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Des forêts

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Frédéric Le Play

Presentation. Le Play and the science of forests

Antoine Savoye et Bernard Kalaora

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A manuscript that leaves a trail

  • 1 The Société d’économie et de science sociales (SESS) is a continuation of the Société d’économie so (...)
  • 2 F. Arnault quotes extracts from it and analyzes it in chapter V of her thesis, « De l’art forestier (...)

1It is very unusual to discover a manuscript that was finished – but remained unpublished – by a nineteenth-century intellectual figure such as Frédéric Le Play. We had a chance to do so by frequenting the library of the Société d’économie et de science sociales1. For Des Forêts was not hidden at the bottom of a trunk in a dusty attic. It simply slept on the shelves of the Société’s library, where any reader curious about Le Play’s work – such people, however, were still rare – could consult it. To our knowledge, only Michael Brooke and Framjoise Arnault referred to it before we did2.

  • 3 Le Play’s first text was published in 1832 in the Annales de Mines, and his work ends with La Const (...)
  • 4 Francois Escard, « Comment travaillait Le Play », La Réforme sociale, 16 May 1907, p. 725.
  • 5 Charles de Ribbe, Le Play d’après sa correspondance, Paris, 1884 ; Frédéric Le Play, Voyages en Eur (...)

2The existence of an unpublished text of this importance, by an author who, far from being « unlucky », possesses an extensive published œuvre, divided over fifty years, allows one to daydream3. This is especially the case since Le Play did not consider this text to be a minor work: he acted to preserve it, unlike numerous papers destroyed at the end of his life – we know this from the testimony of his secretary, François Escard4. In short, why was this manuscript, about which we will say shortly how interesting it is, not made available by the author while he was alive or even after his death, as were, from 1884 on, his correspondence with Charles de Ribbe, and, later, his travel letters5?

3In the absence of indications by Le Play or those close to him that would throw light on the reasons for not publishing this manuscript, one is forced to indulge in conjectures. The most plausible explanation is the following: Des Forêts was part of a vast intellectual project, undertaken by Le Play at the beginning of the 1840s, which, after the Revolution of February 1848, progressively lost, in his eyes, its topicality and urgency before finally being abandoned. Giving up this project involved discarding the manuscript, which, although completed, ceased to have a reason for being published.

4Several facts support this hypothesis. Written in 1846 and 1847 (as the statistical data appearing in the text suggest), Des Forêts belongs to the first period of Le Play’s active life, a period that began in 1830. During this time, Le Play, who was attached to the Ecole des Mines, where he had been a brilliant student, acquired national and international fame in matters of metallurgy and mines. Multiplying the specialized studies, in France and abroad, often at the behest of his minister of tutelage, Le Play became a recognized expert. His works were published by the Annales des Mines, and in 1840, he received the Ecole’s chair of metallurgy.

  • 6 F. Le Play, La Méthode sociale, 1879, re-issue (with an introduction by A. Savoye), Paris, Méridien (...)

5The exceptional vantage point that the Ecole des Mines constituted for questions of mining and metallurgy allowed Le Play to extend his research. He soon formed the ambitious project of writing a Traité de métallurgie. In La Méthode sociale, Le Play evokes this special work to which, in the years before 1848, he had wanted, as he said, to devote all of his abilities. He even specified that « I had already drawn up the plan for it, and the title that I gave it was L’Art métallique au XIXe siècle6. »

  • 7 Ibid., p. 245, note 1.

6Despite the various distractions that prevented him from devoting all of his time to this text, his work progressed. In May 1848, he wrote that L’Art métallique du XIXe siècle « was far advanced. The chemical method of the text had been fixed by six years of labor. The materials on which this method was to be applied had been collected, at great personal expense, at the school of mines in Paris, where they still exist, annotated in my own hand... An entire volume, devoted to the metallurgy of copper in Wales, had given a complete specimen of the method that was supposed to be applied to all the metallurgical workshops that I had chosen as classic examples for each metal7. »

  • 8 Michel Chevalier, Les Ouvriers européens par F. Le Play, Journal des Débats, 10 April 1856. This is (...)
  • 9 Le Play, La Méthode sociale, op. cit. p. 426.

