Edgar Morin’s Leçons d’un siècle de vie

This article is part of the following series:

Leçons d’un siècle de vie.

Morin, Edgar.

2022.  Paris: Pluriel.

Edgar Morin is probably the most influential French sociologist that the English-speaking world has never acknowledged. He has more than twenty honorary degrees from universities that work mainly in French, Spanish or Italian and research centres named for him in Sicily and Peru, as well as in Paris. A special issue of the journal World Futures in 2004 showcased his work for anglophone readers, and described plans to translate his major books, but these do not seem to have been fulfilled. In part, this is likely to be because he does not fit the image of French sociology that has dominated the English-speaking academic world. Morin has always taken his own line on major issues of the day rather than feeling obliged to follow any particular critical orthodoxy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was only briefly a member of the Communist Party, from which he was expelled in 1951 as a premature critic of Stalinism. Despite his Jewish heritage, his experience of visits to Israel from 1965 onwards led him to write sharply-worded commentaries on the way that country’s government treated the Palestinian people. These writings eventually led to a successful private prosecution for anti-semitism in 2004. L’affaire Morin divided French intellectuals over the limits of free speech.[i] He was equally critical of structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism. It is not difficult to see why leading academic and university publishing houses would not identify a market for translations.

Morin may, however, yet have the last word. Having well outlived his better known rivals, he has published a brief memoir, reflecting on one hundred years as a scholar and political activist. It is the capstone of a series of publications at various points in his career reflecting on the impact of events and contingencies on the choices that shaped his life. 

Edgar Nahoum was born in Paris on 8 July 1921 into a family of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Salonika.[ii] They had been part of a large minority in a cosmopolitan and polyglot city The Sephardim had originally arrived in Greece after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and continued to speak a dialect of Spanish among themselves. By the late 19th century, however, there were increasing ties with Sephardic communities in France and Italy, which created migration routes for families who were experiencing a combination of economic decline and social marginalization. Population movements at the end of World War I, combined with a devastating fire in 1917 that destroyed much of Salonika’s city centre, made the position of the Jewish community less secure and gave a particular impetus to migration. Paris was one favoured destination. While Morin, a pseudonym he adopted as a member of the Resistance in 1941, stresses that he was born French, mostly spoke French at home and was educated in the secular traditions of France, he also acknowledges his awareness of this heritage of diaspora and exile. His parents were secular Jews, but encouraged him to participate in the rituals valued by his grandparents and other family members and to communicate with them in their own version of Spanish – he learned a more contemporary form later in life in order to collaborate with colleagues in both Spain and Latin America. Other branches of the family were well established in Italy and had participated in the Risorgimento. The first chapter of the book is, then, an exploration of these multiple identities and the way they contributed to what he describes as his core humanism and scepticism about whether any claimants to any single identity can claim to have privileged knowledge about the world. Ultimately, he suggests, whatever our unique constellation of identities, we share a common humanity, which can stand as a shared ethic and an independent basis for moral judgement. We should be assessing actions rather than actors. 

In later chapters he discusses his political homelessness, after rejecting the certainties and comforts of the French Communist Party. Life, though, was not without its pleasures. In the late 1940s, Morin and his first wife, Violette, who also became a significant scholar in her own right[iii], lodged with Marguerite Duras and were part of her salon with the Queneaus, the Merleau-Pontys, the René Clements, and Georges Battaille. Nights out were spent at Café Flore, Tabou or Vieux Colombier, listening to the jazz trumpeter Boris Vian or the chanteuse Juliette Greco. The community broke up when Violette and Marguerite both became pregnant and needed more space but has its own recognition as the ‘Groupe de la rue Saint-Benoît’ in the mythology of those years on the Left Bank.[iv]

