Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy edited by Knud Haakonssen, Slipcase edition (Cambridge University Press) More than thirty eminent scholars from nine different countries have contributed to The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy - the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of the subject available in English. For the eighteenth century the dominant concept in philosophy was human nature and so it is around this concept that the work is centered. This allows the contributors to offer both detailed explorations of the epistemological, metaphysical and ethical themes that continue to stand at the forefront of philosophy, and to voice a critical attitude to the historiography behind this emphasis in philosophical thought. At the same time there is due sensitivity to historical context with particular emphasis on the connections between philosophy, science, and theology. This judiciously balanced, systematic, and comprehensive account of the whole of Western philosophy in the period will be an invaluable resource for philosophers, intellectual historians, theologians, political theorists, historians of science and literary scholars.
Excerpt: The attempt to identify the philosophy of the eighteenth century by means of the Enlightenment is as inadequate as it is popular. Apart from the danger of tautology – namely that the philosophy of the eighteenth century is the philosophy of the Enlightenment because the Enlightenment is the eighteenth century – the concept of Enlightenment is either too wide or too narrow to capture the philosophical riches of the century. It is too wide when it reflects the scholarship of the last half century, which has made the Enlightenment into an ever more complex phenomenon that, it has been suggested, cannot be talked about in the singular since it makes sense to talk not only of any number of national Enlightenments but also of provincial, professional, popular, confessional, and several other Enlightenments.1 Furthermore, modern scholarship has widened the idea of Enlightenment far beyond what can be recognised as in any sense a philosophical culture. While this in itself has proved to be an enormous enrichment of historical scholarship and cultural debate, it clearly makes the concept of Enlightenment useless as a tool for identifying a coherent philosophy. On the contrary, such work has a tendency to reinforce a pluralistic understanding of eighteenth-century philosophy, a topic we will return to.
If contemporary scholarship has rendered the concept of Enlightenment too wide to characterise a philosophy, traditional polemics has given us an idea too narrow and primitive to serve the purpose. The idea of Enlightenment as a style of thinking and as a cultural process that were typical of, but not exclusive to, the eighteenth century was common in European debate at the turn of that century under such labels as Aufklärung, eclaircissement, and illumination, but the idea of the Enlightenment as a particular period was slower to take hold, apparently first in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s lectures in Berlin in the 1820s on the history of philosophy and on the philosophy of history, and it was not until 1910 that the idea of the period secured – and was secured by – its present English label.2 The French period-concept of le siècle des lumières was largely parochial, referring to a relatively small group of Paris intellectuals who were active during a forty-year period from the late 1740s until the Revolution of 1789, but this was just the most extreme case of the general problem with the traditional narrow understanding of the Enlightenment.
For more than two centuries, it has been those critical of one or another aspect of eighteenth-century thought who have taken the lead in shaping the concept of the Enlightenment. We may mention three particularly important episodes here. First, the immediate reaction to the French Revolution across Europe included rejection of the French philosophes who had been invoked by the revolutionaries, and this rejection had its parallel in the three remarkable series of philosophical lectures that signalled a new era in Britain, France, and Germany, those by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1818), Victor Cousin (1815), and Hegel (1805, or, at least, in the 1820s), to which we will return. This criticism had a shaping influence on the idea of the Enlightenment’s political and religious tenor and French focus, and was so forceful that even thinkers whom we might consider cognate spirits with much of the Enlightenment, such as John Stuart Mill, accepted it. The fact that the philosophes on the whole had cautioned against revolution – and that those of them who lived long enough had rejected the great Revolution3 – made no difference, and it still makes little difference.
Secondly, German scholarship from the 1870s onwards invented the idea that German culture from the 1770s to the 1830s had made a decisive break with earlier European culture, especially that of the ‘West’, meaning France and Britain and their derivatives in Germany itself. This fault line came to be seen as the division between Enlightenment on one hand and Romanticism, historicism, and idealism on the other. Friedrich Meinecke’s Die Entstehung des Historismus (1936) was a late expression and summary of this scholarship; in it, Meinecke saw the German supersession of the Enlightenment as a second Reformation, which he, significantly, called Die deutsche Bewegung (the German Movement).4 It is a line of thinking that has had a curiously extended life in the English-speaking world thanks to the influence of Sir Isaiah Berlin, who, however, shifted the historical parallels and saw the German Movement as a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’.5 But, whatever the labels, it was a thin Enlightenment that was left once the German Movement had deprived it of thinkers such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried von Herder.6
Both of the episodes mentioned here portray an Enlightenment that is quite limited. It was either purely French or heavily derived from French ideas, and it was a relatively brief period in European history, well short of the full eighteenth century. A third episode in the saga of how the common idea of the Enlightenment has been shaped by its enemies, namely late twentieth-century post-modernism, has tended in the opposite direction. Here the Enlightenment is often stretched to mean something like ‘leading features of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual culture in Europe’. As has been pointed out, in this approach
utility trumps chronology: certain thinkers prove irresistible to critics of the Enlightenment project because they offer more forceful formulations of what are assumed to be central components of the project than can typically be found among thinkers whose works fall more squarely within the historical Enlightenment. Bacon is irreplaceable as an advocate for the scientific domination of nature, Hobbes is priceless as a representative of that individualist, rights- and contract-centered theory that critics assume lies at the heart of Enlightenment political thought, and Descartes serves as the epitome of that foundationalist and subject-centered conception of reason that philosophers have spent most of this century dismantling.7
At the same time, it is common in the post-modernist image of the Enlightenment to take Kant as the exemplary representative. The extreme vagueness concerning the who, where, and when of the Enlightenment is, it has been shown, easily matched by the characterisation of its intellectual content.8 However, post-modernism shares with its critical predecessors the idea that the Enlightenment in one way or another was characterised by a very narrow outlook on human life.9 In this regard, the most common charges are rationalism (meaning intellectualism) at the expense of passion and imagination; the idea of a universal human nature, to the detriment of individuality; individualism, disregarding social and spiritual holism; scientistic generalising, in ignorance of historical understanding of the particular; and universalism and internationalism without respect for the local and the national. Without entering into the complications arising from the differences between the various deriders of the Enlightenment,10 it should be obvious that it is pointless to shackle the philosophy of the century to a concept that to such a degree has been shaped and reshaped by the culture wars of later periods.
