Erotic Knowledge

by Michel Maffesoli

Maffesoli, M. (2012) “Erotic Knowledge”, (James Horrox trans.), Secessio, Vol.1 No. 2.

What might be the theoretical sensitivity, or better still, the categories useful and necessary to grasp and understand the new forms of sociality emerging before us? If we wish to shed light on these developments it is surely by highlighting what is “already there”, or simply by attempting to enhance our ability to perceive it. To achieve this there are admittedly a number of different possibilities, but one in particular deserves attention, if only because it was highly stigmatised and marginalised during the modern period: intuition. Without wishing to embark on an exhaustive study (I will point the reader in the direction of research specifically dedicated to the subject) it is useful to indicate how intuition is (re-)emerging as an important vehicle for comprehending the vitalism at work in our societies.

I must emphasise that I do not understand intuition merely as a psychological quality. Perhaps it is nothing less than personal. It could be considered, hypothetically, as part of a collective unconscious. It derives from a sort of sedimentation of ancestral experience, expressing what I have termed an “embodied knowledge” constituted in every social group and thus, unbeknown to them, every individual. To use a term coined by C. G. Jung, it is essentially perhaps a “primordial unconscious” determining our ways of being, our ways of thinking, or the various existential postures of our everyday life. In this sense, it is an archaic substrate, a “residual” (Pareto), an “essential character” (Durkheim), an ideal type (Weber), ensuring the long term perdurance of any social group. It is to this social intuition that an intellectual intuition must correspond, accompanying, rather than overarching, existential developments.

The most creative people are those able to sense what is coming into being. Only then are we able to rationalise or theorise human phenomena. I have emphasised, in somewhat facetious terms, that the sociologist must be, first and foremost, a “social sniffer”, someone able to recognise that in the cyclical becoming of human histories, that which is coming into being (l’instituant), which is periodically (re)born, is never in perfect harmony with the established (l’institué), with institutions, of whatever kind, which are always to some degree putrefying.

Intuition can be understood as a form of anticipation. That is, it is an intellectual sensibility. This sensibility is certainly not exclusive, but equally it has its place within the framework of the means society has at its disposal by which to understand itself. This sensitivity can be understood as a part of this philosophy of “yes” promoted by Nietzsche, a vitalist and tragic philosophy which, for better or worse, accepts ‘what is’ in itself, as it is, and recognises the beauty of the given world.

In this regard we could speak of an “affirmative emotion”, a “sense of yes”, which embraces reality in its plenitude. In spite of everything, there is in life something we cling onto, and which, despite life’s ups and downs, is preferable to nothingness, to ‘nothing’, of which the “sense of no” would be the expression. One might refer here to a beautiful text by Julien Gracq, entitled Pourquoi la littérature respire mal, where he distinguishes between those, like Claudel, who “write from an absolute yes, euphoric at all that happens, those with a formidable appetite of acquiescence” for whom there is no question of choosing, for whom everything is good – possibly even evil – and those who, like Sartre, operate from a “deeply anchored ‘no’”, a “half-visceral ‘no’”. Without dwelling on these authors let us nonetheless bear in mind here the sensitivity they represent – not least in order to point out that it was the literature and thought of “no” that triumphed during modernity[1].

Indeed, perhaps the resentment that shaped much of modern thought only allows for the “no”, that is, that critical perspective which is the pretension to choose, the pretension to dictate what is good, what is bad, what is true and what is false. In the various strata of the intelligentsia, those who come to escape such sensitivity are rare. This is surely the very thing which causes the disconnect, particularly striking today, between those who are assumed to represent the power (pouvoir) to say and the power to do, and societal power itself (puissance). It has often been said that the essence of critique is rooted in the great fantasy of ‘distinction’, that of the separation between subjective and objective, between nature and culture, between body and mind, and even between the individuals who form society; in short, it is founded on the mechanical conception of the social contract and the political thought that tends to express it. Overall we remain subservient to this way of thinking, well summarised (and well theorised) by Hegel: “the ways of the mind are indirect.” We always need, dialectically speaking, mediations, negativity, to reach a hypothetical fullness of thought, a potential completeness of being. It is the eternal dream of a paradise, either secular or religious, which in various forms has been a recurrent feature of the history of mankind. To put it another way, we find here an old opposition between explanation and understanding, between the analytic and the hermeneutic of existence.