7Once 1848 had passed, neither the vicissitudes of his career nor his new intellectual orientation, which was embodied by the Ouvriers européens (1855) led him, at least during a first period, to give up on his ambitious treatise. Michel Chevalier alluded and spoke in 1856 of the « methodical and complete treatise on metallurgy that he [Le Play, authors’ note] is preparing with the patience of a Benedictine8 ». As Le Play himself recognized, however, his heart was no longer in this project, and other priorities imposed themselves: « From 1848 to 1855, I was constrained by the pressure of events to abandon the science of metallurgy little by little [our emphasis, authors’ note], although, until then, I had cultivated it passionately, and during a time of peace and stability, would have left it for no price9. »

8L’Art métallique au XIXe siècle, which Le Play saw as the crowning point of his work as metallurgical engineer, would never see the light of day. Named to the Conseil d’Etat in December 1855, Le Play resigned from the Ecole des Mines and devoted himself, from then on, to other questions, which were very distant from those of metallurgy.

9This abandonment explains, in large part, his failure to publish Des Forêts. Indeed, one page, joined to the manuscript and in Le Play’s hand, tells us that « the notice that we publish here is an extract from the more detailed considerations that will constitute part of our treatise on metallurgy. In short, as had been the case with the preceding study devoted to Welsh metallurgy », Des Forêts was intended to form part of the general treatise on metallurgy that was then in gestation. Through the publication of what, with a certain false modesty, he called an « extract », Le Play intended to inform the specialists that his treatise was advancing, and thus to leave them breathlessly awaiting his masterpiece...

  • 10 The political and social context was perhaps not unrelated to its failure to appear. Indeed, in the (...)

10For reasons of which we are ignorant, the « notice », which was probably intended for the Annales des Mines (where it was the term used to designate leading articles), never appeared10. Deprived, from then on, of the status of autonomous text that its publication would have conferred on it, it saw its fate linked entirely to the completion of L’Art métallique. The latter having been abandoned, Des Forêts rejoined the materials collected for this still-born treatise, the trace of what would have been the crowning point of Le Play’s career as a metallurgist.

11Was it necessary to leave this manuscript, abandoned by its author, to the gnawing critique of mice, as Marx said amusingly about one of his own writings, which was also forgotten for a long time? Reading it, in the course of which the autonomous and lasting character of this text became apparent, persuaded us of the contrary.

12Des Forêts, indeed, is a remarkable document for more than one reason. It immediately throws light for us on the mode of reasoning by which Le Play, starting with a practical and technical question – the exploitation of the forests – explores its different components (geographical, botanical, silvicolous, environmental, economic, politico-juridical and social) before resolving it. One could say, paraphrasing Marcel Mauss, that Le Play constitutes forest management as a « total technical, practical fact », the analysis of which supposes an integration of its multiple dimensions in order to reveal their connections and their interdependence. From this, there results a quasi-encyclopedic reflection of great fullness, which, nevertheless, remains concrete, for it is oriented toward action.

  • 11 Michael Brooke, Le Play, Engineer and Social Scientist, London, Longman, 1970.

13Des Forêts also allows us to understand better how Le Play was able to undergo a conversion from metallurgical engineer into the founder of a social science. The latter is already sketched in this text, which one would be wrong to qualify as a « technical writin [g] » in opposition to a « social stud [y] », as Michael Brooke does in his biography11. Indeed, as is often the case in Le Play’s « technical » writings, the study’s principal object, in this case the exploitation of forests, is not studied independently of its social implications. One senses that a science of societies underlies the text, and one has the presentiment that it would be enough to Le Play to reverse the perspective and to focus the analysis not on the technical fact but on the social fact in order for this element to emerge in its full light.

14This is the decentering that we witness in Les Ouvriers européens, where Le Play places working-class families, instead of industrial questions, at the heart of his investigation. The latter, however, do not disappear from the field of the new social science. They no longer, however, hold more than an accessory role in the theory of society that he elaborated after he became a sociologist.

  • 12 In retrospect, the difficulty of transcribing it (the fineness of the handwriting, the abundance of (...)

15If Des Forêts throws light on the history of Le Playsian social science, its strong point obviously resides in the table of the European forests that he offers us. It provides an exceptional first-hand testimony, the fruit of field-work, about forest-activity in the middle of the nineteenth century. For this reason alone, this aspect of the manuscript justifies, it seems to us, this edition and... the elaborious work of transcription that it has supposed, with the valuable aid of Daniel Lemeunier of the Université de Paris VIII12.

Le Play, a man of the Enlightenment in the Nineteenth Century

  • 13 A more complete biography of Le Play will be found in B. Kalaora and A. Savoye, Les Inventeurs oubl (...)

16In order to understand what development led Le Play to write Des Forêts, it is necessary to evoke some biographical elements that throw light on its genesis13. Some of them relate to Le Play’s education, and others to his professional functions and the way that he exercised them.

