book history companion piece JHI

 Ruminant machines: a twentieth-century episode in the material history of ideas

Chris Korner/Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach

This essay is a companion piece by Daniela K. Helbig for the article, ‘Life without toothache’, in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, 80/1 (2019), 91-112.

Writing tools: between the history of ideas and media theory

Openly and not without irony, the Enlightenment physicist, satirist, and public intellectual Georg Christoph Lichtenberg acknowledged the mercantile origin of his notebooks. Kept from at least 1765 until his death in 1799, they made him famous under the name of Sudelbücher (digitized version at UB Göttingen):

Merchants have their waste book, Sudelbuch or Klitterbuch in German I believe, in which they list all that they have sold or bought every single day, everything as it comes and in no particular order. The waste book’s content is then transferred to the Journal in a more systematic fashion, and at last it ends up in the “Leidger [sic] at double entrance,” following the Italian way of bookkeeping. […] This is a process worthy of imitation by the learned.”(See Ulrich Joost’s analysis in this volume, 24-35.)

In this deliberate attention to his writing and note-taking process, Lichtenberg proves himself to be characteristically skeptical of any notions of thoughts and ideas simply pouring out from the heads of the “learned,” the scholarly equivalent of what was soon to be celebrated by the Romantic cult of creative genius. Instead, the abstract “idea” takes shape through concrete material processes of scribbling and copying. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously conceded to his friend Heinrich Köselitz a century later, “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.”  But just how do they do so? This question forms the point of intersection between intellectual historians and media theorists, and other disciplines interested in the material history of text production, notably historians of the book and historians of science. Ideas have a history, but so do the tools that lend disembodied ideas their material shape −− most commonly, text on a page. The text is produced with the help of writing tools such as pencil, typewriter, or computer keyboard, and of note-taking tools such as ledger, notebook, or mobile phone app. These tools themselves embody the merging of often very different histories. Lichtenberg’s notebooks are a good example, drawing as they do on mercantile bookkeeping, the humanist tradition of the commonplace book, and Pietist autobiographical writing (see Petra McGillen’s detailed analysis).

What to do with reading excerpts? From Lichtenberg’s ledgers to Blumenberg’s note cards

In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Hans Blumenberg’s Genesis of the Copernican World, JHI also celebrates one of Lichtenberg’s greatest admirers, and at the same time the owner of one of the quirkiest and most curious pieces of writing machinery of the twentieth century. Both Lichtenberg and Blumenberg were avid and regular note-takers, but the paper machinery of choice had changed for Blumenberg. No longer did he use leather-bound folio or quarto volumes to record his “penny’s worth of thought” as Lichtenberg had called his entries, but their equivalent from the age of bureaucratization: the Zettelkasten, a note- or slip card box. Sitting still now in thirty-two sturdy green conservation boxes at the German Literary Archives in Marbach, the more than 30,000 cards that comprise Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten have spent their previous working life in motion, on a journey through piles and drawers. “If only I had channels in my head,” Lichtenberg had fantasized, “so as to promote domestic trade between the stockpiles of my thought! But alas, there they lie by the hundreds without being of use to one another.” Two hundred years later, Blumenberg’s note cards, each of them number-stamped by him and thus carrying along a trace of their temporal order of origin, could be moved and rearranged continuously in ways that weren’t open to the entries confined to the bound pages of Lichtenberg’s books. Blumenberg relied on the new connections and constellations generated within his Zettelkasten throughout his life as a writer.

Note card boxes: technology transfer from the library to the office, and back again

