Between Discourse and Experience: Agency and Ideas in the French Pre-Revolution

Experience has recently reemerged as an important analytical category for historians of the Old Regime and the French Revolution. Reacting against the perceived excesses of discourse analysis, which made political language independent of any social determinants, certain post-revisionists are now seeking to contextualize political language by relating it to the experience of those who use it. Political agency, in these analyses, is understood to be the effect of particular formative experiences. This article suggests that the search for an experiential antidote to discourse is misconceived because it perpetuates an untenable dichotomy between thought and reality. Access to the phenomenon of historical agency should be pursued not through experience or discourse but through the category of consciousness, since the make-up of the subject's consciousness determines how he/she engages the world and decides to attempt changing it. After a brief discussion of an important study that exemplifies both the allure and the functionality of the notion of experience, Timothy Tackett's Becoming a Revolutionary, the article focuses on the evolving political consciousness of a man who became a revolutionary agitator in 1789, J.-M.-A. Servan. Analysis of his writings between 1770 and 1789 shows that the way in which his perspective was constructed, rather than the lessons of experience per se, determined the shape of his revolutionary intentions in 1789.
ISBN: 
ISSN: 
00182656

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