Alain Supiot’s ‘dogmatism’

As part of our attempt to ‘reboot’ the research culture of the law school with the help of a more socio-legal approach, we set out to go through Alain Supiot’s book Homo Juridicus (Supiot 2007) in a reading group. Originally I could see three different motives for doing so.

First, the book itself is a ‘law in context’ type of theory that should cover all the different sub-disciplines that we, as colleagues in a relatively large Faculty, are divided into. So it shouldn’t really matter whether your interests are primarily in company law or in constitutional law because the focus of the book is general enough. Although some colleagues find Supiot’s ‘Gallic grandeur’ slightly off-putting, I think that this first point worked out well. Supiot was by no means an obvious choice. But it was one possibility among others at the time that this idea of reading groups was put forward. We had to start with something, and I trust that people will work through their own reading interests as we go along.

The second motive had more to do with a certain work ethos that reading groups can provide. The Achilles’s heel in contemporary academia is that we feel so pressured to produce measurable outputs that we forget the importance of reading. Many of my younger colleagues seem to equate ‘research’ with ‘writing’. And taking into account the pressures that they work under, I don’t blame them for doing so. But hopefully regularly functioning reading groups will eventually alleviate the situation somewhat. So a notion of reading broadly and regularly will hopefully become a natural (and pleasant!) routine for thoughts to develop into more tangible outcomes such as publications and research proposals.

The third and final motive behind this initiative is interrelated to the second. It was an attempt to address the concern of many colleagues who complained about the lack of community at the workplace. We don’t know each other very well, and we aren’t very aware of each other’s work. Not that Supiot could bring any such sense of community. But, once again, what was important was not so much the individual text that we were reading, but the way in which we were supposed to read it. Over thirty colleagues expressed an interest in taking part in these reading groups which, I think, was primarily a response to this final motive. So instead of having one huge group that could not possibly function as an intimate reading group, we now have three groups all going about their Supiots in slightly different ways.

And what about Supiot’s Homo Juridicus, then?

One development was telling. Nearly all ten or so members of my group showed up for the first session (chapters 1-3), but in the second session (chapters 4-6) there were only four of us. The book starts off from interesting premises. But as soon as Supiot focuses on particular ‘sectoral’ phenomena, one tends to loose interest. In addition to the ‘Gallic grandeur’ mentioned above, I think there are a number of reasons for this loss of interest.

First, the analyses skim through their subject matter with much too much haste. In addition to the premises outlined in the first sector, any single subsequent chapter – be it on technology, statism, or human rights – could and should have been expanded into a full book in its own right. Instead the text now makes rather sweeping claims from a very small amount of research, claims that would have required much more elaboration. The bold arguments seem to be ‘decorated’ with footnotes referring to disparate sources that have been added after the text has been written because the full argument is difficult to put together by interconnecting those sources.

Second, although the original French edition of the book was apparently published in 2005, one can’t help but feel that some of the ‘theorizing’ has hopelessly passed its best-by date. Personally I got this impression especially as I was reading the technology chapter where Supiot talks about html coding, ‘hypertexts’, and ‘networks’ as if they had just been invented.

But as said, I found the premises of the book intriguing. The title of Part 1 (chapters 1-3) refers to legal ‘dogma’. One should pause here for a moment. When used in association with law, my compatriots will associate the word ‘dogma’ with the German tradition of ‘Rechtsdogmatik‘, i.e. doctrinal legal studies, with its French equivalent of ‘la dogmatique juridique’. Supiot’s use of the word ‘dogma’ has, however, a completely different origin. He is here referring to the French historian of law and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre (Legendre 1997) whose work has been made known by legal scholars like Peter Goodrich (Goodrich 1996) and the late Cornelia Vismann (Vismann 2008, which, by the way, is a much more convincing analysis about the interconnections between law and technology). For Legendre, and by extension for Supiot, dogma refers to belief systems that are generally considered to be in opposition to reason and knowledge. And yet, reason and knowledge would be impossible without such belief systems. Supiot’s interest here lies specifically in a philosophical anthropology of law, i.e., the human being as it is constituted in and by law. He writes:

‘The concepts of subject and object, person and thing, mind and matter are defined by mutual opposition, each conceived in relation to the other. Positive science is entirely reliant on these concepts, and its own activity would be impossible without the postulate of a human being capable of rational thought. This postulate is precisely not the result of scientific demonstration, it is a dogmatic affirmation, developed in the history of law and not the history of science.’ (Supiot 2007: 11)

As we discussed in our group, there is something reminiscent here of Donald Kelley’s The Human Measure (Kelley 1990). The idea of having to recourse to postulates in knowledge is, of course, at least as old as Kant. But Supiot’s proposition that these postulates are specifically legal is interesting. So no knowledge at all without the dogma of the homo juridicus that law institutes.

From there Supiot outlines this dogma as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the individual, the subject, and the person, each reflecting the godlike qualities of man as Her image. So just like God, man as individual is unique, man as subject is sovereign and autonomous, and man as person is a spiritual entity. But all these godlike traits in man are tainted with their opposites. As an individual, man may very well be unique, but so is every other individual. So unique and identical. As a subject, man may be sovereign and autonomous, but she is, at the same time, literally ‘subjected’ to the very same laws that she has autonomously legislated. So sovereign and yet subjected. Finally, as a person, man is both spirit and matter:

‘The notion of person is what allows us to think matter and spirit in their unity and not as two radically distinct universes. … Personality is therefore not a biological given like genetic makeup or blood group, it is a dogmatic construction which would collapse if people could treat it simply as they pleased.’ (Supiot 2007: 27)

Most of us like me who dabble in matters metaphysical mysteriously always find explanatory force in such ‘Trinities’, three being some kind of magical number. Here too the taxonomy of man as individual, subject and person is a bit too clean cut to be entirely plausible. Nevertheless it does work as a working hypothesis for a philosophical anthropology where the tainted nature of these specular reflections of God – man is but ‘godlike’ – gives us a fragile dogma over which anything we can possibly ‘know’ about the human world has to be built.


Goodrich, Peter (1996) Law in the Courts of Love. Literature and other Minor Jurisprudences. London/New York: Routledge.

Kelley, Donald R. (1990) The Human Measure. Social Thought in the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Legendre, Pierre (1997) Law and the Unconscious. A Legendre Reader. Trans. Peter Goodrich, Alain Pottage and Anton Schütz. London: Macmillan.

Supiot, Alain (2007) Homo juridicus. On the Anthropological Function of the Law. Trans. Saskia Brown. London: Verso.

Vismann, Cornelia (2008) Files. Law and Media Technology. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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