Lucien Goldmann

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Robert Sayre

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4396

Goldmann appears to us … as an isolated figure. Throughout his career his thought was met with hostility or indifference by competing trends which in all cases held a dominating position. To many he remained little known or unknown. It is just this apparent isolation that must be explained in terms of Goldmann's relation to the whole.

Goldmann belongs to the same intellectual tradition—and historical project—that much of his work takes as its subject: the German tradition of dialectical thought, from Kant and Hegel to Marx and Lukács. Goldmann discovered in the tragic vision of the seventeenth-century French Jansenists—Pascal and Racine—a precursor to dialectical thought. His own conceptions, however, while recognizing the affinities and continuities in that intellectual development, do not return nostalgically to either the tragic or the idealistic dialectical mode, but rather continue, extend and develop the materialistic dialectics of Marx and Lukács. While Goldmann is first and foremost to be defined as a Marxist, he is a Marxist for whom the contribution of philosophical thought is of the utmost import, and for whom the study of culture is as crucial to Marxist theory as is the study of the socio-economic realm. In his perspective there can be no absolute separation in the "human sciences" between science and philosophy…. For Goldmann not only does this socio-economic realm ultimately provide an explanatory framework for cultural productions, but also the study of culture sheds a revealing light on social and economic life. (p. 129)

If we consider Goldmann's work as a whole, and see in it a continuation of the dialectical Marxist tradition referred to above, it becomes possible to understand Goldmann's isolation. The situation is most severe, as we might expect, in the United States. Here, where empiricism and academic compartmentalization are dominant, and where the only tradition of Marxist cultural critique is to be found in the largely discredited dogmatism of the 1930s, Goldmann had been treated by academia with benign neglect. (p. 130)

Whereas both critical theory and structuralism attempt to free thought from the taint of ideology and action, Goldmann continues the Marxist theoretical affirmation of the unity of theory and practice, and attempts to discover the potentially revolutionary social force in contemporary society to which the theory of social transformation is now to be linked. This position, entirely in keeping with classical Marxism, is increasingly challenged in a period of social integration.

Thus Goldmann's thought is isolated, at its inception, during the Cold War period, from both sides of the ideological struggle—bourgeois apology and Stalinism—and later, in the 1960s, from two tendencies of thought which imposed themselves increasingly: the Frankfurt School and formalist structuralism. Yet in spite of his isolation, Goldmann's work has remained alive. He has had to be confronted or appropriated both by bourgeois scholarship—the weight of erudition and closely argued interpretation in The Hidden God could not be ignored—and by the Left. For his work stands, in spite of criticism leveled against it on the Left, as one of the most compelling attempts, both systematic and rich in concrete detail, to create the groundwork for a Marxist sociology of literature and culture in general. (p. 131)

The various subjects of Goldmann's works—both essays and monographs—can be schematically divided into three categories. The nature of these categories of analysis and the relationships that exist between them in Goldmann's writings are in themselves characteristic of dialectical Marxist thought. There are, first of all, general statements of theory and method. These statements are never abstract, isolated formulation; they are always developed in relation (a) to their history, and (b) to other theories and methods, and

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The various subjects of Goldmann's works—both essays and monographs—can be schematically divided into three categories. The nature of these categories of analysis and the relationships that exist between them in Goldmann's writings are in themselves characteristic of dialectical Marxist thought. There are, first of all, general statements of theory and method. These statements are never abstract, isolated formulation; they are always developed in relation (a) to their history, and (b) to other theories and methods, andtheir histories. Thus theory and method are formulated and reformulated in different terms, from different angles, in relation to different intellectual objects external to them, assuring a concrete, totalizing presentation of them.

Second, there are analyses of some of the principal visions du monde, or Weltanschauungen (or, as we shall refer to them, worldviews) which have determined consciousness and culture at given historical moments. These worldviews are also presented relationally—in relation (a) to similar or opposed worldviews of the same period or periods that precede or follow, and (b) specifically to the dialectical Marxist worldview, the privileged point of reference for Goldmann. Coherent worldviews are expressed in cultural products of all kinds, but Goldmann's analyses are mainly of two cultural forms: philosophy and literature—conceptual and imaginative expressions of worldview. (p. 135)

The third category of analysis could be broadly described as political, social and economic—that is, analysis of the concrete relations and actions of men which underlie their culture. Goldmann's treatment of these problems is both direct and indirect. In his direct expositions he portrays the series of political/social/economic situations in which the principal worldviews arise; this political and socio-economic history forms the underpinnings of the history of culture with which he is concerned. On the other hand, true to his commitment to the dialectical formula concerning the problem of history and history of the problem, his analysis in this domain also takes the indirect form of comment on political, social and economic theory—Marxist and otherwise.