A much more serious issue is the second factor mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, namely, the attempt to identify the philosophy of the eighteenth century as the gradual culmination of a distinctively early-modern philosophy. This general idea has commonly been relied upon by such critics of the Enlightenment as those cited earlier, but it has been shared by most people who would not see themselves in this light. It has, in fact, been the backbone of most general histories of philosophy in the post-Renaissance and post-Reformation period, and it is certain that it, in one way or another, has an influence on both authors and readers of the present volume. It is the paradigm within which we work, or, at least, from which we set out, even when we want to be critical of it, and, as will be evident from several aspects of this work, much scholarship has been devoted to such criticism. As is so often the case with general paradigms of old vintage, this one is vague and endlessly flexible, and any brief delineation of it is correspondingly difficult. However, it is possible to indicate the historicity of the standard concept of eighteenth-century philosophy and thus to alert the reader not to take the subject of this work for granted.
II. THE CONCEPT OF EARLY-MODERN PHILOSOPHY
The most basic of the ideas that have dominated the writing11 of the history of philosophy during the last two centuries is that the theory of knowledge is at the core of all sound philosophy, the true prima philosophia. Furthermore, the significance of early-modern philosophy is commonly considered in this historiography to be that the roughly three centuries from the late Renaissance to 1800 were the period when philosophers increasingly came to understand this true nature of philosophy. The problem of knowledge which philosophy was supposed to deal with was that posed by scepticism conceived as a denial of the possibility of justified beliefs or scientific explanations. The philosophical history of the period has therefore commonly been told as the story of an ever-deepening struggle with scepticism that culminated in a total rejection of the premises upon which the contest had taken place, or, rather, in two such rejections, that by Immanuel Kant and that by Thomas Reid.
For these two thinkers, the central question of philosophy was not how we could acquire true knowledge. Rather, given that we do have knowledge (especially science), how is this possible, or what are its presuppositions? This standpoint inspired subsequent generations to a view of the trajectory of early-modern philosophy according to which traditional ontology was largely an encumbrance on epistemology, and the development from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century consisted in shedding this burden. It was the Hegelian transition from substance to subject, from the so-called ‘great systems’ within which Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz had fought scepticism, to the theories of perception, ideas, and judgement with which Locke, Leibniz (again), Wolff, Berkeley, Condillac, Hume, and many others tried to found the new sciences. In other words, it was a development that confirmed and underlined one of the most elementary assumptions of the historians who traced it, namely, that knowledge is to be understood in terms of the individual person’s mind, an assumption that remained remarkably unshaken despite Hegel.
Integral to the view indicated here is that the epistemological approach divided post-Renaissance philosophy into two major schools or directions, namely, rationalism and empiricism. The former has commonly been seen as characteristic of the European continent, though one of the defining features of eighteenth-century philosophy, on this view, was that France gradually switched from Cartesian rationalism to Lockean empiricism, embodied by Condillac. Germany, however, was supposed to maintain a continuous development of rational system-building through Leibniz, Wolff, and their followers and opponents. In contrast, the English-speaking world was seen to pursue the empiricist view in ever-finer detail from Bacon and Hobbes through Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.
This way of understanding the core of early-modern philosophy is what I call the epistemological paradigm. It sees philosophy as essentially concerned with the justification of beliefs and judgements; it understands such justification in terms of events, whether perceptive or inferential, in the mind – or, as if in the mind – of the individual person; and it tends to apply this idea of epistemological justification as the criterion for what is properly included within the discipline of philosophy.
This basic model is familiar to everyone who has looked into the general histories of early-modern philosophy, both current and past, and to any teacher of the subject. Needless to say, there are a great many variations on this interpretative theme, often with acknowledgement of important exceptions and additions, such as the presence of an empiricist strain in German Enlightenment thought, but the general features have been remarkably pervasive. Furthermore, the paradigm has reigned for a long time. The emphasis on the struggle against scepticism was already a prominent feature of the philosophical historiography of the Kantians at the close of the eighteenth century, and it has inspired some of the most appreciated contemporary scholarship in the form given to the thesis by Richard Popkin. Similarly, the pre-eminence given to epistemology is comparable in the Kantian Wilhelm Gottfried Tennemann’s twelve-volume Geschichte der Philosophie (1798–1819) and Father Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–74). It is also noticeable that while morals, politics, law, and art have gained status as objects of past philosophical inquiry in some recent general histories of philosophy, they are more often treated in the same stepmotherly manner as they were in the great nineteenth-century works, such as those by Friedrich Ueberweg and Kuno Fisher. Often they have been treated as separate disciplines with their own histories, obviously so in the case of the many histories of political thought, but also in major histories of ethics from, for instance, Christian Garve’s Uebersicht der vornehmsten Principien der Sittenlehre, von dem Zeitalter des Aristoteles an bis auf die unsre Zeiten (1798), through Sir James Mackintosh’s Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, Chiefly during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1830) and Friedrich Jodl’s Geschichte der Ethik in der neueren Philosophie (1882–9), to J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (1998).
