Cover image for Life in common : an essay in general anthropology
Life in common : an essay in general anthropology
Todorov, Tzvetan, 1939-2017.
Uniform Title:
Vie commune. English
Publication Information:
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xii, 174 pages ; 22 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library GN25 .T63 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In Life in Common Tzvetan Todorov explores the construction of the self and offers new perspectives on current debates about otherness. Through the seventeenth century, solitude was considered the human condition in the Western philosophical tradition. The self was not dependent on others to perceive itself as complete. Todorov sees a reversal of this thinking beginning with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century. For the first time the self was defined as incomplete without the other, and the gaze no longer served only to satisfy personal vanity but constituted the fundamental requisite for human identity. nbsp; Todorov traces the far-reaching implications of Rousseau's new vision of the self and society through the political, philosophical, and psychoanalytical theories of Adam Smith, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georges Bataille, Melanie Klein, and others, and the relevant literary works of Karl Philipp Moritz, the Marquis de Sade, and Marcel Proust. In an original study of the bond between parent and child, Todorov develops a compelling vision of the self as social.

Author Notes

Tzvetan Todorov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria on March 1, 1939. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Sofia and then moved to France to pursue postgraduate work. He completed his doctorate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in 1966 and he began teaching at the National Center for Scientific Research in 1968. In 1983, he helped found the Center for Arts and Language Research, involving scholars from both institutions.

He was a literary theorist and historian. He wrote numerous books including The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, On Human Diversity, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War Summer 1944, The New World Disorder: Reflections of a European, and Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations. He died of multiple system atrophy, a progressive brain disorder, on February 7, 2017 at the age of 77.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this dazzling short meditation on the nature of human relationships, noted French philosopher Todorov (Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps) makes a scholarly and densely argued yet readable contribution to contemporary debates about the self. Arguing that philosophic thought equated solitude with wholeness until Rousseau "formulated a new conception of man as a being who needs others," Todorov traces the evolution of Rousseau's idea in the modern era and contemporary ideology. Drawing upon a dizzying array of sources philosopher-eroticists Sade and Bataille, psychoanalysts Winnicott and Klein, William James and Sartre, as well as Hugo, Melville, Romain Gary, Proust, Gide and, of course, Freud he examines how this new definition of the self in relation to others manifested in art and culture and has profoundly affected the construction of modern society. Drawing heavily upon the thought of Adam Smith and Hegel, Todorov is particularly concerned with power relationships and often delivers jarringly illuminating insights, such as his contention that the recounting of personal suffering to others provides a far greater sense of self than the actual experience. He also poses an astute argument for the primacy of the mother-infant relationship in determining our sense of self. While Todorov reaches no synthesis of Rousseau's contradictory statements "I cannot conceive how someone who loves nothing can be happy" and "the more [man] increases his attachments, the more he multiplies his pain" he presents a powerful meditation on their emblematic commentary on existence. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Internationally renowned and widely published theorist Todorov (director of research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris; The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, CH, Oct'84; On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought, 1993; and The Morals of History, 1995) has written a provocative essay on the social dimension of human experience. His thesis begins with an examination of the history of Western thought on the subject of human sociality. This diachronic discussion includes commentary on philosophers who conceived of human beings as "caught in the web of social relations" out of weakness as well as those for whom sociability is an integral part of what it is to be human. Rousseau's "philosophical anthropology," for example, envisaged a state in which to engage with the "other" defines the human condition. "The interhuman," Todorov writes, "is the basis of the human." The "gaze" exchanged by infant and parent is, in Todorov's compelling model, the foundation of "contiguity and complementarity" in human social relations. Recommended for graduate students and above in the social sciences, history, and philosophy. L. De Danaan emerita, Evergreen State College



