Category Archives: Profiles

Profile: Ernst Cassirer

Edward Skidelsky on the last philosopher of culture

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), the one-time giant of German idealism, is now known only to cultural historians and the odd amateur enthusiast. To most British philosophers he is no more than a name. On the Continent, he is better known, but mainly just as the man who got the worst of Heidegger. Perhaps no other major philosopher has suffered such a precipitous drop in reputation.

Cassirer was born in 1874 into a wealthy German-Jewish household. There is not a lot be said about his life. He was a German professor in the old style, devoted to learning and culture, a political liberal and a decent family man. He would have lived out his days peacefully in Hamburg had the Nazis not forced him into English, Swedish and finally American exile. He died in New York in 1945. A few years later he was granted a volume in the prestigious “Library of Living Philosophers” series – the first and only dead philosopher to be so honoured. But his star was on the wane. Logical positivism had conquered the English-speaking world, existentialism the continent. Cassirer’s mellow humanism belonged to another era.

Cassirer’s main achievement is his “philosophy of symbolic forms”, set out in three volumes over the 1920s. Cassirer takes his cue from Kant’s doctrine that reality is in some sense our “construction” but adds that this construction does not proceed in one unique direction. Myth, religion, language, art and science are all ways of constituting reality, each with its own internal standard of truth. None represents the world “as it really is”. Cassirer is a metaphysical ironist. He wants to be able move freely from one world-picture to another without acknowledging any as ultimate. His target is “dogmatism” – the ingrained tendency of the human mind to elevate a single conceptual framework into reality as such, thereby denying legitimacy to all the others.

This looks like relativism, but it is not quite. Cassirer combines Kant’s reticence about the “thing-in-itself” with Hegel’s vision of history as a grand narrative of gradually unfolding freedom. The symbolic forms all have their place in this narrative. At the bottom lies myth, the primal matrix of human culture. Religion emerges gradually out of myth, art out of religion. Meanwhile, and in a different direction, myth gives birth to the lawfully ordered universe of science. Cassirer does not deny the tension between these developments, but insists that they are all expressive of the same basic urge to order the world through symbols and so transcend the limits of merely biological existence. “Human culture taken as a whole,” he writes, “may be described as the process of man’s progressive self-liberation.”

This rather rosy picture is subject to one important qualification. Myth may be refined and spiritualised in the higher symbolic forms, but it is never entirely overcome. It is, as Cassirer puts it, “always there, lurking in the dark and waiting for its hour and opportunity.” It is the eternal Id of human history, urging us to throw off the burden of consciousness and return to a simpler, more concrete form of existence. Cassirer’s ulterior target is not hard to seek. Interwar Germany was overrun by prophets and saviours of every kind, from Heidegger through to Hitler, all of them hostile to modern civilisation. When Cassirer talked about myth, he had these trends very much in mind. For him, as for his contemporary Freud, mythological analysis was a tool for the understanding and exorcism of political irrationalism.

In his last, posthumously published work, The Myth of the State, Cassirer finally makes explicit the political dimension of his thought. Here, Nazism is presented as a technologically orchestrated revival of mythical modes of thought and social organisation. “The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. … Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.” Cassirer’s remarks on fascism could be applied to many other contemporary trends. Religious fundamentalism, for instance, displays the same unsavoury synthesis of the primitive and the modern, the irrational and the positive. Mere technological sophistication is no proof against barbarism; indeed, the two often go hand in hand.

Cassirer’s philosophy is at first glance very appealing. It offers a comprehensive theory of historical progress while at the same time making sense (as many such theories do not) of the possibility of regress. It does justice to modern science without succumbing to scientism. It even has a place for religion, provided it serves ethical ends. Surely this was a philosophy tailor-made for postwar liberalism. Why, then, did it meet with such failure? Why was the postwar scene dominated by philosophies indifferent or actively hostile to liberalism – existentialism on the one hand, with its tendency to political extremism, and the analytic movement on the other, with its studiously neutral technicism?

Cassirer was in many ways unlucky. Exiled from Germany, he was not granted enough time in his new American homeland to build up an intellectual following. But his eclipse cannot be put down solely to bad luck; it also has an authentically philosophical explanation. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it seeks to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture – an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this standpoint, Cassirer’s enterprise does not look like philosophy at all, but a form of empirical anthropology or cultural studies.

