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1Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the prospects for reviving the democratic ideal and making it universal hardly seem bright. Not to mention the fact that we no longer know how much time the planet can continue to survive its systematic exploitation. No-one doubts that only the formation and revitalization of an international civil society based on association would be able to resist the harmful omnipotence of markets and States, but is such an eminently desirable ideal really plausible and feasible, and on what conditions? What allows us to hope that men and women of good will can even exist and aim to create, together, one form or another of a political and ecological common good instead of delegating and abdicating this task to the power of the State or to the temptations of the market?

2Not a lot, if we are to believe the enormous amount of literature devoted to the theory of collective action over the last thirty years [2]—at least, not as long as we continue to think about social action in a utilitarian way, in terms of a generalized economic model or of a theory of rational choices (rational choice theory), according to which the objectives of social actors cannot be anything other than the satisfaction of their own interests or preferences. From the outset, Mancur Olson established that it was impossible for actors who are defined as “rational,” that is, only concerned with themselves, to be interested in the common good, unless they are forced to be interested or to find a specific form of particular interest there. All the literature that followed The Logic of Collective Action was devoted to trying to overcome the paradox of the free rider by resorting to an infinite variety of conceptual strategies. The most promising theoretical approach is part of the global revival of the Hegelian theme of the fight for recognition led by Axel Honneth with his Kampf um Anerkennung. This approach allows us to assume that social actors are not so much seeking to satisfy their own interests in a utilitarian way as to be recognized. [3]

3In this debate there is one essential point that remains unresolved, however. Does the paradigm of recognition really supersede the axiom of self-interest? There is nothing self-evident about this. Indeed, nothing prevents us a priori from stating that there are interests of recognition just as there are interests of possession or well-being, that there are “preferences” for recognition just as there are “preferences” for dark chocolate, sauerkraut, gorgonzola, or Alfa Romeos. And perhaps that may also be enough on which to base a theory of engagement in associations and for the common good as part of a general political economy of esteem, such as that outlined, for example, by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit (2004).

4Commitment within associations—in principle the only engagement able to give substance to a renewed and universalized democratic ideal—would have the advantage of minimizing the role of material and financial motivations, but also the resulting disadvantage of according still more importance to narcissistic interests. Despite everything, however, there are good reasons to believe that it would remain quite fragile in the end. Let us be under no illusions. There is no doubt that commitment within associations is susceptible to every conceivable form of financial corruption, and that the associations are not, a priori and in principle, any more immune to the conflict of egos than companies or administrations (and are perhaps even less so); and moreover it is legitimate to ask whether narcissistic corruption is not, in some respects, worse than financial corruption. Nevertheless, if human activity were exclusively driven by avarice or self-assertion, we could have little hope for the survival of our most cherished ideals.

5If we want to move forward in our reflection on this point, it seems crucial to ask what anthropology, what anti-utilitarian theory of action, can be used to counter rational choice theory. It would need to be a theory that is replaced by the desire for recognition without systematically bringing this back to the axiom of self-interest.

6Here, I present an initial version of ongoing work on this point. It consists of three parts: The first details the reasons that require us to liberate ourselves from the axiom of self-interest, and outlines the general framework of a non-monistic theory of action, in this case with four dimensions; the second develops the reflection on the four separate dimensions of action in the first part; and the third explores the way in which it is then possible to return to the question of the status of the quest for recognition, without drawing this back to the axiom of self-interest.

Some Reasons to Detach Oneself from the Discourse of Interest

7The recent profusion of philosophical or sociological texts, particularly following The Struggle for Recognition by Axel Honneth, show how the social struggle does not organize itself so much with the aim of satisfying interests (and more particularly material interests) as to gain recognition. In doing so, these texts relegate methodological individualism and rational choice theories—in short the generalized economic model—to a position of secondary importance, after it almost exclusively governed these disciplines for a good quarter of a century.

8But is it enough to state that human subjects—to the extent that they are human and want to become subjects—are motivated by an incessant quest for recognition more than by the need or intrinsic desire to accumulate material goods? Is this enough for us to break away from utilitarianism and the axiom of self-interest? And, more fundamentally, why should we actually break with the discourse of interest? This does not seem to be self-evident. For the great majority of researchers in the social sciences or in moral and political philosophy, abandoning the explanation of human action in terms of interest would amount to nothing less than abandoning the principle of reason. They believe that giving a reason for an action necessarily means reconstructing the interest that motivated it, whichever meaning we give the term. Conversely, renouncing the explanation of the action in terms of interest would imply crossing over into irrationalism.

9We can distinguish two major variants of this widely-held attachment to the explanatory power of interest. The first, and very much in the majority, aligns interest with the will to survive and all its variants: the concern for self-preservation (Hobbes), persevering in being (Spinoza), improving one’s living conditions, bettering one’s own condition (Adam Smith), etc. Re-expressed in the language of maximizing pleasure compared to pain, of seeking utility, of aspiring happiness, or of satisfying preferences, it is this first representation of the omnipotence of interest that most profoundly sustains utilitarian doctrines, whatever the degree of sophistication they might be able to bring to this initial theme. [4]

10But, more subtly, it is possible to defend a vision of the sovereignty of interest that does not attribute it to a concern for self-preservation, and which would therefore supposedly remove it from the sphere of utilitarianism. We know how the thinking of the French moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before merging into the unclear concept of interest, oscillated between two very different representations of what makes men act: self-love, or amour de soi (i.e., concern for one’s own survival) or self-esteem/amour-propre (i.e., concern for esteem), to use Rousseau’s well-defined terms; or the interests of good or the interests of glory, to use the language of the seventeenth century.