Chapter One A Brief Look at the History of Thought ANTISOCIAL TRADITIONS As one studies the broad currents of European philosophical thought on the definition of what is human, a curious conclusion stands out. The social dimension, the very fact of life in common, is not generally conceived of as being necessary to human beings. This "thesis," however, is not presented as such; it is a supposition that remains unformulated and which, for this very reason, its author does not have the opportunity to argue, making it easier for us to accept. What is more, it forms the common denominator for theories that, in other respects, are at war with each other. Whatever the position one takes in these arguments, a definition of man as solitary and nonsocial is accepted.     The different versions of this asocial vision are easy to identify. Take first that of the great moralists of the classical period, who were themselves heirs of antiquity: those who set about analyzing morals rather than teaching morality. They present humanity to us as hesitating between two states. One is real life, which is also the life of our illusions. Human beings are certainly caught in the web of social relations, but out of weakness. The other state is that of our authentic life, even if we have difficulty in attaining it. Possibly there one could mix with gods, but as for other human beings, one is liberated from them. The superficial diversions of sociality are left far behind. Dealing with others is a burden to be discharged; asking approval from others is only an undesirable vanity that could never be tolerated by the wise man who aspires only to autarchy and self-sufficiency.     When Montaigne wanted to offer advice to his fellows, he expressed himself in this way: "Make our contentment depend on ourselves; let us cut loose from all the ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease? "Abandon with other pleasures that which comes from the approbation of others." It is possible and worthwhile to free oneself from relations with other human beings and especially from that approval we demand of them. This is the wisdom of the Stoics, which Montaigne passes on to us. La Bruyère concurs and concludes, not without regret, that "Men are sometimes unbearable to themselves? Fortunately, this is not true everywhere or at all times. There are moments when man overcomes his illusions and manages to attain the self-sufficient ideal. Although Pascal's general outlook is very different, he shares the same idea of man. "We are not satisfied," he writes, "with our own life as it really is; we desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others, and for that purpose we endeavour to shine." He regretfully states that we do not know how to be self-sufficient, and it is with sadness that he observes us indulging in endless social entertainment. Sociality is the real, but the ideal, the profound truth of our nature, is solitude. Such is the first all-encompassing individualist conception that underlies our representations of human life.     But it is not the dominant one. The opposition between the ideal and the real, between solitude and sociality is usually of another kind. In fact, since the Renaissance, the association of "nature" with the "ideal" has been abandoned, and nature instead turns up in what would be called the real. This change came about simultaneously in political theory and psychology, and the same authors are responsible for it (Machiavelli and Hobbes became the standard bearers of this thinking). According to the new vulgate (although it was hardly a radical new idea: the wisdom of nations has for centuries taught us that men prey on each other), it is only in appearance, and for the sake of obeying the demands of official morality, that man concerns himself with others. In reality, he is selfish and seeks his own interests, and other men are either rivals or obstacles. If he were not subjected to the powerful constraints of society and morality, man, who is fundamentally solitary, would live perpetually at war with his fellowmen in an unrestrained pursuit of power. What Montaigne and La Bruyère considered an ideal self-sufficiency and autarchy is the reality of man, but it is threatened. Society and morality conflict with human nature; they impose the rules of communal life on an essentially solitary being. It is this concept of man, the immoralist conception, that has won out over that of the moralists, and it is also the concept found in the most influential political and psychological theories of today.     After observing that man is by nature both solitary and selfish, it is still possible to take two opposed paths: combat nature or glorify it. La Rochefoucauld, the first great French spokesman for this idea of man, chose to fight nature: life in society restrains the insatiable appetites of men and forces them to learn to give and take; the social ideal is preferable to the natural selfishness of man. But as for human nature itself, La Rochefoucauld has no doubt that man is dominated by pride (used here as a synonym for the selfish love of oneself) or by self-interest in its broadest sense but always limited to the perspective of the desiring subject. Even if politeness and willingness to help are considered preferable to greed and arrogance, one must begin by opening one's eyes, for all feelings that are apparently praiseworthy are only masks and disguise. "We can love only in relationship to ourselves." "It is only self-interest that inspires such affection." And Pascal adds that the self is hateful for two reasons: "It is unjust in itself, since it makes itself the centre of all things; it is disagreeable to others because it wishes to enslave them, for every Self is the enemy of and would play the tyrant over everyone else?     