This shift in philosophical fashion has a lot to do with the practicalities of departmental politics. Philosophy in the twentieth century was under pressure to distinguish itself from the burgeoning fields of psychology and sociology. It needed a sphere of a priori truths to call its own, a bulwark against potential trespassers. Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms was singularly unhelpful for that purpose. But a profounder issue was also at stake. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force. The twentieth century was not kind to that conception. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities – none of this spelled liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that Cassirer’s brand of liberal progressivism had failed.

Sixty years later, the tide has turned again in favour of Cassirer. The horrors of the two world wars have faded; Europe and Germany are reunited; democracy has triumphed over much of the globe. Liberal progressivism is back in fashion, and Cassirer offers a more appealing version of it than American neoconservatism. Meanwhile, the barriers that kept philosophy apart from the special sciences are coming down. Many philosophers today are happy to think of themselves after the fashion of Cassirer, as interpreters of the latest findings in physics, biology and psychology. Some even do empirical research themselves – a movement known as “experimental philosophy”. In this climate, interest in Cassirer has started to revive. In Germany especially, where guilt over his expulsion and subsequent neglect runs high, he has become something of a cultural icon.

Before we rush to rehabilitate Cassirer, however, we should remind ourselves of the reasons for his neglect. Cassirer, like most of his generation, thought that science was moving stepwise towards perfection, and the entire culture with it. He admitted that this process was unending, and that it might be derailed, but there was no doubt in his mind as to its overall direction. This is why he never felt inspired to develop a foundational metaphysics, logic or ethics. He had no need of a standpoint from which to judge and criticise contemporary trends; he was content, so to speak, to entrust himself to history. The disasters of the twentieth century ought to have banished such complacency forever. To assume that human culture, even “taken as a whole,” is “the process of man’s progressive self-liberation,” is to shut off the critical perspective we so sorely need. It is to leave ourselves defenceless against whatever monstrosity can pass itself off as the wave of the future.

Further reading
An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer (Yale University Press
A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger, Michael Friedman (Open Court)

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University and the author of Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton University Press)

Profile: Seneca

Robin Wood on the philosopher accused of fiddling while Nero fiddled while Rome burned

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Seneca by Gareth Southwell

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BCE – 65 AD) was the second son of Seneca the Elder, born at Córdoba in Spain but brought up as a child in Rome by an aunt and educated there in rhetoric and philosophy. He was particularly drawn to philosophy and deeply influenced by the stoic doctrine, which he himself later developed. He became quaestor (chief revenue officer) and a senator and, under Claudius, he occupied a position at court. He was accused of an intrigue with Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, and banished to Corsica in 41. He was recalled eight years later in 49 by Agrippina to be the tutor of her son Nero because of his literary reputation, which he had achieved during his exile. When Nero became Emperor in 54 AD the influence of Seneca and Burrus (prefect of the guard) kept the young emperor temporarily under control. Later, after the death of Burrus, Nero’s conduct worsened and Seneca asked permission to withdraw from court and lived in retirement devoting himself to literature. But in 65, on a charge of complicity in Piso’s conspiracy, he was ordered to take his own life. Tacitus records the calm and dignity with which he did this.

Seneca was one of the most important and prolific writers of his day, both in prose and in verse. Ten books of ethical essays (miscalled Dialogi) survive on subjects such as anger, the constancy of the stoic sage, and tranquillity of mind. Three of them are ‘consolations’ to the bereaved. He presented to Nero, early in his reign, a treatise called De Clementia (On Clemency) in which he commended this quality to the autocrat. It is possible that Shakespeare had it in mind when composing Portia’s great speech on the quality of mercy. He also wrote the De Beneficiis (On Benefits) in seven books. His Naturales Quaestiones (Studies into Nature), eight books on physical science, achieved great popularity. The Epistolae Morales (Moral Epistles), of which 124 survive, give philosophical and ethical advice to a friend. He is almost certainly the author of the Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of the Emporer Claudius), a bitter satire on the deification of Claudius. Seneca also wrote nine tragedies on Greek mythological subjects, more designed to be recited or read than acted. They are somewhat melodramatic and violent and had an influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy in England out of all proportion to their merits.

