# 39 | Passion for Philosophy and Passion for Equality in the Age of the Enlightenment | Stéphane Van Damme

Stéphane Van Damme, whom we admire for his works on the Age of Enlightenment, has reread for us the work of Tocqueville, a man who, in his love for individual freedom, mistrusted equality.  Van Damme helps us to understand how, between the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, positions on equality were readied within the scientific world before being activated in the political field.  He resituates equality within a network of norms and practices and sees it manifested even within the very way nature was represented.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Philosophical Passion as Passion for Equality
in the Age of Enlightenment

Stéphane Van Damme

In Chapter 6 of his book Democracy in America (volume 1, part 2), Tocqueville brings up a major contradiction between democratic and egalitarian values, on the one hand, and aristocratic values, on the other.  He gives, as an example of the embodiment of these values, the world of art and sciences, which are characterized by the “heroic virtues” of “genius” and the desire to “leave a deep imprint on history.”   He ratifies thereby the contrast between “intellectual and moral efforts,” on the one hand, and “material life,” on the other, and justifies the choice of our observation point for understanding the passion for equality that arises on the threshold of modernity.  The emergence of a democratic society is said to thwart the expansion of the Scientific Revolution.
The second point that appears in this passage involves the articulation among the sciences, the arts, and the passions.  Far from being cold and calculating reason, the scientific passions, which are nonetheless less hotheaded and fanatic than the “passions for equality” that are carried along by blindness and furor, would be, he writes further on, at the opposite extreme from this “prosperous” society with its “tranquil habits.”  Under this interpretation, the intellectual work ethic (what in times past were called the intellectual virtues) remains attached to this social grammar and would in essence be inegalitarian and based on distinction.  For Tocqueville, one has to restore a dose of aristocratism in modern societies by spurring on “aristocratic persons.”[ref]Jean-Fabien Spitz, L’amour de l’égalité. Essai sur la critique de l’égalitarisme républicain en France, 1770-1830 (Paris: Vrin/École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2000), p. 17. [/ref]

We rediscover here some of the tensions in Tocqueville’s thought, which was torn between a nostalgia for the Ancien Régime and its social grammar grounded on passion, grandeur and his admiration for the emergence of a civil society in the wake of the Atlantic Revolutions.  Tocqueville echoes Jacques Necker’s Réflexions philosophiques sur l’égalité, published in late 1793, where the financier condemned the “exaggerated system of perfect equality” and denounced the “new philosophers” who had thought out such principles.  As Jean-Fabien Spitz explains, “Tocqueville in effect defined the love of equality conjointly as an inevitable consequence of the equalization of statuses and as a danger for individual freedom.”[ref]  Ibid., p. 16.[/ref] The history of ideas and political philosophy, as we shall see, have resumed reflection on this question of the “love of equality” (Spitz) or the “emblems of reason” (Jean Starobinski) by rooting it in the circumstances of revolutionary times.  It will then be asked how the various positions that had been expressed in the eighteenth century might have been prepared, elaborated, and constructed first within the world of science.

Beyond this conceptual genealogy, what we must try to see is how the question of equality became more broadly a practical, scientific problem before being transformed into a political problem and a cause within the world of science.  In looking back on the scientific or philosophical passions between the times of the two Scientific Revolutions—that of the seventeenth and that of the nineteenth century—it seems to be of interest to show to what extent the intellectual world was able to constitute a laboratory for reflection and practice in order to  rethink equality in such a way as to situate Tocqueville’s interpretation within a broader range of propositions.  The position expressed by Tocqueville is indeed both late in coming and situated within a larger context.  It is late in coming, for the topos of “genius” took some time to gain predominance within the scientific world.  And it is situated, for this representation, which harks back to the values of heroism and grandeur, emerges only in the second half of the eighteenth century.  In the present talk, we shall endeavor to situate equality within a semantic network of norms and practices.  We shall also endeavor to take seriously the phrase passion for equality while trying to contextualize the level at which passion is located.

A Community of Equals? Lovers of Equality

To begin, let us consider the scientific world as a social world so as to see what place the egalitarian ideal and egalitarian practice hold within it and bring out the tensions and contradictions of a world that is grounded on both cooptation and distinction.  To what extent does the scientific community think of itself as a community of equals?  And how, first of all, is one to ground equality among scientists?