III. THE HISTORY OF THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL PARADIGM
The epistemological paradigm for the history of early-modern philosophy has held sway so universally, at least until recently, that it may be surprising to suggest that it itself has a history; in fact, that it can be traced back to a particular episode or couple of episodes at the close of the eighteenth century. The paradigm became so widely accepted because it was propagated by two remarkably successful philosophical movements in which a useful past was an integral part, namely, as mentioned, the Scottish Common Sense philosophy formulated by Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart and the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. As far as the latter is concerned, the way had been cleared in one fundamental respect by Jacob Brucker’s and the Wolffians’ downgrading of practical philosophy relative to theoretical philosophy, as Tim Hochstrasser has shown.12 However, it was the Kantians who had the decisive influence on the writing of the histories.13
The pattern of philosophical history laid down by Reid, Kant, and their followers became prescriptive far beyond their own heyday. One reason for this continuing impact seems to have been that the history of philosophy became the subject of more or less basic university courses on the European continent during the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that it became widely accepted that the best introduction to the discipline of philosophy was through its history, and the textbooks for these courses were written under the influence of the views indicated here. Thus was created a teaching and textbook tradition that, as Ulrich Johannes Schneider has shown in great detail, swept through German- and French-dominated Europe.14 It also crossed the Channel, for although the English and Scottish universities were much slower to adopt systematic tuition in the history of philosophy, there was clearly an interest in the subject sufficient to sustain public lecture series, such as the early ones by Coleridge and Hazlitt, as well as general texts, both domestic products such as Dugald Stewart’s Dissertation Exhibiting the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical and Political Philosophy since the Revival of Letters in Europe (1815–21), George Henry Lewes’s A Biographical History of Philosophy (1845), Frederick Denison Maurice’s several histories, and a large number of more specialised or limited histories, and imported works, such as William Enfield’s version of Brucker, and translations of Tennemann, Hegel, Erdmann, Ueberweg, Windelband, Lefevre, Alfred Weber, Cousin, Høffding, and many more. However, it is clear that the acceptance of the subject was much slower in England than on the Continent. The English long considered the history of philosophy a recent German invention, in a sense quite rightly. It may be a sign of the time it took for the epistemological paradigm to conquer Britain that Enfield’s (that is, Brucker’s) distinctly pre-Kantian history (Brucker first published in 1742–4) remained acceptable so late in Britain: the fifth and last edition appeared in 1839.15
The epistemological paradigm has had a remarkable ability to transcend most major shifts in philosophy for nearly a couple of centuries. To take just one obvious example, often there was virtually no difference in views between the neo-Kantians and the logical positivists when it came to the general shape of the history of early-modern philosophy. Indeed, when a philosopher switched from the Kantian to the positivist camp, his idea of historical development might well remain unchanged (even though his appraisals changed). Similarly, the paradigm has been able to straddle the major confessional divides. There is not a whole lot of difference between, say, Karl Vorländer, Father Copleston, Bertrand Russell, and Anders Wedberg when it comes to deciding what is the mainstream of philosophy from Descartes to Kant.16
The philosophical differences between the two founders of the modern concept of the history of philosophy, Reid and Kant, were, of course, profound, but there was a striking similarity in their reactions to the immediate philosophical past. They both considered that David Hume had brought the modern philosophical tradition to a sceptical crisis because he reduced knowledge to perceptually derived ideas whose representational warrant was impossible to establish. And they both rejected this notion of knowledge as ideas in favour of a concept of knowledge as judgements that are warranted by features of undeniability on the part of any individual who wants to claim any beliefs at all. At the same time, although there is a gulf between Reid’s establishment of the first principles of common sense and Kant’s transcendental deduction of the pure forms of sensible intuition and of the categories, they both retained a fundamental feature of what they took to be Hume’s approach, namely, that knowledge is a matter of the activity of the individual mind. Both sides of this, the individualism and the mentalism, were to remain dominant assumptions in subsequent philosophy and, not least, in interpretations of the history of early-modern philosophy.
Kant’s and Reid’s views of how modern philosophy had reached what they considered the impasse of Hume’s scepticism were not the same but they were compatible. Neither thinker wrote a history of philosophy, yet both developed their views in often intense dialogue with their predecessors. However, their discussions were generally conducted as if with contemporaries. Both of them were distinct ‘presentists’ for whom the philosophy of the past had to be overcome by making it a moment in their own thought. In Kant’s case, this meant that we should deal with the history of philosophy not as ‘historical and empirical’ but as ‘rational, i.e., possible a priori’ – a ‘philosophical archaeology’ of ‘the nature of human reason’. (Loses Blatt F 3, in Ak 20: 341). When Kant does approach the history of philosophy as ‘historical and empirical’ in his Lectures on Logic, his surveys are not dramatically different from those of his contemporaries, and his own promise of progress, namely the critical establishment of metaphysics as ‘the real, true philosophy’, itself seems to be within empirical history.17 However, when we turn to the treatment of the same history in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, we find the critical overcoming of dogmatism and scepticism and the stalemate, ‘indifferentism’, to which they have fought each other, to be inherent in reason itself. ‘The critical path alone is still open.’18 Of course, it was this well-known idea of an unavoidable dialectical opposition between Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism and dogmatism on one hand and Locke’s empiricism tending to Hume’s scepticism on the other that became the prototype of the canonical philosophical histories we have mentioned.