11This classic opposition is very useful in clarifying the problem that we would like to set out here: far from leading us away from the discourse and axiom of self-interest, would not stating that men are seeking recognition not rather lead us to say that what moves them are interests of esteem, of prestige, of narcissistic interests—in short, egotistical rather than selfish interests? If we answer yes—which at first may seem tempting, because this version of the discourse of interest is empirically more fair than its simple utilitarian version—we would then have a second variant of the axiom of sovereign interest: that which is based on an interest not in the relationship of the self to itself in a concern with preserving itself, but, conversely, the relationship of the self to other human beings; not the primary withdrawal of the self into itself, but essentially the opening of the self to otherness; not out of self-love, sure of oneself and one’s desires, but out of self-esteem, which seeks the confirmation of its uncertain existence in the eyes of the other.

12However tempting and partially justified this second solution may seem, we would like to demonstrate here that ultimately it is not satisfactory, to the extent that it is trapped by an axiom of self-interest that reflection on the search for recognition should, on the contrary, urge us strongly to relativize, and even, for the most part, to abandon—or rather, transcend; because although a concern for esteem and for recognition appears to be a more plausible explanation for human action than one that attributes it only to interests of possession and preservation, it nonetheless loses much of its edge and depth when it is exclusively confined to the category of the discourse of interest. We should therefore ask what can be used to replace the explanation of social action by interest alone.

13We will attempt to do this, first, by putting in place a grammar of action that is more complex than the various available utilitarian or individualist theories, by suggesting that we should not consider action as being based on a single pole of interest, but on four irreducible polarities. In this view, interest is an important driver of action, but always in combination with three other drivers. Secondly, we shall attempt to move beyond a rough outline of these four points (or drivers) of action to ask ourselves what each one of these consists of, specifically. It is only then that we can return to our initial question as to the relations between interest and recognition, by outlining a theory on the subject of action.

A Tautological Axiom That Is Still Too True

14The trouble with a discourse that sees in interest-seeking the final and only key to human action, in what can be called the axiom of self-interest, is that it is either purely formal, under-determined, always true (and therefore never true); or, conversely, it is completely substantial, over-determined, but as a result largely uncertain or quite simply false. If, in fact, by “interest” we mean first of all the concept used to refer to motives that lead to action, then, as there is no action without a motive, by definition in the absence of some dimension specific to the subject of the action every action is necessarily “interested” in this initial sense. This explanation by interest is as tautological as the soporific virtues of the scholastics’ opium, or the “preferences” of economists, who in short simply tell us that people prefer what they prefer, and explain nothing that is determined. Far from allowing us to predict a particular kind of behavior, the interest (or utility, preferences, etc.) invoked is what one can deduce from the observed action in hindsight—“so that’s what it was!” [5]

Substantialist Axioms That Are Never True Enough

15The substantialist variants of the discourse of sovereign interest are, on the contrary, characterized by an emphasis on a unique specific interest that is ultimately assumed to play a determining role: this was the economic interests of class for Marx, self-esteem or vanity for La Rochefoucauld, interest formed by habitus for early Bourdieu, or illusio for later Bourdieu, sexual desire (libido) for Freud, the lust for power for Nietzsche, the desire to accumulate material goods for classical economists, etc. It is both impossible and pointless to discuss these various theories here, but suffice it to say that, with each one containing a share of the truth, they become systematically false—and automatically refuted by others—as soon as they are presented as representing the only universal truth.

The Triple Confusion of Interests

16In addition, it is possible to demonstrate that becoming trapped in the rhetoric of interest is bound to happen continuously, no matter what we do, and in demonstrating how this happens we can avoid a double, even a triple, confusion.

171. The easiest form of interest theory to detect is that which tends to boil down all forms of interest into egotistical interest. And yet we see that there is a fatal flaw: romantic interest, for instance, is doubtlessly supremely “egotistical,” but it is also supremely “altruistic” and by its very nature open to otherness. And the “interests of glory,” those that, in the case of the aristocratic ethos, or patriotism, urge one to risk one’s life, are clearly poles apart from the concern for self-preservation that the discourse of interest generally makes the source of egotistical interest. However, the champions of the egotistical version of sovereign interest will always find it easy to maintain that, “ultimately,” if the subject conforms to motivations that appear to be “altruistic,” it is indeed because “he gets something out of it.” Opening to otherness is thus ascribed to egotism. The attempt to enter into the discourse of sovereign interest by way of a theoretical opening toward otherness, to praise, and to what others think, is therefore highly likely to forever be overwhelmed by the omnipotence of the theme of primary egoism and the concern for self-preservation. [6]