Modern science has categorically “eliminated all that is incompatible with the a priori of the objectifying distance”, which according to P. Sloterdijk leads to the “refusal of intuition, of empathy, of the intuitive mind”: in short, what might be called the eroticism of knowledge. On the other hand, as soon as one approaches and attempts to understand phenomena in this way, when one does not submit them a priori to abstract and instrumental reason, when they are not forced into a Procrustean bed of thought, one has to show “signs of intuitive complicity”, to implement a knowledge of intimacy, and acknowledge a “libidinal closeness” with the world, between the facts observed and the observer, between things and ourselves[2]. In this perspective, which, as E. Benz noted, was displayed by some Rhineland mystics, and is found in the work of all the proponents of vitalism, analytical knowledge is, if not replaced, then at least supplemented by intuition. One can even speak of an intellectual intuition holding the two ends of the chain, and reinvesting the ambition of an organic thought that can only be understood holistically.

This is precisely what is at stake. With intuition we put into play a “central vision”, which – rightly – is not indirect, but rooted deep within the thing itself, feeding from and thus enjoying it. To understand these characteristics then, it is necessary to call upon poets, artists, mystics, or upon the experience of common sense seeking to ‘stick’ to what is, derive vitality from it and enjoy it. Losing oneself in the world, which reveals itself through ecstatic experience, is also an effective way of understanding it. Thus, in counterpoint to modern objectivity, romantic intuition, that is to say the intuition of the whole, can be an act of knowledge. One must indeed remember that, in part, knowledge refers to the “born with” (cum nascere), and implies a form of collusion. Moreover, to put it in trivial terms, can there be competence without a minimum of appetence? Distasteful though it may be to the malcontents who, by dint of scientific rigor, forget that the world is a living ‘object’, nothing can be understood in its very quality which is ‘being alive’ without putting into play a proxemic procedure. In our times, experience and ‘the close’, just as ‘the concrete’, have become central values. It is therefore necessary to develop a sociology of everyday life that is in concord with the emergences of which I have spoken. This is a major epistemological challenge, which is no longer an academic exercise, but which is imposed on us by the very evolution of sociality. We can also say that it is, certainly, the basis of contemporary developments which, for want of a better term, we can call postmodernity.

All of this implies that we know how take a fresh perspective on things. A fresh perspective, not free of bias – as that is of course not possible – but certainly aware (I will return to this point) of the degree of subjectivity inherent in any research or scientific analysis. In any case, this new perspective takes no detour, but goes straight to the point by seeing phenomena for what they are in themselves. A. Kojeve can be mentioned here; paradoxically, he was a great Hegelian, but maybe in a moment of carelessness, could not help but show that genius “was to see things in a direct manner … and to restore the immediate approach of a child”. This may be a joke from a Hegelian but it is certainly indicative of a reorientation of outlook to comprehend what no longer passes through the maze of dialectical processes. From the moment we consider that phenomena are sufficient in themselves, they should be approached directly, without the intervention of the various meditations which modern thought was generally accustomed to using.

This immediatist approach, which can be attributed condescendingly to the child, is actually deeply rooted in the human mind. Perhaps it lies at the root of all knowledge, whether everyday knowledge or the more speculative knowledge of scholars. It could be associated with what Jung calls the “bush-soul” which, beyond or below our rational psyche, continues to stir the individual and collective unconscious. I am thinking also of Schleiermacher’s romantic theology, which saw religion as “intuition astonished by the universe”[3]. It is true that in many ways this is an attitude which is becoming increasingly prevalent. Anything relating to contemporary religiosity, New Age practices, the emergence of syncretic philosophies or the return of myriad forms of superstition is essentially based on such intuition. This is, in the final analysis, nothing other than a new way of relating to nature. Nature not as something to dominate, control and exhaust, but rather as a partner with whom it is necessary to establish reciprocity. Nature as a whole – of which every individual and, equally, the entire social body, is a part; nature that can be approached directly, without the mediation of culture. The notion of “reliance”, suggested by Bolle De Bal, may perhaps in this respect be an analytical instrument of choice. Indeed, this term captures the given world from the starting point of conjunction rather than the perspective of ‘separation’.