The foundational history in this vein was the already mentioned twelve-volume work by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann.19 Springing from Tennemann’s own lectures in Marburg, the work was of central importance to the three significant lecture series on the history of philosophy – mentioned earlier – that signalled the changing status of the subject at the opening of the nineteenth century, namely Hegel’s in Berlin in the 1820s (and perhaps already in Jena in 1805), Cousin’s in Paris in 1815, and Coleridge’s in London in 1818.20 Of these, Hegel’s were undoubtedly the most significant; they were an important step in Hegel’s philosophical development and they helped establish the central role of the history of philosophy in the philosophical curriculum.21 However, although they were certainly more catholic in their conception of philosophy than many of the Kantian histories, one cannot say that Hegel substantially changed the contours of early-modern philosophy and its priorities, which had been laid down by the Kantian revolution. Something similar may be said about Schelling’s lectures ‘On the History of Modern Philosophy’, probably from 1833–4 (but with much earlier predecessors, now lost). Despite their title, the lectures are devoted to the development of German idealism and its ancestry in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Wolff, but they do devote a couple of pages to Bacon and Hume, mainly so as to invoke the formula that ‘From the beginning of modern philosophy…, rationalism and empiricism move parallel to each other, and they have remained parallel until now.’
Contents: Part I. The Concept of
Eighteenth-Century Philosophy: 1. The history of eighteenth-century
philosophy: history or philosophy by Knud Haakonssen; 2. Concepts of
philosophy by Werner Schneiders; 3. Schools and movements by Carl
Henrik Koch; 4. The institutionalisation of philosophy in
continental Europe by T. J. Hochstrasser; 5. The curriculum in
Britain, Ireland and the Colonies by M.A. Stewart; 6. Informal
networks by Ann Thomson;
Part II. The Science of Human Nature: 7. Philosophical methods by Reinhard Brandt; 8. Human nature by Aaron Garrett; 9. Perception and ideas, judgment by Kenneth Winkler; 10. Self-consciousness and personal identity by Udo Thiel; 11. Reason by Michel Malherbe; 12. Substances and modes, space and time by Heiner F. Klemme; 13. Causality by Heiner F. Klemme; 14. Knowledge and belief by Manfred Kuehn; 15. Scepticism by Richard H. Popkin; 16. Philosophy of language by Hans Aarsleff; 17. Rhetoric by Peter France; 18. Aesthetics by Rudolf A. Makkreel; 19. The active powers by Jerome B. Schneewind; 20. Education by Geraint Parry;
Part III. Philosophy and Theology: 21. Natural and revealed religion by B. A. Gerrish; 22. Revealed religion: the continental European debate by Maria Rosa Antognazza; 23. Revealed religion: the British debate; 24. Arguments for the existence of God: the British debate by M. A. Stewart; 25. Arguments for the existence of God: The continental European debate by Maria Rosa Antognazza; 26. The problem of theodicy by Luca Fonnesu; 27. Religion and society by Simone Zurbuchen;
Part IV. Natural Philosophy: 28. Artifice and the natural world: Mathematics, logic, technology by James Franklin; 29. The study of nature by John Gascoigne; 30. Natural philosophy by Pierre Kerszberg; 31. Natural history by Phillip R. Sloan;
Part V. Moral Philosophy: 32. The foundations of morality by David Fate Norton and Manfred Kuehn; 33. Norm and normativity by Stephen Darwall; 34. Politics by W. Kersting; 35. Social sciences by Robert Brown; 36. Philosophical reflection on history by Dario Perinetti.
The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a
Certain Something by Richard Scholar (Oxford University Press)
What is the je-ne-sais-quoi, if it is indeed
something at all, and how can it be put into words? In addressing
these questions, Richard Scholar offers the first full-length study
of the je-ne-sais-quoi and its fortunes in early modern
Excerpt: It happens sometimes, in our encounters with others,
that we are moved by something which leaves us struggling to explain
or express what it is even as it transforms our lives. What is that
something, and how can it be put into words? Such questions
fascinated early modern Europeans and appear in a wide range of
their literary and philosophical texts, some of them well known
today, others all but forgotten. These texts bear witness to the
emergence of a new way of talking and thinking in the period to
which they belong. The je-ne-sais-quoi, a term with precursors in
Latin and the Romance languages, emerges in
To start, then, let us look briefly at a celebrated early modern text that lies at the heart of this study and to which we shall return. Among the eight hundred or so fragments of writing that Pascal left among his papers at his death in August 1662, and that came to be known as the Pensées, one fragment describes the experience of human love with a force that is all its own:
Qui voudra connaitre a plein la vanité de l'homme n'a qu'a considérer les causes et les effets de l'amour. La cause en est un Je ne sais quoi. Corneille.
Et les effets en sont effroyables. Ce Je ne sais quoi, si peu de chose qu'on ne peut le reconnoitre, remue toute la terre, les princes, les armées, le monde entier.
Le nez de Cléopatre s'il eut été plus court toute la face de la terre aurait changé.
Whoever wishes to know fully the vanity of humankind has only to consider the causes and effects of love. Its cause is a je-ne-sais-quoi (Corneille). And its effects are appalling. This je-ne-sais-quoi, so slight a thing that it cannot be recognized, shakes all the earth, princes, armies, the whole world.
Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the entire face of the earth would have changed.
Many readers of this fragment have been struck by its stark vision of human love as a form of vanity, by its sense of the radical disproportion between effects and their causes, and (above all) by its arresting and elliptical reference to Cleopatra's nose. Fewer have noticed that the entire fragment turns on a single word. The je-nesais-quoi first appears in it as a newly prominent feature of French language and culture, a key expression associated with the most successful playwright of the day (Corneille), which Pascal puts to use in order to encapsulate a pithy observation about love. A shift takes place in the penultimate sentence of the fragment as the je-nesais-quoi ceases merely to be used as a key expression and itself becomes the object of reflection. This shift of attention is made possible, at a grammatical level, by the substantival function increasingly assigned to the expression in the middle decades of the seventeenth century: it now appears to designate a 'something' whose nature may be elusive but can certainly be investigated. The je-ne-sais-quoi interests Pascal, in other words, not for its lexical novelty alone but also because it encapsulates a particular view of human experience which he wishes to examine. What is the love that draws humans together, or rather, why is it that they fall so violently in love with one person and not another? The answer may be to recognize, once all explanations have been exhausted, that there is in some human relations a certain something that cannot be fully known or expressed but which changes everything. Pascal invites us to view the je-ne-sais-quoi, not only as a keyword of his age, but as none other than that certain something.