17Let us begin with his education. Le Play was bom in 1806 in La Rivière- Saint-Sauveur (Seine-Maritime), a small village situated several kilometers from Honfleur, where his father was a customs agent. He retained very strong memories of his childhood, which was spent in the country, on the shore of the English channel and the edge of the forest of Brotonne. He was convinced that, without his knowledge, these experiences prepared him for the study of social science, because of the familiar and direct relation that they created with the social and natural environment. « As soon as my growing strength permitted me, he wrote in La méthode sociale, I followed the children who, each day, brought the products of their little businesses of gleaning, fishing, hunting, and gathering to these poor dwellings (of the fishermen, authors’ note)… I thus acquired, in what touches the importance of the spontaneous products that the poor families harvest, a conviction that has always remained present in my mind ».

18Having reached school age, and following the separation of his parents in 1811, the young Frédéric went to Paris, entrusted to his maternal uncle and aunt. If he suffered from the school discipline that was imposed upon him – « an agony », he said, « the memory of which has never left me » – in summer, he recovered the natural education of childhood. He says to us about his vacations in the region of Bray: « I became the favorite assistant of the rural workers, the woodcutters, the hunters, and fishermen. I began my first botanical studies with the shepherds and gardeners. I was thus initiated, outside any preconceived system, to a group of notions that permitted me, later, when studying rural and manufacturing hierarchies, to attribute their true place to these works. »

19In the course of an adolescence that he spent in Le Havre, in the company of his mother, he continued to complete his instruction in school by discovering the surrounding area. « During my long solitary recreations, I would travel around the beaches, the fields, the meadows, and the woods: navigating with the coastal fishermen, asking the books of Linnaeus to complete the botanical studies that I had undertaken in the region of Bray; using the net to trap the waxwings and the larks in the school of a skillful hunter from Bordeaux; finally, dabbling in the agricultural labors among the hovels in the region of Caux. » This was also the period when he chose his career. Tempted momentarily by the trade of rural surveyor, he finally chose, upon the advice of a family friend, an engineer of bridges and roads, to pursue his studies and prepare for the entry competition at the Ecole polytechnique of the collège Saint-Louis in Paris.

  • 14 His first voyage, undertaken when he was still a student-engineer, left him with a prominent memory (...)

20Admitted in October 1825, he bore the barracks-life and the military discipline with difficulty, but succeeded academically. Graduating fourth, he entered the Ecole des mines. Everything changed while he was there. Le Play bloomed in a framework in which his « work, which had become free, recaptured its fruitfulness ». He perfected his knowledge of theory, revealing himself, especially in chemistry, to be a talented researcher, and without, for all that, sacrificing his taste for exploration. Thanks to the pedagogy in force at the Ecole des Mines, he began to travel in order to study14 and observe, a method that he would practice assiduously for thirty years.

21Having placed first at the end of two years of exceptionally brilliant study, Le Play never left the Ecole. The latter retained his services and named him adjunct-director of the laboratory. His professional future was sealed for a quarter of a century. He would be a scholar, expert, and teacher of metallurgy until 1856.

  • 15 This research began badly, since Le Play was the victim, three months after his nomination, of a se (...)

22From its beginning, the young engineer’s professional activity was double. On the one hand, he undertook physico-chemical research that would lead him to propose a theory of the case-hardening of oxidized bodies approved by the Academie des Sciences in 183615. On the other hand, he started economic studies concerning the business of mining and metallurgical products. To this « office » work, Le Play added travel for scientific purposes during the summer vacation from school. In 1833, he explored the geology of southern spain and the following year, completed his observations in Biscay and Catalonia.

  • 16 Lefébure de Fourcy, the author of his biographical entry in the Annales des Mines for July-August 1 (...)
  • 17 Hippolyte Passy, minister of Public Works and Commerce, to the general director of Bridges and Road (...)

23In 1834, there was a first change in his career. He was named secretary of the Statistical Commission for the mineral industry, and therefore abandoned his functions in the laboratory. Although he pursued his experiments for some months longer, his role as expert became progressively more important than his scholarly activities. This is all the more the case since to his statistical research, which was controlled from Paris, and which occupied most of his time16, commercial and industrial study missions, effected in France and abroad, must be added. In 1835, for example, he left to study the metallurgical industry of France’s neighbor, Belgium, in order to evaluate the consequences of a possible lowering of customs duties between the two countries. The following year, the minister of Commerce placed him in charge of a new study of British coal mines and iron factories, with the object of showing « all the geological, topographical, and mercantile circumstances that lead to their superiority17 ».

  • 18 In order not to say « sociology », a word that Le Play never employed, for the preferred, from the (...)

