Brussels: Editions Aden, 2011, 556pp.; ISBN: 978-2930402949
The following defects habitually characterise dictionaries that concentrate on one single author. When you are not familiar with an author's work, such dictionaries often do not facilitate access to an understanding of the work. This is mainly due to their fragmentary nature: students and beginners are presented with a mass of information that lacks any internal logic. Specialists, on the other hand, find little or nothing that they do not already know, because there is seldom enough space to develop the content of the entries properly. It was therefore with a certain apprehension that I opened the Dictionnaire Proudhon. My uneasiness at the thought of consulting this work was further accentuated by the number of people that have contributed to it (nineteen). This, I feared, would do nothing if not highlight the book's disparate nature. I am glad to say that my fears were unfounded.
The editors rightly remark that some people will object to the seemingly paradoxical idea of imposing any type of structure (be it simply alphabetical) onto Proudhon's writings. After all, this was someone who fought sternly all assumptions that he had built something that could be qualified as a systematic theory. But Gaillard and Navet are just as correct to remind us that early in his life Proudhon had set himself an objective, the realisation of which he sought throughout his career. This objective was to 'be done with a society built on inequality and which is degrading for the majority of its members - notably those who belong to the "working classes"' (p.5). In other words, Proudhon was hoping to bring about a more just society.
Most of the dictionary's forty-six articles are approximately ten pages long. Lengthier articles (e.g. '?conomie politique; Federalisme; Propriete') discuss concepts that are most central in Proudhon's writings. Every notion in the dictionary fulfils the following two criteria: (1) the notions were used by Proudhon himself, and (2) each notion is of singular importance for a thorough understanding of what may inappropriately be labelled as Proudhon's 'doctrine'.
Discussions concerning authority, the state, socialism and economy are supplemented by other, more philosophical topics. It was toward the end of his life that Proudhon was drawn to problems concerning morals and morality ('Morale', p.334). In the early 1850s he defended what has been qualified as a 'transcending conception of morality' - i.e. morals are imposed upon the individual, mainly by society. Ideas concerning morality do not exist a priori in the individual, and cannot be derived from human nature (ibid., p.335). These conclusions, however, did not satisfy Proudhon; how can we conceive of free will, if the individual, in matters of morality, must conform to the will of the society? (ibid., p.338) Proudhon's whole 'system' - where liberty occupies a prominent place - was thus imperilled, and he was compelled to revise his thoughts. The result of this transformation is observable in his De la justice dans la revolution et dans l'Eglise from 1860. In this work Proudhon writes that ideas of justice and moral law are to be found in the depths of human conscience, and cannot be forced upon the individual (ibid., p.340). Touching upon another characteristically philosophical topic, one learns many noteworthy things concerning the influence of German idealism (especially Kant, Fichte and Hegel) on Proudhon's writings ('Dialectique (Serie)', 'Antinomie' and 'Raison').
Reading this dictionary we learn just as much about the man as we do about the concepts that he used. The articles are not only informative, containing numerous references to Proudhon's works and his personal correspondence, they are well written, making the whole book very enjoyable to read. Revision of the articles has helped eliminate repetitive passages and imposes a relaxed overall structure that helps us to better conceive of the work as a whole, while at the same time allowing for diverse interpretations. The editors remark that the list of concepts that the dictionary covers is not exhaustive; they can nevertheless congratulate themselves for having included all the indispensable notions. It is not often that one comes across a book that is not only a solid reference guide, but also a well-written and accessible introduction (and quite a bit more!) to the different aspects of the writings of a major nineteenth-century political thinker.
University of Helsinki