It is this double invitation that I take up in what follows. I do
so by reading early modern texts by Pascal and others in the light
of the questions with which I started: what is the je-ne-sais-quoi,
and how can it be put into words? This book traces the history of
the expression and its cluster of meanings across a range of
linguistic, literary, and philosophical contexts in early modern
THREE WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE JE-NE-SAIS-QUOI
This figure becomes visible in the course of the book as three ways of looking at the je-ne-sais-quoi are successively adopted. The first involves examining its emergence as a noun and a topic—its word history; the second, the uses to which it is put in different literary and philosophical contexts during the same period—its critical histories; the third, the scattered textual traces that appear to anticipate its emergence—its pre-history.
Part I of the book traces the word history of the
je-ne-sais-quoi, in other words, its emergence in sixteenth- and
Part II of the book looks in detail at three of the discursive
realms mapped by Bouhours—nature, the passions, and culture—and
offers a critical history of the je-ne-sais-quoi in each. It is
commonly said in the early modern period that elusive qualities or
forces draw natural bodies together; attempts in natural philosophy
to explain these forces are the subject of Chapter 2. It is said too
thatelusive forces draw individual human beings into passionate
relations with one another; attempts by philosophers and poets to
describe such experiences are the subject of Chapter 3. It is
claimed by some early modern writers, finally, that the forces at
work in art and society—the realm of culture—are as elusive as those
found in the realms of nature and the passions; these claims are the
subject of Chapter 4. The je-ne-sais-quoi is used in each chapter as
a lexical tracer to direct and control the sample of a large and
complex discursive realm. The approach taken in this part of the
book is `historical' in that it adopts the methods of intellectual
history developed by such figures as Ian Maclean and Quentin
Skinner: it seeks to understand each proposition advanced as a move
in some pre-existing debate.3 The approach is 'critical' in that it
also seeks to assess whether particular lexical instances of the
je-ne-sais-quoi fit the term's core meaning, in other words, whether
or not we are dealing in each case with the real thing. What the
critical histories of Part II tend to suggest is that the
je-ne-sais-quoi, in its rise to prominence, refers to a certain
something that frustrates all attempts to define its identity and
establish its causes even as it invites those attempts. This
something, wherever it falls into experience, brings settled forms
of explanation and expression to a crisis. It visibly disturbs
sedimented terms, passes forcefully through current ones, and
abandons these as they in turn undergo the process of cultural
sedimentation. The critical histories offered here trace this
process in the early modern period. The je-ne-sais-quoi unsettles
its semantic precursors in its rise to prominence: one sees this in
the debate about occult qualities and nature's other secrets that
divides philosophers throughout
Part III of the book attempts to rescue the je-ne-sais-quoi from
this fate as a supple means of tracing powerful first-person
experiences that elude explanation. It undertakes this rescue
attempt by altering the direction of the historical narrative and by
moving backwards, against the flow of the topic's history, into its
'prehistory'. I adopt the pre-historical method from the recent work
This full-length study of the early modern je-ne-sais-quoi, the first of its kind, both draws upon and complements the work done on the topic in the last hundred years or so. It develops an interdisciplinary approach that tracks the movements of the je-ne-sais-quoi between different modes of writing, philosophical and literary ones in particular, instead of restricting its application to one domain. The topic requires such an approach.
Earlier accounts of the je-ne-sais-quoi are of two kinds: those that examine it as a word with a predominantly literary history, and those that treat it as a topic of general philosophy in the Continental tradition. The latter approach has yielded the only other book 0n the topic, Vladimir Jankélévitch's Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque-rien (The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi and the Next-To-Nothing), first published in 1957 and revised heavily for republication (in three volumes) in 1980. Jankélévitch defines the je-ne-sais-quoi as the principle of life itself, as a something so inexplicable and insubstantial that it appears to be a 'next-to-nothing', but which alone sets philosophical thinking into movement. He says in the book's opening page:
it y a quelque chose d'inévident et d'indémontrable a quoi tient le doté inexhaustible, atmosphérique des totalités spirituelles, quelque chose dont ('invisible présence nous comble, dont l'absence inexplicable nous laisse curieusement inquiets, quelque chose qui n'existe pas et qui pourtant est la chose la plus importante entre toutes les choses importantes, la seule qui vaille la peine d'étre dite et la seule justement qu'on ne puisse dire!4
(There is something inaccessible and indemonstrable that gives spiritual entities their inexhaustible atmospheric quality; something whose invisible presence satisfies us and whose inexplicable absence leaves us strangely unsettled; something that does not exist and yet is the most important thing of all, the only one worth expressing, and yet precisely the only one that cannot be expressed!)
This fleeting something, this impalpable 'mood' of being, Jankélévitch calls the je-ne-sais-quoi. He discerns its presence not just in the realm of the aesthetic, as literary historians tend to do, but in the workings of time, charm, and freedom; he considers recognition as the sole process by which it can be apprehended; and he ends by discovering and celebrating the je-ne-sais-quoi as the inexplicable vital impulse of the human will.
