Absolutes and Approximations (More Notes on the Development of Proudhon’s Thought)

Humanity proceeds by approximations. — Proudhon, Theory of Property

This statement by Proudhon was one of the central elements of what was, in retrospect, the first attempt to understand mutualism as a neo-Proudhonian anarchism in the unfinished series on “The Anarchism of Approximations,” way back in 2007. At the time, the emphasis on approximation was half, no doubt, a reflection of my existing commitments to the critique of ideology, transposed into the realm of the critique of utopian blueprints, and half a reflection of my emerging sense of Proudhon’s own philosophy of progress. The various elements are obviously not unconnected, but I won’t pretend that my articulation of them in 2007 was anything by a placeholder, a very rudimentary approximation of what is still emerging from study and reflection.

At the time, I was already beginning to connect this late account of a collective progress through approximation with similar passages in What is Property? For example:

Truly, the race, like the individual, is born ignorant; but, in regard to a multitude of questions, even in the moral and political spheres, this ignorance of the race has been dispelled: who says that it will not depart altogether? Mankind makes continual progress toward truth, and light ever triumphs over darkness. Our disease is not, then, absolutely incurable, and the theory of the theologians is worse than inadequate; it is ridiculous, since it is reducible to this tautology: “Man errs, because he errs.” While the true statement is this: “Man errs, because he learns.”

And I had begun to treat the need for a space in which to err as one of the issues to be addressed in the analysis of Proudhon’s property theory.

Now, further retrospection suggests that I was probably tangling up a couple of different concerns — even if I was ultimately on the right track. The need for a space within which individual human being can experiment, err and learn is not so immediately connected with the question of humanity and its advance through approximations. We are dealing with two different kinds of agents, connected to one another, but still distinct.

Of course, Proudhon did not always do us any favors when it comes to keeping the various elements of his account straight — as the first installment of these notes perhaps demonstrates. While the dynamics he described remained fairly constant, the language shifted, sometimes multiple times within a given text, and we have to work to keep our focus on what is relatively stable. For me, for better or worse, that has been the work of years.

Last night, for example, the following note came up in a “memories” feed on social media, dated seven years ago:

“For there is one truth of which I am profoundly convinced, — nations live by absolute ideas, not by approximate and partial conceptions; therefore, men are needed who define principles, or at least test them in the fire of controversy. Such is the law, — the idea first, the pure idea, the understanding of the laws of God, the theory: practice follows with slow steps, cautious, attentive to the succession of events; sure to seize, towards this eternal meridian, the indications of supreme reason. The co-operation of theory and practice produces in humanity the realization of order, — the absolute truth.” (Proudhon, “What is Property?”)

This is the complicated other side of “the elimination of the absolute” and “humanity proceeds by approximations.” As far as I can see, Proudhon never gave us a language to distinguish between the varieties of “anarchy” and “absolutism.”

I’ve apparently looked at this passage each year since originally posting it, without, it seems, making connections that seemed fairly obvious last night. The problem it poses is obvious enough. On the one hand, he claims that humanity, the general collective agent, “proceeds by approximations,” while, on the other hand, he also claims that “nations live by absolute ideas, not by approximate and partial conceptions.” Recourse to the French texts removes some of the distinctions we might be tempted to make based on the translation. The passage — from the Second Memoir on Property, written in 1841, but included in Tucker’s edition of What is Property? — refers to “les peuples,” which is sometimes correctly rendered as “nations,” but is just as likely to refer to organized masses of people in general. So we are presented with a clear distinction between social collectivities, which “live by absolute ideas,” and individual human beings “who define principles, or at least test them in the fire of controversy.”

Does this contradict the passage from the First Memoir on Property? Probably not. We have no reason to think that the mechanism by which collectivities progress can be separated from the acts of individuals. If we were to attempt the separation, we would have to find some other means by which the absolutism of the collectivity could be overcome. And what the passage from the Second Memoir leads us to look for is “the cooperation of theory and practice,” with the definition of principles understood as part of the practical testing of theories that would otherwise remain absolute.

There’s no need to drag this commentary out to any great length. The cooperation between individual, human free absolutes and social unity-collectivites is, at this point, precisely the sort of thing we expect from Proudhon. We know that his method of addressing complex systems led him to emphasize the need to simultaneously deal with everything that could be individualized in those terms and recognize the collective nature of everything that could be addressed in those terms. But what is perhaps not immediately obvious — what clearly escaped me for seven years — is the ways in which Proudhon’s description in 1841 of “the rule” of collective progress should almost certainly inform our reading of later works like The Federative Principle.

In the first of these sets of notes, I was wrestling with the claim that “authority” would remain a part of human governance — a point often used to mark a late departure by Proudhon from his early anarchist commitments. My suggestion that it was in fact, absolutism that would persist was perhaps not any more soothing to others than it has been to me. But what we know from the later work is that Proudhon associated “authority” and “initiative,” as he did “liberty” and “reflection” — and it seems natural, I think, to see something very similar in the 1841 account of the progress of peoples.

If we do connect the two passages in this way, we not only have a useful clarification of the work on federation, but also another indicator that perhaps Proudhon’s ideas didn’t change all that drastically between the periods we so often oppose.

Alternate translation

Car il est une vérité dont je suis intimement pénétré; les peuples vivent d’idées absolues, non de conceptions approximatives 
et partielles; donc il faut des hommes qui définissent les principes, 
ou qui du moins les épurent au feu de la controverse. Telle est la 
règle : l’idée d’abord, l’idée pure, l’intelligence des lois de Dieu, 
la théorie; la pratique suit à pas lents, circonspecte, attentive à la 
succession des événements, fidèle à saisir, sur ce méridien éternel, 
les indications de la raison suprême. Le concours de la théorie et 
de la pratique produit dans l’humanité la réalisation de l’ordre, le 
vrai absolu.

For there is one truth that I feel all through me; peoples live on absolute ideas, not approximate and partial conceptions; so they require individuals who define principles — 
or at least purify them in the fire of controversy. Such is the law: first the idea, the pure idea, the understanding of the laws of God, theory; practice follows with slow steps, deliberately, attentive to the 
succession of events, faithfully seeking to take hold, on this eternal meridian, 
of the instructions of the highest reason. The cooperation of theory and practice produces in humanity the realization of order, the true absolute.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.