With the Enlightenment, the very way conversation was
thought about changed
; it no longer
dealt only with the aesthetic preoccupations of a privileged elite but now
addressed the basic problems of the new culture
. The spoken word had to
serve truth rather than merely provide entertainment
eighteenth-century debate, writes Jean-Paul Sermain, ‘conversation was conceived
as a group activity to further the advance of reason by offering an open and
attentive method of inquiry into the best subjects and as solid reassurance of
social cohesion, so as to strengthen concern for the public good
great intellectual salons of the era—from the Marquise de Lambert’s to Mme
Necker’s, by way of those of Mme de Tencin, Helvétius, the Baron d’Holbach, and
Julie de Lespinasse—can be seen as so many possible variations of this unique,
The new responsibilities invested in conversation went
hand in hand with the evolution of the idea of politesse, which alone made it possible for the
esprit de société to be fully realized. Whether it was false or
sincere, generous or egotistical, politesse had, at least in principle,
introduced into a society founded on ‘rank’ a criterion of distinction and an
assessment of merit that were independent of the established hierarchy.
People could thus take part in worldly exchange on an equal footing, and as
long as the discourse was regulated and solidarity was guaranteed, no other
authority was required. When at the dawn of the eighteenth century
politesse became the hallmark of the nation and was no longer the
distinguishing mark of a gentleman, its pedagogic and moral aims became an
integral part of civilization and progress. [....]
Having started life as an idealistic challenge,
conversation had gradually developed a system of communication that, by
entrusting itself exclusively to the respect for manners, made it possible for
society to provide itself with its own forum, what David Gordon calls a ‘free
audience “behind closed doors,”’ where it could express its own
opinions. So private conversation made
up for the lack of representative conversation, opening itself out to
egalitarian dialogue and the confrontation of ideas. [....] For the
philosophes who assimilated its code of behavior and subscribed to it
fully, the art of conversation aimed not merely at promoting the Enlightenment
and its popularity, but constituted the very dynamics of intellectual
thought.”— Benedetta Craveri (trans. Teresa Waugh), The Age of
Conversation (The New York Review of Books, 2005): 357-358
A contemporary philosopher who has endeavored to accord
religious praxis far more attention than it has received in philosophical and
other circles is John Cottingham. The first chapter of his book, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value
(Cambridge University Press, 2005), is appropriately titled, “Religion and
spirituality: from praxis to belief.” As he states in the Preface,
“There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious
belief, a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is
committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these in
isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief
with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to
understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only
when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense
of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin
to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of
Perhaps the most compelling reason to address the praxis
dimension of spirituality comes from the fact, according to Cottingham, “that it
is in the very nature of religious understanding that it characteristically
stems from practical involvement rather than from intellectual analysis” (a fact
reinforced by—in the standard case—early socialization into a religious
community). Cottingham’s argument for granting primacy or priority to religious
“praxis” begins with a brief discussion of Pierre Hadot’s work on the role of
spiritual exercises in the ancient Greek world (discussed of course by Nussbaum
as well in her volume on Hellenistic ethics) and thus the “practical dimension
of the spiritual” in the sense later found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s
espirituales (Cottingham outlines the relation of ‘spirituality’ to religion
in a way that warrants the wider application of the former to encompass such
Stoic ‘exercises.’). As Cottingham says, with Ignatius, “we are dealing with a
practical manual—a training manual—and the structured timings, the organized
programme of readings, contemplation, meditation, prayer, and reflection,
interspersed with the daily rhythms of eating and sleeping, are absolutely
central, indeed they are the essence of the thing.” As Hadot and Nussbaum would
remind us, more than a few Stoic treatises were titled “On
“and the central notion of askesis found for example in Epictetus,
implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern [or pejorative] sense as a
practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living’ [hence the
revealing subtitle of John M. Cooper’s recent book, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from
Socrates to Plotinus]. Fundamental to such programmes was learning the
technique of prosoche—attention, a
continuous vigilance and presence of the mind (a notion, incidentally, that
calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques) [in Buddhism, attentiveness
is one facet of the meditative
practice of ‘mindfulness’]. Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the
ordering of the passions—what has been called the therapy of
Among other things, Cottingham has a wonderful discussion
of Pascal in this regard as well, allowing us to place the latter’s famous
“wager argument” in proper perspective:
“In the first place, though his wager discussion is often
called the ‘pragmatic argument,’ he is emphatically not offering an argument for
the existence of God (…he regards the question of divine existence as outside
the realm of rationally accessible knowledge). In the second place, and very
importantly, he is not offering an argument designed to produce immediate assent
or faith in the claims of religion; in this sense, the image of placing a bet,
an instantaneous act of putting down the chips, is misleading. Rather, he
envisages faith as the destination—one to be reached by means of a long road of
religious praxis; considerations about happiness are simply introduced as a
motive for embarking on that journey.”