When casting around for the right term for his elusive object, Jankélévitch seems to have been drawn to the je-ne-sais-quoi partly for the word's resolutely French character. Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque-rien, first written in the years following the end of the Second World War, includes frequent examples drawn from the Nazi occupation of France; references to German thought, meanwhile, are notable by their absence from the work of a philosopher who wrote his thesis on Schelling. Jankélévitch looks instead to a predecessor in the French philosophical tradition, Henri Bergson, commenting: `cette propriété pas-comme-les-autres, c'est, pour parler avec Bergson, "l'imprévisible rien qui fait tout"' (this property that is 'not-like-the-other-ones' is, to borrow Bergson's phrase, 'the unforeseeable nothing that changes everything') (1980: i. 104). Jankélévitch's book finds a place in the twentieth-century French tradition that stretches from Bergson to Deleuze and beyond. Jankélévitch typifies this tradition in his preference for the creation of transhistorical philosophical concepts over the ad0ption of a historical perspective. He draws upon early modern writing about the je-ne-sais-quoi only insofar as this enables him to pursue his own thinking.6 This need not prevent his je-ne-sais-quoi fr0m coinciding with that described by early modern writers, of course, but any such occasion is and could only be precisely that —a coincidence. Jankélévitch's philosophical turn of mind helps to explain why he has such rich and inventive things to say about what the je-ne-sais-quoi might be. The same turn of mind also helps to explain, perhaps, the relative lack of thought that Jankélévitch devotes to the literary question of how the je-ne-sais-quoi is to be put into words. He clearly has an intuitive sense that the question is an important one: his very title, after all, rephrases the je-ne-sais-quoi as `lepresque-rien' in what seems to be a second attempt to encapsulate its meaning. But the literary question never becomes the focus of his enquiry.
Most studies of the je-ne-sais-quoi offer, by contrast with
Jankélévitch, a predominantly literary history of the word. The
prevalent view among these studies has long been—and remains to this
day—that the je-ne-sais-quoi primarily belongs t0 early modern
discussions 0f literary or aesthetic quality. An important early
statement of this view is to be found in the historical section of
Benedetto Croce's influential Estetica come scienza dell'espressione
(190z). Croce examines the je-ne-sais-quoi as part of a project to
establish aesthetics as a form of knowledge that is concerned with
the particular, not the universal, and that is theoretical but not
rational.' He identifies the je-ne-sais-quoi as part of an early and
failed attempt to articulate aesthetic knowledge (1953: 191–207).
Although they proved unsuccessful, he argues, seventeenth-century
keywords such as the je-ne-sais-quoi are historically significant as
'apprehensions of ground still to be conquered' (1953: 197). Joel
Spingarn proves more generous in the single paragraph that he
devotes to the topic in the introduction to his Critical Essays of
the Seventeenth Century (1908). His remarks set the pattern for much
later work. The je-ne-sais-quoi 'illustrates the process by which
the seventeenth century formulated the terminology of modern
criticism', he asserts, noting the word's Italian and Spanish
precursors as well as its success in
He seeks instead to complicate the adherence to norms of clarity, decorum, and probability commonly used to characterize the French seventeenth-century classical aesthetic, citing the je-ne-sais-quoi as a word that served to crystallize the period's salutary 'suspicion of the pat formula and the easy explanation' (1950: 200). The je-nesais-quoi encapsulates, for Borgerhoff, the freedom of French classicism. Succeeding literary historians have tended to adopt one of these three approaches in considering the je-ne-sais-quoi to be either a temporary impasse for modern literary or aesthetic discourse (after Croce), a source for its development (after Spingarn), or an unruly element within the complex whole of classicism (after Borgerhoff).
The notion with which the je-ne-sais-quoi is most commonly associated in traditional literary history is the 'sublime'. This notion has of course a rich literary and philosophical history of its own in the early modern period.9 It becomes a key site of literary debate in late seventeenth-century France when Boileau and others use it to revive a hitherto largely neglected Greek treatise, presumed to be the work of Cassius Longinus, which sets out to describe the quality or force of a text that fills the perceptive reader with wonder. Over a century later, it comes to provide a theoretical framework for Romantic writing, following the publication of the Critique of Judgement (1790) in which Kant borrows the term (das Erhabene in German) to define human experience of impressive objects in nature. Literary historians tend to connect the je-ne-sais-quoi and the sublime on the historical grounds that Bouhours's treatment of the former pre-dates by a mere three years Boileau's French translation of Longinus' Peri hupsous under the title Le Traité du sublime (1674 ). What they then make of this connection depends on theirnarrative of literary history. The urge to integrate the je-ne-sais-quoi within a genealogy of modern aesthetics, shared in different ways by both Croce and Spingarn, can be detected in much of the later scholarship. Annie Becq, in a detailed study, places the je-ne-saisquoi along with grace and the sublime at what she calls the Genèse de l'esthétique francaise moderne (source of modern French aesthetics). Louis Marin, in a manner reminiscent of Croce, characterizes seventeenth-century notions such as the sublime and the je-ne-saisquoi as c0nfused apprehensions of ground as yet unconquered. The conquering hero, for Marin, is Kant." Marin, in a later article, defines Pascal's treatment of the infinite as the moment of transition between the classical and Kantian notions of the sublime: Pascal, he concludes, 'provided the Romantics with an aesthetic model for sublime writing'. Marin's account makes clearer than any other why he and certain other historians of the early modern je-ne-sais-quoi choose to label the term 'pre-Romantic'. The suffix `pre-' is genealogical in character here: it indicates the position ascribed to the je-ne-sais-quoi, high in the family tree of the Romantic sublime, as an imperfect anticipation of later developments. Nicholas Cronk, resisting this teleological tendency, sets out in a recently published book to restore to seventeenth-century notions their historical particularity by tracing the emergence of the je-nesais-quoi and the sublime in the 1670s. In so doing he contributes, after Borgerhoff and others, to the long-running debate about the pertinence of the term 'classicism' to the literary production of this period.