Despite a formal education disrupted by the war, Morin was recruited to sociology by Georges Friedmann, who made an important contribution to the institutional reconstruction of the discipline, which had languished for many years even before the Occupation.[v]  Morin was appointed to the CNRS in 1951, despite the controversy over his first book[vi], based on his observations as a French army officer in the occupation of Germany, which rejected the simplistic anti-German narratives then, understandably, fashionable in France. The book offers a sympathetic account of the mental distress of ordinary German people, their lack of food and other basic necessities, and their attempts to make sense of the new order and the actions of the Occupying Powers. It introduces issues about mass media and the role of rumour in shaping public opinion that he would return to in many later publications. In the course of his career with CNRS, he had the opportunity to work on a number of major projects examining the cultural, economic and political reconstruction of France during the 1950s and 1960s. He developed a research agenda for a Sociologie du Présent, studying dramatic social events by direct observation to explore the ways in which moments of crisis revealed the fundamentals of a social order.

I first encountered Morin’s writings through his study of a rumour that circulated in Orleans in May 1969 – the first edition of this book is one of the few works that has been translated[vii]. Its subject matter was an allegation that young women were being kidnapped from the changing rooms of Jewish-owned fashion boutiques and sold into prostitution in Morocco. The authorities were doing nothing because they had been paid off by the Jewish interests. The rumour provoked demonstrations and a consumer boycott of the businesses. Community organisations and local government responded with attempts to counter the rumour, which attracted the attention of national media. Within six weeks, Morin assembled a research team to go to Orleans and attempt to trace the rumour’s origins. This proved to be impossible, for reasons familiar to researchers of urban myths, but he was able to show how the retelling of the story varied in different social contexts and expressed negative sentiments about race, class, generation and social change that would otherwise be sanctioned in public discourse. In 1992, rumours were circulating in my own city, and nationally, about young people being kidnapped in night clubs and having their kidneys stolen for sale to unscrupulous transplant surgeons.[viii] Without Morin’s resources, a full investigation was impossible but his theoretical framework helped me to show that the rumour allowed people to express concerns about organ donation that would otherwise be socially unacceptable because they implied resistance to something that was presented through mainstream media by leading doctors as a simple and unquestionable altruistic action. My conclusion was that the support for donation expressed in simple opinion surveys was a social desirability effect and that the enactment of mandated donation might meet more tacit resistance than was assumed among its advocates, as has indeed been the case. 

The breadth and independence of Morin’s vision was a constant source of tension in his career. He had never taken a narrow view of sociology, even before he began to reject that label and promote interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary models of research and teaching. His study of the impact of modernity on Plozévet, a Breton village, from 1955 to 1965 was, for example, initially condemned by the advisory committee to the prime minister, which had oversight of CNRS, principally at the instigation of historians who thought their research had been used to reach different conclusions from their own. The study also aroused strong feelings in the community itself, especially from Breton nationalists, who felt that it did not support their political agenda.[ix] With the support of Raymond Aron, he was able to get the official judgement overturned, at the expense of foregoing the recognition he might normally have expected for the work. Nevertheless, he was appointed to the chair of sociology at Nanterre, as the chosen successor to Henri Lefebvre, in March 1968, on the eve of les évenements of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre played a central part in that movement to challenge the French state and its political order. Morin found himself in the midst of a major social event, which, as this memoir shows, he still clearly struggles to understand. It was hard for someone who had experienced the economic hardships of 1930s France and witnessed totalitarianism in action in Russia, Germany and China to acknowledge the rejection of prosperity and the, albeit imperfect, democracy of 1960s France, where even the divisive and brutal conflicts over the decolonization of Algeria seemed to have been settled. 

Towards the end of 1968, an invitation from the Salk Institute in California provided a welcome escape. Unlike Bruno Latour, a few years later, who used the invitation to undertake pioneering fieldwork in a research laboratory, Morin seems to have spent most of the time reading and talking. In particular, he discovered the anglophone literature on systems theory, exemplified in the work of Gregory Bateson or Norbert Wiener. He writes rhapsodically of living beside the ocean in La Jolla and observing the embers of the 1960s counter-culture in Berkeley and San Francisco, which had been a major influence on the French insurgency of 1968. In California he could study these political and cultural movements without feeling personally compromised by the need to declare an allegiance.  

