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Monday, June 06, 2011

La Bruyere's field research - a cautionary note

Van Delft is, I think, right to speak of the moraliste tradition as a sort of classical anthropology. I’m going to use this and other suggestions about Van Delft, but I’d like to note that, as is so often the case with historians of literature, one feels a lack of the feeling for the institutional location of such things as “anthropology” or ‘natural philosophy.” We are used to looking at the texts of the past and thinking that here we have an ‘epistemological field,” or a ‘tradition”, without thinking of the fact that it is a modern institutional characteristic to have combined such ‘research programs’ and education in locatable institutions. La Bruyere, acting as the historiographer of Louis XIV, engaged in one sort of research h activity, and as the writer of the Characters, engaged in another. In the latter, there was a sense – one feels it in the introduction to the characters – that the time for making maxims is passing. And yet of course there is no social science methodology readily available – outside of astrology, and the university courses that lead to the creation of the “civic man”.

But we should try to remember certain facts about education in the 17th century. For one thing, it was not an encircling institution – the government, for one thing, did not control it – rather, it was mostly a matter of the church – and for another thing, it was not connected with the vast capillary system that fell into place during the latter part of the 19th century in France and England, and that has always distinguished the United States as an enlightenment state – the states from the beginning took responsibility for education. For instance, in 1792, in Paris, a city with a population of 600,000 people, there were only 163 “regent” doctors, doctors who had gone through a full course of training, in the city. (Coury, 136) When La Bruyere went to school, he went ‘naturally”, as his biographer Etienne Allaire puts it, to a religious school, because ‘there was no other.” And just as naturally, he attached himself to a noble house – first, the Condé. Intellectual historians have a habit of speaking of, say, the rise of a ‘culture of sociability” by quoting people like La Bruyere or Addison or Lessing without pausing to ask how we are to analyse their claims – without even thinking about the kind of ‘field research’ they did. Partly this is because the very notion of ‘field research’ simply didn’t exist. In speaking of his book, La Bruyere gropes towards the authority that resides in the claims of the moraliste, but he never, of course, even considers statistics as applied to populations and the like – it wasn’t just that the sciences were not there, even the concept of populations wasn’t there. The forms weren’t there. Instead, the forms came out of a humanistic schooling that was prescribed for any educated person – doctors were trained in rhetoric as an essential element in their professional makeup. The remnants of this vast, blasted system lie across the landscape of academia today, for – as is my contention throughout – there is not and never will be a total ‘modernisation’ or a society of ‘rational’ institutions.

(I need to develop this more in The Tears of Homo Economicus)

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