Project (2008-2009)

Metaphysics for an Enlightened Age: Condillac and the Practice of 18th-Century Philosophy

The French Enlightenment represents a unique episode in the history of post-classical philosophy: a moment poised between the decline of the medieval university and the rise of philosophy as an academic profession, when philosophical knowledge was produced largely outside of specialized and learned communities. Throughout this period, savants began to seek out audiences beyond the scholarly correspondence networks and societies established in the previous century, tailoring their publications for a general reading public and working to establish themselves within the glittering aristocratic world of the Parisian salons. This book project examined how these developments transformed the practice of philosophy as a scholarly enterprise.

Jeffrey Schwegman explored this general theme through a case study, focusing on the career of the Parisian metaphysician and pedagogue Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1714–80). Like so many of his contemporaries, Condillac sought to bring the fruits of his learning to salon sophisticates and the general public, but he also continued to adhere to an older model of philosophy as a technical, scholarly enterprise, demanding a certain amount of expertise. These two ambitions proved difficult to reconcile, and Condillac’s publications sometimes provoked harsh criticism from his contemporaries. Throughout his life, therefore, Condillac struggled to adapt to the demands placed upon him by his audiences, while simultaneously seeking to devise ways of training them to become more learned readers of philosophy.

Studying these interactions between Condillac and his readers allowed Jeffrey Schwegman to explore two broader issues. On the one hand, he analyzed how the experience of writing philosophy outside of learned communities transformed the cultural identity of the philosopher during this period. In particular, Schwegman looked at shifting assumptions about the proper scope of philosophy and the nature and value of philosophical expertise. At the same time, he also examined how these developments shaped eighteenth-century philosophical practices: that is, the scholarly activities central to the philosopher’s craft. In particular, he focused on techniques for reading and evaluating texts, acquiring knowledge, cultivating audiences, crafting written expositions, and teaching concepts and skills to others. Historians of philosophy have rarely paid much attention to these kinds of practices, but they also have a history, and can shape the production of philosophical knowledge in profound ways. By focusing on collective identities and practices, rather than on the ideas of individuals, the project offered a new kind of cultural approach to the history of Enlightenment philosophy: one modeled on perspectives drawn from the history of science.