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The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea

The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea

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The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea

777 pages
10 hours
Jul 26, 2017


For more than 250 years, Charles de Brosses’s term “fetishism” has exerted great influence over our most ambitious thinkers. Used as an alternative to “magic,” but nonetheless expressing the material force of magical thought, de Brosses’s term has proved indispensable to thinkers as diverse as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Derrida. With this book, Daniel H. Leonard offers the first fully annotated English translation of the text that started it all, On the Worship of Fetish Gods, and Rosalind C. Morris offers incisive commentary that helps modern readers better understand it and its legacy. 
The product of de Brosses’s autodidactic curiosity and idiosyncratic theories of language, On the Worship of Fetish Gods is an enigmatic text that is often difficult for contemporary audiences to assess. In a thorough introduction to the text, Leonard situates de Brosses’s work within the cultural and intellectual milieu of its time. Then, Morris traces the concept of fetishism through its extraordinary permutations as it was picked up and transformed by the fields of philosophy, comparative religion, political economy, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. Ultimately, she breaks new ground, moving into and beyond recent studies by thinkers such as William Pietz, Hartmut Böhme, and Alfonso Iacono through illuminating new discussions on topics ranging from translation issues to Africanity and the new materialisms. 
Jul 26, 2017

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The Returns of Fetishism - Charles de Brosses



Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea


With a new translation of On the Worship of Fetish Gods



The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2017 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

Published 2017

Printed in the United States of America

26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-46461-9 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-46475-6 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-46489-3 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226464893.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Morris, Rosalind C., author. | Leonard, Daniel H., author, translator. |Brosses, Charles de, 1709–1777. Du culte des dieux fétiches. English. 2017.

Title: The returns of fetishism : Charles de Brosses and the afterlives of an idea / Rosalind C. Morris and Daniel H. Leonard ; with a new translation of On the worship of fetish gods.

Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017006875 | ISBN 9780226464619 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226464756 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226464893 (e-book)

Subjects: LCSH: Fetishism—History. | Fetishes (Ceremonial objects)

Classification: LCC GN472 .M677 2017 | DDC 202/.109—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017006875

This paper meets the requirements of ansi/niso z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).


Fetishism (Supposing That It Existed): A Preface to the Translation of Charles de Brosses’s Transgression


Introduction: Fetishism, Figurism, and Myths of Enlightenment


A Note on the Translation


On the Worship of Fetish Gods; Or, A Parallel of the Ancient Religion of Egypt with the Present Religion of Nigritia




After de Brosses: Fetishism, Translation, Comparativism, Critique


A Fetiche Is a Fetiche: No Knowledge without Difference

Of the Word: Rereading de Brosses

Excursus: Recontextualizing de Brosses, with Pietz in and out of Africa

Re: Kant and the Good Fetishists among Us

Hegel: Back to the Heart of Darkness

Fetishism against Itself; or, Marx’s Two Fetishisms

The Great Fetish; or, The Fetishism of the One

Freud and the Return to the Dark Continent: The Other Fetish

Conjuncture: Freud and Marx, via Lacan

Anthropology’s Fetishism: The Custodianship of Reality

Fetishism Reanimated: Surrealism, Ethnography, and the War against Decay

Deconstruction’s Fetish: Undecidable, or the Mark of Hegel

Rehistoricizing Generalized Fetishism: The Era of Objects

Anthropological Redux: The Reality of Fetishism

The Fetish Is Dead, Long Live Fetishism





Fetishism (Supposing That It Existed):

A Preface to the Translation of Charles de Brosses’s Transgression


For more than 250 years, Charles de Brosses’s term fetishism has functioned as the name of a concept for that which fails to conceptualize, a logic that encompasses illogic, a gesture that repeats without reproducing, and a substitute made in the absence of equivalence. An alternative to magic that nonetheless expresses the material force of magical thought, de Brosses’s term proved indispensable to thinkers as diverse as Kant, Hegel and Marx, Freud and Lacan, Baudrillard and Derrida. These writers were constrained and enabled by each other, but also by scholars of the nineteenth century’s emergent disciplines: comparative religion, history, art history, archaeology, and anthropology. In turn, and often in retrospect, they gave to those changing disciplines new questions and new provocations. Joined in their repeated reformulations of de Brosses’s concept by scholars in newer fields, including feminism and media studies, they ensured that fetishism would become an idiom for problematizing representation and representationalism in all its forms.

Despite their profound differences and their various avowals and disavowals of the word, nearly all the commentators on fetishism have been subject to the etymological delirium that possessed de Brosses himself. Most have recited or assumed his idiosyncratic paleonymy of the word, finding its origin in the discourse of Portuguese merchants plying the Gold Coast in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—an encounter now richly documented and theorized by William Pietz. But Portuguese sailors spoke of fetishes, not fetishism. The movement between the lists or litanies of sacralized objects and the postulation of a categorical unity and a conceptual coherence that could be represented in the singular, wherein fetishism designates "the logic of the fetish," can be dated to the publication of Du culte des dieux fétiches, by Charles de Brosses. De Brosses had deployed the term earlier, in his 1756 Histoire des navigations aux terres australes, and made passing reference elsewhere, but it was in the Culte that this term received its first full elaboration. It was his singular achievement to have elevated the term to the level of a concept, albeit one designating a failure of conceptuality. This achievement was, of course, not without its enormous costs. For the concept was sutured into an Enlightenment project for which it functioned as the signifier of a constitutive alterity. That alterity was tethered to notions of Africanity, for Africa was the doubled scene of Reason’s birth in Enlightenment discourse: the site from which it emerged as departure but also the place to which its return was fearfully anticipated.

The history of de Brosses’s concept as it was picked up, rethought, deployed, and transformed across the fields of philosophy, comparative religion, political economy, psychoanalysis, and anthropology forms the subject matter of the concluding essay in this book. The other, and indeed primary, task of this publication is to provide English readers with a complete translation of the original work, in an idiom that is faithful to the original but with notes that make it accessible to the contemporary reader. It is remarkable that there has been no prior translation of this sort. Daniel H. Leonard’s introductory essay not only gives contemporary readers access to the strategies that informed his translation, but it provides an intellectual and historical context within which to read this enigmatic text, which was the product of de Brosses’s autodidactic curiosity and his idiosyncratic theories of language, as well as the prevailing thought of his time and milieu.