182. Furthermore, the rhetoric of interest systematically confuses two forms of interest that are diametrically opposed at the conceptual level, even if they are most often closely interlinked in practice. Saying that someone has an interest in (un intérêt pour) mathematics, art, literature, or philosophy is to say that he finds interest, in other words that he takes pleasure in these pursuits. But we could also say just as well, if not better, that a person has a passion for these different activities, that he really involves himself in them. Let us suppose that this same person, a mathematician, writer, artist, or sportsman, took so much pleasure in a particular interest that he became a good professional. He would then have to manage another kind of interest, namely an interest in (un intérêt à) having a successful career or earning money. It is especially troublesome to confuse these two types of interest in something, i.e., passionate interest and instrumental interest, as this automatically perpetuates the never-ending and absurd debate on disinterest, which is based on a symmetrical confusion between disinterestedness and a lack of interest. Is it possible for an act to be disinterested? Certainly not, if by this we mean that the action could be undertaken disinterestedly, without being in the least bit interested and in pure and simple absence of interest. Evidently yes, if it means that some actions can be undertaken beyond the instrumental interest or the sole material egotistical interest of the subject who undertakes these. As John Dewey said, acting by oneself in no way necessarily implies acting for oneself. Or, as Amartya Sen showed in his famous article “Rational fools,” it is not at all irrational to sacrifice one’s instrumental interests or material well-being out of concern for the common good; or, we could add, out of concern for others. On the contrary, it is rationally and etymologically idiotic to remain stuck on the view of only satisfying one’s own individual interests. [7]

193. In addition, we should add another mode of “interest in” to this dissociation between passionate and instrumental interest. If a warrant officer says, “It is in your interest to obey, otherwise there will be trouble,” we are no longer talking about the instrumental interest that is actively and strategically calculated, but rather the category of forced obedience, or what one could call a passive egotistical interest.

The Four Modes of Interest

20Let us summarize this initial discussion. Starting with one concept of interest, we end up with four very different types of interest that it is possible to refer to thus:

21Interest no. 1: instrumental, strategic, egotistical, active interest—let us call it “self-interest”;

22Interest no. 2: interest in obeying passively—let us call it “obedience interest”;

23Interest no. 3: interest in others (in the sense of concern for others)—let us call it “other-interest”;

24Interest no. 4: interest in an enjoyable activity—let us call it “passionate interest.”

25However, the problem of the various possible axioms of interest is that, because of their structure, they tend to systematically dissolve obedience interest, interest for others, and passion-interest into instrumental self-interest. It is better, therefore, to make a radical break with any general axiom of self-interest by limiting the use of the concept to instrumental self-interest alone (as it is always this which absorbs all the other possible uses of the term anyway), so as to consider the other dimensions of action under clearly distinct names and concepts. If, therefore, interest is not the only motivating factor, and if we do not want content ourselves with the lazy and pointless solution of saying that there are as many motives for action, as many interests, as there are situations and human beings, we ask what the other points are from which and between which the action is shared. We should then ask how human beings try to find their unity and/or their originality in this plurality of motives. It is at this point that the question as to how they relate to the search for recognition arises—which we can only address again after having necessarily made an abstraction, i.e., divided the action into its basic components, presented as separate, even though they are still linked, before reconstructing the whole.

A Four-Fold Theory of Action

26In his essay The Gift, which revealed a certain anthropological universality of the triple obligation of giving, receiving, and reciprocating, Marcel Mauss shows how the gift, which, by assumption, demonstrates opening up to the other by expressing disinterest, is also interested, as it satisfies both the interests of esteem and the material interests of the donor. Mauss demonstrates how this gesture, which presents a face of “liberality,” that is, both freedom and spontaneity, in fact conforms to a primary social obligation, an obligation that “forces us to be free,” in Rousseau’s words. Here are the four primary dimensions, as outlined in the first lines of The Gift onwards, present in every act of giving but irreducible to each other, organized into two pairs of opposites: interest (egotistical) and disinterest (altruistic), obligation and freedom. To escape the never-ending debates on egotism and altruism, it is better to oppose what we can call self-interest and other-interest, and, in order to escape once and for all the hegemony of the concept of interest, the theoretical dangers of which we have just enumerated above, it is preferable to rename interest for others (“other-interest”) using a neutral pseudonym (and neologism), namely “lovingness.”[8]

The Four Poles of Gift-Giving and of Action

27Self-interest and lovingness, obligation and freedom: here, then, are four poles of gift-giving. With these poles always closely interlinked, the gift is a hybrid, Mauss maintains. Not only does concern for the other bring to self-interest, and vice versa; not only is obligation an obligation to freedom, while freedom allows one to fulfill one’s obligations, but this necessarily has to be the case. A gift that is purely instrumental and “interested” fails to build the social relationship that is needed to satisfy everyone’s interests. A gift that is purely altruistic, where the donor does not get anything out of it and which humiliates the recipient, would become a sacrifice and potentially a generalized defeat. A purely obligated gift, automatic, mechanical, and ritualized, would lose all its magic, and a gift that is simply free would lapse into meaninglessness. Let us try to further clarify the status of these four poles of action.

Their Spatial Representation in Terms of Cardinal Points

28The four poles of action should first be understood as the equivalents of four cardinal points. If we want to have a more subtle or a more realistic representation of action, we can try to construct a kind of compass rose of action, allowing us to find all the intermediate points and possible arrangements between the points. Let us suppose that self-interest is to the west and lovingness to the east, obligation to the north and freedom to the south, one could ask: how far to the east, how far to the west, north, or south is each type of gift or action? And what is located, for example, to the north-north-west or to the south-south-east, etc.? It is not certain that it is worth the trouble to agree to actually draw such a detailed compass rose, not only because it would be very difficult to achieve and too vague, but also because it would quickly give us a too great a profusion of concepts and labels to be really useful and useable. Without trying to organize these in a precise way, then, let us confine ourselves to identifying, approximately to begin with, a whole group of motives or rationales for action that are found, respectively, in each of these four points, and which appeared under different descriptions or forms of realization, depending on cultures, periods of history or individuals.