While Morin became identified with systems theory for a time, this book tends to underline his points of disagreement with any model of society that makes excessive assumptions about rationality and tends to erase actions, conceived as the outcome of the choices of actors, from its accounts. What remains is the emphasis on complexity and unexpected consequences, extending into interactions with the natural world and the disruption of ecosystems. He returns to the humanism that had marked his scholarly dissent from earlier encounters with utopian thought, in Popper’s sense. Morin presents the social sciences as charged with understanding a world of chance and contingency that is never going to be wholly reducible to law-like explanations and which needs to respect the rights and dignity of individuals to make their own choices. It is a world in which risk and uncertainty are inescapable. As he notes, the Covid pandemic is a crisis of modernity and its belief that the destiny of humanity is to be the master of nature. It reminds us that humans are part of a great adventure into the unknown, an incredible adventure for our species. There is no end to history but only the question of what it means to lead a life that looks to the future, while reflecting on, and learning from, the mistakes of the past. 

The book concludes with a set of summary aphorisms. This one is particularly apt: 

To age well, we must preserve the curiosity of our childhood, the aspirations of our teenage years, the sense of responsibility of adult life and, in our later lives, try to draw out the experience of those earlier years. 

Morin is a fine advertisement for his own prescriptions. As a centenarian, his curiosity is undimmed, his aspirations for humanity remain intact, his sense of responsibility has grown to encompass nature as much as society, and his experience, both positive and negative is offered as a model of personal and intellectual growth to a new generation.


[ii] See also Veinstein, Gilles, ed. 1992. Salonique, 1850-1918: La ‘Ville Des Juifs’ et Le Réveil Des Balkans. Série Mémoires, no 12. Paris: Editions Autrement. Morin, Edgar. 2009. Vidal and His Family: From Salonica to Paris: The Story of a Sephardic Family in the Twentieth Century. Brighton ; Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

[iii] See, for example, Naville-Morin, Violette. 2003. L’écriture de Presse. Edited by Lise Chartier. Rééd. Collection Communication, Relations Publiques. Sainte-Foy, Québec, Canada: Presses de l’Université du Québec.

[iv] Michaeli, Maya. 2016. ‘Comment Le « groupe de La Rue Saint-Benoit » a Faconne La Sensibilite Politique  de Marguerite Duras a l’ Alterite’. In L’ecriture desirante: Marguerite Duras, edited by Anne-Marie Reboul and Esther Sanchez-Pardo, 229–38. Paris: L’Harmattan.

[v] Dingwall, Robert. 2018. ‘Introduction’. In Howard S Becker: Sociology and Music in the Chicago School, by Jean Peneff, ix–xxxv. New York: Routledge.

[vi] Morin, Edgar. 1946. L’An Zéro de l’Allemagne. Paris: Éditions de la cité universelle,.See also 

Floch, Martine. 2021. ‘L’An Zéro de l’œuvre d’Edgar Morin:’ Matériaux Pour l’histoire de Notre Temps N° 137-138 (3): 129–37.

[vii] Morin, Edgar. 1970. La Rumeur d’Orleans. Paris: Editions de Seuil.

Morin, Edgar. 1971. Rumour in Orleans. London: Blond.

[viii] Dingwall, Robert. 2001. ‘Contemporary Legends, Rumours and Collective Behaviour: Some Neglected Resources for Medical Sociology?’ Sociology of Health and Illness 23 (2): 180–202.

[ix] Morin, Edgar. 1967. Commune En France: La Métamorphose de Plodémet. Le Monde sans Frontières. Paris: Fayard.

Paillard, Bernard. 2011. ‘À propos de Plozévet. Retour sur une polémique académique’. Hermès n° 60 (2): 176.

Robert Dingwall is Emeritus Professor at Nottingham Trent University.