Most of Goldmann's books and essays focus on a particular subject of study. Yet by virtue of his relational treatment of them, each study in some measure contains the others. There are repeated excursions out of the subject proper and into surrounding areas, at greater or lesser distances from it. Thus the study of Kant's philosophy contains a look forward to Hegelian philosophy and to Goethe's Faust as its corresponding literary manifestation, as well as to neo-Kantianism; a look backwards to Pascal and to Enlightenment philosophy; and a consideration of the relationship of Kant and Marxism. Even the essays, which cannot make similar long digressions, continually allude to analysis developed more fully elsewhere, and schematically outline results of other studies. For dialectical Marxism, the only possible subject is in a sense the Totality, and any given book or essay is simply an approach to the Totality from some particular vantage point.

Goldmann's breadth of subject matter, which ignores academic specialization and compartmentalization, and his manner of presentation, are thus characteristic of dialectical thought in general. They contribute to the richness and strength of his work, but at the same time are a possible source of confusion. (p. 136)

We must begin with Goldmann's general theory, for his method is dependent upon it. And any exposition of his theory must begin with the concept of totality, which is of primordial importance within it. At the foundation of Goldmann's theory is the idea that reality is made up of totalities, or wholes (la totalité, le tout); the parts within these wholes are comprehensible only in relation to the whole, and the whole can only be understood as an interrelationship of parts. Every whole is in turn a part within other, larger totalities, and is thus a "relative totality." The ultimate Totality would be all that exists, has existed or will exist, and it might be defined as Natural History. But within that Totality the privileged Totality from the point of view of the human being is the Totality of human phenomena (and natural phenomena insofar as they relate to the human)—that is to say, human history. The object of study of the natural sciences is Natural History, and concerning its theories and methods Goldmann reserves judgment…. The object of the human sciences—within which exist Goldmann's fields of study—encompasses the whole of human history, with the dimensions not only of past and present human reality, but also of the future. (pp. 136-37)

The subject for which any behavior is functional in this sense, may be either individual or collective ("transindividual" is a synonymous term). Much human behavior can be understood only as functional in reference to the collective rather than the individual subject. Consciousness itself, strictly speaking, is always individual; Goldmann does not recognize the somewhat mystical conception of a collective consciousness. But the structures of individual consciousness can be functional in reference to a collective subject as well as to an individual one. This functional behavior takes the form of a continuous creation of structures which in some way represent solutions to human problems; the structures take concrete form, institutional form, and mental form. But the process of the creation of new functional structures must be accompanied by the converse process of dismantling, or destructuring structures which have outlived their functional usefulness. Human structures are therefore never static: they are dynamic structures capable of being understood only as part of a continuous and dialectical process of structuration and destructuration….

Structure, function and process, then, are equally important elementary concepts defining the human totality. And for Goldmann, although structure, function and process at the level of the individual are valid areas of study (coinciding with those studied by psychology and psychoanalysis), social structure, function and process are by far the weightier constituents of human reality in general. (p. 137)

Human culture, the area of Goldmann's most concentrated study, is simply one sector—although a particularly important one—of human behavior as a whole. Cultural products are mental structures which are functional like other forms of behavior. They provide a particular kind of resolution of an interpretation of the world which expresses the problems confronting a human subject and in some way provides a framework for dealing with them. These mental structures may be either conceptual or imaginative, philosophical or artistic.

All philosophical and artistic products are functional mental structures, but only the greatest works are unitary and coherent structures which are conceptual or imaginative expressions of a worldview. Goldmann contends that these worldviews are mental structures, not of an individual subject (whose mental structure is usually made up of diverse elements) but of a collective subject of a particular type: social class. Among all groups within society, social classes have the particularity of being collectivities "whose action and consciousness are oriented toward the global structuration of society, and thereby toward the structuration of the whole of human interrelationship and of relations between men and nature." Only such groups can produce a complete worldview, as opposed to the partial mental structures exhibited by other, lesser social groups.