What We Find Near to Each Pole of Action

29On the side of “Interest” (for self), we find: self-preservation and the survival instinct, self-love or self-esteem, greed and vanity, rivalry (eris) and competition or, on the contrary, indifference to the other, the interests of glory or of goodness, egoism or egotism, the desire for possession, greed, or self-concern, artha, [9] utility, instrumental calculation, conflict, enemies, war, etc.

30On the side of “lovingness“: friendship, philia, camaraderie, eros, love, caritas, compassion, the Chinese ren, concern, pity, solidarity, generosity, altruism, agapè, harmony, gift-giving, confidence, collaboration, alliance, friends, peace, etc.

31On the side of “obligation”: physical, biological, or purely social constraints, ritual, custom, the law, debt, institutions, norms, rules and regulations, morals, ethics, ethos, judgment, justice, obedience, necessity, determinism, structure, functions, values, ancestors, ascendants, dharma, tradition, the past, death, etc.

32In relation to “freedom”: spontaneity, pleasure (kama, for example), fertility, generosity for efforts made by the artist, sportsman or scholar, gift-giving (in the sense of a gift of the muses), creativity, inventiveness, action, grace, charisma, play, gifts, revolt, children, descendants, the future, moksa, life, etc.

First Points of Dissatisfaction with this Typology

33As soon as it is stated, this list (in the style of Prévert or Borges, some might say) is clearly a problem, because it brings together realities that are quite distinct, even antithetical, which until then we had kept separate. This is the case, for example, with the group of self-love and self-esteem under self-interest. At the end of the process we will again discover the difference between them, but for now we have to proceed with an initial selection that is necessarily approximate. The only thing that we need to be sure of at this stage is that self-love and self-esteem, to keep to this illustration, are closer to each other than compassion, submission to domination, or creativity, for example. To further sort out this interlacing of concepts, we need to distinguish what, at each pole, is closest to its particular essence and what, on the contrary, results from its interaction with opposite or contrary poles. [10] But it is not possible to advance in this discussion before we have clarified the particular and specific consistency of each of the four poles. Before going into more detail, let us ask what we should do with this typology of motivations for action, and what status it should be given, even in the absence of answers as to the nature of their ultimate reality.

Gift and Action

34These four poles are not only those of gift-giving, but just as much, and more generally, those of social action. That which identifies gift-giving under action in general, what makes an action fall under the category of gift-giving—i.e., that which makes one go from take-refuse-keep to give-receive-reciprocate —is the primacy of the active motivations of lovingness and freedom over their passive conditions, which are self-interest and obligation. To extend the spatial and mapping metaphor, we enter the area of the gift of generosity, with the obligation of giving, receiving, and reciprocating, by going to the right of the north-south axis, and the area of the giving of freedom and creativity by going below the east-west axis. Thus it appears that the specific quadrant for gift-giving, which combines opening up to the other and to the possible, is the south-east quadrant. Conversely, to the left of the north-south axis, we find ourselves in the domain of taking, refusing, and keeping.

Irreducibility, Intricacy, and Reversibility of the Four Poles of Action

35How are these four points both irreducible and linked? They are irreducible de jure, combined de facto, and reversible de jure and de facto.

36Irreducible. All are equally first. None can be inferred from any one of the others. The great mistake of utilitarian doctrines is not to be unaware of the pleasures of friendship or altruism, nor of the need for rules (utilitarianism has much more of a problem with freedom), but of claiming to infer these from calculations that are guided by self-interest, or to bring them back to this. Thus they will say that some egotistical individuals derive their satisfaction through that of others. Altruism is present, but it takes a second place. Or else they claim to transform egoists who are rational and always swift to betray into loyal faithful collaborators, who respect agreements through the magic of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, etc. On the contrary, the four-fold theory of action supposes that opening to the other is just as much a given from the start—shown by recent discoveries in the biology and psychology of imitation (cf. infra)—as withdrawal, and freedom, opening to the possible and to that which has not occurred, are just as original as submitting to necessity.

37Intricacy. Nevertheless, as stated above, there can be no action in the category of interest, lovingness, obligation, or freedom alone, if only because there can only be freedom in relation to an obligation (and vice versa) and there can only be lovingness as a move away from self-interest (and vice versa) and only as freedom, etc.

38Reversible. For these reasons amongst others, each pole is always likely to switch into its opposite or into its contrary: lovingness into interest (and vice versa), obligation into freedom (and vice versa), etc. And, in a way, each “contains” its opposite—at least up to the point that it is no longer able to do so.

Their Relative Reducibility: Deduce Everything From a Pole?

39The fact that these four dimensions of action are always combined, in infinitely variable proportions, is enough to explain the temptations of monistic theories. Up to a certain point (until their final—or initial, if preferred—irreducibility is noted), it is in fact legitimate to try to deduce everything from the rationale of one of the poles alone: In fact, it can be both legitimate and meaningful.

40From “interest.” It is clear, in fact, that one often has an “interest to obey” and that, proportionally, common law must more or less satisfy the interests of those who are subject to it. It is also clear that there are “interested” friendships, whether in the cynical sense of useful friendships, or of friendships that allow people to share the pleasures of life. Finally it is clear that there is a benefit in being fertile and productive, or that freedom is necessary to satisfy one’s interests.