Beyond its role in the development of Blumenberg’s thought discussed in ‘Life Without Toothache,’ it is worth lingering a little more on the Zettelkasten itself, and place this intriguing piece of machinery in the historical genealogy of writing tools as a remnant of the pre-digital decades of the twentieth century. Media theorist Markus Krajewski has devoted a book specifically to the paper machinery of cards and catalogs. He traces the origins of this machinery back to sixteenth-century attempts at indexing books, and through the twists and turns of library technology in Europe and the U.S. over the following centuries. By the 1920s, about a decade before Blumenberg began to produce and keep his note cards systematically, note cards and their corresponding boxes had developed into a veritable “paper slip economy” (Krajewski) no longer confined to libraries but now an increasingly important tool of bureaucracy and business administration alike. Standardized in size and readily available, prefabricated systems of paper slips and boxes promised efficient and rational organization for any office. And indeed they were quickly adopted not just by the businessmen and administrators to whom they were primarily marketed, but also by a generation of writers of poetry and prose, of philosophy and polemics: a technology transfer from library to office, as Krajeweski has described the process in his history of the slip-card box, and back. “The basis of organization is to ensure that all work continues to flow on its own,” he quotes from a journal devoted to office organization in the 1920s (see here, 125). This desire for autonomy of office-work processes has taken on a concrete material form in the slip box. Could such an autonomous flow process possibly have satisfied the thinker Lichtenberg’s demand for proper “rules for invention,” formalizing what he suggests is the proper way of speaking: “don’t say I think, but rather: there is thinking [es denkt], just like you’d say there is thunder [es donnert]”?

Machines of the Imagination

A 2013 exhibition at the museum of the German Literature Archive in Marbach showcased the diverse uses to which these ‘machines of the imagination’ were put not just by Blumenberg, but by many of his contemporaries across the political spectrum and across academic disciplines, such as Ernst Jünger, Siegfried Kracauer, or Friedrich Kittler (see the exhibition catalogue ). Not all Zettelkästen look as intriguing as art historian Aby Warburg’s, who occasionally used thematically matching cover material for his boxes. His box no. 6, for instance, gathers entries to do with ‘saga − snake − tree,’ and is wrapped in yellow imitation snake-skin. And some Zettelkästen exist in their creator’s imagination only. The novelist and storyteller Jean Paul assembled some 12,000 paper scraps over the course of his lifetime, but died in 1825, well before the advent of standardized box systems that made it convenient and easy to store such multitudes of paper slips, as well as to realize what remained a dream to Paul: the dream of a more complex order between the paper scraps than that imposed by the linear arrangement of the written page. Note card boxes are capable of maintaining a fragile order of card entries to be written, arranged and rearranged, an order nevertheless always under threat by mundane hazards: a drawer may be knocked over, a folder bumped into. The note card box’s capacity to establish connections between entries, be it systematically or by hazard, is reminiscent of another one of Lichtenberg’s quips: “Oh how many ideas aren’t hovering dispersed in my head! Quite a few pairs among those could provoke the greatest discovery if only they came together. But isolated from one another they lie, just like the sulphur from the city of Goslar lies isolated from East Indian nitre and from Oaksfield coal dust when jointly they could produce gunpowder!”

“Communication with note card boxes”

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann kept the only note card box that is known to match Blumenberg’s in size and importance as a tool for thought. Like Blumenberg, he had developed a complex system of excerpting on note cards, and of labeling these cards in an idiosyncratic shorthand for cross-referencing purposes. To Luhmann, his note card box is a “ruminant,” Wiederkäuer: a system to chew over various bits of reading material over stretches of time that are long enough to allow new connections and combinations to appear, and thus to generate genuine surprises (for more, see here). Accordingly, he readily grants the Zettelkasten agency in the process of thought production: “Without the paper scraps, i.e. by reflection alone, I wouldn’t have such ideas. Of course my head is required for writing them down, but it cannot be held solely responsible for them (see here, 144).” So how does the box contribute to thinking? Luhmann the system and communication theorist offered a starting point for analyzing the function of his writing machinery in a article tellingly titled “Communication with note card boxes.” He emphasizes the element of chance built into the retrieval of material for thought, and the process of communication between himself and the box. Should the idea seem strange that an apparatus made of wood and paper makes a stimulating conversation partner, Markus Krajewski reminds us that Luhmann’s choice of interlocutor has a precedent in an 1805 piece by the novelist Heinrich von Kleist (see the chapter “Paper as Passion” in this collection). In his “On the gradual fabrication of thoughts while speaking,” Kleist was in turn musing on Immanuel Kant’s metaphor of the teacher as the midwife at the birth of the student’s thought. When stuck in developing a thought, Kleist recommends, find an acquaintance to talk at. No responses are required. The mere presence of the silent interlocutor, and even more so the imminent threat of losing their attention during lengthy stretches of boredom or incoherence will trigger, or so Kleist claims, the “fabrication of my idea in reason’s workshop.” Luhmann’s note card box adds both access to information stored over time and a tactile twist to the thought fabrication process. The box responds to touch rather than voice, to drawers being opened and cards being pulled out, and delivers the keywords and connections necessary for forming thoughts.