I hope this suffices to entice the reader to consider
Cottingham’s brief on behalf of the primary importance of spiritual praxis, one
that does not, as with fideism, ignore, downplay, or even wholly displace the
cognitive dimension of religion, but attempts rather to simply remove it from
its pride of place in the philosophical study of religion. Perhaps ironically,
while Cottingham’s analysis takes place largely within the context of Christian
traditions in which “believers” have accorded creedal beliefs a comparatively
strong historical role (e.g., the Nicene Creed, atonement doctrines, etc.), his
argument is even more pertinent to an examination of “spiritual” traditions from
“the East:” Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example.
The spiritual significance of prosoche (attention) is likewise seen in
the work of the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch, who is thought to have
borrowed it from Simone Weil, although Murdoch was more Platonist than
Christian. Murdoch believed that all of our states of consciousness and action
presuppose cognitive and affective discrimination and that any such
discrimination is subject to moral appraisal, as evidenced here in a passage
from her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to
“The moral life is not intermittent or specialised, it is
not a peculiar separate area of our existence. [….] Life is made up of details.
We compartmentalise it for reasons of convenience, dividing the aesthetic from
the moral, the public from the private, work from pleasure. [….] Yet we are all
always deploying and directing our
energy, refining or blunting it,
purifying or corrupting it, and it is always easier to do a thing a second time.
‘Sensibility’ is a word which may be in place here. [….] Happenings in the
consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have moral ‘colour.’ All
sorts of momentary sensibilities to other people, too shadowy to come under the
heading of manners of communication, are still parts of moral activity. [….]
[M]uch of our self-awareness is other-awareness, and in this area we exercise
ourselves as moral beings in our use of many various skills as we direct our
modes of attention.”
I came across the subject of “attention” once again in
this moral-psychological and spiritual sense in a surprising context: when
reading afresh about the Republic of Letters and its salons during the (French)
Enlightenment. Suzanne Necker (Suzanne Curchod, b. 1737 – 6 May 1794) was one of
the remarkable salonnières of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters. Dena
Goodman writes that Madame
“seriousness, and that of the salon whose discourse she
shaped is revealed most clearly in the concern she displayed in all things for
paying attention. The word attention
dominates the five-volumes of her journals published after her death by her
husband. One must pay attention, she reminded herself repeatedly, not get
distracted. Her purpose in life was not to distract men from their serious
business but rather to discipline herself and her guests so that that business
might be carried out. Her concern was to concentrate her own attention and to
focus that of the philosophes (her
guests); her intent was to be a serious contributor to the social and
intellectual project of Enlightenment through the shaping of its discourse in
Goodman selects a handful of examples “drawn from the many
instances in which attention occurs in Necker’s journals: 1) “Attention allows
one to find new ideas in the most common things: one cannot read aloud well
without fixing one’s attention; in a word, distraction kills, negates all the
intellectual faculties. 2) One gets used to inattention in letting one’s mind
wander when one is alone. 3) As soon as the attention of men gathered together
is distracted for a single moment, one cannot fix it again. 4) The great secret of
conversation is continual attention. 5) Virtue, health, talent, happiness, are the
fruits of patience and attention.”
As Goodman points out, the notion of “attention” was not
foreign to Enlightenment thought, being central to Condillac’s epistemology,
serving as well as an epistemic virtue for Diderot. The economist and philosophe, André Morellet, “identified attention
as the first principle of conversation.” For Necker, “attention” was the
centerpiece of what we might christen a secular spiritual praxis or askesis that decisively shaped her “art
of living” in general and her governance of the salon in particular.
Nonetheless, this secular spiritual praxis should be viewed in the light of an
upbringing by a father who was Calvinist minister, as well as her faith in and
commitment to both Catholic France and Enlightenment Paris.