41From “lovingness.” The same reasoning can and should be reversed, however. Can one really be interested in oneself, love oneself, have interests, have an interest in life and in action, if one does not interest others and is not loved by them? Does the common law to which everyone is subject not derive its power from the trust and the feeling of friendship and solidarity that unites the members of a political or cultural community as much or more than the sum of the contracts that they enter into? Do the heart and the origin of self-interest not lie in the interest shown in the subject by others?

42From “obligation.” However, could one not say, like Erving Goffman, for example, that one is only devoted to a cult of the self out of social obligation? That it is the dharma, the duty, that is both cosmic and social, which obliges us, at least until an advanced age, to take care of one’s own interests, to dedicate oneself to artha? But there is also an obligation toward lovingness. “Love one another”: can there be a better illustration of this rule concerning the idea that lovingness is not self-evident, that one has to make oneself do this out of a sense of duty and to obey a divine instruction? Is it not, in fact, the aim of all the great religions to ordain charity, solidarity or compassion, to place lovingness under the aegis of obligation, and to confirm that it is there, in this submission to the obligation to love, that supreme freedom can be found?

43From “freedom.” The moderns—and especially the moderns: those engaged in relentless advancing the revolution of individualism, do they not do nothing but affirm the irreducible primacy of individual freedom over all laws, all commitments, all solidarities—all together? Although they do this together, they are free; free to cease to be free at any moment. Do they abide by the law? Yes, but only insofar as it gives them new rights to affirm their freedom. Their only interest is finally to be free and thus to affirm their absolute individual sovereignty.

44Each of these systematic reductions to one of the poles is legitimate, because it helps to clarify and reveal what we would not see without it. However, as soon as it is noted that in fact there is not one, but four possible reductions, the question once again arises: what is the ultimate and irreducible special feature of each of these points? Before addressing this issue, let us examine whether it is not perhaps possible to better represent and visualize the intricacy and reversibility of the poles of action, and thus gain a better understanding of them.

How to Represent and Symbolize Action: Issues of Scale

Necessity and Contingency of Graphic Representations

45It is useful and illuminating to produce a visual representation of all the concepts that we have just assembled, to draw up a conceptual map that allows us to establish a rough approximation of their homologies and their distances to one another. The problem is that, as in any map or any schematic diagram, although the conventions adopted help to perceive what one would otherwise not see well, they tend to introduce problematic distortions. For instance, the disadvantage of the two-dimensional representation that we have used up to now is that it does not allow us to clearly reveal the reversibilities and ambivalences. These can be defined as follows:

46Reversibilities: the presence of the other in the self, or of obligation in freedom, and vice versa.

47Ambivalences: the positivity of self-love, even from the perspective of the gift, or the negativity of misplaced compassion.

48More generally, each of the four points, apart from its particular and irreducible content, can be positively or negatively influenced by its opposite point, its reverse, or the opposite of its reverse. To take all these dimensions into account, instead of representing two opposite points like the two extremities of a straight line, it is better to think about them as opposite points of a circle. Beyond each of these terms, each point gets closer to its opposite via a symmetrical path: the invisible path, no doubt, or one that is not very clear; the path of ambivalence. I, then, become the other, and the other is me. The relationship with the law creates freedom, or freedom becomes my law. The intersection of the two circles produces a sphere, the sphere of the subject and of action.

49Thus we can distinguish three major modes of mapping action, which allow us to visualize conceptualizations that are increasingly complex and dialecticized. In the flat representation used up to now, self-interest and lovingness, obligation and freedom are presented as pure opposites. Moving to a circular representation, which shows their reversibility and their compenetration, means that we can consider a certain coincidence of opposites. We see, then, that the very terms of interest for self or for others, obligation and freedom are in a way too amorphous and too flat. They point towards a more fundamental reality, the reversible opposition of war and peace, of life and death. Spherical representation allows us to visualize, not the reversibility of opposite terms, but the interpenetration of two oppositions. But whether this is a circle or a sphere, we are still in the field of reciprocity. We have to ask how we can represent the changeover, without going too far.

From Flat to Circular Representation: War and Peace, Life and Death

50Let us illustrate these rather abstract explanations with an example, by reproducing the opposition of interest and lovingness, or of obligation and freedom, as part of two broader and inclusive oppositions. In line with Mauss, speaking about obligation and freedom, self-interest and concern for the other (lovingness) is convenient, as each of these terms is both sufficiently tangible to reveal what we are talking about, and sufficiently general and abstract to allow a number of other apparently quite similar concepts to be subsumed, albeit loosely. However, these polarities express and condense two more essential and universal oppositions that shape all myths, religions, and cultures: that of death (the “absolute master,” according to Hegel) and life (freedom and generosity par excellence), and that of war and peace. So our first opposition, that of interest and lovingness, which was first represented by a straight line, can usefully be represented by a larger, more inclusive circular opposition between self and other, depending on the possible modalities of war and peace:

51Thus we see that the subject can identify himself with himself or with the other, and can relate to each of these in terms of war or peace, hatred or love, affection, indifference or hostility. We can also better understand how identification with self can be immediate and/or mediated by the relationship with the other. In this second case, the more one draws closer to the other, the more one draws closer to the self. Friendship and, a fortiori, love bring self and the other together in lovingness. However, this can equally be the reverse: one only draws closer to the self by distancing oneself from the other; and the same is also true in the two meanings of the relationship between war and peace, which are likely to occur in maximum opposition or, on the contrary, combination, or even identification, to one another.

