L’Embarras des sources: The Vicissitudes of working on Pierre- Joseph Proudhon’s manuscripts


Tuesday 29 May 2012, 10h30 - 12h30


ENS de Lyon, 15 parvis René Descartes, 69007 Lyon, Salle R143, (ENS de Lyon - Bât Recherche)

L’Embarras des sources: The Vicissitudes of working on Pierre- Joseph Proudhon’s manuscripts

One of the major developments in intellectual history and the history of political and social thought over the 40 years has been to give greater attention to the context in which canonical writers were writing. This has meant paying greater heed to the sorts of contemporary concerns and rival beliefs authors were addressing in formulating their own arguments and, in so doing, distancing oneself from the interpretative use posterity has made of them. To this extent, discovering unpublished manuscript material illuminating published material would appear to be a windfall. But such discoveries can in turn raise unsettling questions about the meaning of published material traditionally considered to express – by virtue of its publication – an author’s intended beliefs.


The case of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) is particularly illuminating in this respect. Often considered to be the first anarchist, and undeniably one of the most important and widely read French socialists in the 19th century, Proudhon has typically been interpreted through the rather tendentious lens of the evolving sectarian concerns of the French Left. Only a handful of scholars have bothered to go to the archives and examine how his extensive unpublished manuscripts might illuminate his voluminous published writings.  And yet this manuscript material, currently held at the Bibliothèque Nationale (Richelieu) and the Bibliothèque d’Étude et de Conservation (Besançon), significantly problematizes not only how Proudhon’s ideas have generally been interpreted, but also many of the assumptions intellectual historians ordinarily make when they pretend to “contextualize” an author’s thought.


On the basis of a presentation of several of his unpublished manuscripts (notably his Second Empire diaries, his reading notebooks, and a manuscript on the history of Poland), this conference will discuss the difficulties of adequately summing up an author’s ideas, when it becomes apparent that any partial consideration of source material is necessarily incomplete. It will also discuss how this particular research project fits into a much larger one, financed by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), which aims to reevaluate the significance of 19th century French socialism.


Histoire contemporaine
15/09/2011 - 15/07/2012