The Social as Heaven and Hell: Pierre Bourdieu's Philosophical Anthropology

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Abstract

Many authors have argued that all studies of socially specific modalities of human action and experience depend on some form of “philosophical anthropology”, i.e. on a set of general assumptions about what human beings are like, assumptions without which the very diagnoses of the cultural and historical variability of concrete agents' practices would become impossible. Bourdieu was sensitive to that argument and, especially in the later phase of his career, attempted to make explicit how his historical-sociological investigations presupposed and, at the same time, contributed to the elaboration of an “idea of the human being”. The article reconstructs Bourdieu's philosophical anthropology, starting with his genetic sociology of symbolic power, conceived as a form of critical theory (latu sensu), and concluding with an account of the conditio humana in which recognition (“symbolic capital”) appears as both the fundamental existential goal through which human agents strive to confer meaning on their lives and the source of the endless symbolic competition that keeps society moving. The agonistic vision of the social universe that grounds his sociological studies returns in his philosophical anthropology under the guise of a singular synthesis between Durkheim's thesis that “Society is God” and Sartre's idea that “hell is other people”.

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