By whatever name we choose to call it – vitalism, naturalism, mother earth – there is an unmistakable connection between environmental awareness and an ecology of mind, of which intuition is one of the most striking aspects. A reference to the mystical is required here. Jacob Boehme established a close connection between “the spirit of lightning” and the “omnipotent great life”.[4] Like lightning, the intuitive mind springs from life itself, and returns to it to enlighten it. There are moments where, beyond the various dogmas, theorisations or legitimations of all kinds, the lightning of Pentecost prevails. It is this that gives meaning, transforms existence, transfigures matter and, most importantly, founds community. Thus, intuition can be presented as an expression of organic knowledge. In a reciprocal movement it springs forth from the ordinary, from the social environment, and at the same time splashes back onto it, ensuring its strength and its structure over the long term. For my part I would see such “Pentecostalism” as the founding moment of every society, a moment in which nature and culture intertwine and where, on that basis, a common intuition cements the community, constituting it as such; in short, it is the basis for a fortification of the being-together.

With this ability to see the world directly, with the fresh perspective it brings to it, intuition is in contrast to that conceptual system which captures things from the outside. Similarly, while rational concepts seek unity, “reductio ad unum” (Comte), intuition, embracing what is multiple, allows us to comprehend the diverse. Again, in the image of the Baroque, “the view from inside” takes in all (cum prehenderé) elements of reality, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, embracing the innumerable interactions, the internal logic and continual metamorphoses – all of which are precisely the characteristics of living. Thus, while abstract rationalism is content with a mere mechanical vision, intuitive sensitivity is grounded in the logic of living and its organic dynamics. Remember, the essence of this logic is to be moving, caressing, one could even say erotic – that is to say, it is based on attraction, affinity, and emotional and affective processes of which we see the importance today. It does not have the rigor of causal laws, but is not lacking in its capacity to indicate with precision the major societal trends.

It must be stressed that the mathematical model has been, to borrow a phrase from Michel Onfray, “an obsession since Plato”, and it is to this model that can be opposed a “poetic methodology, intuition and enthusiasm”[5]. This is a beautiful definition which accounts well for what I called erotic logic, which is of the order of the private life but is increasingly found in many manifestations in public life. The binding of intuition and enthusiasm cannot fail to be instructive, in that it focuses on the forces of the heart and their social efficacy. It is in this sense that the reciprocity between intuition and community can be understood. By this I mean that the social link is no longer merely contractual, rational, utilitarian or simply functional, but rather is in large part formed of the non-rational, non-logical, of “reliance”, and expresses itself in effervescences of all kinds that can be ritualised (sports, music, singing) or, more generally, are entirely spontaneous.

It is important to emphasise this, since erotic phenomena were widely overlooked throughout modernity. At the very least they did not, should not have a public impact. They were tolerated in works of culture, but these were a sphere well separated from everyday existence. For the rest, it was handed over to the economic and political order. Maybe the problem should be looked at differently, or the change in values that has already occurred in our societies acknowledged intellectually. That is to say that what was de-emphasised tends to return, as it has been the case before, to centre-stage. As R. Abellio noted prophetically, “poetry and love are the main ingredients of knowledge … of which faith and politics … are only minor ingredients, the very ones that char the contents to black, the absolutely preliminary stage of the endeavour”[6] This is a line of inquiry for understanding that there may be a social creativity which is no longer subservient to the aforementioned mathematical model, or to its quantitative, productivist or economic avatars which were dominant in the last two centuries. Thus, just as erotic attraction serves as the basis of the tribal organisation of our societies, erotic knowledge is an important tool for understanding it.

A reflection on intuition is therefore no longer a mere academic exercise but, rather, is deeply rooted, organically, in a social practice largely determined by what I have called tribalism, or that M. Bolle De Bal calls social “reliance”. That is: how to comprehend the drive that compels me to do as the other does, the preoccupation with fashion, the strange instinct favouring mimetism? All this refers to an ethics of aesthetics, formed from an ethos of shared emotions. It is what forces us to renew our perception of things. According to H. R Jauss, “the aisthesis returns its rights to intuitive knowledge (Erkenntnis anschauende) as against the privilege traditionally afforded to conceptual knowledge.”[7] Aesthetic must be understood here in its simplest sense: vibrating together, feeling in unison, experiencing collectively. All this enables individuals, driven by the community ideal, to feel part of this world and at home in this world. This aesthetic of reception, reception in the world, reception of the world, rests on intuition. The various forms of youth aggregation serve to highlight – to use a trivial formulation – a functioning which is, essentially, according to ‘feeling’, that is to say, based on this capacity to make contact with the other in an organic way, with neither argument nor rationalisation, but from a kind of intuitive knowledge.