Beyond and within Reciprocity

52This representation is still too idyllic and misleading, however, as it is only valid as long as the subject is in the domain of reciprocity-reversibility between self and other, war and peace. It is no longer valid where there are no limits. Let us consider primitive society: one of its most striking features is that of the reversibility of life and death. One must kill and take revenge, not for the pleasure of killing, but to recreate life. In the same way, we switch regularly and cyclically from peace to war and, conversely, hostility to harmony, and vice versa. But war itself has two quite distinct forms: that of moderate war, cyclical, reciprocal, and controlled (as mentioned above), and that of the war of extermination. The self can also be multifaceted, fragmented, disseminated, unformed, infra-self; or, on the contrary, excessively pronounced, alienated from oneself by the rage of amok, by the magic of some kind of possession, or in hubris. The circular relationship between two opposites that are more or less reversible is thus part of a broader opposition in which each of the terms tends to move away from the other ad infinitum, towards absolute hatred or love, or the war of extermination and genocide or perfect harmony.

Infra ou Supra AutruiInfra or Supra Other
Infra ou Supra MoiInfra or Supra Self

53In the first circle we are still, in a way, in orbit, with the possibility of a return. In the second, we move beyond this, and anything could happen. There is thus a third dimension in the circle that we drew between self and other, between war and peace. Each of the points is inflected by a twist, which makes these oppositions vertical, folds them over each other and produces confusion between self and other, as in schizophrenia, or the lack of distinction between war and peace, which relates directly to the opposition between life and death.

From a Circular Representation to a Spherical Representation

54We should produce a similar circle for our second opposition, that of obligation and freedom, contained in the more general relationship between life and death, which is also subject to this possibility of being twisted. [11]

55These two circles, the one which joins self to the other via war and/or peace, and the one which transforms obligation into freedom and vice versa via death’s relationship to life, form the coordinates of a sphere, and, respectively, represent the equator and lines of latitude, on the one hand, and the meridians on the other.

56We can therefore think of the subject as a sphere: the sphere of the self, with the self a monad, albeit a monad with doors and windows. The self is a planet or a satellite gravitating around other fixed planets or stars (starting with the ascendants and the descendants), and around which other selves gravitate: other planets, each one completing its life cycle by revolving around itself. The axis of the sphere’s rotation is tilted depending on the points that the subject does or does not occupy. Depending on the inclination of this axis and its speed of rotation, the subject makes certain aspects of his person visible or invisible to other subjects and, in the same way, observes or does not observe certain aspects of his person. We will come back to this point later.


A Theory of Collective Action

57But let us return to a more simple, flat, representation of coordinates of action to demonstrate that what has been said up to now concerning the individual subject in terms of the ego can just as well apply to a collective subject in relation to “coordination,” as economists term it, or in terms of the “harmonization of interests,” as termed by the historian of utilitarianism, Élie Halévy.

58Between subjects that are primarily governed by the logic of self-interest, there operates what Élie Halévy calls the natural harmonization of interests, in other words, coordination by contract; buying and selling; dialogue without constraints.

59Between subjects who cannot agree “naturally” on their interests, what he calls the artificial harmonization of interests should prevail, in other words the law proclaimed by a philosopher king, a Hobbesian sovereign, a rational legislator, omniscient and benevolent, the representative of the will or the public interest. Here we find ourselves in the realm of obligation.

60However, according to Halévy we need to distinguish a third form of coordination, the spontaneous harmonization of interests, based on this “sympathy,” or let us say this basic empathy which immediately exists between human subjects and which connects them, and about which the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, theorized, and in particular Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments). The association, this fully political form of the gift, is what it makes it purely social.

61To these three forms of harmonization identified by Halévy, we should add a fourth, which corresponds to the logic of freedom and inventiveness: coordination by enthusiasm or passion — close to Weberian charisma, for example — what unites sports fans, believers in a sect or church, when emotion is at its highest and all sing or pray together, art lovers, etc. Let us call this the passionate harmonization of interests.

Preliminary Conclusion

What is the Justification for This Fourfold Theory of Action?

62One would understandably ask, what is the status of such conceptual typologies? Where do they come from? What authority should we attribute to Mauss, who inspired us at the start and who, in fact, has never used these typologies except implicitly? Why four points of action and not two, three, ten, twelve, or an indeterminate number? Is their status ontological? Anthropological? Heuristic? We believe it would be possible to establish a set of axioms for global mythologies based on the opposition between life and death, war and peace, as soon as they are intersected with cycles of giving, receiving, and reciprocating, or taking, refusing, and keeping.

63Who gives and receives laws, food, and primary resources, starting with fire? How do we switch from war to peace, and vice versa, in interaction with incest, sex, and marriage? What is a real gift, one which is absolutely not poisoned and ­empoisoning? These are the questions that are always being asked, everywhere, closely linked to questions about the difference between the sexes, and man’s relationship with the natural world and invisible entities. And which, taken together and endlessly intersected and intersected again, form the universe of meaning and symbolism.

64There is a lot to say on all these points, but we will limit ourselves to the heuristic response. The justification for this conceptual and typological tetralogy is, first, that it clarifies resources for action better than its rivals or alternatives—of which there are very few in the end. This has to be effectively enacted in empirical studies or in more specific theoretical formulations, by intersecting the topic of the four motives for action with the theory of giving, receiving, and reciprocating (set against the background of taking, refusing, and keeping).