24It was within the framework of this research and these missions that Le Play forged his conception of scientific work, the major stages of which were establishing the facts methodically (either indirectly by collecting data at a distance, or directly through on-site observations), then reasoning from these facts and drawing inductions from them, and finally, formulating practical propositions. In other words, observe-analyze-conclude-propose. This four-part series, which was present in the clear and concise memoranda that he delivered to his partners in the upper administration, can be met with again in Les Ouvriers européens as well as in Des Forêts. Such a breadth of thought contrasts sharply with the labors of his fellow engineers, which were most often strictly analytical and descriptive. This is all the more the case since Le Play never restricted himself to the official objective that had been designated for him. Required to undertake an industrial study of a region, he would deliver himself, in parallel, to work of another order: geological, economic, social scientific, etc. This versatility, which evokes the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment, is related to his capacity to think about the interrelations between phenomena and the areas of study. From geology to metallurgy, from metallurgy to economics and social economy18, Le Play pursued the connections between phenomena, exploring their various ins and outs.

  • 19 From 1840 on, he had another reason for studying the forests thoroughly. In May, Le Play was named (...)

25This procedure led him logically to study the forests, which were situated at the intersection of his various fields of research. His ambition of a complete metallurgical science that would integrate the study of energy sources imposed it upon him19, and his position as expert encouraged him in it. Indeed, during a period of strong economic rivalry between the owners of the forests and the ironmasters, the question of the forests could not be neglected by the public powers, who counted on Le Play to enlighten them.

26These few biographical indications show us that many elements in Le Play’s life – of the personal, intellectual, scientific, or professional orders – converged with Des Forêts. In retrospect, one would be tempted to think that this text could not fail to form part of his work, inasmuch as it appears at the conjunction of his almost innate taste for nature, his scholarly ambition, his function as expert, and his conception of intellectual work as integrating reflection and action, the cognitive and the normative. Perfectly representative of Le Play’s practice, it constitutes a transitional text that is indispensable for understanding his passage from economic and industrial studies to the work in social science.

A multidimensional analysis of the forests

27It is not at all surprising that a mining engineer, who was also a scholar and expert, was preoccupied with the forests at a time when metallurgy in wood was still dominant. Le Play did not, however, write a treatise on forestry for the use of blacksmiths. This objective was doubtless the origin of his reflection, but, carried away by his impulses, he went much further. Mobilizing the scientific resources of his time, he laid the foundations for a forest-science.

Toward a concrete forest-science

28Le Play’s analysis, complex, varied, and covering a wide spectrum, unites different disciplinary fields: meteorology, hydrology, geography, economics, social economy, the law, the history of societies, etc. Based on investigations conducted in the field, it combines concrete observation with logical reasoning. Breaking with the theoreticism of the schools – Lorentz and Parade, the teachers of Nancy, are not cited once – as well as with the empiricism of the forest-managers, Le Play launched the project of a science of forests that would be « the detailed knowledge, translated into numbers, of the laws of the growth of the woods, in the various modes of reproduction for all the forest-species, and in all imaginable combinations of climate, habitation, and culture ».

29Neither a technical treatise for the use of managers and decision-makers nor an abstract theory with uncertain generalizations, concrete science manifests itself as a set of theoretical statements formulated from the analysis of delimited spatio-temporal wholes (strata, layers, productive conjunctures, habitations, i.e., forest-sites).

30Le Play, although marked by Comtian positivism, searched for a renewed positivity that, in order to unite the general with the particular, would rely on a detailed theory that would examine the reality of places and local conditions closely. It was by following this path that the scholar would be able to make his work useful, for his knowledge, once translated into concrete statements, could be confronted with the experience of the actors on the ground.

  • 20 La Revue forestière was launched in June 1841; in January 1842 the Annales forestières et métallurg (...)
  • 21 On these debates, cf. Roger Blais, Une grande querelle forestière, la conversion, Paris, PUF, 1936.

31This original epistemological posture, based upon the dialectic of on-site observation and logical reasoning is, in his eyes, all the more necessary since the official science – which was taught at the Ecole de Nancy and in the journals influenced by it20 – had not created unanimity. Indeed, the theoretical statements and methods that they proposed for reproducing and conserving the woods were controversial both with other forestry schools and with the « practitioners of the main forest-districts ». For Le Play, no theory could pretend to have a universal value. If he recognized the efforts of the Ecole de Nancy to educate the administrators of the forest, he did not share the theory that had currency there, a theory that was based on the belief in the superiority of natural over artificial resowing21.

  • 22 Peter-Simon Pallas (1741-1811), called to Russia by Catherine II, became famous through his explora (...)