“He who hasn’t lost anything in his head can’t find anything in there either.”

Hans Blumenberg carefully read Luhmann’s piece on ‘Communication with note card boxes’ in 1981. He compared their respective systems, and did not fail to record that he had “collaborated” with his own Zettelkasten for forty years, compared to Luhmann’s mere twenty-six. But, while acknowledging similarities and differences in the everyday usage of the writing tool they had in common, Blumenberg is less inclined than Luhmann to credit the box for his thought production. His understanding of its function is informed by a different metaphor of Kant’s for the process of thinking. Filed on a card under the key word cogitare, Blumenberg quotes Kant: “Thinking is conversation with oneself… Listening inside.” As Dorit Krusche and Ulrich von Bülow argue in their analysis of Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten (see here, 113-119), it became a medium to send “messages to oneself.” Judging by the number of writing projects that Blumenberg’s note card box generated, it is only helpful for such a conversation with oneself that plenty of messages end up getting lost in the note card box for quite a few years, sometimes to be forgotten but often to be picked up again later, reinserted in new contexts. “He who hasn’t lost anything in his head can’t find anything in there either,” Lichtenberg joyfully declared (a few days after praising the word ‘nonsense’ over weightier notions such as ‘chaos’ or ‘eternity’). The Zettelkasten is a tool to outsource memory, but also to enhance that fortuitous forgetfulness that leads to future productive re-encounters. “Sibi scribere: The reasonable author writes for no other posterity than his own, for his own old age, in order to take pleasure in himself even then,” Blumenberg quotes Nietzsche (here, 83). His piece of organizational machinery from the age of paper-based bureaucracy made sure he did not run out of material for productive pleasure.

Daniela K. Helbig teaches at the School for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. Her research areas are at the intersection of the history and philosophy of technology, and of intellectual history. 


art history companion piece Early modern Europe Iberian history JHI religious history Think Piece

A German Olive Tree in Barcelona: Textual Truths and Religious Consequences

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

This post is a companion piece to Spencer’s article in volume 80, number 1 of JHI, “Hagiography by the Book: Bibliomancy and Early Modern Cultures of Compilation in Francisco Zumel’s De vitis patrum (1588).”

He slept, and was transported. There seemed to be an olive tree of spectacular size rooted in a spacious hall, beneath which he saw himself walk, and sit down from time to time. What is more, certain solemn and noble men approached him, who said they had been sent by a great king to aid him, lest any uproot the tree beneath which he sat. Now other men came towards them, bearing axes and shovels; in the greatest haste, they attempted to uproot and unearth the beautiful tree. And yet, as they were making the attempt, the more they tried to destroy this lovely olive tree, they more they became stuck in the thickest and hardiest roots. Indeed, just then innumerable, splendid sprigs emerged from the surviving roots, filling the entire hall. (Zumel 65–66)

“He” is Saint Peter Nolasco, the thirteenth-century founder of the Mercedarians, a Catholic religious order dedicated to ransoming captive Christians. The text comes from De vitis patrum (1588), a life of the saint composed by the Mercedarian theologian Francisco Zumel and the subject of my article in JHI. I show that De vitis patrum incorporates text from nine other saint’s lives, and argue that Zumel chose these sources by opening a hagiography collection at random—that is, bibliomancy. The article explores the implications of Zumel’s divinatory method of composition for early modern authorship; here I want to highlight the consequences for the Mercedarians.

The vision of the olive tree, symbolizing Nolasco’s task to defend the Church, is easily the most striking and most substantial importation among Zumel’s appropriations. The episode comes from a 1054 life of the Benedictine reformer and bishop Saint Godehard of Hildesheim (960–1038), penned by the latter’s disciple Wolfhere. The theme itself is likely indebted to Psalm 52:8, whose speaker declares, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God” (NRSV).

