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The Ethical Subject? Pierre Bourdieu and the gift
Jon Baldwin
London Metropolitan University


In this essay I want to consider the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his attempt to replace the 'ethical subject' with the agent of 'ethical' habitus, a manoeuvre that often takes gift exchange as its example. The notion of ethical habitus is clearly a challenge to the classical subject. Bourdieu further feels that his version of the ethical self escapes the paradoxes and dilemmas, the fear and trembling, the vertigo and paralysis, the demand of the other, and the perpetual questioning of the 'good conscience' that makes up the ethical orientation of the subject in the work of Kierkegaard, Derrida, Levinas, et al. In Bourdieu, the agent of ethical habitus replaces the undecided ethical subject. Once I have detailed Bourdieu's challenge to the classical or traditional conception of the subject, his notion of ethics will be raised and his response to the question of whether a disinterested act is possible will be given. Bourdieu will be seen to suggest a version of ethical habitus that leads him to proclaim a sociologically informed sanction on the philosophical question of disinterestedness. This leads him into conflict with what he considers to be the 'artificial paradoxes' in the work of Jacques Derrida.

Response to Bourdieu's thesis will begin with investigation of the notion that habitus is a 'process without a subject'. The status of Bourdieu's discourse will come under scrutiny as will the sanction against philosophy. As far as I am aware Derrida has never explicitly (nor implicitly, according to the major commentaries) engaged with Bourdieu's critique. I shall outline how this debate might proceed. Finally, I am aware that using 'ethics', 'subject', 'morality', 'habitus', 'agency' and so forth without appropriate discussion of how they are to be understood is fraught with difficulty, but suspension of this necessity is required for the sake of discussion. [Read more]