Given the intransigence of de Brosses’s own prejudices and the now risible status of much of the pseudoanthropology that informed his writings, the decision to produce this translation and commentary at this time calls for explanation. For despite its perdurance in the archive of critical philosophy and the human sciences, fetishism as a term and a designation has frequently also been repudiated. Indeed, its history appears in retrospect to be one of relentless vacillation between dominant metaphor and disavowed designator, between valorized and vilified referent. Nor is this vacillation merely a matter of historical sequence. The term’s falling status in one discipline was often simultaneous with its elevation in another. Such was the case at the turn of the twentieth century. Precisely when psychoanalysis and Marxist cultural criticism embraced it for the critique of bourgeois norms in Western societies, anthropologists began to dispute the existence of the term’s referent or sought to contain its use within a narrow frame of African religions.

Thus, for example, Marcel Mauss scoffed at his contemporaries’ efforts to render prayer and fetishism as evidence of religion by reading them as outward expressions of an otherwise internal consciousness of God. He took particular umbrage at his colleagues’ failure to recognize that religious rites are confined to those in which the objects being acted upon have a sacred status, having already been marked off from profane existence. It was, thus, the socially produced and collectively recognized attribute of sacrality, and not God, that constituted the essence and the object of religion to Mauss. The failure to appreciate this fundamental fact, he insisted, was the result of projecting a liberal Protestant conception of religion and prayer onto the diverse phenomena of a culturally heterogeneous world, in relation to which such a perspective was not only foreign but also irrelevant.¹ He was similarly dismissive of the etymologies adduced in the arguments about fetishism’s status as either origin or decadent endpoint in the history of a universal religion.

Mauss’s criticisms were made in the name of empiricism. Accusing his contemporaries of methodological sleights-of-hand, he read the etymologies as forms of mere speculation on the origins of prayer and fetishism (supposing that it existed) and limited their possible applicability to the early histories of the Mosaic tradition and Christianity.²

Fetishism (supposing it existed). This aside attaches itself to no other ritual practice in Mauss’s text. And one is tempted to read it as the distilling and condensation of the entire history of fetishism’s discourses. In this brief phrase, there is a positing, a negation that nonetheless sustains the term’s possible functionality, and an enclosure in doubt. The parenthesis performs the negation with a smug economy of gesture. And this economy is possible only because Mauss assumes that his readers have already come to a tacit agreement on the fallacy and irrelevance of the concept. For Mauss, writing in 1897, fetishism had become a chimera. Not because fetishism itself (supposing it existed), rested on a belief in nonexistent powers, or because it misrecognized the nature of divinity, or even because it entailed a failure of reason or an incapacity to recognize the proper site of value, as many of his predecessors had insisted when speaking of the ritual practices of the Gold Coast and especially what was later called Equatorial Guinea. Rather, it was chimerical because, as an analytic category, it had no existence.³ By implication, then, it is de Brosses who becomes the grand fetishist, his unifying ambitions being little more than a kind of categorical wish fulfillment.

Now, for Mauss to imply that fetishism lacks existence is not a simple matter, and his assertion to that effect, an assertion that is admittedly mainly implicit in his writings on prayer, cannot be reduced to a mere lack of referent in the world. Religion itself is nonexistent by his account: An institution is not an indivisible unity, distinct from the facts that manifest it: it is merely their system. There is no such thing as ‘religion,’ only particular religions.⁴ The concept is not the phenomenon, for Mauss. In this effort at epistemological rigor, he maintains his fidelity to the Kantian legacy that came to inform his conception of magic in General Theory of Magic. Yet, in On Prayer, the nonexistence of fetishism appears to be something more purely negative than the nonexistence of religion, more than a concept that needs to be differentiated from the multiplicity of phenomena for which it would provide the systematizing category. It is quite simply a meaningless term, an overinvested and indeed useless fabrication of the would-be historian of religions. A fetish, one might say.

By the time he wrote his thesis on prayer, Mauss had joined many other writers who believed that the concept of fetishism, which had proved so fertile for other protoanthropologists, philosophers, and scholars of religion, as well as political and economic theorists, and the emerging arts of surrealism, had lost its utility and become a mere husk in which to wrap one or another prejudice. I will discuss this reversal of anthropological thought in the concluding essay. For now, we can note that only a few years earlier, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) had sent colonial civil servants and missionaries, as well as the first generation of anthropologists, instructions on what questions to ask about the possibly fetishistic practices of those they might encounter in remote lands. As late as 1892, when the second edition of the association’s handbook, Notes and Queries on Anthropology, was published, the term had gone without question and indeed constituted part of a heading in the Ethnography section of the book: Religion, Fetishes, etc. There, as part of his survey of cultural practices, the keen if not-yet-professional observer was advised to ask himself or his informants whether spirits or deities enter into or attach themselves to objects, such as sticks, bones, ornaments.⁵ By 1899, Notes and Queries had been revised so as to eliminate the term fetishism altogether. Mauss, we note, had carried the trace of what was to him a defunct concept forward in the form of a parenthetical aside that worked to sublate the concept. By contrast, the new Notes and Queries attempted to banish the term completely. But its purgative ambition was undermined by the popular fantasies of fetishism in the lives of non-Western peoples that then circulated in the discourses of amateur anthropologists and would-be theosophists.

Thus, a fifth edition restituted the term to explain its nongeneralizability and the BAAS’s disapproval of its use, except in reference to West African religious practice: "The term Fetichism has been used in so many different and contradictory senses that its use should be avoided. [ . . . ] It should be used, if at all, in its historic sense, to describe the West African fetiche. This is a carved human effigy or other object which is prayed to or sacrificed to only when it is supposed to be the temporary residence of some spirit or god, whereas otherwise, no regard is paid to it."

One might say that the return of the concept of fetishism, in the 1929 edition of Notes and Queries, was in the mode of the repressed, but as such, its resurfacing was permitted only in order that the term be disavowed, or at least contained.⁷ That this structure—of repression and return, or disavowal—should describe both the treatment of the term fetishism and the architectural principle said by psychoanalytic theorists to inform the (natural) pathology called fetishism, should give us pause, and in the essay that concludes this volume, I will have more to say about that strange affinity or, indeed, fold in the relationship between object and analysis in the discourses of fetishism. Here, I want only to note a tendency internal to so much of the discourses of fetishism: the desire to restrain what is perceived to be a promiscuity of signification generated by the enthusiastic generalization of the term by its users. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate how recurrent has been the attempt to delimit fetishism to a proper referent in the history of anthropological thought. Legion are the efforts to rein in writers’ tendencies to use the term metaphorically, analogically, symbolically. But the proprietary drive to contain the significatory fecundity of the term runs alongside another, even more prevalent, tendency: to use the concept of fetishism in critical projects whose object is modern capitalist society and the perversions it generates—without any reference to its putatively original referent in premodern or early colonial African societies of the so-called Gold Coast. Propriety and promiscuity—these two desires are the Scylla and Charybdis of the history of fetishism’s discourses.