This coherent, unitary mental structure, the worldview of a social class, is only virtual, however. That is, it is not always fully actualized in the individual consciousness of members of the class. Here Goldmann's analysis appropriates one of the central concepts of Lukács' History and Class Consciousness. According to Lukács in that work, true class consciousness is virtual consciousness…. Actual consciousness tends towards true class consciousness, but attains it for most members of the class only at certain historical moments. Goldmann adapts Lukács' concept to his theory of culture; he identifies worldview, or Weltanschauung, a concept current in German Geisteswissenschaft since Dilthey, with zugerechtnetes Bewusstsein. Goldmann freely translates the latter in French as "le maximum de conscience possible": the maximum possible consciousness. The summits of philosophy and literature in the history of culture are expressions of the virtual consciousness, or maximum possible consciousness, of social classes. The relationship between the mental structures of the class (its Weltanschauung) and the particular expressions of it in an "imaginary universe" (univers imaginaire) of literature or a conceptual system of philosophy may be one of strict homology, or it may be a looser but still significant relationship. The relationship, whether strictly homological or otherwise, that binds the whole of a work and the whole of a worldview, is one of structure rather than content, although partial relationships of content may also exist. (pp. 137-38)

[Great] cultural works are never totally coherent; there are elements of other worldviews, purely personal factors, etc., which intervene. But the greatest works are the ones that approach complete coherency and unity. Goldmann consciously stands in the tradition of classical German esthetics when he defines the standard of greatness as a maximum of multiplicity, completeness, or "richesse," successfully organized in a coherent structural unity. The works that resolve the conflict between multiplicity and unity in a mental structure in almost all cases correspond to the works that have lasted beyond the period in which they were created; they have been recognized by posterity as the greatest works of culture.

Yet if great works are expressions of the worldview of a particular class at a particular historical moment, why is it that precisely those works survive their period and class identification? Goldmann's answer to this apparent contradiction … is twofold. On the one hand, we have already cited the "need for coherency and totality that characterizes all human and social life." The great philosophical and literary works answer this need; their totalizing and organizing power continues to compel even after the demise of the worldviews which produced them. On the other hand, there have developed in the entire history of human culture only a limited number of fully articulated worldviews (as opposed to innumerable personal concatenations of elements of various worldviews). These worldviews represent specific configurations of and choices among a limited number of general human problems, such as interpersonal relations, the meaning of the cosmos, man's place in Nature, etc. Each worldview chooses to emphasize some of these problems, to de-emphasize or even ignore others, each provides its own presentation of and resolutions to human problems. However, although the particular constellation of problems and resolutions is always unique, the treatment of a particular element or elements of the whole constellation may be either similar or identical in several worldviews. (p. 139)

It should be clear from the preceding outline of his theory of cultural productions that for Goldmann they can be said to be both fully collective and fully individual creations: "The work thus maintains a character both collective and individual, the group alone being capable of elaborating a categorical ensemble that is oriented towards coherency—a worldview—but very rarely, and practically speaking almost never, bringing it to the level of coherency that it attains in the work, the individual alone achieving this and expressing it in a specific context." (pp. 139-40)

Goldmann generally treats coherency as the only criterion of value for imaginative works, while he considers truth-value to be an additional criterion for philosophical work…. (p. 140)

Thus Goldmann differs markedly from the later Lukács in his criterion of value for literary works. The latter's dominant criterion is mimetic, a measure of the breadth and depth of the portrayal of reality in a work. The best works are the most "realistic," those that are at the same time most comprehensive and most profound in revealing the "objective truth," or the forces and relationships that underlie and structure appearance. The same basic dichotomy of multiplicity and structure is present in Lukács' and Goldmann's theories, but for the former the structure that organizes multiplicity in the best works is the structure of reality itself, not the mental structure of a particular worldview.

Now that we have discussed the nature of cultural products as particular forms of human behavior in Goldmann's theory, we must explicate the relationship through mediations that Goldmann establishes between cultural products and the human totality. We began with the notion of Totality and the relative totalities existing within it. The link between the human totality and the small totality of the cultural product, is a series of relative totalities. The first in the series has been mentioned already: the cultural totality stands within the larger one of the class worldview. The latter, in turn, is part of the overall situation and definition of the class; and the class has its place within the general structure of society at a given historical moment. Finally, the social totality at a given time is part of the overall process of human social development. Many other relative totalities could of course be isolated, but these are the most significant.