No extant medieval source refers to Nolasco having such a vision, but after De vitis patrum this scene, and the olive tree or branch, became staples of Mercedarian literary and visual culture (see García Gutiérrez), beginning with the campaign for papal recognition of Nolasco’s sainthood. 1588 saw the end of a 65-year drought in papal canonizations; drought was followed by flood, as Tridentine Catholicism embraced the cult of the saints as a weapon against the Protestants. When, in the 1620s, influential Mercedarians began to agitate on behalf of their founder, their timing was impeccable. This high tide of canonizations was particularly favorable to religious founders, such as Frances of Rome (canonized 1608), Teresa of Ávila (1622), and Ignatius Loyola (1622) (Burke 48–62). In 1628, Nolasco joined their number, by decree of Pope Urban VIII.

In 1956, the Mercedarian scholar P. J. M. Delgado Varela discovered a visual component to the canonization campaign, a set of engravings designed by Jusepe Martínez and executed by Johann Friedrich Greuter (see Barrera). These images, depicting Nolasco’s life and legend, are largely inspired either by De vitis patrum or by later Mercedarian authors who in turn relied upon Zumel. (Other artists employed by the Mercedarians were referred to De vitis patrum for historical material [Olson-Rudenko 71]). Mártinez understandably seized upon the dramatic episode of the olive tree.

Johann Friedrich Greuter and Jusepe Martínez, Vida de San Pedro Nolasco (1627), image 5 (Image credit: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, Biblioteca Nacional de España).

This memorable image, capturing the saint mid-strike beneath the instantly recognizable foliage of the olive tree, not only as an illustration of Nolasco’s divine vocation but also as a demonstration of his iconographic potential as a saint-to-be.

The engravings were not the only visual arguments for Nolasco’s sainthood. The same year, the Mercedarian Alonso Rémon published Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), narrating Nolasco’s life in the recherché medium of a book of emblems (erudite, symbolic juxtapositions of texts and images).

Alonso Remón, Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), 26r.

Remón’s sixth emblem concerns the vision of the olive tree. The Latin lemma (heading) reads, “Sicut ad pullum Aquila” (“Like the eagle to the chick”). The image is an eagle holding up a chick to the rays of the sun. Two sets of verses caption the construction: the first quatrain, in Latin, runs,

Just as (held up to the sun’s shining beams)
She proves the newborn birds by Jove’s hook;
Thus the Virgin proved you, Nolasco:
She was your sun, you will be the bird.

The second, Spanish set of verses are as follows:

Meditating upon the passion
With extreme care and woe,
He was shown an olive tree,
Budding with copious fruit,
And several men who were
Cutting away at the beautiful trunk.
And he was to defend it.
Now let all who can prove
That the eagle is Mary,
The neck of the mystical body.

Once again, the vision guarantees the divine impetus of the order’s foundation, this time following Zumel in invoking the Virgin Mary. On this score, Remón’s view was shared by a contemporary of considerably greater talents and renown: the terrifyingly prolific playwright Lope de Vega.

Lope de Vega

Lope de Vega, one of the leading lights of Spain’s literary golden age, revolutionized Spanish theater. Though best remembered today for his moral dramas, such as The Dog in the Manger (1618) and Fuenteovejuna (1619), he was no less energetic as an author of plays and poetry on religious themes. One such sacred drama was La vida de San Pedro Nolasco, premiered before the royal family in 1629 and published in 1635, the year of the playwright’s death. The play relies heavily on the standard Mercedarian narrative of Nolasco’s life, which is to say on Zumel and his imitators.


Trees begin to emerge in La vida well before Nolasco’s vision. In the first act, personifications of Spain and France take the stage to quarrel over the saint’s glory. Spain insists, “the order and the way of life that awaits Peter Nolasco, you shall soon see founded in me, as it is spread through you. A tree transplanted from where it is born to some other place” (I.402–07). France retorts, “It seems an ungrateful thing to give the fruit to some other land, for it is owed to the place it was born” (I.408–10). Spain, however, wins out with the reply, “The tree owes more to the water than to the earth, for it is heaven that sustains and irrigates it. And so, since heaven wishes to sustain it in me, do not resist its intentions” (I.411–13).