The pioneering scholarship of Croce, Spingarn, and Borgerhoff remains of value. But the historical narratives that all three offer are, in various ways, reductive of the je-ne-sais-quoi. All of them consider it to be primarily a literary or aesthetic topic. Their view fails to reflect the range of the term's occurrences across a range of different intellectual domains and literary and cultural practices in the early modern period. What it does reflect, in the case of Croce and Spingarn, is their use of hindsight or `analepsis' to project the genesis of later notions and categories back into the past. Their aim is to establish a genealogy for the Kantian sublime or m0dern critical discourse; they note, quite correctly in so far as it goes, that the seventeenth-century je-ne-sais-quoi is used to name an apprehension of subtle qualities in a work of art; they then limit the history of the word to its role as a source for the development that interests them. Historians of recent decades have become more wary of the teleological inferences that analepsis makes possible. A major figure in this development, Michel Foucault, powerfully criticizes conventional history of ideas f0r projecting the object and conditions of present knowledge back into the past.' There may be no clearer case of this than the je-ne-sais-quoi, which modern aesthetic criticism transforms retrospectively into a fledgling version of itself.
Those like Borgerhoff who talk of the je-ne-sais-quoi as 'classical' commit themselves to a view equally open to the charge of backward projection: that late seventeenth-century French society contains a distinct and autonomous domain in which the literary arts are practised. Talk of 'classicism' implicitly suggests that such a domain exists. But historians in the wake of Bourdieu (1979) have increasingly countered this view by arguing that the je-ne-sais-quoi, like other ostensibly literary and cultural topics, is merely one site of a wider social and ideological conflict in this period.16 This historical argument may—in some cases, does—reflect a wholesale commitment to the theoretical view that artistic pleasure and value are always surface effects of determining material conditions. When such a commitment is present, early modern writers' perceptions are invariably explained away as mere illusions, and the resulting historical argument proves damagingly reductive of the terms—such as the je-ne-sais-quoi—by means of which those perceptions are articulated. When it is advanced as a critical reassessment of `classicism' as a category, however, the historical argument has considerable force. The category may indeed have outlived its usefulness. But what else are we to call the period? Alain Viala, in two articles, has suggested that no single unifying category should replace 'classicism' and that those wishing to think historically would do well to use terms that reflect the period's wider intellectual, social, and cultural engagements. Of course, the very notion of a 'period' needs to be challenged too, since different phenomena suggest different chronological sequences.
These developments have made new approaches to the early modern
period possible. Of most direct relevance to the present book are
those that concern the nature and status of experience in this
Such is the approach taken in the present study. I consider that existing philosophical work adds to our understanding of what the je-ne-sais-quoi is, but gives an inadequate account of how it comes to be put into words; that literary historical work adds to our understanding of how the je-ne-sais-quoi is put into words, but gives an inadequate account 0f what it is; and that one needs to address the two questions at their interdisciplinary intersection. My attempt to do so owes a great deal to the work of philosophers such as Jankélévitch as well as to the recent developments in early modern intellectual history and literary studies mentioned above. The results of this attempt may well strike the most philosophically-minded readers as incomplete in its analysis of concepts and the most historically-minded readers as insufficient in its account of contexts. Both objections would, in a sense, be correct: the study, given its composite approach and the evasive nature of its object, remains little more than an attempt or a preliminary sounding. But its aim is precisely to show that its object can only be apprehended by bringing together questions and methods usually kept separate in the interests of disciplinary hygiene.
The work of Michel Foucault, one of the pioneers of interdisciplinarity, provides a useful point of comparison here. In his early writings, Foucault undertakes an archaeology of past forms of knowledge. He uses the notion of the 'episteme' to describe the lateral set of discursive relations that makes the various intellectual disciplines and practices of a given period possible.18 This requires him to become a specialist of what Georges Canguilhem calls 'interregionality'. Foucault's work, with its interregional scope and its mistrust of history as genealogy, has helped create the conditions for much subsequent work, including my own. That said, my understanding of the early modern period differs from his in certain significant respects, which have mainly to do with his notion of the episteme. The episteme of any period, Foucault stresses, can neither be apprehended nor altered by those whose knowledge it determines. When one episteme gives way to another, it does so in a violent and impersonal break that Foucault finds it difficult to account for, since he denies past thinkers the ability to think outside the epistemic In Les Mots et les Choses (1966), for example,he does little more than assert that an essential break in the Western world took place between what he calls the 'Renaissance' and `classical' periods. The je-ne-sais-quoi, which rises to prominence in this same shadowy transitional period, offers one way of tracing those early modern perceptions of epistemological uncertainty and change that Foucault ignores. I agree that members of a given culture are conditioned by its dominant modes of explanation and expression. But I do not believe that this precludes them, at particular moments, from thinking and writing at the limits. To characterize such moments I prefer the metaphors of crisis and of geological movement to the inaccessible and inflexible metaphorical grid of the episteme. The je-ne-sais-quoi comes, between the age of Montaigne and that of Pascal, to describe the movement of the ground of knowledge under the speaker's feet, so to speak, or a fault-line that first-person experience exposes within the bedrock of traditional explanations.22
How, then, is the period between Montaigne and the age of Pascal to be categorized? Tags such as 'Renaissance', 'baroque', and 'classicism' obscure the historical narrative offered here more than they reveal it. Were one to seek a more helpful category, one might do worse than talk of this as 'an age of experience', a category which reflects the fact that the rise to prominence of the je-ne-sais-quoi coincides with that of first-person experience as an object of fascination, suspicion, reflection, and debate among thinkers and writers. It seems clear that the first-person character of the je-ne-sais-quoi contributes to its currency in this period as a lexical tracer of epistemological uncertainty in the face of intense lived experience. The related question of who or what the subject of such experience might be also undergoes significant change at a time when, as Terence Cave has shown, the substantival terms le moi and 'the self' first become current (1999: 111-2.9). Other ways of thinking about personal identity already existed of course; the point is merely that a change in the language, once again, seems to crystallize a new way of thinking. Just as Pascal reflects on the je-ne-sais-quoi in one fragment of his writing, so he devotes another to the question `Qu'est-ce que le moi?' (What is the self ?) (L. 688; S. 567); and one has only to think of other writers examined in this book—Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Descartes—to see that this is an age in which the first person is being used in all kinds of innovative ways as a lexical tracer of personal experience and identity. I do not mean to imply, however, that the je-ne-sais-quoi requires those who use it to possess a new and stable sense of something they call 'the self'. One should be wary of associating the two terms too closely since there are, as we shall see, occasions when the je-ne-sais-quoi is used to designate an encounter so intense that it actually serves to undo the self rather than to shore up its existence. Nevertheless, it does seem helpful to sketch a network of related developments around the je-ne-sais-quoi and to point out that it rises to prominence in an age increasingly concerned, in various and often opposing ways, with intense first-person experiences and with the problems of knowledge and expression that these experiences raise.
