Everything in the Balance

I’ve had a chance recently to reread some old and in-progress translations from Proudhon’s writings about philosophy, and naturally the impact of those writings changes as my understanding of Proudhon’s larger project grows. But I’m honestly a little embarrassed that the material from the opening sections of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church hasn’t made a stronger impression on me before now. Those sections, which discuss the nature and purpose of philosophy, the role of metaphysics, the accessibility of philosophical thought to the masses, and the relation of philosophy to justice, make a fairly remarkable set of arguments, many of which are what we would now probably call anti-foundationalist in character. In The Philosophy of Progress, Proudhon described his project in terms of an opposition to the absolute and an affirmation of progress, and challenged the idea of a criterion of certainty. In Justice, he asserts his criterion for, well, just about everything, and it turns out to be justice, understood as balance—and specifically as a balance between terms assumed to be equal in standing. The “anarchic encounter between equally unique individuals” turns out to be form of even the most basic exercises in gathering knowledge.

I encourage anyone interested in Proudhon’s thought to read that material, and apologize in advance for some minor, but nearly all obvious, defects in the current form of the translation. More specifically, I encourage anyone who does read it to be open to the more extreme implications of this business of taking balance as the criterion—as the closest thing to a foundation that perhaps we have. If we understand the mature, post-coup d’état Proudhon as starting by placing everything in the balance of justice, then I think that while the difficult, later works do not become any easier to grapple with, we can at least more easily eliminate some of the preconceptions which hinder our engagement with them.

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