For the past two decades, numerous studies on learned sociability [la sociabilité savante] or on intellectual work have dramatized this opposition.  And several historiographical debates have focused on this tension.  If we take the question of the salon, it is, for Daniel Gordon in Citizens without Citizenship (1994), the site that allows one, via an ideal of conversation, to suspend social determinations and that makes its members “citizens without sovereignty.”[ref]Daniel Gordon, Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670-1789 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).[/ref] For Antoine Lilti, on contrary, the world of the salon was fundamentally an expression of “polite society”; it is the continuation of court society and is grounded on a logic of “distinction.”  Since the 1980s, with the works of Daniel Roche and then those of Margaret Jacob and, more recently, those of Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, we have been confronted with two different readings around the issue of sociability among Masons.  A first reading places the emphasis on an egalitarian conception that spreads within the lodges the ideal of mutual encounters and “Masonic fraternity.”  Social inequalities as well as differences in rank and precedence began to disappear and were replaced by rites.  In his book L’Europe des franc-maçons, Beaurepaire nuances this claim by bringing out the power of distinction within this egalitarian form of sociability.[ref]Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, L’Europe des francs-maçons: XVIIIe-XXIe siècles (Paris: Belin, 2002).[/ref] He shows that the Masonic world, too, was shot through with strategies based on distinction, as embodied in aristocratic as well as societal Masonry.  The third indicator is to be found in the Republic of Letters, an abstract ideal that was born in the Renaissance and that was given a new lease on life in the late seventeenth century after the European religious wars.  As Hans Bots and François Waquet write, “The Republic of Letters is made up of equal citizens.”[ref]Hans Bot et Françoise Waquet, La République des Lettres (Paris: Belin, 1997), p. 24.[/ref]» Pierre Bayle wrote in the 1684 Preface for his new periodical, Nouvelles de la République des Lettres: “We are all equal; we are all related as children of Apollo.”[ref]Ibid., p. 25.[/ref] One thus witnessed the flourishing of the phrase “citizen of the world” as a way of freeing oneself from sectarian tyranny as well as from national or patriotic tyranny (La Mothe Le Vayer to Fougeret de Montbron).  This cosmopolitanism insisted on an equality of condition among men of letters and scientists.

As a bulwark against those egalitarian values, a lexicon of grandeur, as embodied in great men, was created during the eighteenth century.  Jean-Claude Bonnet has shown very well in his book Naissance du Panthéon, essai sur le culte des grands hommes that this lexicon was directly imported from the world of military values.  It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that, within the lodges and in Academy competitions, new norms of grandeur were codified in which the emphasis was placed on genius (Darrin M. McMahon) as well as on the primacy of innateness, singularity, and the exceptional (see Norbert Elias’s Mozart).  A religious, hagiographic tone gave way to a more military, heroic tone in the formation of biographical canons.  This switch from the religious field to the military one is all the more surprising as it occurs within the context of a crisis of values within military society itself: meritocratic values were gaining strength against the values of birth, even as access to the highest posts was increasingly being limited to the aristocracy (Jay Smith).  In the scientific world, Mary Terrall has thus been able to show, in the case of expeditions to determine the shape of the Earth between 1730 and 1750 in Lapland and in the Amazon, how the image of the man of Science (in this instance, Pierre Louis Maupertuis and Charles Marie de La Condamine) became masculinized.[ref]Mary Terrall, “Gendered Spaces, Gendered Audiences: Inside and Outside the Paris Academy of Sciences,” Configurations, 3 (1995): 207-32.[/ref] The scientist was recognized to be an adventurer.

This tension between equality and distinction in the scientific world is expressed in a practical enquiry into the openness or closure of intellectual communities.  Study of the social composition of Academies and learned societies shows the strong predominance of the nobility and the clergy for reasons that also pertain to logics of social credit necessary to the economy of knowledge.  The logics of precedence were very strong, as was underscored, for example, by royal visits or visits by foreign sovereigns as well as by the actual physical organization of meetings between seated persons and standing persons, and so on.  The forms of sociability also remained based on a form of social exclusion, whether one is talking about women (Dena Goodman shows that the presence of women in salons was an exception in an exclusively male world of the Republic of Letters)[ref]Dena Goodman, the Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994).[/ref]) or about craftsmen and mechanized farming within scientific coteries, particularly in Paris.  Limited forms of openness were nevertheless clearly visible.  Thanks to the forms of sociability that emerged in the 1780s, museums and high schools became coed.  In the Masonic world, Beaurepaire has depicted adoptive Masonry as open to wives and sisters of Freemasons and also described the emergence of an autonomous Masonic practice with the creation of the Scottish Rite and “Amazonerie anglaise.”