According to Goodman, the “ideal woman” of this time and
place “was characterized by a lack of ego which enabled her to direct her
attention to coordinating the egos of the men around her.” Perhaps needless to
say, the fact that these men required this sort of vigorous group coordination
and conversational governance, in other words, enforcement of the rules of
polite conversation, speaks volumes about their egos and a corresponding lack of
the requisite self-discipline needed to properly engage in the type of
sophisticated intellectual conversation that salons brought to prominence in the
Republic of Letters during the French Enlightenment. It also speaks, at least
indirectly, to the “agonistic” character of French pedagogical theory and
practice. In the words of Goodman (drawing on the work of Walter Ong): “Since the days of Peter Abelard in the
twelfth century, French schools had been steeped in the language of battle.” And
this was not peculiar to France: “The primary form the agon took in education of boys and young
men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial
combat.” The salons, in effect, and under the gentle yet firm
guidance of Necker and other salonnières, had to counter the deleterious effects
of French education on male elites with their steadfast yet subtle enforcement
of the informal social norms of polite conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who
seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking
about what he wants to say himself rather than answering clearly what is being
said to him. The more clever and
polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the
time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed
from what you are saying and anxious to get back to what they want to say.
They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself
is a bad way of pleasing or persuading others, and that to listen well and
answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in
conversation.—La Rochefoucauld, Maximes (1665)
 John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension
: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value
(Cambridge University Press, 2005): x. For a similar conception of this notion
of “spirituality,” see John Haldane’s article, “On the very idea of spiritual
values,” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the
(Cambridge University Press, 2000): 53-71.
 In Buddhism, there are meditation practices for the
cultivation of mindfulness (P. sati; S. smṛti), and thus
attentiveness, systematically directed both inward (on one’s own body,
mental objects and states) and outward (on objects or phenomena analytically
distinct from oneself). As a
polysemous term, its fundamental meaning could be described as the ability to
focus or concentrate on a chosen object (mental or physical) without
forgetfulness or distraction. As Michael Carrithers explains, such mindfulness (and
‘self-possession’) requires “the ability to witness here and now with full
lucidity the inner and outer states of oneself (and, by extension, the analogous
experiences of others),” the “foundations” of such mindfulness being
“dispassionate, immediate, and clear perceptions of the meditator’s own body,
feelings, states of mind, and mental contents.” Such scholars of early Buddhist
texts as K.N. Jayatilleke and his student, David J. Kalupahana, would probably find much in Condillac’s
radical empiricism reminiscent of and congenial to their interpretation of early
Buddhist epistemology (excluding the six types of ‘higher knowledges’ or
supranormal powers: chalabhiññā).
 Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
(London: Chatto and Windus, 1992): 495.
 Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French
Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994): 79-80. See too
Goodman’s essay, “Necker’s Mélanges:
Gender, Writing, and Publicity,” in Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman,
eds., Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern
France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995): 210-223.
Such training that was anything but conducive to what is rightly termed
epistemic virtue regardless). Please see the discussion of this epistemic virtue in
Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues
: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology
(Oxford University Press, 2007): 236-256. In addition to the effects of the “militancy of learning” or the centrality of agonia
in education that affected this male ego, we should not forget, with Goodman, the general (and related) personal and social anxiety or insecurity over rank, privilege, honor, and reputation that likewise infected personal relations with tension, aggression or violence (e.g., the duel), especially in those situations where interpersonal encounters involving individuals of different status, rank, or class were not formalized or highly scripted in a manner internalized by the respective parties (increasing the possibility of misunderstanding and thus the risk of insult, which need not have been intentional).
References & Further Reading:
- Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher. New York:
Viking Press, 1974.
- Carrithers, Michael. Buddha: A Very Short Introduction. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Cooper, John M. Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from
Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Craveri, Benedetta (trans. Teresa Waugh). The Age of
Conversation. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2005.
- Goldgar, Anne. Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of
Letters, 1680-1750. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
- Goodman, Dena. The
Republic of Letters: A Cultural
History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
- Gordon, Daniel. Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociality in French Thought,
1670-1789. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
- Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Habermas, Jürgen (trans. Thomas Berger with Frederick
Lawrence). The Structural Transformation
of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into
a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989 (in German,
- Hadot, Pierre (ed., Arnold I. Davidson). Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to
Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995.
- Harvey, Peter. An
Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings,
History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Im Hof, Ulrich (trans. William E. Yuill). The Enlightenment. Oxford, UK:
- Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from
the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2004.
- Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.
London: Chatto and Windus, 1992.
- Nussbaum, Martha. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic
Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
- Ong, Walter. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
- Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Rinbochay, Lati and Denma Lochö Rinbochay (trans. Leah
Zahler and Jeffrey Hopkins). Meditative
States in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, revised ed.,
- Roberts, Robert C. and W. Jay Wood. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Roche, Daniel (trans. Arthur Goldhammer). France in the Enlightenment. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
- Snyder, Stephen and Tina Rasmussen. Practicing the Jhānas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as
Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2009.
- Thera, Nyanaponika. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New
York: Samuel Weiser, 1965.