The various specific ways in which these relative totalities relate to each other … share nonetheless a general characteristic. The common relationship is, in Goldmann's terminology, genesis (genèse). The larger totality generates the smaller; the smaller is created by, owes its existence to the larger. Since what is generated is in each case a structured totality. Goldmann came to call this theoretical framework "genetic structuralism." (pp. 140-41)

The structures of the [artistic] work, whether they relate to a worldview or more directly to the structure of reality, are overall structures of meaning, or the "form of content." Beyond this level of semantic form, there exists a level of more minute structures which is purely linguistic, stylistic or semiotic in nature. These are the forms with which formalist structuralism is principally concerned. In the perspective of the Goldmannian concept of Totality, these "micro-structures" must have a meaningful relationship to the larger totality, or "form of content." Although the relationship between the two levels is posited by Goldmann in theoretical terms, he only became interested in the problem in the last few years of his life; consequently he was able to effect only a few concrete applications to investigate the relationship. (pp. 141-42)

In addition to his contribution to a Marxist theory of culture and method of cultural analysis, Goldmann has left us a collection of studies in particular philosophies and works of literature. These studies are interrelated, and together form an historical typology of the principal worldviews in the modern period—that is to say, from the early development of capitalism (the period of primitive accumulation) to the present. We will only be able to outline the briefest sketch of Goldmann's typological history of culture, and of the socio-economic history to which he related it.

With the development of capitalism and the growth of the bourgeoisie as its dominant social class, a new worldview was articulated which expressed the perspective of that class. This worldview was first philosophically elaborated in the seventeenth century by Descartes. In it the medieval religious categories of human community and divinely-ruled universe give way to the categories of the individual ego and infinite space ruled only by physical laws. The tragic worldview of Pascal (and Racine, as expressed in a fictional universe) represents an early protest against the limitations of such a conception of man in the world. Coming after Descartes and the first thrust of post-medieval scientific discoveries, Pascal both comprehends and refuses scientific rationalism.

For tragic thought, God exists (as does the transindividual value system that the concept of God implies) but nevertheless remains entirely hidden from human perception or cognition. All that men can know in the world around them is the terrifying "eternal silence of these infinite spaces." The fate of the tragic mind is solitude, since it can communicate neither with the deus absconditus nor with other human beings, who are hopelessly corrupted, infinitely remote from the values that represent the will of God…. The tragic mind knows that this God represents an absolute demand for the realization of (humanly) irrealisable values. And it is condemned to be in the human world (being separated from God) but not of it (being separated from other men). (p. 143)

Goldmann identifies this conceptual system, revealed by an internal analysis of Pascal's Pensées, with the most extreme form of Jansenist thought, and links the Jansenist worldview in general to the noblesse de robe (the bourgeoisie ennobled through appointment to magisterial positions by the king). The Jansenist worldview plays a functional role as an ideology for the noblesse de robe. The existence of this class is paradoxical: both created and held powerless by the monarchy, it cannot pursue its own class interest against the very institution that brought it into being. It is naturally attracted to a worldview that believes in both the vanity of the world and the necessity of living within it, in both the existence of values other than those it observes in reality and the impossibility of realizing those values. (pp. 143-44)

While Pascal's tragic vision was an isolated protest against the rise of rationalism, expressing the worldview of a class isolated from the rest of the bourgeoisie, Kant's related tragic philosophy is also a transitional form of thought preparing the way for the dialectical worldview. Kant carries rationalism to its furthest limits, thereby revealing its limitations and bringing it to the point where it must be transcended. Kant brings together rationalist individualism and the concept of the human totality in a tragic contradiction: man possesses a double nature, both social and asocial (egotistical). The human community implied by man's social nature is not given, however. It remains a task to achieve, but one that cannot be achieved. Man's tragic fate is to seek the irrealizable hope of community while his actual existence is determined by the individualistic side of his definition. The fundamental difference between the Pascalian and Kantian tragic vision resides in the fact that for Pascal there can be no question of man's hoping to realize community, while for Kant that hope, although paradoxically hopeless, constitutes the definition of man.

The Kantian philosophy is, of course, the conceptual embodiment of a class worldview: that of the German bourgeoisie. The weakness of German capitalistic development and the backwardness of the German bourgeoisie relative to their English and French counterparts creates the ground upon which the Kantian critique of bourgeois rationalism is based. In the case of both Pascal and Kant, elements of the ascendant bourgeoisie that are excluded from the triumphant rise to power are thereby able to elaborate a criticism from within of bourgeois ideology—before the advent of the dialectical worldview which transcends bourgeois ideology from without.