These questions do not belong to Montaigne, Shakespeare, and their contemporaries alone: they are, it seems, still with us. In recent decades, Western intellectual culture has repeatedly attempted to theorize vital and inexplicable encounters that transform the subject: the work of Vladimir Jankélévitch, already cited, is one obvious example; other examples include Roland Barthes's celebration of jouissance, Gilles Deleuze's account of life as a series of imperceptible devenirs, and Slavoj Zizek's description (through his reading of Alain Badiou) of miraculous events.23 Western mainstream culture is full of fictions, films, poems, and songs about encounters with others in which the protagonists find themselves powerfully moved by a certain something which they can neither explain nor entirely express. Readers of this book may find examples of that certain something in further areas of modern life coming to mind. The choice I have taken to place the emergence of the je-ne-sais-quoi under the sign of the 'early modern' will appear, in that case, to take on a double meaning. The term 'early modern' is to be understood primarily here as a relatively neutral description of the historical period that stretches from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries and in the middle of which the je-ne-sais-quoi comes into being. But the same term also carries within it an implicit invitation to consider the je-ne-sais-quoi not as yet another sourceof modernity (or indeed postmodernity)—this book offers no such genealogical narrative—but as an experience which is shared by authors of the past and twenty-first-century readers alike and which offers, as a result, a means of reading those authors in what Michael Moriarty has memorably called 'a kind of precarious contact between their present and ours' (2003: 253).The aim of this invitation is not to demonstrate the continuing `relevance' of early modern literature to the modern or postmodern world—for that, after all, would lead us to contemplate nothing other than a picturesque version of what we have become—but to argue for its intrinsic value. A. D. Nuttall has proposed that 'no form of literature be regarded as wholly insulated from this varying world' (1983: 193). Early modern writers like Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Pascal make room for a precarious contact between their present and ours, I suggest, because they reveal not only something about the historical moment to which they belong but also, and more ambitiously perhaps, something about what it is to be alive in this varying world. This much we may come to recognize as we read their encounters with that certain something, which Pascal calls the je-ne-sais-quoi, and which we are still trying to put into words.
Three Deaths and Enlightenment Thought: Hume, Johnson, Marat by Stephen Miller (Bucknell University Press) In recent years there has been an extended debate about Enlightenment thought. Though many scholars have concluded that there were several "Enlightenments," some continue to make generalizations about the Enlightenment and some speak about "the Enlightenment agenda." After discussing the cult of the deathbed scene in eighteenth‑century Britain and France, the author looks at three currents of Enlightenment thought implicit in the deathbed "projects" of David Hume, Samuel Johnson, and Jean Paul Marat. Although Hume and Johnson hold profoundly different views of religion, their political thinking has much in common. Their reformist thought differs radically from what might be called the transformist thought of Marat, who hoped the French would become disinterested citizens whose civil religion was patriotism.
The book also looks at the response of James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon to the deathbed projects of Hume and Johnson, and it discusses how their political thought differs from Johnson's and Hume's. It also considers the complex relations between reformist and transformist thought in Britain during the last three decades of the century, showing how the views of the two reformist groups and of such transformist writers as Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Paine were affected by a number of political events, from the Wilkes crisis to the French Revolution. Though the book focuses on AngloScottish Enlightenment thought, it often refers to the French Enlightenment, and the chapter on Marat looks at the connection between transformist thought in Britain and France.
The author argues that Enlightenment thought was more varied and‑in its reformist currents‑less hostile to tradition than many observers have allowed. Enlightenment thought was less a cluster of ideas than a debate about a number of questions, especially the following: how to contain religious and secular fanaticism (or what was called enthusiasm); what are the effects of luxury; and what is the nature of the passions. There was, as J. G. A. Pocock says, "a family of Enlightenments," and "there is room for the recognition of family quarrels . . . ."Why look at deathbed scenes to chart the currents of Enlightenment thought? Because an interest in deathbed scenes was widespread in eighteenth‑century Britain and France. The final days of Hume stirred up a controversy that lasted for at least a decade and the final days of Johnson also attracted a great deal of attention, but Marat's death had the greatest impact of the three. His assassination gave impetus to the Jacobins' attempt to eliminate the influence of the church and greatly expand the influence of the state. Marat's project to transform France failed, but so did the projects of Hume and Johnson. Hume argued that religious belief was based on the foolish fear of death, yet religion remained a strong force in Britain. Johnson hoped for a return to God‑fearing religion, yet the educated classes continued to prefer a more benign brand of Christianity in which God's benevolence was stressed far more than his judgment.