Some Possible Applications of the Theory

65Beyond and within sociology, we can see how it is possible to distinguish on this basis the individuals or cultures of the gift (or of taking)—persons or cultures (maternal or phallic) established in maternal generosity (Gaia, the Madonna) or warrior generosity—of the request and receipt (or refusal)—expecting everything from a benefactor (cf. cargo cults, for example)—and of debt (or retention)—debt towards death (Yama), ancestors, the powerful. [12] In the same way, as soon as one of the points of action appears to be over-developed and ceases to enter into a dialectical relationship with the three others, there is an intensification of the self (narcissism) or the other (hysteria), of debt (obsession, compulsion), or of freedom (perversion). However, we should add that all human cultures assign the roles of donor and recipient between men and women in a different way, just as they subject them differently to the motives of self-interest or lovingness, and the relationship with life and death. [13]

66More generally, the interpretation of action always takes place by means of the answers to three closely interrelated questions:

67Concerning the relationship of the subject to himself, the question is knowing what he gives—to what he devotes himself, or what he gives in to—what part of his energy he devotes to self-interest, to physical, social, or moral obligation, to lovingness or to freedom-creativity.

68Concerning interpersonal relations, the question of knowing what links people is always: who gives or reciprocates what, to whom—or else who takes, refuses to give, keeps, and, likewise, who receives what from whom, positively or negatively?

69Concerning collective action: This individual or interpersonal action happens as part of collective actions, or the action of groups that include the subject, and who themselves relate to other groups by asking the question of knowing what they give them (have given them), what they owe them, what they can take from them, what they have received from them, what they should reciprocate to them, etc. All these questions are organized at source, ab initio, from the beginning of the world, around the initial question of knowing what men receive from women, and what they give them, and vice versa, and what children receive from their parents, and vice versa. Symbolism is a space in which questions and answers relating to gift-giving are formed and expressed.

70Contrary to individualistic positions or methodological holists, with this typology it is already possible to consider the dimensions of action in a flexible way without a priori, prejudging the respective importance of one point or another, individual interest for rational action theories, or the obligation to holism. Although it allows us to usefully and meaningfully map an action, however, it does not actually give us the theory. How is the subject of the action formed? And what relation does this formation have to the search for recognition? To answer these questions, we will have to broaden the argument and go in search of the primary source of the four motives for action.

71(To be continued)[14]