With La Rochefoucauld, or before him with Hobbes, a system of argument was instituted that would remain almost unchanged for centuries to come. In a first phase, it is presumed that all social relations sprang from praiseworthy qualities such as generosity and love of others. In other words, the opposition between solitude and sociality was seen as equivalent to the difference between selfishness and altruism, obviously a distortion. In a second phase, the argument leaned toward disillusionment; the mask of virtue was torn away. This new conclusion is even more convincing in our eyes because it does not attempt to flatter, and we tell ourselves unconsciously that something disagreeable would never be advanced unless it were true. Having rejected an idea of man that is too indulgent, we are left with the picture of a human being who is selfish and alone. Sociality is virtuous but virtue deceives us, so the truth must be that we are asocial. La Rochefoucauld is thus able to conclude: "Men would not live long in society were they not one another's dupes," and Pascal: "The association of one man with another is based upon this mutual deceit." It is a mistake to think others wish us well. If we could see clearly, society would vanish!     But is this not an absurd conclusion of false premises? Moral judgment, the naming of vices and virtues, seems to have contaminated the underlying anthropological concept. When La Rochefoucauld declares that only self-interest can produce friendship, he sees this phenomenon as an extreme proof, an even stronger reason, he suggests, that his maxim should apply to our other relationships that seem to be less unselfish than friendship. Not only is this explanation of friendship inadequate, however--for if I subjugated another entirely to my own interests his attachment would be of little value--but even more fundamental is the fact that the formula of La Rochefoucauld implies the existence of an autonomous and self-centered "I" preceding all social life, a sort of owner who cares only about amassing wealth, as if the relations with people could be understood in referring to those that connect us with things. My relationship to others is not the product of my own self-interest; it precedes both the self-interest and the "I." There is no point in asking oneself, in Hobbesian fashion: Why do men choose to live in society? or like Schopenhauer: Where does the need for society' come from? because mankind never makes this passage into communal life. The relationship precedes the isolated element. People do not live in society because of self-interest or because of virtue or because of the strength of other reasons, no matter what they might be. They do so because for them no other form of life is possible.     An almost identical concept of man is found in Kant, a great moralist but a questionable psychologist. According to Kant, the fundamental antagonism in the human species lies in "unsociable sociality," in the contradictory tendencies to both seek out and to flee from society. However, if the first tendency allows for the accomplishment of what is best in man (on the side of the idea/, the purpose of the human race, its regulating principle), the second is what is called his internal truth, his natural inclination. It is "the unsocial desire (existing concurrently with his social propensities) to force all things into compliance with his own humor; a propensity to which he naturally anticipates resistance from his consciousness of a similar spirit of resistance to others existing in himself." From the individual's point of view, others are only rivals or obstacles to his own rise, so he hopes for their disappearance. Man is torn between the desire for unlimited power, not shared with others, and his inability to get along without society, a result of weakness. "A man whose happiness depends on another man's choice (no matter how benevolent the other may be) rightly considers himself unfortunate."     This image of mankind leads Kant to a strange interpretation of the first cry of the newborn child, for is it not the natural intent of men to keep others at a distance, even if they must make war to accomplish this goal? "The inclination to freedom seems to be the reason why even a child who has just emerged from his mother's womb enters the world with loud cries, unlike any other animal; for he regards his inability to make use of his limbs as constraint and so immediately announces his claim to freedom." If the newborn child cries, it is not to demand what is necessary for life and existence; it is to protest against his dependence in regard to others. As a Kantian subject, man is born longing for liberty.     In examining the details of the central human passion that drives each man to grasp power and to control others, Kant distinguishes three modalities, depending on the subject to which it applies: Ehrsucht, Herrschsucht, Habsucht , a thirst for honors, for domination, for possessions. However, even if this last kind can easily fit into the economic model of the accumulation of wealth, and if the second sees all other human beings as potential servants, the passion for honors is not so easily defined. The very nature of honors requires that they be accorded to us by others, by those who have the means to do so. These others cannot therefore be reduced to the role of rivals or obstacles, who, like us, aspire to the same distinctions. Here, the other is both irreducibly different from oneself and complementary. But is it not the same for many other social relationships, from friendship to apprenticeship, and even that of the newborn to his mother?     