Thus the social bond is increasingly dominated by affects, and constituted by a strange and strong sense of belonging. That can be linked to what Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre calls an “emotional osmosis”, necessary in any attempt at understanding. This attitude incorporates an element of aesthetics or, in its broad sense, a poetry congruent with the object studied. The English term “insight”, part of the vocabulary of the social sciences, is from this perspective closer to the etymology of the notion of intuition. This reinforces the claim that science needs not only imagination, but more than this, it needs poetic imagination. Indeed, such an imagination, consciously controlled, is close to reality, in that it “invents in accordance with the real” (J. Duvignaud)[8].

In this sense affective osmosis enables a better understanding of the social experience and the complexity of everyday life which is broadly permeated by affect. Here, perhaps, sits the issue raised by mystics’ showing that, alongside scholastic theology, it was essential to consider the knowledge of God also as a form of wisdom. Against those who had the monopoly of dogmatic renunciation – the clergy, those holding symbolic power – integration of the power of experience was necessary. Experience, being plural, concrete, polysemic, sometimes disordered, always brings not a supplement to the soul, but a surplus of knowledge. In a certain way the synergy of rationality and intuition is a good antidote to the sclerosis of dogmatism, and can explain, in their totality, the multiple aspects – iridescent or banal – of social vitalism.

Although it has been constantly undervalued, this is not a new theme. It is found as far back as Heraclitus, for whom intuition is the very foundation of the “logos” by providing images which give nourishment to its functioning. It is, moreover, interesting to note that this logos is anything but individual, and therefore cannot reinforce an individualistic theory, but rather refers to the city, the community, and even the cosmos as a whole. Once again the complementarity of the ‘logos’ and intuition (or image) is both cause and effect of a comprehensive understanding. We find such a perspective in Schelling, who, in his romantic naturalism, notes that “aesthetic intuition is an objectified intellectual intuition.” This, in his view, allows for comprehension of the incomprehensible, that is to say, the complex dimension of sensory reality that is not reduced to pure and simple reason. Finally, it should be remembered that Weber found it necessary for scholars to have intuition, albeit that it was to be a “controlled intuition.”[9]

There are countless historical examples and philosophical quotations. But in the context of my argument, it is only to show that, on the one hand, intuition is, more or less evidently, at the very foundation of the act of knowing, and on the other, that its importance increases with the aesthetic sensibility and the return of images to the foreground of the social scene. Moreover, as I have indicated, this is part of a holistic perspective, a function of an organic knowledge in which intuition and reason act in concert. It is unquestionably the latter that is the most important today. Indeed, to quote the now widespread expression of ‘new alliance’, it is clear that the observable interaction between culture and nature, subject and object, body and mind, the spiritual and the material, implies that we know how to develop holistic thinking, that is, an intellectual posture using all the capabilities of the human mind, and not just a fraction of them. Knowing how to respond to such an intellectual challenge will develop an erotic theory in congruence with the ‘social erotic’ perceptible in new ways of being, thinking, speaking, behaving, and more and more forceful in social phenomena which are beyond merely causal, rationalist, economic or political explanations of the world. Thus, an Apollonian or Promethean knowledge is being succeeded by a Dionysian knowledge, in love with the world as it is and as it is lived.

This holistic perspective, moreover, focusing on the lived, on experience, and therefore on the intellectual means to better understand it, is something that resurfaces regularly. In this regard one can refer to the atmosphere in which Weber was at one time immersed, which accentuated the philosophy of life, and in which, as noted by one historian of ideas, “the devotion to life-values, to intuition and instinct which ail across Europe then was rebelling against scientific materialism and positivism[10]. It is certainly such an atmosphere that made Weber focus his attention on the non-rational aspects of social life. It is also what allowed him to emphasise, under the influence of Nietzsche and Simmel, the importance of vitalism as part of a comprehensive sociology. I refer to this here since such a sociology requires the maintenance of intellectual rigor, while incorporating aesthetic, emotional and erotic (in the sense I have ascribed to this word) dimensions of social life.

