Jean-Paul Brodeur: a philosopher "entre deux continents".

AuthorRobert, Philippe

The editors of this issue of the journal have asked me to discuss the impact of Jean-Paul Brodeur's work on francophone studies of crime and justice. I am going to modify this theme by narrowing it solely to his impact on European studies of crime. This redefinition of the subject has two advantages. First, it avoids having to speak in the name of French-speaking researchers in North America, a domain best left to others--notably the Quebecois--who are in a better position to comment than I am; all the more so since I am not as familiar as I once was with the Canadian and quebecois university milieux. Second, and more importantly, this decision will allow me to focus in a more coherent way on an original aspect of Professor Brodeur's scientific approach that is only apparent from a European perspective. I will, then, look at Brodeur's work essentially from a French point of view; I don't think that adopting the perspective of the other francophone countries of Europe would yield very different results, and to a degree, the discussion would probably not differ that much were his work to be viewed in the context of the whole of continental Western Europe.

I will base my remarks primarily on publications that appeared in French, with particular reference to those that appeared in Europe--a choice that has the additional advantage of introducing readers of the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice to research with which they are less likely to be familiar. Yet my purpose is by no means to serve simply as archivist. I have no intention of encompassing the totality of Jean-Paul Brodeur's work, which is immense, even though his career was cut short, or even of covering all its European aspects. I will simply pick out, wherever I find them, examples that can serve to illustrate the claim I make for his contribution to research on crime as seen from Europe. The choice will obviously be more or less subjective, and I will not hesitate to assign priority to those of Brodeur's texts that I, in particular, appreciate because of chance exchanges between us or of collaborating with him in some undertaking. If, indeed, Professor Brodeur occupies a unique and prominent place in francophone studies of crime in Europe, it is because, it seems to me, he was capable of achieving a stature that I would characterize as that of a philosopher entre deux continents.

A philosopher

First and foremost, a philosopher: his academic background immediately comes to mind; unlike Montreal colleagues of his generation, he did not start off as a criminologist but came to the discipline after training elsewhere. This is true, as well, for the Quebec criminologists of the preceding generation, and it is also the case for those who do research today on crime in a country like France, where criminology does not exist in the academic curriculum; his academic background, then, perhaps contributed to his favourable reception on this side of the Atlantic. But, for the most part, converts to criminology come from the fields of sociology, history, or political science. Brodeur came from philosophy, which is far less common; sufficiently uncommon, in fact, that one wonders as to the reasons for his change of field.

Brodeur himself was reticent to discuss the issue: "The purpose of this text is not to set out the reasons that led me to effect this change. Such an exercise in regression is so lacking in promise that I have never indulged in it even for my own sake" (Brodeur 1985a: 9). A few lines further on, however, he gives us a glimpse of his state of mind, in one of those brilliantly incisive formulations that illuminate his prose, referring to the "retreat of philosophy into exegesis of and--endless brooding over--past philosophical works. I have nothing to say regarding this funereal rescue operation, except that to my mind a discipline that is content to bleach its bones has volunteered for the archaeological pit" (Brodeur 1985a: 12). A few years later this opinion was to be confirmed in a remark inserted in an article published in Germany: "It is well known that philosophy is moribund in universities once it is reduced to nothing but the history of philosophy" (Brodeur 1991a: 43). Given this condemnation, one might well hesitate to speak of him in the context of his initial discipline.

However, when I speak of him as a philosopher, I am not thinking first--or, at any rate, at first--of his original discipline but rather of the manner in which he approaches research on crime. One might have expected that he would draw his ammunition from the arsenal of his first field of study--and the vigour with which he presses Hobbes into service, for example, or Spinoza (e.g., Brodeur 1986a; 1983) comes as no disappointment; but even in the articles that do not draw on the resources of philosophical erudition, the precepts of his first discipline continue to colour his prose. I even sensed, at times, on his part, a contrast between his penchant for references to philosophical works and a certain reticence when it came to history. I did find in his curriculum vitae that, at the start of his career, he had been awarded a grant for an inventory of sources dealing with the history of the penal system in French Canada, but I found as well that, in his contribution to a German publication, he had distances himself from--or, at least, shows a signal lack of enthusiasm for--this type of research: "A return to past history, while initially fruitful, could become a source of weakness were it to continue indefinitely, were it to be undertaken to the exclusion of other approaches, were it lose sight of actual practice" (Brodeur 1990: 43).

In point of fact, when I refer to him as a philosopher, I am, above all, referring to his most distinctive way of approaching each subject. For want of a better expression, I would describe it in terms of the high degree of importance that he attaches to constructing the "object" he intends to treat. This inevitably entails approaching the issue to be studied from a distance, first overturning common-sense certitudes, then tracing their genealogy and the genealogy of the terms used to convey them, and finally proceeding to wholesale reconstruction. He thus lays out the steps in the reasoning process methodically, as would a surefooted pedagogue. His approach is not to dazzle with intuition and leave it up to the reader to figure out for himself the implicit meanings; it is...

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