32Only observations drawn from inquiries and experience in the field can validate the methods of cultivation whose fitness « is perfectly demonstrated for a determined locality ». General principles can result only from concrete facts that are observed, dealt with, and shaped by the scholar-surveyor. The rigorous method supposes, first of all, an assiduous visiting of the ground by the traveler, who is not always on guard against errors. Thus, Le Play does not fail to underline the mistake made by the famous botanist Pallas22 concerning the planting of cedars of Lebanon in the Ural mountains: « this error by a naturalist, who was obdinarily exact in his narrative, is all the more inexplicable since the usual name applied by the natives to the pine Siberian was known to him... We stayed for a long time in the same district where Pallas, who remained there for only a few hours, claimed to have found the cedar of Lebanon. It is effectively at this point that the region of the Siberian pine begins in the Urals, but the most attentive investigations and information taken from the oldest woodcutters gives us the certainty that the cedar of Lebanon never existed in these regions. »

  • 23 As early as 1842, in connection with his research on the coal strata of Donetz, Le Play had stated (...)

33This primacy given to methodical observation is applied, for example, to nature and to the disposition of forest-species. The laws of planting and growth had to rely on information collected on the site23.

34This is what makes them reliable, like the growth tables established by the German forester Cotta for Saxony. Likewise, when the physical properties and modes of evaluating the price of wood are involved, the data had to be collected on the site, by matching it up with archival sources and information taken from inhabitants involved in forest-activities.

35This rigorous inventory of local data, although indispensable, does not by itself constitute a forest-science, which also calls for multi-factorial reasoning. The economic evaluation of wood production, for example, is presented as a complex method that takes into account and relates different factors (the intrinsic quality and uses of the material, transportation conditions and market access, units of measurement used in the regions being considered, the price of comparable commodities, etc.). One thus achieves a practical knowledge of the prices in use, rather than an abstract and formal evaluation.

  • 24 Since 1834, Le Play had been in charge of compiling the annual statistics of the mining and metallu (...)

36The numerical tables contained in Des Forêts translate Le Play’s faculty of proceeding by factorial and typological analyses. Moreover, the recourse to such graphic representations is not a novelty in his research, but rather the transposition of a procedure to which he frequently appealed for the statistics of the mineral industry24. Some years later, the tables (a typology of the methods of engagement, a classification of workers, the estimates of receipts and annual expenses, etc.) contained in the Ouvriers européens (1855), would confirm the extent to which Le Play was past master of this mode of reasoning, which he applied with the same success to the metallurgical industry, the forests, and... societies.

37We would like to emphasize that Le Play also evokes another procedure for representing the results of research – the map. He saw a double advantage in the cartography of the forest. Not only would it, thanks to spatial visualization, facilitate the reading of scientific data and their correlation, but it would also serve to support strategic analysis by governments.

38Cartography ambitiously supposes the existence of a system for collecting data of great completeness that only the administration is capable of setting up. This project is also accompanied by the creation of « administrative commissions » to which he would return in order to « compile a map of the normal consumption of wood and combustibles ».

The forests as revealers of the state of civilization

39The science of forests that Le Play wanted to found was not characterized only by its method. Its originality also lay in including the connection between forests and societies as part of its object. Indeed, as Le Play stated at the beginning, the forests were at the crossroads of natural determinations and social conditions, or, to repeat his formula, they result « from natural laws and social interests ». Consequently, after having studies the reproduction of trees and the geographical distribution of species, he explores the place of forests in economic and social development.

40First of all, in a vision that evokes the Saint-Simonian view, he demonstrates, on the planetary scale, the correspondence existing between the forest regions and the power of the nations that inhabit them: « The region of the globe characterized by the spontaneous development of the great forests includes therefore only the territory of the United States of America and New Britain, France, the British Isles, Denmark, the Scandanavian peninsula, Finland, Poland, European and Asian Russia, and northern China. It is noteworthy that all the societies that, by their ideas or power, exercise a certain ascendency over the other parts of the world are concentrated in this very region. » Suggesting the existence of a superior causality, he questions this correspondence, in the manner of Montesquieu: « It seems therefore that the same physical conditions that lend themselves to the growth of forests are propitious as well to the development of all of the material and moral causes of civilization. »

41We discern here the germ of an idea dear to the forest-administration, which would establish a parallellism between a « sound » management of forests and social « superiority ».

  • 25 F. Arnault develops an analogous idea when, summarizing Le Play’s project, she writes: « … the stud (...)

