Father is Always Uncertain: J. J. Bachofen and the Epistemology of Patriarchy

Sophie Salvo


J.J. Bachofen characterizes his 1861 Das Mutterrecht as a feat of historiography. He has purged his analysis of anything that is not an “objective” depiction of the past: in other words, of anything fictional. But according to Bachofen’s own account, fiction is also what instigates history, what divides the historical from the prehistorical. Only with the advent of “father right,” and its world of invented relations, does the kind of analysis that Bachofen produces become conceivable. My article probes this tension, arguing that we should read Das Mutterrecht as a text concerned not only with the distribution of power between the sexes, or the trajectory of human culture, but also with the impossibility of absolute knowledge under patriarchy. Bachofen depicts the epistemology of patriarchy as precarious and ungrounded. In this way, I argue, he complicates the current understanding of nineteenth-century history as a discipline of inviolable masculine authority. (SS)

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