In a related way, this tension can be seen operating in the aesthetic and political debates internal to surrealism, debates that led to the split between that artistic movement and formal anthropology, on one hand, and between surrealism and other kinds of modernist abstractionism inspired by primitivism, on the other. The surrealists surrounding André Breton combined a reverence for fetish objects, particularly from Oceania, with a fierce antireligiosity (an anticlericalism as virulent as anything Kant advocated). Conflating theism with religion, they valorized fetishes, though not fetishism, on the assumption that those objects had been desacralized in the course of colonialism or, and in apparent contradiction, because they exhibited a deeply antideistic relationship to sacrality that preceded coloniality and thus the effects of Christianity and clericalism in particular.⁸ To the extent that they were fabrications without religious signification, even if not yet fully assimilable to the category of art, fetishes could be embraced (by Breton’s fraternity) for their scientific merit and evidentiary function. The emerging dissident school of thought led by Georges Bataille, by contrast, increasingly found in fetishism a mode of practice and being—at once subjective and objective—with which to counter both the idealism of Christian theology and the more naive Orientalism of the other French surrealists. No less primitivist, it also depended on a proprietary if not empiricist gesture based in an ethnography of fetishism as it really exists in Africa (in no small part thanks to Michel Leiris’s participation in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti).⁹ The future histories of fetishism for surrealism and of surrealism’s conception of objects for later aesthetic movements in Western art will be addressed repeatedly in the course of the final essay. Here, we only need to note that, even within a single, relatively small movement, fetishism was a term around which a wild vacillation occurred: it was an alibi for promiscuity and a call for purification; it was a singularity or a class of singularities and a general law of the unconscious; it was a concept and it was the threshold at which conceptuality dissolved; it was a figure for the denial of sexual difference and it was the medium of phallic hyperbolization.

It should be understood, then, that the translation of Charles de Brosses’s 1760 text Du culte des dieux fétiches and the essays that accompany it here are not intended to limit discussions of the concept to its original formulation or in any way to discipline the happy productivity of the term in fields far from its genesis in comparative religious study. We do not intend for this book to participate in that kind of historiographical fastidiousness or the moralism that might accompany it. But this demands an explanation of why Daniel Leonard and I are in fact bringing the original work into English at this time, when, once again, many scholars are advocating a restriction of the term’s use to the place of its origins, or its abandonment on the grounds of a burdensome history of misuse or an inescapable contamination by modernist binarisms, as Bruno Latour has recently argued in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Why indeed translate a book so suffused with Western ethnocentrism, so marred by ignorance and prejudice, so tethered to the histories of racism? Why risk reviving the ghosts of an epistemic violence whose victims, in Africa and elsewhere in the not-yet-decolonized and now-recolonizing world, are once again being mobilized to supply new forms of capitalism with its medium and material of expansion?

To be sure, some readers of Charles de Brosses not already familiar with the depths of prejudice common in the eighteenth century may be repelled by his book’s self-satisfied and condescending tone. De Brosses’s writing shares much with that of his contemporary philosophes, but it lacks the intellectual élan and rhetorical grace of Rousseau and Voltaire or Montesquieu, to say nothing of the philosophical rigor of Spinoza or Kant. As a result, its prejudices are painfully visible, far more so than those attired in the cloak of a more refined idiom. As Daniel Leonard explains in his introduction, de Brosses was an aspiring member of the intellectual elite of his moment, but his own work bore the marks of an outsider and an autodidact whose flashes of insight were often overwhelmed by contradiction and an indiscriminate reliance on second- and third-hand reportage from sources he could not verify. And they are rendered suspect by the bloated sense of importance that attaches to de Brosses’s dismissals of beliefs he deems primitive. It is perhaps not enough to say, with Walter Benjamin, that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism, and yet such a recognition seems an essential starting point for an exploration of de Brosses’s work.¹⁰ Not to be underestimated, however, are the truly perspicacious moments in his writing. Nor should we overlook its enabling critical audacity, what we might understand as the transgressive energy that results from his sometimes far-fetched speculations.

Despite these dubious qualities in the volume that he published in 1760, de Brosses bequeathed to us what may be one of the most powerful conceptual operators of comparativist critique to have been authored in the modern era of European thought. Within a few decades of de Brosses’s coinage of the neologism, it had become a necessary element in the philosophical anthropological imagination and an integral concept-metaphor in each of the three main domains of what might be roughly termed cultural criticism in the modern era: psychoanalysis, Marxian political economy, and critical anthropology. That this critical faculty was premised on the invocation of a surpassed primitivity requires recognition and analysis, and it will be taken up again in the concluding essay of this book. For now, it must suffice to say that, in our opinion, the critical innovation in Du culte des dieux fétiches makes the book worth wading through, even as it demands that we take account of its Eurocentrism. My purpose in this preface is merely to explain the provenance and the purpose of this belated translation.

I emphasize the belatedness of the translation. For centuries, de Brosses went untranslated into English because it was assumed that scholars would and did read the text in its original French. Thus, in the Anglophone world, de Brosses is mainly known secondhand, in forms that are sometimes as remote from his text as were the travelers’ accounts of African social life from the lived experience of people on that continent on which de Brosses himself relied. His name is often a mere alibi for etymological excursus, or for historical place-marking. Not all contemporary invocations are so disfiguring, of course. The incomparably rich and erudite series of essays by William Pietz, which have come to enjoy canonical status in the historical analysis of fetishism’s discourses, are exemplary scholarly accomplishments. The fact that students today are more likely to have read Pietz on de Brosses than de Brosses himself is partly attributable to their excellence, though an ignorance of the primary text (and indeed of the other primary texts adduced by Pietz) makes a serious engagement with Pietz’s claims almost impossible.