Holding both ends of the chain, or in its simplest sense “connect” or “trust”, are two meanings of the term “reliance”. This is what is at stake when we reflect on the significance of appearances, aesthetics, and it is intuition alone that can account for it. Burckhardt analysed classicism from what he considered a “formal intuition”, a way of combining the stasis of the form with the mobility of life that underpins it and animates it. What is said here about classicism can equally be applied to other artistic styles and, of course, extrapolated to social life as a whole. In other words, it is about revitalising pure reason, because the world of forms is plural, complex and induces, according to this same pluralism, epistemological relativism. Hence we remain bound to experience, we acknowledge that reason, whatever the proponents of rationalism think, is constructed from an intelligent intuition.

Sensitive intuition is indeed a cause and an effect of the plurality of the world of forms. As Schopenhauer wrote “there is an essential difference between the method followed by Kant and the one I follow. Kant starts from mediated and reflective knowledge, whereas I start from immediate and intuitive knowledge. Kant overlooks the intuitive world (which is multiple in its forms and rich in meanings) and sticks to the forms of abstract thought”[11]. One could not better articulate a relativisation of reason that is not a negation of it. There is, moreover, something prophetic in this quotation, in that it accounts well for the pluralism and diversity of the contemporary world. By “linking” (reliant) the diverse elements, social and natural, of the world, and “trusting” (reliance) in this world, erotic knowledge is part of a new epistemology which, therefore, could be in accordance with the evolution of a sociality in the making.

Translation by James Horrox
first published in
Secessio, Vol.1 No. 2, Autumn 2012


[1]  See J. Gracq, Œuvres complètes. Paris. Gallimard, 1989, T. 1, p. 872-873. On intuition, see B. Fourastier’s thesis, Intuition et Sociabilité. Paris v, 1993.

[2] See P. SLOTERDJIK, Critique de la raison cynique, Paris, Ed. C. Bourgeois 1987, p. 184. See also  E. BENZ, Les sources mystiques de la philosophie romantique allemande. Paris, Vrin, 1987, p. 46, See also my books : La Raison sensible, Paris, Grasset, 1995 et La Connaissance Ordinaire, Méridiens Klincsieck, Paris, 1985

[3]   Cited in M. MICHEL, La théologie aux prises avec la culture, Paris, Cerf, 1982, p. 43. About Kojève, see D. AUFFRET, Alexandre Kojève, Paris, Grasset, 1990, p. 28.

[4] Cited in C. G. JUNG, L’âme et le soi, Paris, Albin Michel, 1990, p. 67. On « reliance », see M. BOLLE DE BAL, La tentation communautaire, Bruxelles, Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1985.

[5]  M. ONFRAY, Cynismes. Portrait du philosophe en chien, Paris, Grasset, 1990, p. 76-77. On attraction, see P. TACUSSEL, L’attraction sociale, Paris, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986.

[6] R. ABELLIO, Les Militants, Paris, Gallimard, 1975, p. 28.

[7] H. R. JAUSS, Pour une esthétique de la réception, Paris, Gallimard, 1978, p. 131. On « reliance » see M. BOLLE DE BAL, op. cit. ; see also M. MAFFESOLI, Le Temps des Tribus, Paris, 1988, Le Livre de poche, 1991.

[8] G. FREYRE, Terres du sucre, Paris, Quai Voltaire 1992, p. 19-21, and preface byJ. Duvignaud, p. 17. On mystic, see D. DE COURCELLES, Thérèse d’Avila, Grenoble, Ed. J. Millon, 1994, p. 41.

[9] On M. Weber, see LEPENIES, Les Trois cultures, Paris, MSH, 1991, p. 252. See also SCHELLING, Textes Elliptiques, Paris, Klincksieck, p. xxi, et W. JAEGER, Paideia, La formation de l’homme grec, Paris, Gallimard, p. 222.

[10] M. GREEN, The von Richthofen sisters, New York, Basic Books, 1974, p. 11. On the dionysiac it induces, see my book : L’Ombre de Dionysos, Contribution à une sociologie de l’orgie (1982), Le Livre de Poche, 1991.

[11] SCHOPENHAUER, Le Monde comme volonté et représentation, PUF, 1966, p. 568. See the commentary by R. SAFRINSKI, Schopenhauer et les années folles de la philosophie, PUF, 1990, p. 201. See also H. WOLFFUN, Réflexions sur l’histoire de l’art, Paris, Klincksieck, 1982, p. 182