Between ideals and practices, changes in the scientific world show, beyond some binary opposition between egalitarian society and inegalitarian society, a variety of conceptions and social values, including corporatist, hierarchical, and other ones.  The scientific world operates as a kind of social microcosm.

Can the Passion for Science Be Egalitarian?

If one follows Tocqueville’s suggestion, the passions for science and the passions for equality would have nothing in common from the standpoint of how they are justified and what their goals might be.  Yet, in following Tocqueville, we would see that what they have in common is the way in which they manifest themselves, which is marked by exaltation, emotion, and unreasonableness.  Let us try to envisage the “cognitive passions” as passions for equality.  This hint may lead us to think that we should take seriously the role and effects of this passion for equality in the mechanisms of knowledge production.  Can passion and reason be associated?[ref]Susan James, Passion and Action: The Emotions in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).[/ref] In her book on sentimentalism in scientific practice, Jessica Riskin criticizes the commonplace of the opposition between Scientific Revolution and the age of sensibility. She demonstrates that far from being separate, the cold production of scientific facts and the culture of sensibility were inextricably linked during the Enlightenment, in particular in France which represented  the most important scene for this tension.[ref]Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002).[/ref] It is a commonplace to contrast the conceptions of individually-based innovation and discovery with an egalitarian and communitarian rhetoric, but are things that simple?  In the diverse practices that frame the search for truth in the age of French classicism, one can make out various features that challenge egalitarian practice and shift the terms of the debate as they were laid down by Tocqueville.  The practice of exchange was based, first of all, on an economy of gifts and counter-gifts.  There, equality occurred in the form of reciprocity, as Ann Goldgar has well shown in her analysis of this phenomenon.[ref] Anne Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750 (New Haven and  London: Yale University Press, 1995).[/ref] The forms of exchange within scientific communities suspend, in part, the extant social hierarchies, but in part only, as the practice of writing letters of recommendation indicates, and they forge a network of obligations.  Social relationships are in part horizontal, but in part only.  The problem of the signature or authorship of a research paper or of a work oscillates between a community-based system (self-abnegation within a group, a Royal Society, or a religious order) and a system based on the uniqueness of each person.  The cumulative aspect of intellectual work, which is based on the paradigm of accumulation, of collection, and then, in the late eighteenth century, of inquiry, introduces the idea of a reproducibility, an interchangeability of scientific knowledge and of scientists themselves.[ref] Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).[/ref]

In Tocqueville’s discourse, what characterizes scientists is their passion—a passion that is positive, because it is creative, but that is also negative and destructive.  Here we find a wholly conventional discourse on the use and control of passion, but is it the most appropriate one for describing scientific practices?  Let us try, on the contrary, to contextualize the conditions for the exercise of the passion for science in the seventeenth century.[ref]Jacques Roux, Florian Charvolin, and Aurélie Dumain, “Les ‘passions cognitives’ ou la dimension rebelle du connaître en régime de passion. Premiers résultats d’un programme en cours,” Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 3:3 (2009): 369-85.[/ref] In rereading René Descartes’ treatise on the Passions of the Soul, one cannot help but indeed be surprised by what is at issue there—describing and detailing the heuristic virtues of this form of passion: admiration, observation, attention,[ref]See, besides Descartes’ treatise on the Passions, Denis Kambouchner, L’homme des passions. Commentaires sur Descartes (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), pp. 237-40.[/ref] etc. These scientific passions allow an enhancement of the status of amateur work performed by curious and inquisitive people.[ref] On the importance of attention, see Lorraine Daston, “Attention and the Values of Nature in the Enlightenment,” in Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, ed., The Moral Authority of Nature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 100-26.[/ref] Admiring, being attentive, and being surprised are states that, to a certain extent (i.e., without excess), “dispose us to the acquisition of the sciences,” writes Descartes.[ref]René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen H. Voss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), p. 60 (art. 76).[/ref] Lorraine Daston has thus been able to identify in the work of the seventeenth-century naturalist Charles Bonnet a genuine veneration of attention that is to be found again in the prescriptions and the accompanying commentary for treatises in natural history: “In the work of Enlightenment naturalists such as Charles Bonnet and Adam Schirach, the normative aspects of nature melted together, the useful into the beautiful, the oral into the sublime, the sacred into the pleasing.”[ref]Daston, p. 102.[/ref]»