It would perhaps not matter so much that people are unfamiliar with de Brosses’s original book outside of the circle of French intellectual history, if it were not that the question of fetishism and of its definition does not go away. Its repeated resurrection and constant redeployment, even when followed by periods of proprietary disavowal, suggests that it continues to possess a force and a fecundity for analytic practice. As I hope to show in the concluding essay of this volume, this force is linked to the recurrent emergence of apparently new forms of critique. Prior to de Brosses’s interventions (and even in the early writings of Kant), discussions of the fetish, or, more properly, fetishes, were limited to lists and descriptions of individual fetish objects, between which distinctions and differences were discerned and posited. This nominal practice mirrored and, in important ways, reproduced the essence of the practice that was named fetishism by de Brosses, namely a failure of conceptual generalization, a stubborn adherence to materiality, a practice of substitution in the absence of equivalence, and an avowal of the efficacy of the fabricated object or the simulacrum—among other factors. After his postulation of the concept via the term fétichisme, fetishes could be treated as material realizations of a general and generalizable logic, that of the now singular fetish. In this manner, comparisons could become thematized and valorized but also abstracted and systematized as one or another kind of comparativism. Comparativism itself acquired a new object and a new purpose, becoming increasingly allied with a critical project that worked by recognizing within modern, rational contexts the systematic presence of those elements of magical thinking encoded in the term fetishism—albeit always in the shadow of a primitivism that demanded of historical and cultural others their performance of a constitutive Other function. That function can only be shorthanded here (but will be discussed at greater length in the concluding essay) as the parergonal alterity against which modernity constituted itself as self-same.

In the century separating the writings of the mature Marx and the poststructuralists (which latter term can, for now, be permitted to embrace thinkers as diverse as Baudrillard and Derrida), the radicalization of critique has often taken place in the contest between those who would deploy fetishism as the sign of Reason’s failure and on this basis a call for its elimination, and those who would avow fetishism in hyperbolized form as a counterpoint or subversion of Reason’s own violences and self-delusions. In the latter case, the recognition of fetishism within modernity demands fetishism as a form of both antifoundationalism and antiobjectivism. Psychoanalysis, as we shall see, partakes of this vacillation. It reads the phenomena so designated as pathological deviations from normative sexual and social relation, on one hand, and a universally present tendency of human beings, who, as subjects in language, must negotiate the fact of symbolization as the presentation of an absence and the displacement of presence within a scene of sexual difference. Insofar as the attribution of fetishistic perversion is distributed differentially, according to prevalent sexual and social norms, psychoanalytically inflected critique has been similarly suspended between the critique of pathologization and the avowal of fetishism as a truth of all psychic life.

Beyond or perhaps even before any such claims are made, however, it is hoped that this book will enable a fuller and more adequately contextualized understanding of the text from which arose the remarkably potent critical force that has been variously lodged—in the mode of a fetish, perhaps—in political economy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, art history, and cultural criticism more generally. That the critical force of fetishism’s discourses have never required that one suppose it existed is less a function of some great conjuring act on the part of misguided Protestants (pace Mauss) than it is a testament to the force of analytic language at the point where it performs something like the function assigned to the sublime by Immanuel Kant, whose discovery of de Brosses’s work came late in his life, when he was himself developing his theory of the aesthetic. Like the sublime, the concept of fetishism makes thinkable that which cannot be grasped from within the strictures of Reason.

Today, moreover, an added urgency attends the rehistoricization of the concept and the translation of its foundational text. This emerges from within the broad set of critical and philosophical movements knotted together under the rubric of the new materialisms and encompassing a variety of immanentist, nondialectical, or antidialectical thought. From speculative realism to object-oriented ontology, from posthumanist ecocriticism of the anthropocene to Amerindian perspectivalism, these movements converge in their rejection of Kant’s epistemological turn: of the subjectivism and, therefore, the objectivism presumed to inhere in it. Motivated in part by an anxiety about the consequences of treating the natural world as an entity entirely subject to human will, and by the desire to find alternative means to co-inhabit a planet whose fragility asserts itself in the looming catastrophes of climatic incalescence, these movements now avow much that was once rejected under the rubric of fetishism. Thus, we are inveigled to imagine vibrant matter (the term is Jane Bennett’s), to abandon the human for a disseminated agency, to dislocate subject-object distinctions and replace them with assemblages of actor networks (via Bruno Latour), and to attend to the shimmering, tremulous movement of energetic motion beneath the illusory surface of things (as, for example, in the writing of Michel Serres). Anthropologists led by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola summon Amazonian examples of a cosmology that subordinates humans to an inspirited world to which they remain subject and indebted. And they chide their modern readers to find in that mode of being not only a metaphor but the remedy for what ails us, having forgotten Wordsworth’s own chiding words about a world too much with us.

If every rupture is also a repetition, and every repetition a difference, as Jacques Derrida has taught us, we might want to survey and consider these self-proclaimed revolutions (whose strident assertions of overcoming Kant is their most consistent refrain) in terms of what they repeat by inverting and legitimating by reversal. To do so, and to thereby grasp what is at stake and on offer in these diverse and also often diverging projects, requires that we know what we would displace, and perhaps, too, what we would revive. It is for this reason that Charles de Brosses’s text, at once central and occluded in the history of fetishism’s discourses, should be read again, or, perhaps as likely, for the first time.


Fetishism, Figurism, and Myths of Enlightenment


Of a stature below the mediocre, and of a weak and delicate temperament, he found the advantages of the most robust physique in a masculine and meticulous education. [ . . . ]¹ To elevate ourselves to the height of his ideas, we must, with the aid of erudition, borrow the wings of his genius. [ . . . ] Under a quite modest title, this work in fact disguises the most difficult work, and the most brave. [ . . . ] All the while appearing to treat only the material of language, the author has deployed all of the faculties of a most subtle mind, climbing back along the thorniest and least frequented paths to the veritable origin of the sciences, as well as to the fecund source of our errors, skillfully seizing the imperceptible thread of our ideas, and with an expert hand, tracing for all people the uniform march of the human spirit.²