Seneca’s moral writings greatly influenced or at least gained the respect of later Christian writers, to the extent that before AD 400 a forged correspondence between him and St. Paul had been composed. This was possible because of his broad humanitarian outlook. He was a stoic and shared the stoic cosmopolitan view of life and in many ways, in theory at least, he was in advance of his contemporaries. He condemned false values engendered by wealth, he denounced the cruelty of the Games and the stupidity of much in the official religion. He showed compassion to slaves and in principle rejected the concept of slavery. However, in practice, he did not really do anything towards its abolition. He believed that some portion of the divine spirit dwelt in each and every person.

The problem remains, however, that there seems to be a serious discrepancy between his ethical ideals and his actual life (such as we do not find, for example, in Socrates). To some, he appears as unduly morally complacent, and to others as a loathsome hypocrite. He had wide financial interests and was very rich. So how could, as one modern historian of Rome has put it, ‘the millionaire who flattered Polybius and showed such spite to the dead Claudius and drafted Nero’s justification for the murder of his mother, at the same time preach virtue and the simple life’?

Maybe the circumstances of his life proved too burdensome and he did what he could but has been harshly judged by some. Perhaps, as Nero’s tutor, he hoped to turn the young aspiring emperor to true virtue. In De Clementia he urged the ruler to limit his autocratic powers by self-regulation. But, as Nero became more callous, Seneca’s influence over him began to decline and he weakly condoned one excess after another, perhaps hoping to prevent worse.

Like Cicero, in retirement he devoted himself to philosophical writing, particularly the Moral Epistles, seeking inner freedom of spirit and the virtue that leads to it. Although a notable expounder of stoic doctrine and a significant Latin writer he cannot be said to rank with the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

Robin Wood is a Methodist minister and lecturer in ethics

Suggested reading
Cooper, J. M. & Procope, J. F. 1995. (eds.) Seneca: Moral and Political Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, M. 1992. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Seneca. 1969. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Profile: Giambattista Vico

Giorgio Baruchello on arguably Italy’s greatest ever philosopher.

Vico by Gareth Southwell

Vico by Gareth Southwell

The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is one of those thinkers of whom much is heard and little is read. Perhaps because he has been depicted mainly as the forerunner of other, more famous thinkers (especially Hegel and Herder), and as following established currents of thought, many acknowledge his contribution to the history of Western philosophy, but few actually read his writings. Still, this relegation to the periphery of the philosophical canon reflects somehow the unorthodox character of his life and of his scholarly achievements, which, as Gramsci stated, moved from “a small, dead corner of history.”

Vico spent his life tormented by indigence and illness. Nevertheless, he succeeded in gaining a vast, comprehensive erudition in law, philology, and philosophy, as he worked as a lawyer, a tutor, and a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples. He believed it a fundamental trait of human nature that we long for knowledge. Why that is the case, however, is unknown to us: we can only observe that it is so. There are limits, in other words, to that which we can know.

In De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, 1710) we find Vico’s most forceful expression of this realisation: “verum ipsum factum” – only that which is made by the human being can be known in depth. Exhaustive knowledge can be gained only in the human sciences. Human beings cannot know the reasons which lie behind the existence of the realities they observe in nature; so only a partial, hypothetical knowledge is possible of those things of which the human being is not the author. Human reason is severely limited when dealing with the understanding of the natural world, whose author is, presumably, God.

Vico was writing against the well-established intellectual faith of his time, which proclaimed the natural sciences as the highest expression of human reason (logic and mathematics were included in this privileged disciplinary group). Vico intended to defend the humanistic tradition with its curriculum of studies comprising classical literature, jurisprudence, history, oratory, and foreign languages. Throughout his writings, Vico tried to show how human reason cannot work ahistorically, as a pure, neutral instrument of discovery, one which does not depend upon the motives, aims, expectations, and prejudices of people. For Vico, the truth may be achieved, but not by letting reason operate in the void – context is required.

In his best-known work, The New Science (1725), Vico stresses the centrality of culture in and for any intellectual endeavour, the natural sciences included. Knowledge relies upon understanding, and, in turn, understanding relies upon tacit beliefs, which are the result of the history of one’s personal development within a variously-layered historical reality. Sensus communis (common sense) is, for Vico, the fundamental ground out of which all forms of human knowledge spring and to which, ultimately, they are bound to return. Sensus communis, in his words, is “judgement without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation, or the entire human race.”

This fundamental cultural ground is contained already in the myths, traditions, and poetical metaphors of human culture. They anticipate, inform, and sustain any explicit act of intellectual scrutiny of reality, thus providing the implicit background justifying the choice, worth, and communicability of inquiry. For Vico, much modern scientific knowledge is contained already in the allegories of poetry, the insights of religion, the images of art. Moreover, these involve an ability of which science is devoid, namely the ability to address and involve in the cognitive process the human body and the human heart.