  • [1]
    Under the general title “Elements of an anti-utilitarian theory of action (I, II and III),” we present readers with three texts that are distinct, but closely related: “Beyond interest,” “Resources for action,” and “Towards a Theory of the Subject.” For reasons of space, the first text has been slightly shortened, with the full version appearing in the electronic version of this issue. The third part, “Towards a theory of the subject,” will appear in the next issue.
  • [2]
    On this point, we highlight the impressive summary contained in the book by Daniel Cefaï, Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on? Les théories de l’action collective (2007).
  • [3]
    There is now, mainly in moral and political philosophy but also in sociology, a huge global literature on the theme of the struggle for recognition, which is gradually replacing the countless discussions of the last quarter of a century on John Rawls’s theory of justice. See the debate in France, mainly between sociologists, in A. Caillé (ed.), La Quête de reconnaissance, nouveau phénomène social total (2007) and the debate, mainly between philosophers, in A. Caillé and C. Lazzeri (eds.), La Reconnaissance aujourd’hui (2008).
  • [4]
    When someone like Frédéric Lordon [2006a], for example, defends a theory of the “sovereign interest,” as attributed to Spinoza, to explain that all the “altruistic” or generous aspirations are only so many secondary modes, because of his neo-Marxist tendencies he is just repeating the constitutive utilitarianism of standard economic science, despite the fact that he may have such altruistic aspirations. See also F. Lordon [2006b, 105-126] and the response by “Falafil” [2006, 127-137].
  • [5]
    An empiricist variant of this formal, purely tautological usage could be described as empiricist tautology. As developed, for example, by Ehrard Friedberg (in Le Pouvoir de la règle), following R. March, when he explains that there are as many distinct interests as different empirical situations, which the analyst discovers after the fact.
  • [6]
    At this stage, the discussion is still confused by the indeterminacy and reversibility of the very term of egoismm. There are, in fact, two egotisms between which the discussion constantly alternates: an egotism of self-sufficiency and self-consistency, and an egotism of dependency and rivalry with others. I am grateful to Christian Lazzeri for the following clarification: “We can go from a distinction that is clearly expressed and used by Mandeville, Hume, and Rousseau, but which was already stated by Spinoza. This distinction is that of self-liking and self-love, which takes the old medieval distinction of amor sui and amor proprius (which itself reflects the two aspects of Aristotelian philautia) and which the French translates as amour de soi (self-love) and amour-propre (self-esteem), or, according to the theologians of the 17th century, by “our interest” and “own interest.” The distinction between the two can be formulated as follows: self-love (or “our interest”) fundamentally shows the desire of the agent, focused on himself and on the advantages that he is seeking to obtain for himself, but without this being expressed by giving exclusive attention to these. In other words, this is not a comparative attitude of superiority, which makes any attention to the interest of others impossible. This means that self-love certainly leads to not sacrificing one’s own interests to those of others, because they have an impassable nature, but neither does this lead to an ignorance of or disinterest in the interests of others, any more than it leads to permanent rivalry. There can therefore be a multi-faceted relationship between interests, depending on the variable modes that can engender cooperative relationships. Conversely, self-esteem (or “own interest”) is evidence of attention exclusively devoted to one’s own interests, considered to be immeasurably more important in relation to those of others, which are systematically ignored or denied, in such a way that cooperation, where it exists, is permanently threatened with withdrawal when the cost of this is not a deterrent” (personal communication). At the end of this formulation of an anti-utilitarian theory of action, I hope and believe I will be able to fully take into account this difference between self-esteem and self-love.
  • [7]
    We have presented this distinction between the two different types of interest in (i.e., instrumental interest and passionate interest), and between lack of interest and loss of interest in Caillé (2005, 243-284).
  • [8]
    We think that it is useful here to create a neologism to avoid making this point, of opening to concerns for the other, relate to any one of its interpretations or formulations which are historically or culturally too dated and specific. But this neutral designation is itself provisional. After an in-depth study on the particular structure of each of these four points of action (cf. infra, 2nd part), we conclude that the generic term that is most diametrically opposed to self-interest is what contemporary debates call empathy (which Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment considered under the term sympathy). Lovingness is the compassionate mode of empathy.
  • [9]
    The Hindu theory of man’s goals, strangely close to the Maussian four-fold theory of action, explains that life begins with pleasure, kama, develops by seeking self-interest, artha, submitting to duty, dharma, to finally aim for liberation, moksa. In our presentation, pleasure in free action, play, and liberation are indexed to the same point of freedom.
  • [10]
    A good way of making these distinctions is to distinguish what the main meaning is of having, being, and appearing in each of the categories of action. For example, let us imagine that self-interest is interpreted in terms of the tendency to persevere in one’s existence, in which case we could distinguish between this concern for perseverance as such, the desire to acquire in order to feed this, and that of demonstrating this.
  • [11]
    Here we are not trying to represent what is beyond or on this side of life and death, anything that relates to eternity, eternal life, rebirth, reincarnation, limbo, the embryonic, to the most ancient past or the most distant ancestors, to Saturn, to Chronos, or, on the contrary, to the glorious future of future generations. What makes the work of someone like Georges Bataille interesting, and at the same time intolerable, is the fact that it explores with an unfailing delight in contradiction what is beyond each of the opposite points of action and their reverse, i.e., that which is beyond reciprocity. The yearning for sanctity and pure love thus combines with sadism, and an especially strong passion for the law, as the law alone permits transgression.
  • [12]
    This four-fold theory of action could easily be reflected in the terms of the culture theory of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, of her grid-group analysis, which distinguishes four types of social coordination, depending on whether the systematic regulation (grid) is strong or weak (where we find our opposition of obligation and freedom) and whether the group’s cohesion is also strong (dominance of lovingness, we would say) or weak (dominance of self-interest). Thus there appear to be four types of cultures: hierarchical, entrepreneurial, oppositional, and isolationist. See Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) and Douglas (2007, 295–320).
  • [13]
    It is not a revelation to observe that traditionally men give death, and women give life; that women give children and men give presents, etc.
  • [14]
    See the 2nd part of the same issue.

Utilitarianism, the “axiom of self-interest,” and the resulting economic model seem so powerful as to be able to explain everything—love, friendship, morality, both free and disinterested action—by attributing them all to self-love. It is suggested here that the social sciences and moral and political philosophy will not advance until they move beyond this tautological monism. This article outlines a fourfold typology of action.


  • Brennan, Geoffrey and Philip Pettit. 2004. The Economy of Esteem. An Essay on Civil and Political Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Caillé, Alain. [1993] 2005. Don, intérêt et désintéressement. Bourdieu, Mauss, Platon et quelques autres. Paris: La Découverte/MAUSS.
  • Caillé, Alain, ed. 2007. La Quête de reconnaissance, nouveau phénomène social total. Paris: La Découverte/MAUSS (“Textes à l’appui.”)
  • Caillé, Alain and Christian Lazzeri, eds. 2008. La Reconnaissance aujourd’hui. Paris: Éditions CNRS.
  • Cefaï, Daniel. 2007. Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on? Les théories de l’action collective. Paris: La Découverte/MAUSS.
  • OnlineDouglas, Mary. 2007. “Pour ne plus entendre parler de la ‘culture traditionnelle,’” La Revue du MAUSS semestrielle 29 (“Avec Karl Polanyi, contre la société du tout-marchand,” 1st semester), . . . and 30 (“Vers une autre science économique [et donc un autre monde]?”) 2nd semester.
  • Douglas, Mary and Aaron B. Wildavsky. 1982. Risk and Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • OnlineFalafil. 2006. “Quel paradigme du don? En clé d’intérêt ou en clé de don? Réponse à Frédéric Lordon,” La Revue du MAUSS 27 (“De l’anti-utilitarisme”):127–137.
  • Friedberg, Ehrard. 1997. Le Pouvoir de la règle. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Lordon, Frédéric. 2006a. L’Intérêt souverain. Paris: La Découverte.
  • –––. 2006b. “Anti-humanisme théorique, humanisme et religion: Le don tel qu’il est et non tel qu’on voudrait qu’il fût,” La Revue du MAUSS semestrielle 27 (“De l’anti-utilitarisme”).
Alain Caillé
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