Michel de Certeau: A Biographical Sketch Featured

by on Tuesday, 06 October 2015 Comments

Luce Giard, her editor, has offered an excellent and inspiring English biography of Michel de Certeau, available online at http://www.jesuites.com/histoire/certeau.htm#bio

Luce Giard's essay can be complemented by the reading of François Dosse, Michel de Certeau le marcheur blessé, Paris, La Découverte, 2002 and a Spanish translation is available thanks to Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

The sketch that follows is mainly based on Luce Giard's text.


Michel de Certeau was born in 1925, in Chambéry (Savoie). He studied at the universities of Grenoble, Paris, and Lyons from 1944 to 1950, receiving degrees in Classics and Philosophy. He also studied at the "Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice" at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a Paris suburb, for two academic years and then at the Catholic University of Lyons, which had a strong program in biblical studies. In 1950 he decides to join the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), following the usual curriculum of philosophy and theology studies, with special focus on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. He was ordained a priest in 1956.

He first started a dissertation on Saint Augustine, aiming to analyze how the latter had reshaped Christian theology into a pessimistic legalist doctrine by selectively adopting elements of the Greek Church fathers and readapting them for people shaped by Roman legal concepts. Certeau would always be fascinated by the circulation and transformation of concepts, codes and practices. This unachieved study of Augustine already encapsulates his travels from theology to history, from anthropology to sociology

However, he was soon asked to rather invest on the study of the first spiritual authors of the Jesuit Order, including Ignatius of Loyola. Certeau thus received a Doctorate in religious history with a dissertation on Pierre Favre's spiritual diary in 1960. Favre (1506-1546), a Savoyard (canonized by Pope Francis in December 2013) encountered Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris, he was among the first companions who joined Loyola to found the Society of Jesus in 1543. Certeau moved soon to the figure of Jean-Joseph Surin, a Jesuit from Bordeaux, contemporary of Descartes, who had been involved in difficult cases of demonic possession (see Certeau's The Possession at Loudun, University of Chicago Press, 2000). Certeau provided editions of Surin's Guide spirituel (1963) and of his Letters (1966). His desire to better understand Surin's destiny and mystical writings brought him to the active psychoanalytical milieu in Paris and he became close to Jacques Lacan (see Certeau's Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction, Gallimard, 1987, partly translated in Heterologies, University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Full Chinese translation published in 2010).

During those years, Certeau steadily worked for French Jesuit journals: the influential monthly Études, the quarterly Christus specialized in spirituality and two scholarly journals on religious history and theology, Revue d'ascétique et de mystique, and Recherches de science religieuse. He underwent a life-threatening car accident in 1967, in which he lost one eye The other turning-point in his life was brought by the events of May 1968 (see his book The Capture of Speech, University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

His analysis of the cultural and social changes taking place then brought him much fame in France, and from this time onwards he was asked to participate in endless cultural and media events. From 1970 on, he would publish book after book: on demonic possession (1970), on historiography (1973, 1975), on linguistic policy and social hierarchy (1975), on mass media, consumption and daily life (1980), on mystics (1982). At the same time, he would regularly teach graduate programs in different research fields at various universities: theology (Catholic University, Paris), anthropology and psychoanalysis (Université de Paris-Vincennes), then anthropology and history (Université de Paris VII), as well as literature and cultural studies at University of California at San Diego in 1978-1984. His Californian experience in San Diego ended when he accepted a new position at EHESS in Paris on "the historical anthropology of beliefs (16th -18th centuries)." He opened his teaching there in Fall 1984 but died from cancer in January 1986.

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