In his New Science, Vico specifies a fundamental “dialectical” structure regulating the historical development of human knowledge. This structure can be represented as a moving spiral of occurrences and recurrences (corsi e ricorsi storici), along which moments of collapse and of regress in the human understanding of the universe are as unavoidable as the overall progress of the human species from the bestial state to the civilised state. For Vico, history repeats itself, but never in an identical fashion, and always along a necessary path of amelioration, which adds new steps to the old ones, and never erases any. Taken as a whole, human culture advances through the centuries in the same fashion as the individual person matures through the years. Both start from the “age of the senses” (or “divine age”), and, via the “age of fantasy” (or “heroic age”), they reach the “age of reason” (or “human age”), yet without ever discarding completely either that which had been previously experienced by means of the “non-“ or “pre-rational” faculties, or these faculties themselves.

Suggested reading
On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (Cornell University Press)
On the Study Methods of our Times (Cornell University Press)
The New Science (Cornell University Press)

Giorgio Baruchello is Senior Lecturer at the University of Akureyri, Iceland

Profile: Clive Bell

Bell by Gareth Southwell

Bell by Gareth Southwell

The British philosopher and art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) was a prominent proponent of the formalist approach to aesthetic thought. In this specific sense, he advanced and significantly developed an aesthetic theory stemming back to the work of Kant. According to Kant, what we value in a work of art is its formal qualities. In his 1914 book, Art, Bell outlined his own polemical take on this approach to aesthetics – an approach that served to philosophically underpin the emergent modernist movement as exemplified in the work of the French painter, Paul Cézanne.

Clive Bell was born in East Shefford, Bedfordshire. He was the son of William Heward Bell, a wealthy industrialist. Whilst studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, Bell met and befriended a number of the later leading lights in the Bloomsbury group. In 1907, he married the artist Vanessa Stephen, the sister of the eminent modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Both husband and wife became prominent figures in the Bloomsbury circle and there is little doubt that Bell’s association with this group of leading English intellectuals significantly shaped his radical aesthetic vision. In 1910, Bell also met the influential critic and painter Roger Fry. The friendship that ensued further contributed to the development of Bell’s own particular brand of formalism.

Bell set himself the task of challenging the traditional assumption that the value of visual art is in some way located in its representative function. Indeed, according to Bell’s argument, the representative element in a work of art is irrelevant in terms of our appreciation of it as a significant cultural artefact. As he put it, to appreciate a work of art “we need bring nothing with us but a sense of form and colour.”

This hard-nosed formalism harbours one concession. As Bell grants, pictures that would be “insignificant” if we saw them as two-dimensional patterns are sometimes profoundly moving because we in fact perceive them as three-dimensional related planes. This admission is Bell’s only concession to the entrenched notion of art as imitation, a notion stemming back to the teachings of Plato.

Issuing out of this censure was Bell’s most significant contribution to the philosophy of art – namely, his innovative theory of “significant form”. According to Bell, artists are in the business of combining lines and colours in such a way as to aesthetically move the sensitive observer. “Significant form” is the artistic arrangement of such lines and colours – an arrangement that serves to provoke what Bell terms an “aesthetic emotion”. Yet in Bell’s estimation, not all form is significant. Indeed, he was scathing about popular representative paintings which he deemed to be nothing more than “interesting and amusing documents”. Although such paintings contained formal elements, they lacked what Bell held to be the “one quality common to all works of visual art” – in short, significant form.

Unlike the Oxford philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) and the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Bell distanced himself from the idea that “art proper” is valuable in terms relating to the expression of the emotions. Bell maintains that it is “useless to go into a picture gallery in search of expression; you must go in search of significant form.”

This is not to say that the emotions play no part in the creative process itself. On the contrary, Bell argues that “true artists” are able to experience objects as “pure form” and it is this experience of objects devoid of all function and associations that generates what he terms an inspired emotion. It is this profound emotion that functions as a creative catalyst for the creation of true and significant art. Yet Bell is resolute that the value of such art lies in its formal qualities alone rather than in its expressive modality.