The field of science, the field of aesthetics, and social and moral norms intersected here so as to justify and stimulate the investigation of nature.  The control of passion as emotion is key to producing good passions and stimulating the scientific imagination, but at the same time moral philosophy puts one on one’s guard against the risk of going off kilter since envy and jealousy cloud judgment.  According to the libertines, the intellectual virtues are there to allow one to exit from the roughness of the dogmatists: erudition—ex rudis is literally to exit from roughness, to lay claim to smoothness as an ethic of intellectual life.

Against the intellectual violence of the dogmatists with their excessiveness, the libertines were keen to circumscribe the limits of reason.  Now, the ultimate goal of such scientific enquiry was very much to establish a judgment.  Can such scientific judgment be conceived in egalitarian terms?  Academic judgment, for example, is based on some sort of consensus, on an agreement that transcends particular places and interests so as to delineate an ascent into generality.  But a plurality of practices involving the drawing of judgments existed in the eighteenth century, and the issue of their respective validity was an object of fierce debate.  Alongside the academic tribunal, which settled disputes and controversies, one finds horizontal circuits of exchange, judgments, and evaluations based on personal ties that involved sharing knowledge [interconnaissance] and, particularly, on “communities of friends.”  Recognition is said to occur not through depersonalization, through mediation by an officially sanctioned public audience or by experts who certify and authenticate findings, but rather through the development of personal attachments, affects, and identification.  Such friendly communication thus offered a lot of benefits on the cognitive level; it authorized short-circuits, shortcuts, things left unsaid, and routines and freed one from practices involving formalization that were required in reviews and in reports written for the Academies.

Scientific Practice as Political Passion

Lastly, one must reconsider the political stakes involved in Tocqueville’s reflections on this matter.  Because it is more reflective and better documented, the laboratory of intellectual communities has provided a great many examples of political tensions that are useful for thinking about the passions for equality.  And yet, we have still not broached the question of representation.  To what extent was the issue of equality expressed in terms of political representation in the world of science in the eighteenth century?  We are speaking here about the representation of man, but also of nature, that is to say, of other animate beings as well as of natural things.  These are vast topics for reflection that the men of the Enlightenment would set out to explore in their political philosophies.
A practical site (scientific societies are societies of equals), the scientific world is also the site for a theoretical elaboration of this question.  The problematization of equality is indeed anchored in the field of political philosophy as well as of the philosophy of right.  According to Rolf Reichardt, who devoted an article to this topic, the concept of equality was gradually reworked during the eighteenth century.[ref]Rolf Reichardt, “Egalité,” in Daniel Roche and Vincenzo Ferrone, ed., Le monde des Lumières (Paris: Fayard, 1999), pp. 97-110.[/ref] Reichardt identifies four main sources for this effort at redefinition.  First, some elements stem from Christianity, which advocated the primitive Christian communities’ egalitarian model for living, based on the equality of all believers before God, as in Father Claude Buffier’s 1726 Traité de la société civile (Treatise on civil society).  Here, equality is founded on love of one’s neighbor.  The second source was that of the myth of pastoral society, which constitutes a myth of the golden age.  François Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699) and then Helvétius’s De l’esprit (1774, translated as Essays on the Mind and its Several Faculties) advocated a return to the pastoral life.  The third source drew upon the utopian model of egalitarian societies, as in Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (1770, translated as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred).  The final horizon for thought came from natural law.  Samuel von Pufendorf, Baruch Spinoza, Hugo Grotius, and John Locke had been working out a theory of natural law that transformed Christian equality into political equality.  The topic of civil inequality ensues from the conditions of States but does not escape the norm of equality.  For Spitz, there was, between 1770 and 1830, an emergence of a “neoclassical egalitarian” paradigm as set out by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably that involved a project designed to liberate the individual.  Spitz shows that one of the theses of contemporary political thought remains “attached to the imperative of impartiality and equality as glorified in the neoclassical moment of French political thought.”[ref]Spitz, p. 7.[/ref]