42Then, refining this analysis, Le Play studies the role of forests at the heart of the societies in the « forest-regions » defined above. Within this region, the unequal distribution of forests is not due to physical conditions alone. It reflects a situation of equilibrium between silvicolous, agricultural, and industrial activities, which vary from one society to the other. Thus, in England, the regression of the wooded domain to the profit of agriculture and industry is not a sign of decadence. It is simply the expression of the state of economic and social development attained by English society. Observation reveals that the great wooded mountain masses, especially because of their richness in coal, no longer have any use there, and that simple isolated plantations are enough to provide for the needs of the population. Therefore no universal or European model of the forest (or of forest-management) exists, but rather, varied situations where the forest combines more or less harmoniously and beneficently with agriculture and industry. In interdependence with the other economic sectors, the forest can constitute a revealer of the economic and social period25.

43Finally, defining the singular relations between a society and its forests more closely, Le Play enters into the details of social practices. Under the name of « social economy », he multiplies the notations and the observations concerning the social dimension of forest activity.

The social economy of the forest

44Le Play’s social vision of the forests is present in his general conception, which can be called a « social utilitarianisms He evaluates the forests in terms of the services with which they provide people: industrial services, of course, but also domestic services. The quality of a species, for example, is measured as much for its utility as for its intrinsic characteristics. Unlike the official foresters, he does not place the noble species (oak, beech, pine), in opposition to more common ones. He gives an inventory of all of them and estimates them in terms of their large or small social uses. He does so even with the much-disparaged Corsican scrub, which, because of the variety of the shrubs that compose it, can « temporarily provide precious combustible resources ».

45Deforestation is not considered as an evil in itself. It can be compensated for by « the cultivation of fruit trees or shrubs », and Le Play insists on the fact that « the isolated plantations, made with the goal of utility or pleasure, tend each day to remedy a part of the scarcity of ligneous plants ». Far from the « complete afforestation » preached by the foresters, independently of local conditions, he shows himself to be attentive to the development of a peasant forestry that would be married harmoniously with agriculture.

46The study of tools and the means of transporting wood is specifically the occasion for developing his views as social economist. In an analysis of the use of the axe and the saw that is worthy of Leroy-Gourhan, he shows that a tool’s usefulness is not measured only be its technical efficiency, but also by its adaptation to a way of life and labor. From this point of view, the multifunctional axe could prove to be superior to the saw, despite the latter’s greater general effectiveness. This was the case, for example, in the Urals, where the axe had become a universal instrument for charcoal-makers, who would spend long weeks deep in the forest. It could also render multiple services (for the felling of trees, of course, but also for constructing cabins, defense against animals, etc.) that could not be obtained from the saw.

47In connection with transportation, Le Play establishes a causal connection between the physical nature of places, the type of communication, and the means of locomotion. Thus, in Russia, for several months each year, the frozen snow provided communications that were as easy and quick as the best French roads. One could often go from one point to another in a straight line, by means of the sleigh. Any policy of improving the infrastructure of the roads that did not take these particularities into account and sought to imitate France or England at any price would miss its goal. In general, societies elaborate, hand in hand with their own geographical and climatic conditions, means of transportation that have a value for local use, and which it would be wrong to disqualify in the name of abstract principles or the imitation of foreign experiences.

48Moreover, the mode of transportation and the means of locomotion used can generate an organization of labor to which genuine social institutions correspond. This was the case, for example, with running the timber from the mountain masses of Morvan, where it was felled, up to the places of consumption like Paris, through the network of the Yonne and the Seine.

49All of these examples tend to prove how intimately the management of forests is linked with the organization of societies.

Des Forêts and after?

  • 26 Special mention must be made, however, of his final thesis, published in the Annales des Mines (III (...)

50Des Forêts constitutes the apogee of Le Play’s interest in the foret; in this work, his thought is crystallized. If the forest is not absent from his subsequent productions, it occupies, henceforth, in regard to social questions, a subordinate position26.

51Thus, in his masterpiece, Les Ouvriers européens, several of the monographs concerning working-class families teem with notations on the role of the forests. This is the case of the « Miner from the Hartz » (which demonstrates the social consequences of the local administration of the forests), the « Ironsmith from Dannemora (Sweden) » (for the system of the Bergslags), the « Founder from Chemnitz (Hungary) » (for the system of private property), the « Founder from the Nivemais », the « Blacksmith and charcoal maker from the Urals » etc. These analyses are sometimes borrowed from Des Forêts – which finds a use there in extremis, but most often, they are original. In the vein of the best pages of Des Forêts, which are devoted to the social economy of the forest, they are nourished by the observation of the forest-activity that Le Play pursued after composing his manuscript. They confirm the interpenetration existing, for certain populations, between their social organization and the exploitation of the forest’s resources.

  • 27 Frédéric Le Play, La Réforme sociale en France, Paris, E. Dentu, second edition, 1866, p. 249-250. (...)

