – Foucault, Canguilhem, Dumézil – 9 May 2022

and see also my request for help – Challenging reference problems with Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna [now all resolved]

Update 4: Editing and Introducing Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna, and working with Foucault’s Lecture Courses – 11 July 2022

Update 5: Reading Saussure – 25 August 2022

Update 6: beginning the Leverhulme fellowship, my self-imposed guidelines for writing and time-discipline, and some summer cycling and writing – 7 October 2022

Update 7: Working on Dumézil’s teaching, a few research resources, and some archival work in Paris – 14 November 2022

Outputs

Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, translated by Derek Coltman, edited and introduced by Stuart Elden, Hau, 2023.

“The yoke of law and the lustre of glory: Foucault and Dumézil on sovereignty” in Martina Tazzioli and William Walters (eds.) Handbook on Governmentality, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2023.

“Canguilhem, Dumézil, Hyppolite: Georges Canguilhem and his Contemporaries”, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, forthcoming – special issue on Georges Canguilhem, edited by Federico Testa.

Resources

Georges Dumézil’s work on the warrior function – preliminary textual comparison

Georges Dumézil’s Mythe et épopée series and its partial English translations