In a later section of Art entitled “The Metaphysical Hypothesis”, Bell also appears to echo Schopenhauer when he puts forward the idea that significant form constitutes a vehicle by which the sensitive spectator can glimpse the structures of what he terms “essential reality”. Otherwise put, Bell suggests that significant form acts as an aperture through which to apprehend “that which lies behind the appearance of all things – that which gives all things their individual significance, the thing in itself.”

However, the question now arises as to how we are aware of so-called significant form? Like many other members of the Bloomsbury group, Bell was profoundly influenced by the work of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore. According to Moore, ethical terms such as “good” are indefinable – one is aware of that which is good via an act of intuition. Analogously, Bell put forward the idea that the sensitive observer of a work of art is aware of significant form via a comparable act of intuitive awareness. This intuitionism led Bell to the somewhat elitist conclusion that those who remain unmoved whilst in the presence of such form are like “deaf men at a concert”. It would appear that Bell’s logic dictates that good art is the preserve of a sensitive and cultured minority.

Aside from this charge of elitism, Bell’s theory is also guilty of propagating a dubious essentialism. According to Bell, all works of visual art must have something in common – as he puts it, there must be “some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist”. Yet Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances suggests that “good art” can be meaningfully defined within a complex network of overlapping features. To employ another of Wittgenstein’s metaphors, there is perhaps no single significant thread holding together our concept of what good art is.

Moreover, Bell’s focus on universal formal qualities “independent of time and place” de-contextualises art. Surely the value of paintings such as Picasso’s “Guernica” resides within the context of the image, not merely within its formal structure. Arguably, such an image would lose its power and significance if isolated from its subject, the destruction of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Given the fact that Bell’s son, Julian, died in the same conflict, it is doubtful whether he could have himself contemplated such a work within the strict confines of formal exaltation.

Yet despite these criticisms, Bell’s work constitutes a significant intervention in the field of modern aesthetics. His denigration of representation in the name of formal significance gave philosophical credence to the embryonic modernist movement. His central work Art was originally entitled The New Renaissance – a title which perhaps better encapsulates the central importance of his philosophy of art.

Lawrence Harvey is a philosophy lecturer at Peter Symonds College, Winchester

Profile: Gabrielle Suchon

Gabrielle Suchon

Gabrielle Suchon

Gabrielle Suchon (1632–1703) was an original philosopher on account of the singularities of her life and work. We know about her life only through the canon Philibert Papillon, author of the Bibliothèque des auteurs de Bourgogne, published in Dijon in 1742. She was an exact contemporary of Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, which also gives us some clues as to her social background.

She was the daughter of Claude Suchon, king’s prosecutor in the Chancellerie Maréchaussée bailiwick and the Salt granary, and of Claude Mongin, who had blood ties with the fief of Courtine-lès-Semur. She came from the province’s minor landed gentry and noblesse de robe, which included several jurists.

After living as a nun at the Jacobin convent in Semur, Gabrielle Suchon protested against her confinement. She travelled to Rome to request that the pope relieve her of her vows. Her family began a trial against her to force her to return to the convent, but she succeeded in evading the decree issued by the court, left Semur and settled in Dijon, where she devoted her life to study, writing and teaching.

No information enables us to date these different events of her life. They are even harder to trace given that Gabrielle Suchon’s major work, the Traité de la Morale et de la Politique, (Treatise on Morality and Politics) was published in Lyons in 1693 under the gender-neutral pseudonym of G.S. Aristophile. This pseudonym was revealed by A. Barbier, restoring the treatise to the author who, in 1700, published her second work under the name of Damoiselle Suchon, Du célibat volontaire, ou la Vie sans engagement (On Voluntary Celibacy or A Life Without Commitment).

The autodidactic nature of her thought must be inferred from the works themselves, given the lack of other proof. They indicate that their author had no institutional training in philosophy (she protested on this point), but developed her own knowledge based on five sources. These are, by order of frequency of reference: the Scriptures; the texts of the Church Fathers; pagan philosophy and Greco-Roman literature; the lives of the saints; and the “moderns”, such as Montaigne, Descartes, Petrarch, Christine de Pisan, and Marie de Gournay. Nothing in the texts indicates knowledge of ancient languages or direct contact with any contemporary thinkers.

Gabrielle Suchon’s thought has a noticeable peculiarity, which consists in combining a classical philosophical reflection – applied to the moral, metaphysical, epistemological, political and judicial domains – with a militant commitment to the cause of women.