52In La Réforme sociale en France (1864), on the other hand, the paragraph devoted to the « forester’s art » appears to have another tenor, for the prescriptive register outstrips the descriptive and explanatory register. Convinced, thanks to his previous work, that he possessed the keys for any thoroughgoing social reform, Le Play undertakes to demonstrate them through the analysis, sector after sector, of all of French society. In this reform project, the institution of the « family stock » holds a central place. It is a superior form for the family, one that would be capable of producing social stability and economic progress by reconciling « in a proper degree... the respect for tradition and the love of novelty27 ».

53Examining the situation of agriculture, Le Play estimates that the family stock proved, where it existed (especially in the case of the small individual property) its beneficent results as much on the economic as on the social plane. It checked the pernicious effects of forced partition (like the division of property), which was imposed by the Napoleonic civil code in matters of succession. A factor for conservation, it was also the vector of technical progress.

54What is valid for agriculture is still more true for woodland property, because of the specificity of its production. The natural laws for reproducing the woods call for the existence of the family stock, which is capable of foresight, and therefore of exploiting the forests in the optimal manner. « The reform of forests », Le Play says, » will be accomplished by re-establishing the family stock incorporated to the soil ». Persuaded of the congruence between the forest and the family stock, Le Play came to forge an idealized image of the « reformed » forest in which his ruralist ideology made itself felt: « The latter (the family stock, authors’ note), preoccupied with the well-being of future generations, loving to enjoy the old shades that had sheltered their ancestors, will take a legitimate pride in accumulating the splendors of creation on the patrimonial domain, which they wish to make dear to their children, and in which they always see an abbreviation of the fatherland. » Some lines further on, his realism gains the upper hand and he concludes cooly: « Inasmuch as the spirit of individualism exists... we will attempt vainly to base a good woodland economy upon private property. In order to preserve in France the noble forests of Alsace and Lorrraine, it will be necessary to continue to manage them by the system of estate property. » There is still a long way from the dream to the reality...

  • 28 This is true at least among those who preached a non-authoritarian policy of restoring the forest a (...)
  • 29 An analysis of this encounter and of the works that issued from it can be found in B. Kalaora and A (...)

55This political and social vision of the forests, which situates the place of private property without neglecting the state’s role, finds an echo both in the managers of the forest and the representations of the administration28. Le Playsian social science created adepts in these milieus who took part in a long-lasting – and organic – collaboration with Le Play’s school. The works that they devoted to the forest29 constituted, without their awareness, the posterity of the concrete science that Le Play had desired, a science that, with Des Forêts, remained in the limbo of manuscripts.

Cliché Freddy Le Saux – Château de Ligoure

Notes

1 The Société d’économie et de science sociales (SESS) is a continuation of the Société d’économie sociale founded by Le Play in 1856. While preparing La Forêt pacifiée, we became aware of this unpublished work of Le Play’s. After becoming members of the SESS, we proposed that the Société publish it.

2 F. Arnault quotes extracts from it and analyzes it in chapter V of her thesis, « De l’art forestier à l’art des forêts », p. 36-45. Cf. Franjoise Arnault, Frédéric Le Play. De la métallurgie à la science sociale, thesis for the doctorat d’Etat, université de Nantes, 1986.

3 Le Play’s first text was published in 1832 in the Annales de Mines, and his work ends with La Constitution essentielle de l’humanite (1881). Cf. at the end of the introduction, the bibliography of his works.

4 Francois Escard, « Comment travaillait Le Play », La Réforme sociale, 16 May 1907, p. 725.

5 Charles de Ribbe, Le Play d’après sa correspondance, Paris, 1884 ; Frédéric Le Play, Voyages en Europe 1829-1854. Extraits de sa correspondance. Paris, Plon, 1899.

6 F. Le Play, La Méthode sociale, 1879, re-issue (with an introduction by A. Savoye), Paris, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1989, p. 423.

7 Ibid., p. 245, note 1.

8 Michel Chevalier, Les Ouvriers européens par F. Le Play, Journal des Débats, 10 April 1856. This is a long study, published in several issues, of the work that Le Play had published the year before.

9 Le Play, La Méthode sociale, op. cit. p. 426.

10 The political and social context was perhaps not unrelated to its failure to appear. Indeed, in the 1840s, a lively polemic on the question of the forest placed representatives of the Ecole de Nancy, such as Lorentz and Parade, agents of the administration, owners of the forest, and ironmasters in opposition with each other (cf. Gérard Buttoud, L’État forestier, thesis for the doctorat d’état, université de Nancy). It is possible that these conflicts of interest prevented Le Play from taking a public position.