Having established Spain’s God-given prerogative, Lope de Vega can turn to the iconic moment itself. Toward the end of the first act, Nolasco recounts his dream to Pierres, a servant and comedic foil invented for La vida:

Things are different with me since I was shown a noble olive tree above a carpet of a field, so verdant in its twigs and branches that it seemed a blessing for Spain, such as the Prophet-King paints. But against it with headstrong ferocity came several frenzied men, who tore at its shoots. The heavens themselves, taking pity upon the echoing cries of the sundered branches, begged the world for aid. […] With all this I cannot rest, hoping that heaven will instruct me in something I know not, encoded within this olive tree. (I.640–55, 660–63)

A certain dramatic irony obtains, for the audience knows what the baffled Nolasco does not: he is presently to become a saint. Pierres hazards a rather crass interpretation: “Perhaps that olive tree is the sheaves of Joseph, and a day will come when your kin shall reverence you” (I.667–70). Nolasco does not even bother to respond to this (an indication that the audience may do likewise). Instead, Pierres falls asleep—onstage—while the saint begins to pray for insight.

Wondrous Virgin, the olive tree whose flowers give the oil that gives us life, immaculate dawn, who, clothed in the sun, covers heaven and earth with splendor. […] What olive tree is this, which they seek to abuse, which calls me to its aid with the tongues of leaves, while the world falls silent? (I.700–03, 708–10)

At this point, dea ex machina intervenes, in form of the Virgin herself, “upon a throne of angels drawing back a cloud.” The Mother of God supplies the correct gloss:

I am the olive tree of the field: you are the one who must take the branches of a heavenly militia for my defense. With my name and my favor, create an order, garbed in white for my unspotted purity. Imitate my son Jesus’s title of redeemer in rescuing the Christians held captive by the barbarians. This is what the savage men and the olive tree signify.  (I.718–31)

This revelation colors the rest of the play, as Lope de Vega continues to weave references to the vision into the text. In the second act, Pierres describes joining the order as “having taken these branches” (II.99–100), while in the third he mentions Nolasco’s continued visions of different trees, including olives (III.20). These reprises reactivate the audience’s association between the dream, the Virgin Mary, and Nolasco’s divine mission.

My aim in tracing the olive tree’s German roots is not to play the iconoclast; far be it from me to stand in judgment upon sincere piety. And I have no doubt that Zumel wrote in the sincerest piety—he turned to bibliomancy precisely in order to let God’s providence, not his own judgment, guide the narrative of Nolasco’s life. That decision had far-reaching artistic, literary, and devotional consequences, integral to the foundation story of an order that last year celebrated its octocentenary, and counts some eight hundred friars spread across five continents. Nolasco’s spiritual children continue his defense of the olive tree.

book history companion piece French history Intellectual history philosophy religious history

Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

by guest contributor Marco Menin

Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

The first time I read Paul et Virginie I was nearly ten years old, attending elementary school in a small town in Northern Italy. Among the few books that were available in the so-called school “library”—which in reality was a modest metal shelving unit which held, at most, fifty books—was the Italian translation of the novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, tucked away among books for young readers ranging from age 8 to 12 years of age. Surprisingly, as I was able to ascertain years later, the translation of the work was complete, with only one brief passage censured, due to the complete nudity of the sailor who attempts to pull Virginie to safety during the shipwreck.       

I clearly remember how the events of Paul and Virginie, so distant both in style and content from the adventurous books that excited me at the time (I was an avid reader of Emilio Salgari and Alexandre Dumas, father), fascinated me and repulsed me at once. I was enraptured by the narrative ability and descriptive expertise of Bernardin, who painted before my adolescent eyes the exotic and lush sight of the tropics. Yet, I was deeply disappointed by the dramatic conclusion of the novel, which left me with a bitter taste of injustice. Being used to happy endings, typical of literature for young readers, I could not understand why Paul and Virginie—two young, beautiful and good individuals—had to die so tragically. One might say that, in a way, I had already grasped (albeit unconsciously) the philosophical problem of the theodicy that brings Bernardin’s novel to life!