The occasion for this rhetorical exaltation of Charles de Brosses (1709–1777) was the republication of his most audacious and celebrated philosophical work, Traité de la formation méchanique des langues et des principes physiques de l’étymologie (Treatise on the Mechanical Formation of Languages and the Physical Principles of Etymology; 1765), in year nine of the French Republic (1801). Much had changed over the thirty-six years since its original publication—the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, a constitutional republic, pan-European war, and the Concordat in 1801 between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. The ideals of an enlightened secular age seemed to have ended in dismal failure. For de Brosses’s posthumous defender, it was time to look back upon the previous century and rescue some of the lesser heroes of the Enlightenment from neglect: At the sight of one of the most beautiful monuments of thought, ready to fall into oblivion, he laments, it seemed to us that we heard the reproaches of posterity, accusing this century of enlightenment of barbarism. Tracing the uniform march of the human spirit into the abyss of renewed barbarism, Horkheimer and Adorno later amplified this prognosis with dark irony, remarking, The wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.³

Tellingly, de Brosses’s early-nineteenth-century editor feared that the philosophe’s writings would disappear beneath a mass of useless pamphlets, along with a deluge of so-called philosophical novels: trivial and bizarre works pandering to the depraved and frivolous [ . . . ] taste of the multitude." The very instruments of the Enlightenment—widely distributed pamphlets, philosophies, and novels—now threatened to bury its achievements without a trace.⁴ This twist in the dialectic of enlightenment, the decadent regression to irrational barbarism in an age dedicated to its systematic eradication, suggests not only that the gains of the Enlightenment were tenuous, but also that it might paradoxically resurrect the very forces it fought against. Indeed, this same perspicuous editor emphasizes that a return to origins—whether those of the sciences, of religion, or of language—also simultaneously involves going back to the fecund source of our errors. As we shall see, de Brosses’s account of the origin of religion in Du culte des dieux fétiches (On the Worship of Fetish Gods; 1760) skates along the fine line separating enlightened truth from not only error, but also barbarism—in both its most savage and its civilized forms.

Enlightened civility does not preclude malicious cruelty. The biographical commonplace of stressing the startling contrast between de Brosses’s small physical stature and his towering ambitions was already well established in the eighteenth century, most notoriously when Voltaire dubbed him the little fetish and unleashed the full force of his satirical venom on the Burgundian philosophe after a minor property dispute.⁵ De Brosses’s quarrel with Voltaire ultimately cost him his lifelong ambition to join the ranks of the immortels of the Académie Française. Even Diderot, despite his friendship and respect, confessed that he could not suppress a smile at the sight of the Président’s comical appearance, so little suited to the parliamentary bench. Still today, de Brosses is most often viewed more as a minor figure among the philosophes; precious little scholarly work has been devoted to his writings, and despite his invention of the concept of fetishism, he receives only brief mention (if at all) in many works on the history of anthropology.⁶ In any event, de Brosses’s modest height seems to have elicited a special insistence on metaphors of ascent and altitude in singing his praises: like his nineteenth-century defender, de Brosses’s childhood friend Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the natural historian, lauded his avid desire for every genre of knowledge, however elevated, however obscure and his superiority of mind, which brought him to the highest point. [ . . . ] He conquered all its summits, and his vision stretched out from the very heights all the way down to the smallest details.⁷ Although we can only speculate upon de Brosses’s place in the history of the compensatory complex identified with the future emperor, modern readers of On the Worship of Fetish Gods will no doubt be struck by the belittling tone he adopts in discussing the senseless, bizarre, and ridiculous beliefs of stupid and savage people, who spend their life in a perpetual childhood.

Yet, equally striking is his tenacious zeal to rescue these same beliefs from intellectual idealization and metaphysical mystification. Although de Brosses laments that the insane Doctrine of fetishism belongs to the type of things that are so absurd that one could say that they do not even provide any purchase to the reasoning that would combat them, he also argues that it can and must be understood (101). Countering both orthodox accounts and theories of natural religion, de Brosses insists that all religion began with the direct worship of material things—it arose neither from divine revelation nor from a rational contemplation of the order of nature. He adopts a psychological method, arguing that only reconstructing primitive modes of thought and feeling can explain the origins of the first religious beliefs and practices.

De Brosses’s insistence that fetish worship resists reasonable explanation emphasizes that it is a spontaneous product of the mechanism of the savage mind, driven by passions and the imagination: We are not obliged to give a reason for a thing where there is none; and it would, I think, be rather useless to search for one other than the fear and madness to which the human mind is susceptible, as well as the ease with which, in such dispositions, it gives birth to superstitions of all sorts (101). Nothing is more natural than this incessant production of soothing superstitions in the face of uncertainty and chaos. Nothing, for an enlightened mind, is more important than understanding the true origins of irrational beliefs, to guard against their inevitable recurrence.

In his investigation of fetishism, de Brosses discovers that the prodigious explanatory delirium of human thought is not limited to primitive dispositions of mind. Certainly, like other Enlightenment critics of religion who appealed to psychological explanations, he suggests (albeit covertly) that even as religion becomes more reasonable in progressing from fetishism to polytheism and monotheism, it retains vestiges of the fear and madness from which it emerged. But de Brosses’s approach is more original than that of many of his contemporaries: instead of focusing primarily on how religion encourages unreasonable superstitions and prejudices, he emphasizes how it colludes with, and is ultimately co-opted by, deceptive and self-serving myths declaring the triumph of spiritual truth and reason. Mythology and philosophy develop as mystifications that justify, idealize, or repress the history of fetish worship in the name of progress. This calculating historical revisionism, which de Brosses calls figurism, is just as challenging an obstacle as the apparently intractable irrationality of fetishism. Thus, alongside his own neologism, fetishism, de Brosses develops the concept of figurism, which explains how more enlightened cultures created myths to cover up the true, but shameful, origins of religion in the worship of mere things. Whereas fetishism is a direct worship, rendered without figuration to animal and vegetable productions, figurism translates it into a system of emblems or allegories (100). Figurism is already present in the fabrication of priestly mysteries and mythological fables, which transform fetishes into more exalted entities to disguise their true nature, but it truly comes into its own in later theological and philosophical attempts to elevate mere belief to the level of metaphysical Truth. The contrast between the material and affective immediacy of fetishism and the devious mediations of figurism forms the crux of de Brosses’s investigation of how the most elaborate systems of beliefs arise from primal hopes and fears.

De Brosses’s critical project is grounded in a mechanistic conception of the mind and language that posits fetishism and figurism as two interdependent forms of psychic automatism. Whereas fetish worship is the symptom of a primitive subjection to matter, he argues, figurism is a machination of reason: it compulsively invents allegories of spiritual progress that disavow the material origins of belief. Myth and figurism are so insidious because they are mechanisms of the civilizing mind, driven not only by the progress of ideas, but also by ideology: they are canny strategies of historical revision that—often unwittingly—serve the calculated aims of power and cultural domination.

