Friday, April 04, 2014

Prosoche in the Daily Life of a Salonnière in the French Enlightenment

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. In 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.’ The 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, ambitious project.

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 reality.”[1]

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 sixteenth-century Ejercicios 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 Exercises,”

“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’].[2] Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the ordering of the passions—what has been called the therapy of desire.”[3]

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.”[4]

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 Morals (1992):

“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.”[5]

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 Necker’s

“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 her salon.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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)

[1] 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 Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 53-71.
[2] In Buddhism, there are meditation practices for the cultivation of mindfulness (P. sati; S. smti), 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).
[3] Cottingham., 4-5.
[4] Ibid., 7.
[5] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992): 495.
[6] 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.
[7] Ibid., 80.
[8] Ibid., 92. Such training that was anything but conducive to what is rightly termed intellectual humility (an elusive 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, 1994. 
  • 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, 1962). 
  • 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: Blackwell, 1994. 
  • 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., 1997. 
  • 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.


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