In my view, this biographical anecdote—as trivial as it may be—allows us to reflect on the unique historiographical destiny of the Lumières catholiques, the religiously-inspired enlightenment, whose most famous exhibits include Paul et Virginie. Up until recent years, the history of ideas strived largely to exalt anticlerical discourse and the progress of secularization, both typical of the French Enlightenment. This would explain why this time period was perceived as irreconcilable with faith and, more specifically, with Catholicism, which was effectively deeply-rooted in eighteenth-century France. Despite the philosophes’ efforts to destroy the ecclesiastical institution and Catholic dogmas, religion, which often prevails over reason as regards moral efficacy, maintains a prominent position in a society that is continuously in search of moral progress, while increasingly absorbed by mundane habits.   

Faced with the ever-growing importance of secular values, which were glorified by the Utilitarian movement imported from England, the religious apologists adapted their discourse to the trends of the time, in order to defend a conception of religion that was more philosophical than fideistic. In a book from 2008 David Sorkin confirms the central position of the movement in eighteenth-century Europe; a movement somewhere between philosophy and religion which he defines as The Religious Enlightenment: “It [the religious Enlightenment] was at the heart of the eighteenth century: it may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment. The religious Enlightenment represented the last attempt by European states to use reasonable religion – as opposed to romantic, mystical, or nationalist interpretations – as the cement of society (p. 21).”   

Due to their ambiguous position, suspended between secularization and religious conservatism, between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment, the Lumières catholiques had been long ignored or, at best, embraced by a generic “edifying literature” which was to be regarded with benevolent indulgence. In addition to the case of Bernardin, one might consider Mme Leprince de Beaumont (as one mere example), who in present-day collective unconsciousness is considered exclusively to be an author of childhood literature (one might think of the tale La Belle et la Bête), while in reality she was a leading spokeswoman for religious apologetics, brimming with philosophical implications.   

Alongside content (their presumed conservatism), an additional misconception which has long characterized the reception of the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment regards form; that is, the choice to serve as a prevalent expressive means of the sentimental novel. Though it has been superficially interpreted as a merely aesthetic choice, this decision has solid theoretic foundations. Not only does the sentimental novel genre allow for a broader circulation of ideas, consistent with the democratization of knowledge which was typical of the Enlightenment, it also fosters a proper philosophical investigation. As a theater of the expression and operation of moral sentiment, restored by Rousseau, the sentimental novel is presented as a privileged space in which a tolerant and enlightened faith is defended, and sensibility is considered to be a source of morality. Free of its theological implications, religion becomes a powerful moral instrument, equipped with the extraordinary gift of political and social cohesion.     

In the case of Paul et Virginie, as I hope to have demonstrated in my article Paul et Virginie, or the Enigma of Evil: The Double Theodicy of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the exotic adventure and amorous idyll (destined to transform into tragedy) serve to illustrate a clear theodical plan, which cannot be fully understood if the novel is not considered against the broader backdrop of Bernardin’s philosophical-naturalistic reflection, showcased in his Études de la nature.

A similar discussion to the one we have had regarding Bernardin can be applied to all of the apologists who were involved with the genre of edifying novels: from the aforementioned Mme Leprince de Beaumont to the abbé Gerard and Mme de Genlis, authors of Le Comte de Valmont ou les Égarements de la raison (1774) and Les Petits Émigrés (1798), which though nearly forgotten today, were best-sellers of their time.

In the case of all these authors, repeated references to Heaven and to divine providence as narrative motors should not be reduced to pathetic ornamental epiphenomena; rather, they must be considered an integral part of the sentimental rhetoric that fuels the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment, and that exerts leverage on the affective dimension before the intellectual dimension of the reader. The apologist novelists use a precise aesthetic and ideological system in order to desacralize Catholic orthodoxy by democratizing it. By making orthodoxy mundane through fiction, these authors draft a new order, which is clarified simultaneously by the lumières of faith and of reason.     

From this standpoint, as vigorously confirmed by the historiographic events of Paul et Virginie, a more in-depth examination of the Lumières religieuses allows us to reconstruct a relevant building block of the cultural life that characterized France (and Europe) in the late eighteenth century, while returning to unjustly marginalized texts their due place within the history of ideas.

Marco Menin is an Associate Professor in History of Philosophy, Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy). His article on Paul et Virginie is available in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

book history companion piece gender

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.