De Brosses’s project in On the Worship of Fetish Gods is therefore of interest not only because of his influential development of fetishism as a theoretical concept, but also because he shows how modern, enlightened interpretations of both ancient practices and primitive beliefs risk falling back into the very form of mythic thinking they seek to escape. In addition to supplying such thinkers as Comte, Hegel, Marx, and Freud with a useful and suggestive way of thinking about the practice of endowing material things with spiritual (or erotic) force, de Brosses contributed to the Enlightenment’s critique of excessive faith in rational progress. Although fetishism may have been regarded by modern thinkers as an unfortunate but telling residue of magical thinking, for him, the worship of ideas represents perhaps an even greater threat. Along with other skeptical critics of abstract systems, de Brosses argues that when ideas themselves take on a godlike power and their own independent existence, they spawn their own myths and bring into being new forms of obscurantism and error.¹⁰

Apart from suggesting why de Brosses’s curious and often capricious work is still of interest today, my intention in this introduction is to acquaint readers with some of the issues at stake in the particular historical moment and intellectual landscape to which he belongs. Some of these problems, such as de Brosses’s persistent denunciation of figurism, his natural historical method and obsession with etymology, and his appeal to a primitive mechanism of mind to explain fetishism, might appear maddeningly obscure or pathetically misguided to readers unfamiliar with certain peculiarities of eighteenth-century French thought. My hope is that some contextual explanation might diminish these potential obstacles, granting readers from a variety of disciplines access to an invaluable document and a rather remarkably rich text. Thus, this introduction serves in its own right as a sort of translation, in that it aims to open up the original and render it in a more accessible idiom for the purposes of continued critical reflection.

Charles de Brosses, between Dijon and Paris

Charles de Brosses was an odd mixture of conservative and radical tendencies: a provincial classicist dedicated to restoring the lost glories of antiquity through painstaking erudition, who nonetheless took a keen interest in new ideas and discoveries.¹¹ Born into an old aristocratic family, he received a classical education at a Jesuit college and pursued a career in politics, rising among the elite of Dijon to be elected president of the Burgundy parlement in 1741. In this capacity he became involved in challenges to expanding royal authority and was forced into exile several times. But he also made his mark as a gentleman scholar, participating in the distinct and proudly provincial intellectual culture of Dijon, which, because of its distance from Paris and proximity to Italy, tended to favor philological and historical humanism. His taste for classical authors and obscure etymologies, and his interest in recent archaeological discoveries, are all amply evident in On the Worship of Fetish Gods.

Much of de Brosses’s subsequent scholarly career was marked by a series of voyages to Italy in 1739–40. As a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, he published reports on the excavations at Herculaneum and Vesuvius in 1750. While in Italy, he also collected many fragments of the writings of the Roman historian Sallust (85–35 BCE) in preparation for his life’s work, a scholarly reconstruction of the history of the Roman Republic, still incomplete when published shortly before his death in 1777. Finally, these travels inspired his Lettres familières écrites d’Italie en 1739 et 1740 (Letters on Italy), which remained his most popular and influential work throughout the nineteenth century over numerous reprints; it was admired by Madame de Staël, Stendhal, Chateaubriand, and Pushkin, among others.

However, alongside these antiquarian and belletristic excursions, de Brosses also participated in the new philosophical milieu centered in Paris. He corresponded with Diderot, Voltaire, and Hume, met many of the key thinkers of the time, contributed to the Encylopédie, and maintained a lifelong friendship with his schoolmate Buffon, author of the vast and influential Histoire naturelle (Natural History). Some of the key concerns of the philosophes are reflected in On the Worship of Fetish Gods. He adopts the empirical, natural historical method championed by Diderot and Buffon, disdaining metaphysical abstractions and reductive systems. In tracing the origins of human institutions, he insists that reconstructing humanity’s emergence from a state of nature holds the key to understanding humans’ nature and development. Forming his idiosyncratic conception of the mechanisms of mind and language, he privileges the Lockean way of ideas—they develop through the accumulation, combination, and comparison of sense impressions. Finally, influenced by materialist tendencies, he investigates how concrete circumstances, the limits of technology, and bodily capacities condition human nature and thought.¹²

De Brosses’s embrace of these trends marks his works on geography, ethnology, and the origins of language and religion. On the Worship of Fetish Gods can be seen as one of a triptych of texts, each of which sets out to explore and master, in compendious detail, the natural history of humanity. From his compilation of European voyages to the southern hemisphere in the Histoire des navigations aux terres australes (History of Navigations to Southern Lands; 1756) to his work on fetishism (1760), to the Treatise on the Mechanical Formation of Languages (1765), de Brosses collects and compares evidence drawn from a great variety of ancient and modern sources.¹³ Whereas the History of Navigations explores human diversity geographically, advocating for a French global presence based on systematic exploration—to establish an empire of knowledge—the Treatise on the Mechanical Formation of Languages intervenes in current debates on the origin of language and its role in the development of ideas and institutions. The work on fetishism does the same for religion, but it encompasses a broader archive of sources because of its emphasis on the parallel between contemporary and ancient fetish worship.¹⁴

De Brosses was inspired to undertake his ethnological writings after hearing a presentation in 1753 on the travels of Pierre Louis Maupertuis, who traveled to Lapland to determine the shape of the earth. The textual collage of the History of Navigations testifies to de Brosses’s fascination with extreme distances in both space and time and his compulsion to accumulate evidence of the diversity of human customs. This encyclopedic wealth of information is meant to provide raw material for future investigations. Although he is generally reluctant to impose even the most tentative principles of order in the History of Navigations, toward the end of the work he does venture a few comparisons, key terms, and parallels. Most significantly, he first coins the term fetishism as a comparative concept.

Borrowing the term fétiche from European accounts of African rites, de Brosses applies it to both the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific and the ancients: "They worship round stones, tree trunks and various other species of fetishes, like the African negroes; but they have this in common with the most ancient peoples of the earth: The worship of Baetyli [ . . . ] is a species of fetishism, similar to that of modern savages."¹⁵ Such parallels are made possible by the presupposition that all of humanity shares a universal history, whose earlier phases can be observed in both ancient times and among present-day savages. Citing Bacon and praising Maupertuis, de Brosses thus advocates the exploration of the southern hemisphere as an experimental investigation of human nature, capable of elucidating our own beginnings. Although these lands may seem as strange as another planet, they offer the rare opportunity for modern Europeans to see themselves as they once were: after all, before the Phoenicians, the savages of Europe were hardly less brutish than the Australians.¹⁶ The practice of stone worship reveals the extent of this common brutishness, and it develops into one of de Brosses’s paradigm cases of fetishist mentality: the stranger and more devoid of symbolism such worship is, the higher its value as experimental evidence.