11 Michael Brooke, Le Play, Engineer and Social Scientist, London, Longman, 1970.

12 In retrospect, the difficulty of transcribing it (the fineness of the handwriting, the abundance of technical or geographical terms, etc.) can also explain why the manuscript remained unpublished for so long.
It is not by chance that, before our undertaking, the rare cases in which Le Play’s manuscripts were published posthumously had been overseen by those who were very close to him (his friends and correspondents, Charles de Ribbe and Emmanuel de Curzon, his own son, Albert) but who were, nevertheless, defeated in deciphering his handwriting.

13 A more complete biography of Le Play will be found in B. Kalaora and A. Savoye, Les Inventeurs oubliés, Champ Vallon, 1989.

14 His first voyage, undertaken when he was still a student-engineer, left him with a prominent memory. In the company of his friend Jean Reynaud (a future adept of Saint-Simonism, a militant republican under the July monarchy; the co-editor of the Encyclopédie nouvelle and state undersecretary for Public Instruction for the provisional government in 1848), he visited Germany and stayed for several weeks in the Hartz.

15 This research began badly, since Le Play was the victim, three months after his nomination, of a serious laboratory accident in which he nearly lost the use of his hands, and which would keep him far away from the July revolution.

16 Lefébure de Fourcy, the author of his biographical entry in the Annales des Mines for July-August 1882, who was his collaborator on the Statistical Commision, recalls: « Each year, the engineers had to draw up (some of them cursing it) seven tables of uniform dimensions, the heads of the colums of which had been drawn up by Le Play... It was thus that 602 tables came, toward the end of the year, to cover the tables of the attic given as office to the secretary of the Statistical Commission... In four or five months, once these tables were carefully examined an summed up in an in-4° format by character, and arrangement that was always the same, and containing, in addition, to make this monotonous publication more interesting, instructive notices on coal, iron, and metals. »

17 Hippolyte Passy, minister of Public Works and Commerce, to the general director of Bridges and Roads, letter of 18 June 1836, A. N. F14, 2731 (2).

18 In order not to say « sociology », a word that Le Play never employed, for the preferred, from the time of Ouvriers européens on, that of « social science ».

19 From 1840 on, he had another reason for studying the forests thoroughly. In May, Le Play was named professor of mineralogy at the Ecole des Mines. He brought together, in the forty lectures that he gave each year, an instruction concerning the physical properties of wood, the principles of cultivating and managing forests, the manufacture of charcoal, etc.

20 La Revue forestière was launched in June 1841; in January 1842 the Annales forestières et métallurgiques succeeded it. Both were official organs of the Ecole de Nancy.

21 On these debates, cf. Roger Blais, Une grande querelle forestière, la conversion, Paris, PUF, 1936.

22 Peter-Simon Pallas (1741-1811), called to Russia by Catherine II, became famous through his exploration of Siberia, which was soon followed by other travels, especially in southern Russia. Le Play could only be sympathetic to his bias for direct observation and his encyclopedic mind, which embraced disciplines as varied as natural history, physics, agriculture, linguistics, the arts, etc.

23 As early as 1842, in connection with his research on the coal strata of Donetz, Le Play had stated the methodological principle of the primacy of direct observation: « first, it was essential for me to indicate no fact that I had not observed myself during my stay in the country... ». (F. Le Play, Explorations des terrains carbonifères du Donetz., Paris, Bourdin, 1842, in A. Demidoff, Voyage dans la Russie méridionale et la Crimée, 1840-1842, volume IV).

24 Since 1834, Le Play had been in charge of compiling the annual statistics of the mining and metallurgical industries (cf. note 15).

25 F. Arnault develops an analogous idea when, summarizing Le Play’s project, she writes: « … the study of the forest (as Le Play conceived it, authors’ note) can be considered in its totality as a sociological study where the knowledge of natural laws is necessary in order to appreciate a forest-practice that will serve next to reveal a social organization » (op. cit., p. 42).

26 Special mention must be made, however, of his final thesis, published in the Annales des Mines (III, 1853) which concerns the metallurgy of wood: « Of the new method employed in the forests of Carinthia to make iron, and of the principles to which the owners of the forests and lumber mills must resort in order to sustain the struggle occurring in Europe between wood and coal. »

27 Frédéric Le Play, La Réforme sociale en France, Paris, E. Dentu, second edition, 1866, p. 249-250. Le Play states here the characteristics of the family stock, which include the safeguarding of the productive inheritance (workshop, agricultural management) transmitted in full to a « partner-heir », designated by the parents while living, the other children being compensated in money.

28 This is true at least among those who preached a non-authoritarian policy of restoring the forest and providing for the interests of the populations.

29 An analysis of this encounter and of the works that issued from it can be found in B. Kalaora and A. Savoye, La Forêt pacifiée, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986.

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