La Rochefoucauld, too, frightened by the excessive application of his defining principle, hurried to clarify it in his "Note to the Reader" in the second edition of his Maxims : "The word self-interest does not always mean an interest in the good: more often it is a desire for honor or glory." This observation is profoundly true, but it removes much of the radical meaning of the initial statement. If the guiding motivation of human activity is not the acquisition of goods similar to material wealth, to selfish satisfaction, but is instead a desire for glory and honors, how can we get along without others, who are the sole purveyors possible? La Rochefoucauld is only interested in our social drives, yet he suggests that man first and foremost is a solitary being. We cannot get along without others but only because of our own selfish ambitions. However, the particular cases imagined by both La Rochefoucauld and Kant threaten their own general frame of interpretation, especially since this frame has never been explicitly confirmed. Without such a frame, who could believe that rivalry or submission exhausts the variety of human relations?     This first version of the conception, which sees man as selfish and alone, positions one on the side of morality (one must overcome natural tendencies, Kant teaches). A second version, dating from the eighteenth century at the latest, suggests that one pattern the ideal on the real rather than contrast the two; the psychological concept, however, is not modified by this choice. This position would often be taken by the materialists-encyclopedists Helvetius, Diderot, d'Holbach and, in a more outrageous fashion, Sade. In Essays on the Mind and Its Several Faculties , Helvetius agrees with La Rochefoucauld that self-interest governs man's conduct, but unlike his predecessor, he does not regret this fact. Diderot adopts this doctrine and adds: "What makes a man what he is ... [is] the code of morality appropriate to men." In other words, the ideal must submit to the real. And Sade concludes, "For a bridle have nothing but your inclinations, for laws only your desires, for morality Nature's alone."     Nietzsche might well criticize his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, but he shares their idea of man's nature. He has only contempt for his bourgeois contemporaries, who have lost all interest in fame and excellence and are content to live warmly and with full stomachs. But his own ideal, the Superman, is also a being who longs for solitude. In the place of the pride and selfishness of La Rochefoucauld comes the "morality of the master" with the will to power at its center. "My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (--its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: this they then conspire together for power." The human being, no different from other living creatures, wants to dominate. Others, who are all the same, are only rivals or perhaps become collaborators if the task is too big for one man alone. The best succeed. "The rich and living want victory, opponents overcome, the overflow of the feeling of power across wider domains than hitherto."     Nietzsche had a strangely egalitarian psychology: All men are alike and compete for the same place; therefore, they are either my adversaries or my collaborators or, in case of victory, the defeated, my servants. Everything happens as if--assuming we are able to overcome the limitations imposed on us by a conventional morality designed to protect the weak, a morality of sheep--we were all going to rush to rule as solitary masters. But is this really the common pattern of human conduct? Is there no anguish in being a tyrant?     Here the role of the ideas of honor and glory are worth our attention. They imply a necessary reference to social life, and, moreover, they are constantly found in reflections on man among ancient as well as modern philosophers. It is equally noteworthy, however, that, in spite of profound changes in attitudes, the desire for honors and glory is always considered optional, a desire one can well do without. For the ancient philosophers it brought out the best in man; Achilles preferred death to a life without brilliance. But even so, this virtue is not present in everyone, only in the best. It is an ideal but not a basic need.     On the other hand, for modern philosophers beginning with Hobbes, the desire for glory and honor is the source of our troubles. We must learn to tame it, to consider more essential interests first: Social tranquility is worth more than the glory of heroes. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu and Kant, deplored our desire for glory, this uncontrollable passion, an outmoded survival of the feudal code. They also believed that man could well do without glory, but only the best would succeed at doing so. Thus when Hobbes or La Rochefoucauld propose a positive sociality as the remedy for our basic selfishness, they do not include the desire for glory and honors, which has now come to be seen as a selfish desire to be eliminated. Ehrsucht has no place except in the series of Habsucht and Herrschsucht; it is now only a kind of "selfish self-centeredness." (Nietzsche, on the other hand, deplored the modern decline of a desire for glory as yet another proof of the mediocrity propagated by the new democracies). In modern times the individual is encouraged to see to his own affairs, to worry about his personal development rather than to exhaust himself in useless pursuit of prestige--as if the self could exist without reference to the outside world, as if vanity and self-centeredness shared the entire field of intersubjectivity. DISCOVERY AND ITS REDUCTION It would certainly be misleading to say that this asocial vision corresponds to all the conceptions of man in the Western psychological tradition. This vision is clearly dominant, but it is not the only one. We can observe the "solitary" tendencies of classical philosophy, but it also has "social" tendencies. Even if autarchy remains the ideal of the wise man, the Greek philosophers believed also that man is a social animal, that he must live with his fellows and flourishes in the polls. The tension between these two affirmations is often resolved by the acceptance of several "lifestyles," all