The proto-anthropological work of de Brosses and other philosophes assumed that such limit cases, which provocatively challenged the reigning conceptions of what it meant to be human, were invaluable in the writing of a modern, critical natural history of humanity. Indeed, de Brosses participated in a larger movement in France during the late 1740s and early 1750s, which attempted to apply the methods of the new sciences and philosophy to the study of human nature. Some of the most important works in this vein were Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (1748), Buffon’s Histoire naturelle de l’homme (1749), Turgot’s Histoire universelle (1751–52), Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), and Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756). Tom Ryan identifies de Brosses’s History as representing a critical point in the development of modern anthropological thought, arguing that de Brosses established himself as a pioneer in the synthesizing, comparative branch of anthropology now usually known as ‘ethnology.’ He also remarks upon de Brosses’s relatively benign theories of racial origins and social types: De Brosses established a foundational anthropology [ . . . ] which for the first time ever represented all Pacific peoples as unambiguously human.¹⁷ Although de Brosses’s tone in On the Worship of Fetish Gods is far from benign, his and others’ pursuit of a natural history of human beliefs, language, and institutions does challenge traditional humanist conceptions of history and thus human nature. Hobbes and Vico, for example, had maintained that history is limited to the study of human creations that meet a recognizable social need, such as religious, political, and civil institutions. What belongs to humans’ animal nature—instincts, passions, bodily functions—is the domain of the sciences, which create their own methods.¹⁸ However, if savages indeed participate in the creation of culture, as de Brosses’s account of fetishism argues, then natural history introduces a historical horizon characterized by radical otherness: we no longer see our own image reflected back in the mirror of history.¹⁹

After publishing the History of Navigations, de Brosses took up the question of fetish worship in more detail, presenting his work in a series of sessions at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. However, the work was not a success, and he withdrew the manuscript, sending it along to Diderot. Diderot encouraged him to pursue his research and to read Hume’s newly published Natural History of Religion (1757). But by the time he had completed On the Worship of Fetish Gods, the publication of Helvétius’s materialist tract De l’esprit (Essays On the Mind) in 1758 had unleashed a new wave of censorship and persecution in France. De Brosses’s work was therefore published anonymously in Geneva in 1760 and smuggled into France.

Although de Brosses published the final version of his Treatise on the Mechanical Formation of Languages in 1765, he began his reflections on language and etymology much earlier; in 1751 he presented two memoirs on etymology at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, followed two years later by another, now lost, entitled Observations sur les langues primitives (Observations on primitive languages). These texts were the basis for Nicolas Beauzée’s article Langue (Language) in the Encyclopédie and formed the point of departure for de Brosses’s later Treatise. In these writings, de Brosses develops an increasingly ambitious conception of the explanatory power of the material history of language; gradually it becomes for him the key to understanding the underlying dynamic of human nature as it becomes culture.²⁰

De Brosses therefore pursued his ethnological studies in tandem with his linguistic and etymological investigations in the 1750s, working simultaneously on the material history of language and the specific question of fetishism. In many respects, On the Worship of Fetish Gods represents a case study in the critical and comparative etymology of the Treatise on the Mechanical Formation of Languages. Both works explore how the mechanism of mind interacts with material objects: the phonetic roots of words, like the objects of fetish worship, are borderline formations, hybrids of mind and matter that originate in automatic impulses outside of humanity’s own self-understanding. I consider the peculiar nature of de Brosses’s mechanistic theories of mind and language later in this introduction. But the quest to describe this otherness no doubt accounts for de Brosses’s ambitions as an armchair traveler: to conjugate the exotic and the familiar and render a common history of religious practice that links modern, enlightened Europeans to distant savages.

The Critique of Modern Mythography: Figurism in Many Forms

By establishing a parallel between accounts of contemporary African fetish worship and ancient practices in On the Worship of Fetish Gods, de Brosses aims to do the same thing for religion as he had done for language: bring it down to earth by reconstructing its origins in material instincts, passions, and needs. However singular and full of meaning words and objects of worship may appear, they all arise from the same primitive roots and are determined by a form of universal necessity.

According to de Brosses, fetish worship has never been properly understood, because our most accomplished Mythologists [ . . . ] have chosen to see what is in itself the most pitiful thing in the world from too flattering a point of view (46). In particular, de Brosses criticizes the exalted conceptions of ancient mythology fostered by both Christian and pagan humanism: however noble, they stand in the way of an empirical science of religion. Thus, in keeping with a well-established rhetorical strategy of Enlightenment reflections on method, de Brosses begins On the Worship of Fetish Gods with a despairing diagnosis of the confused assemblage of mythology. The ancient evidence is overloaded with a mismatched hodge-podge and shroud[ed] in a false air of the marvelous (45). It appears as chaotic, enigmatic, and indecipherable as nature itself, except that it is a human creation: a Tower of Babel atop a Cretan maze. However, it is all made infinitely worse by figurism, in its Platonic-philosophical and Christian-theological guises. The former attributes a knowledge of the most hidden causes of nature to ignorant and savage nations and finds intellectual ideas of the most abstract Metaphysics in the mass of trivial practices of a crowd of stupid and coarse men. The latter, an orthodox theological practice, uses forced and ill-supported analogies to find in the mythological deeds of antiquity the detailed, but disfigured, history of all that has happened to the Hebrew people (44). Because they interpret ancient and primitive beliefs through the distorting lens of their own, preexisting mythical-historic schemes, both varieties of figurism are largely to blame for not only the lamentable state of mythology as we have inherited it, but also the assumptions of modern mythography.

