Reappearing Ink

By Sandrine Bergès, Bilkent University. See her full article in this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas: Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress.

The late Eileen O’Neill once referred to women’s past contribution to philosophy as ‘disappearing ink’. What she meant was that however much they wrote, no how matter how insightful their analyses or how powerful their arguments, by the nineteenth century women philosophers had all but disappeared from historical accounts of the discipline.

And then slowly, progressively, thanks to historians of philosophy such as O’Neill, the ink reappeared. Volumes were edited about women philosophers, monographs focused on their contributions to a particular topic, and it’s no longer such a surprise to read a journal article about a woman philosopher of the past (more frequently in some journals than in others).

Sometimes what helped women’s reinsertion into the history of philosophy was their close association with famous men. So as interest in Newton grew, Emilie du Chatelet’s works were rediscovered. And Cartesian scholars came to ask themselves why he put such work into his correspondence with the Bohemian princess, Elizabeth. Other times such associations resulted in the woman philosopher being pushed further back into obscurity. This is what happened to Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de Condorcet (1764-1822).

Sophie de Grouchy was an aristocrat who aligned herself with the republican party of the Girondins during the revolution, translating works by Thomas Paine, and writing political pieces of her own and together with her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet. Although most of her writings are lost, she did leave one significant work of philosophy, the Letters on Sympathy. This work was published in 1798, together with Grouchy’s translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment. The Letters were a commentary on that work. There is a forthcoming translation by Berges and Schliesser, and a simplified translation is included here.

Grouchy’s education was fairly conventional for her time, class, and sex. She learned Latin, English, and some German by muscling in on her brothers’ private classes. One aspect of her education she recalls as most important were the charity visits she made with her mother and sister: learning how to recognize suffering, helping to relieve it, and generally learning to value the well-being of others. At the age of eighteen she was sent to an exclusive convent finishing school. There she practiced her languages and put them to good use translating works from the English and the Italian – all fashionably political works, such as Arthur Young’s Tour of Ireland and Tasso’s Jerusalem. She also read, discovering Voltaire, Diderot, and especially Rousseau. She lost her religion, but her early training in Christian charity–with her mother showing her how good it felt to relieve others’ trouble–blended together with her new readings and turned her towards social justice.

Through her readings, Grouchy became a republican. She was not yet concerned with the question of how the administration of France – although she later became in favor, like her husband, of representational, rather than direct democracy.  Her focus at that time was with eradicating the psychological distance between the rich and the poor, wanting everyone to be a citizen, not a subject, and no one so rich or powerful that they could become a tyrant. This is reflected in the Letters on Sympathy, where her political discussion is primarily one about the psychological effects of tyranny on the flourishing of the population.

By the time Grouchy met Condorcet, they already had much in common, both being republicans and atheists. They married in 1786 and moved into Condorcet’s apartments in the Hotel des Monnaies, where Condorcet worked as the Inspector General of the Mint, under the economist Turgot. There the couple set up a salon which, thanks to Grouchy’s excellent English, became the house of choice for foreign visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Anarchasis Cloots, and the Swiss Etienne Dumont – speechwriter for Mirabeau and editor/translator for Jeremy Bentham. Cabanis, who later married Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, was a frequent attendant.

At the start of the Revolution, the Condorcets became associated with the Girondins. They frequented the salon of Madame Helvetius, in Auteuil, where republican ideas were being debated, and Brissot’s anti-slavery club (of which Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges were members) was founded. By 1791, Grouchy and Condorcet were among the strongest advocates of the republican movement, working with Thomas Paine, Jean-Pierre Brissot, Etienne Dumont and Achilles Duchatellet, on Le Républicain, a newspaper that would disseminate republican thought in France. Grouchy contributed at least two anonymous pieces to that journal, both offering powerful republican arguments against preserving monarchy, which drew on the moral psychology she develops in her Letters on Sympathybut until recently, little effort had been made to attribute them.

In 1793, the Girondins fell out of favor and Condorcet had to go into hiding. He stayed in Paris while Sophie moved to the suburb of Auteuil with her daughter, travelling to the Capital on foot twice a week to visit her husband and to paint portraits in a studio she had rented on the rue St Honoré.

While in hiding, Condorcet started to write an apology (Justification) which was meant to explain and justify his role in the revolution and show that he had been wronged by his persecutors, the Jacobins. Grouchy, sensing that this work would be of little value philosophically or personally, urged him to give it up, and instead to turn back to a work of encyclopedic nature that he had begun several decades before: a history of the progress of human nature. This work, divided into ten periods, was to discuss human evolution with a special emphasis on perfectionism, and a running argument on how this was affected by freedom and tyranny, science, religion, philosophy, and technology (in particular the printing press). Grouchy worked with Condorcet, encouraging him, bringing him notes and readings (he had taken very little with him when he went into hiding). Although we do not have any hard evidence that they wrote together, it seems likely that some of the passages in particular are hers, and that others are the product of a collaboration between husband and wife. We do not have a final manuscript that corresponds to the first edition by Grouchy, which suggests that she added some paragraphs herself. Several of the differences concern women and the place of the family in human progress. Perhaps these were ideas she and Condorcet had discussed and that she knew he wanted included. Perhaps these were points she had suggested to him in their discussions.

In March 1794, Condorcet ran away from his hiding place in order to avoid getting his hostess arrested. He died a few days later in a village prison, but was not identified until several months after his death, such that his wife remained ignorant of his whereabouts. When several months later his remains were identified, the Convention commissioned three thousand copies of his new book, Esquisse d’un Tableau des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain from Pierre Daunou. Sophie de Grouchy prepared the edition and it was published in 1795. This edition was reprinted and revised at least twice by Grouchy (alone and with collaborators in 1802 and 1822), and it was translated into English the year it was first published.

In 1847, the Académicien François Arago, noted that the 1795 edition contained passages which were absent from Condorcet’s final manuscript. He produced a new edition with extensive revisions, which, he said, was closer to the original manuscript which he’d obtained from Grouchy and Condorcet’s daughter, Eliza O’Connor, and which he thought more accurate because in Condorcet’s hand. Arago’s edition is now regarded as authoritative. Not only was Grouchy’s name deleted from the work – where it did belong, perhaps as co-author and at the very least editor – but with it the emphasis she had placed on the role of women and the family in human development.

The problem with invisible ink, is that in order to make it appear by dousing it with lemon juice, you need to know that it’s there. But the ways in which women’s contributions have been erased make it very difficult to know where to look. Had Arago not deleted it, Grouchy’s name might not have become famous immediately – we would still have needed to investigate in order to recover her anonymous writings for Le Républicain, and even her Letters on Sympathy, but her name on Condorcet’s Sketch would have at least alerted us that there was a woman philosopher whose works might need recovering.

Sandrine Berges ( obtained her Ph.D. in  Leeds in 2000 and is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. 

She works on the history of moral and political philosophy, with an emphasis on women’s writings. She is currently writing about three women of the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. She blogs about it here.

She is the co-founder of the Turkish-European Network for  the Study of Women Philosophers and of SWIP-TR.

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