praiseworthy, even if they too can be hierarchized, permitting both active or practical life, accessible to all, and taking place in society, and a contemplative, solitary life, particularly suitable to the wise. Even while acknowledging the fundamental fact of human plurality, however, the Greek philosophers usually do not see "you" as different from "I" and necessary to wholeness; they do not explore the difference of position between `T' and "other." The natural sympathy that exists between men is that of like for like. Others are necessary so that virtue can manifest itself (Aristotle: "for us, well-being has reference to something other than ourselves"), not because each particular subject would be incomplete without others. Friendship also is a merit rather than a need. Cicero is even more explicit: "Nature gave us friendship as an aid to virtue ... since virtue when solitary cannot arrive at the highest kind of life, it might do so when joined and shared with a companion."     Aristotle also left us this well-known formula: "But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god." Animals and gods are self-sufficient and therefore can be seen as alone. Man is irremediably incomplete; he needs others. It is clear, however, that these others are necessary as a natural environment for the individual, not in order to assume any particular function. The relation that Aristotle envisions is the copresence of individuals at the heart of the polis, not the complementarity of the seer and the seen. In the myth of Aristophanes recounted by Plato in The Symposium , human beings need "[the] other half" ( symbolon ) of the other being and are thus intrinsically incomplete. But this complementarity explains sexual attraction rather than the foundation of a communal life: the fit of the male sexual organ in the female becomes the image of desired completeness. Plato himself postulates the presence of ardor, thymos , as one of the components of the soul, and represents it as attached to the passion for honors, to the love of triumph, but he does not state that only others can bestow this reward. And the Stoics note that vanity is omnipresent but think that man can liberate himself from it.     Disregarding for a moment several early signs of what was to come, one can say that a real revolution took place in the middle of the eighteenth century, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau became the first to formulate a new conception of man as a being who needs others . One must note, however, that two traits of Rousseau's discourse have confused his message slightly and have sometimes prevented its meaning from being understood. The first difficulty is that Rousseau's philosophical anthropology, offered in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality , takes the form of a historical account while, at the same time, he warns us against any projection of his mental constructs onto history. The "state of nature" that he imagines, as he announces from the beginning of the Discourse , is "a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never did exist, which probably never will exist, and about which it is nevertheless necessary to have exact Notions in order accurately to judge of our present state." It is very difficult to constantly keep in mind that the first "stages" of humanity imagined by Rousseau come only from "hypothetical and conditional reasoning," and that the only real humanity is the present one.     The second difficulty arises from the fact that Rousseau the man was dominated by a touchy and suspicious temperament, that he believed himself persecuted and therefore often preferred solitude to company--a solitude even more desirable then than now since it was much harder to come by. But in Rousseau's mind this personal preference for isolation does not correspond to a doctrinal affirmation of man's essential aloneness. He carefully underlines the distance between the general rule (the recommendations he gives to Emile) and the exception (his own destiny). And in the Dialogues , after having advised us of his own preference for solitude, he insists on reminding us: "Absolute solitude is a state that is sad and contrary to nature." Therefore, it is first necessary to remove the veil that obscures our perception of Rousseau's thought, and then all of his audaciousness will be revealed.     Rousseau does accompany those I have called "moralists" (in the tradition of Montaigne) part of the way in condemning life in society and in presenting the solitude of an individual in a favorable light. To do so, he used a distinction in terminology between amour de soi , or self-love, and amour-propre , or vanity. The first notion is positive; it is the simple instinct of self-preservation, indispensable for every human. Although it precedes moral attitudes, it is still identified with virtues (and, modified by pity, it will form the basis for these) and not selfishness. The second notion is considered negative by Rousseau. It is a feeling that exists only in society and consists in comparing ourselves to others, in judging ourselves superior to them, and in wanting them to be inferior. Rousseau's amour-propre is not that of La Rochefoucauld, where this idea is mixed with "self-love." It corresponds more to what the other moralists call vanity; it is our dependence on the opinion of others. " Amour-propre , which is to say a relative feeling [this term in Rousseau is a synonym for "social"] by which one makes comparisons; the latter feeling demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative, and it no longer seeks satisfaction in our own benefit but solely in the harm of another." (Continues...) Copyright © 1995 Editions du Seuil.

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