Although linked to ancient traditions of figural and allegorical interpretation, the term figurisme first entered the French language in the eighteenth century in a polemical context, as a pejorative term for excessive and unorthodox readings of biblical history and prophecy.²¹ Its first attested use is in 1729: the Abbot Louis le Débonnaire, in his Sur le figurisme moderne, accused renegade Jansenists of exceeding the boundaries established by ecclesiastical tradition in their inappropriately far-fetched readings of scripture. Jansenist figurists legitimated their political contestation of papal and royal power and called for a return to the true faith by appealing to scriptural prophecies that prefigured apocalyptic times of trouble. The quest to uncover the vestiges of the original faith beneath a multiplicity of priestly deceptions and historical deformations, thus reestablishing a simpler and purer early Christianity, also inspired more secular developments. Among other things, it suggested the existence of an even simpler and more universal natural religion based on humankind’s rational capacities, as opposed to the sinister superstitions imposed by priestly classes.²²

Just a few years later, the terms figurisme and figuriste were used to criticize intellectually overzealous Jesuit missionaries operating in China, who adopted strategies originally employed to convert Jews and pagans in early Christianity.²³ This erudite figurism appealed to the ancient diffusionist hypothesis, inaugurated by the Church Fathers themselves: other gods were degenerated remnants of the one true faith revealed to Adam, dispersed and transformed after the flood. If the eternal truth of Christian revelation transcended the literal historical record of ancient civilizations, then all of humankind retained some vestiges of the antediluvian true religion: Judeo-Christian tenets could thus be discovered in ancient Chinese history and literature. Such remnants paved the way for conversion, since they were also prefigurations of Christianity’s New Testament, which fulfilled and completed the Old, definitively superseding all competing faiths.²⁴

Jesuit missionary strategy was supported not only by ancient tradition, but also by the scholarly exertions of Neoplatonic Renaissance humanists, who claimed to have discovered an Ancient Theology in Hermetic and Orphic texts: ancient pagan beliefs anticipated Christianity.²⁵ Although it was discredited by the seventeenth century, the erudition supporting the Ancient Theology helped establish the basis for the modern study of comparative religion. Advances in the study of the ancient Hebrews and other Near Eastern cultures, as well as the accounts of other missionaries such as Joseph-François Lafitau, whose Moeurs des sauvages Amériquains, comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps (Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times; 1724) enthusiastically compiled the numerous conformities between American Indian religion and ancient paganism—all in the service of facilitating conversion—gave new impetus to figural theology. In de Brosses’s time, supporters of deism and natural religion relied upon these historical and linguistic investigations as well.

Thus, two very different interpretive practices gave specific meaning to the term figurism in the eighteenth century: although both the Jesuits and the Jansenists employed orthodox strategies to preserve the primacy of the Christian faith (one through messianic nostalgia and the other through missionary zeal), they are exemplary of larger tendencies developed in secular thought during this same period. Many modern, rationalist approaches to religion in the Enlightenment appealed to a mixture of these two figural impulses, combining historical studies of comparative religion with a call for a return to natural religion.

For example, some deists argued that the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, and Hebrews all practiced a simple primitive monotheism before it degenerated into a multiplicity of superstitions, warring sects, obscure ceremonies, and priestly mysteries. They appropriated and transformed the work done by earlier orthodox scholars on conformities and disfigurations to reconstruct this supposedly once-universal set of beliefs. Adopting the nostalgia for a simpler, original faith expressed by the Jansenists (and by Protestants who shared many of the same concerns), secular scholars went further, arguing that innate reason and sentiments of gratitude, love, and piety naturally and spontaneously inspired primitive humanity to recognize a beneficent creator.²⁶

From the point of view of most optimistic moderns, even the most outrageous superstitions, such as ancient Egyptian zoolatry and contemporary African fetish worship, had to have some symbolic or intellectual meaning: they were either disfigured traces of a forgotten higher truth, or feeble anticipations of incipient reason groping toward eventual enlightenment. If such practices derived, however distantly, from some earlier, more exalted belief, then the ignorant would come to see the error of their ways and return to a more reasonable religion. Similarly, if primitive beliefs were the first, inchoate attempts at natural science, then the seeds of enlightenment were already planted; inherent human curiosity simply needed the encouraging cultivation of a civilizing influence.

De Brosses is not immune to such progressivist philosophical theology; he assigns different religious forms to stages in the development of civilization. Religious beliefs follow the laws of human progress.²⁷ He also dutifully recites orthodox disclaimers, situating the history of human religion after the Fall, when everything had been forgotten: this conventional qualification effectively allows him to set aside biblical history except when it is useful to him.²⁸

More importantly, he insists upon critical caution. By placing the origins of religion further back in time, beyond the reach of myth, allegory, and history itself, he emphasizes the need to step outside of familiar frames of reference and avoid ingrained habits of interpretation. He therefore adopts the newly coined fighting word figurism to characterize all ambitious attempts to subsume the material origins of religion in fetish worship into more flattering allegories of progress. For this reason, de Brosses’s focus may at times seem quite narrow; he is reluctant to speculate on the larger relations between religion and myth on the one hand, and law, language, literature, and the arts on the other. In this respect, his approach is quite at odds with Vico’s. For example, de Brosses intentionally isolates fetish worship and polytheistic myth from larger cultural concerns and the development of civilization from a barbaric state of nature. This somewhat artificial isolation is motivated not only by a fear of the contaminating influence of allegorical thinking, but also by the methodological pretension that comes to the fore in the last part of de Brosses’s treatise, where he attempts an experimental reconstruction of the origin of fetish worship, as we will see.

Ancient Figurism and Allegorical Excess

Although figurism is an eighteenth-century neologism and a persistent modern mode of thought, de Brosses’s history discerns its first appearance in ancient times. This critique of figurism as an enduring and dominant mode of thought identifies him as an enlightened skeptic, wary of tradition and its long train of prejudices. It also accounts for the interpretive difficulties he encounters in his excavation of evidence of fetish worship from ancient sources. Most importantly, figurism functions as a general theoretical model to describe different historical modes of religious ideology, all of which confuse reason with rhetoric and symbolism to advance specific political and cultural agendas.

At the very start of his treatise, after denouncing both the Platonic and the Christian varieties of figurism, de Brosses describes their original polemical purposes, situating them within a historical moment of great significance to the dynamic development of Western civilization. Their marked utility in the epoch-making struggle between the collapsing polytheistic Greco-Roman world and emergent Christianity justified these opposed, but related, strategies.

According to de Brosses’s own history of figurism, sketched at the start of On the Worship of Fetish Gods and elaborated in later arguments, the late Platonic philosophers sought to defend the power and prestige of pagan culture from Christian claims to both moral superiority

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