The questioning of the female condition, inaugurated in French-language culture in the fifteenth century by Christine de Pisan’s Cité des Dames, was one of the main subjects under debate in the seventeenth century. It appeared in one of two forms: either that of a problem that remained on the fringes of the great political philosophies of the time, or else that of a militancy devoted to the cause of women, which found expression in literature – essays, poems, novels or lampoons – written by both women and men.

More than 150 works of this type were published between 1600 and 1700. Gabrielle Suchon’s originality lay in the way she linked different areas of ideas that had previously been separate. The complexity of her project translated into a particular method of construction in which two main lines of thought intertwine at every moment. The philosophical line questions concepts such as freedom, science and authority. The militant line links each of these concepts to the female condition, both contemporary and historical.

The problematic effect of these two lines of argument generates a philosophy the main theories of which are both “negative” and “affirmative”. Suchon denounces the female condition as being deprived of the essential right to freedom, knowledge and authority. In an unequivocally rationalist spirit, she promotes a philosophy of freedom, knowledge, strength and autonomy, which has Stoic and hedonist echoes, prioritising a joy of knowledge and action by developing her singular aspirations. Her treatise On Voluntary Celibacy endeavours to provide a concrete framework for the implementation of this philosophy. It promotes – for women but also, consequently, for men – the possibility of leading an existence without religious or conjugal commitment: a choice that the author calls “neutralist”.

In order for this free existence to be made possible, she demands judicial status for a right that is recognised by “la République” and that considers enforced religious or conjugal commitment to be major obstacles to an individual’s salvation. These propositions are based on the affirmation of the singularity of each person’s predisposition, received from nature and willed by God. Anything that opposes this free disposition is put forward as an offence against God’s will.

Suchon’s religious language, scholastic mode of demonstration and frequent scriptural and Christian references seem to make her thought part of a Catholic tradition, the fundamental dogmas of which she does not debate and thanks to which she obtained permission to print (she also received a royal privilege). These facts have often disconcerted modern critics. The textual form does not seem to be in line with the content of her theories, which ran entirely contrary to the Church’s official position regarding women during this time of violent Counter-Reform.

Gabrielle Suchon’s works gave rise, at the time, to several somewhat neutral commentaries, but they did not trigger any noteworthy debate. However, the works were read, since the Traité de la Morale et de la Politique was reprinted in Lyons in 1694. The reasons for this silence, then, probably stem from the traditional framework of her expression that enabled the texts to sidestep the dreaded censorship, hiding the fact that Suchon gave equal status to pagan wisdom and Christian tradition. She does not hesitate to contest the latter by analysing certain theories of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus Erigen and above all by evoking numerous ecclesiastical practices: abuse of power, use of force in ensuring nuns’ vocation, seeking profit and wealth, literalism of forms of worship, violent struggles against heresy, censoring of texts, monopoly over priests’ reading of holy texts and over direction of consciences.

Her emphatically declared Catholicism, in what was perhaps a careful move, is often characterized by Reformist or Jansenist nuances, or even by personal heterodox interpretations, akin to those of John Milton and indeed to those of medieval Beguines and spiritual women such as Marguerite Porète.

As regards her morality of strength, of the joy of knowledge and of individual autonomy, she sometimes adopts a curiously Spinozist tone. It is fair to wonder to what extent this thinker – like her illustrious Dutch contemporary – needed a linguistic mask. Gabrielle Suchon does not fail to reflect on language, taking into account its conventional nature that was relative to the era, or to make a number of innovations. She introduces some original concepts such as “neutral life”, “free life” and, in particular, “neutralist”. She sometimes uses the latter term as an adjective, but her most original contribution is to make it a noun: “the neutralist”, since her subject is primarily the woman who is non-committed, in both marriage and religion.

When she envisages the case of men, she speaks more in terms of a “neutralist life”. She strives to select feminine terms in French, such as “person” (“personne”), preferred to the general word “man” (“homme”) commonly used by philosophers at the time, which enabled her to use the feminine gender to speak of universals.

Although Gabrielle Suchon’s work scarcely raised an eyebrow at the time, she was rediscovered in a major way in the 1970s by specialists of feminist studies in France and worldwide. She was a precursor to feminist theory in France and was also the earliest female philosopher whose work has been preserved in its entirety.

Adapted from Séverine Auffret’s entry on Suchon in The Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers, edited by Luc Foisneau (Thoemmes-Continuum)