To what extent did representations of nature lean on an egalitarian view?  One is struck to see the emergence of a quantitative approach, underpinned by statistics.  The question of representation by the population, by the mass, was then posed.  Take the example of the survey of Parisian flora, which was a constant concern from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth.  From one survey to the next, what was being measured were the changes in Parisian nature and in its limits.  This effort at measurement facilitated the inventorying and the quantification of volumes, as is underscored in a title by the verb “swarm [pulluler]” or the terms “population count [dénombrement]”—used by Sébastien Vaillant (1669-1722) in 1704—and “plant statistics.”[ref]Bibliothèque Centrale du Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, MS. 1297: Statistique végétale des environs de Paris, by Antoine-Nicolas Duchesne (1771).[/ref] Another view of nature fits within the context of the growing importance of the visual realm for the establishment of evidence.[ref] Luc Pauwels, ed., Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).[/ref] In the late seventeenth century, the naturalists as well as the antiquarians underwent a “visual turn,” as is testified to in the proposals formulated by Bernard de Montfaucon in his dissertation on L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Antiquity explained and represented in figures).[ref]Bernard de Montfaucon, “L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures ,” in Françoise Choay, Le patrimoine en questions. Anthologie pour un combat (Paris: Le Seuil, 2009), pp. 63-76.[/ref] Images were no longer simply illustrations; they had become evidence.[ref]Peter Burke, “Image as Evidence in Seventeenth-Century Europe,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 64:2 (April 2003): 273-96.[/ref] With the French Revolution, the logic of territorial representation came to contaminate the political representation of nature, especially in the debates around France’s organization into départements.  The transformation of the French Royal Garden of Plants into the French National Museum of Natural History allows one to get a glimpse of the repoliticization of the natural history collections that had been confiscated from the Émigrés.  This necessary transformation in the status of such collections was accompanied by institutional changes, as seen in the creation a general assembly for the Museum, which was divided into departments representing a class of natural entities.  With the refounding of the Museum in 1790, the revolutionaries did not just make a name change.  They thoroughly altered the institution’s internal organization while politicizing it, thereby creating a genuine assembly (on the model of the Constituent Assembly) where issues having to do with the preservation of natural collections were discussed.  A president, a secretary, officers, members, and an official for overseeing the garden police were named.[ref]French National Archives, AJ 15/96, August 23, 1790, Declaration of Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton and Bernard Germain de Lacépède.[/ref]



Anne GOLDGAR, Impolite learning : conduct and community in the Republic of Letters 1680-1750, New Haven (CT) ; London, Yale university press, 1995.

Jacques ROUX, Florian CHARVOLIN et Aurélie DUMAIN, “Les ‘passions cognitives’ ou la dimension rebelle du connaître en régime de passion. Premiers résultats d’un programme en cours”, Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 2009/3, p. 369-385.

Jessica RISKIN, Science in the age of sensibility : the sentimental empiricists of the French Enlightenment, Chicago, Chigago university press, 2002.

Rolf REICHARDT, “Egalité”, in Daniel Roche et Vincenzo Ferrone (dir.), Le monde des Lumières, Fayard, 1999, p. 97-110.

Jean-Fabien SPITZ, L’amour de l’égalité. Essai sur la critique de l’égalitarisme républicain en France, 1770-1830, Paris, Vrin-EHESS, 2000.


Stéphane Van Damme, Professeur à Sciences Po en histoire des savoirs, travaille au carrefour de l’histoire urbaine et de l’histoire des sciences (17e-20e siècles). Son mémoire d’habilitation à diriger les recherches portait sur la naissance de l’archéologie urbaine à Londres et à Paris (Le passé composé des métropoles, 2010). Il a notamment publié Descartes. Essai d’histoire culturelle d’une grandeur philosophique (XVIIe-XXe siècle), Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, collection “ Facettes ”, 2002 ; Paris, capitale philosophique de la Fronde à la Révolution, Editions Odile Jacob, collection Histoire, 2005 ; Le temple de la sagesse. Savoirs, écriture et sociabilité urbaine (Lyon, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle), Paris, Editions de l’EHESS, Civilisations et société, 2005,  Collection “Civilisations et sociétés” et L’Epreuve libertine. Morale, soupçon et pouvoirs dans la France baroque, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2008.




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