The above sketches barely scratch the surface of Goldmann's analyses. We have brought out only those central themes that relate and oppose the worldviews, thus allowing us to see a general historical pattern emerging. Individualist rationalism constitutes the fundamental worldview of the bourgeois class, and in spite of its different historical expressions there remains a basic identity of conceptual framework from Descartes to the Encyclopedists, and beyond them to nineteenth-century positivism and finally the rationalism of a Paul Valéry in the early twentieth century. We are dealing with particular historical manifestations of a single worldview.

Over against the unified succession of rationalist systems, there is a series of distinct but related worldviews, developing in a progression to higher levels: from the fully tragic vision (Pascal) to the transitional form between tragic and dialectical (Kant), to the idealistic Hegelian dialectic and finally the Marxian materialist dialectic. One of Goldmann's most significant contributions to the sociology of culture is to have identified and explicated this link between tragic and dialectical thought. (pp. 144-45)

According to the Goldmannian historical schema, the development of critical worldviews, from Pascal to Hegel, then bifurcates. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the development of Marxism is paralleled by the emergence of existentialism; the two are offshoots of the same branch, share similar concerns, and occasionally merge in a single thinker or artist, such as Lukács, Malraux or Sartre. Yet Marxism resolves the dilemmas which remain insoluble in the existentialist vision. While Marxist thought continues the progression of critical consciousness … existentialism constitutes a return to the tragic consciousness. The new tragic consciousness affirms neither the transindividual (like Marxism) nor the autonomy of the individual (like rationalism), but rather the limitations of the individual, and emphasizes the ultimate limitation: death. This philosophy of the limits and failure of the individual, which is translated into the domain of literary form by the "dissolution of character" in the novels of Joyce, Kafka and Camus, corresponds to what Goldmann alternately calls the "capitalism of crises" or, using more familiar terminology, the monopoly capitalism of the imperialist period. That period, characterized by repeated and shattering crises (wars and economic failures), and by immense economic concentrations which radically limit the power and importance of the individual within the social structure, shakes bourgeois optimism and calls forth the Angst of individuals confronted with their own nothingness and their deaths.

The post-World War II years, during which the state intervenes massively in the economies of advanced industrial nations and consequently creates self-regulatory mechanisms which at least partially and temporarily avoid the repetition of violent crises, constitute a third distinct period in the evolution of capitalism…. Goldmann links the dominant characteristics of this third period with the tendency of literature to subordinate the human to a quasi-autonomous world of objects which functions like a mechanism (Robbe-Grillet is analyzed as an extreme expression of that tendency), and of philosophy and the human sciences to place in question the concept of the active subject by treating the human as an objectified structuration which functions according to laws of permutation (as in the various formalistic structuralisms). In the realm of art, the nouveau roman, and in philosophy, structuralism, are expressions of a worldview corresponding to the central defining characteristics of the most recent form of capitalism.

Thus, in his analyses of modern worldviews—the existentialist and the structuralist—Goldmann no longer identifies the worldview with a particular social class, but rather with the nature of the socio-economic totality of the period.

Goldmann's work—the richness and rigor of which we have tried to explore here—is of course not without problems or weaknesses…. Is not, for instance, the concept of the tendency to equilibrium of the human subject, a non-historical concept drawn from the vocabulary of individual psychology and therefore inadequate in the study of collective historical phenomena? And is Goldmann's account of the relationship between consciousness and reality, between culture and the social totality, an entirely satisfactory one? Does his postulation of a structural link (most often homologous), between a work and either a social class or the socio-economic reality directly, exhaust the possible permutations and mediations of the relationship? Moreover, does his theory really enable us to explain that crucial modern phenomenon: the development of a critical, anti-bourgeois consciousness in the very mainstream of bourgeois culture? (pp. 145-46)

But even if some of his solutions are open to question, or are mere beginnings, Goldmann has confronted the basic issues relevant to the development of a Marxist theory of culture. As a Marxist both true to the dialectical tradition and inquisitively questioning the present, Goldmann was and is part of the historical project that is our own. (p. 146)

Robert Sayre, "Lucien Goldmann and the Sociology of Culture," in Praxis (copyright © 1976 by Praxis), Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1976, pp. 130-47.


Alan Swingewood


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