Femme d’esprit, Femme auteur: On Victor Cousin’s dual role in the creation of the Early modern canon

Victor Cousin planned to write a book on famous women of the 17th century. The first volume, published in 1844, concerns Jacqueline Pascal, sister of Blaise. Her works are not well known, but Pascal has recently come to the attention of early modern philosophers interested in bringing the works of women to the study of history of philosophy. The fact that her writings were published, together an introduction and biographical texts in the nineteenth century is of particular interest.

Victor Cousin

Until recently, the only figures of interest for the study of Early Modern philosophy were the big seven: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Why is the Early Modern Canon (and the philosophical canon in general) exclusively male? The consensus is now that the canon as we know it was formed in the 19th century, out of a desire by a few university professors to trace a historical line that fitted their views, and that showed both influence and progress. So Descartes comes first, because he defines a particular line of thought, a reliance on reason, and the others follow because of their agreements or disagreements with Descartes on questions of Substance, the mind body problem, etc.

Interestingly, one of the main actors in bringing Descartes to the forefront of the history of seventeenth-century philosophy was Victor Cousin, the same author whose book I am looking at now. But if Cousin was committed to writing the history of women philosophers of the seventeenth-century, then how can he be held responsible (if only partly) for the creation of an exclusively male canon?

There are ways of write historically about women which amount to making sure they never get in.

Michelet’s book about famous women of the French Revolution praised individuals for their beauty and a combination of courage, virtue and intelligence, but ultimately blamed women as a class for the downfall of the Girondins. He recorded women’s political participation as a warning: women should stay out of politics. Cousin is concerned with culture and society, not politics, but his stance is very similar to Michelet’s. Women of the seventeenth century were admirable as long as they did not write for the public. Famous women of the eighteenth century are not admirable, he says.

“See the Du Deffant, Graffigny, Duchatelet, that is, with the exceptions of the noble Mme Aisse and maybe also this poor insane Mme de Lespinasse, not one true woman. A smattering of mathematics and physics, some wit, no genius, no soul, no conviction, no great design on themselves or others. Such are the women of the XVIIIth century. We do no propose to serve as their historian”.

Madame de Lespinasse in her salon with Dalembert

It’s not clear why Mme de Lespinasse is the subject of Cousin’s pity. What is clear is that he himself has no good understanding of science and mathematics if he fails to see the importance of Emilie Duchatelet’s legacy. This could well be the case. Delphine Antoine-Mahut noted that Cousin, in his editorial work on Descartes presented his metaphysical ideas as dissociated from his scientific work. “Descartes as institutionalised by Cousin” she says “is therefore essentially concerned with metaphysics and method”.

This rejection of Cartesian science, incidentally, perhaps goes some way towards explaining why Cousin chose Pascal to begin his investigation into the women intellectuals of the seventeenth century. Pascal was present when her brother Blaise met with Descartes, and her report of their conversation in which Descartes was unable to justify his views on vacuum and gives medical advice that amount to rest and soup, shows him more as a kindly figure of ridicule than as the respected philosopher we (and the Pascal siblings) might expect.

But there is another, crucial reason why Cousin chose Pascal. For all her virtues, intellectual and moral, Jacqueline Pascal was not what Cousin calls a ‘femme auteur’. That is, she did not write for publication. She did not attempt to sell her works for money, or worse, fame.

Jacqueline Pascal, Sister Sainte-Euphemie at the Port Royal Convent

Cousin is very clear in his introduction that women should not be authors.

A true author writes, he says, to defend to the world a noble cause. It is their burden that they are the ones who can and must show the truth. Descartes, (Blaise) Pascal and Bossuet, he writes, were not ‘men of letters’. They were simply men of genius dedicated to the truth.

But why cannot women do the same?

Women, Cousin claims are ‘domestic beings’ while men belong to the public sphere. In lieu of defence he cites, in a footnote, Part V of Rousseau’s Emile, stating that ‘on the true role of woman, it is impossible to find anything that is as true or more charming.’

It follows from her domesticity that woman cannot be an author in the true sense, i.e. one dedicated to acting in the public sphere. If a woman publishes, as Madame de la Fayette did, she is ‘throwing herself’ on the public, casting aside her modesty, and sharing her intimate self with strangers. Moreover, because she cannot really share herself completely in that way, she lies to the public. Cousin, therefore, does not endorse women authors, and although he is prepared to write about a few – Madame de Scudery, Madame Deshoulieres, Madame Dacier, the only one he does not despise is Anne Dacier, the translator whose Homer was universally admired (but which fails to meet Cousin’s exacting standards) simply because she did not write about herself.

Victor Cousin was a respected philosopher, an elected member of the French Academy, and he is responsible for the place of Descartes in the French educational system as well as (partly) in the western philosophical canon. But Cousin was also a mean and petty intellectual who saw himself as de facto superior to all women and who published books that ultimately contributed to their exclusion from philosophy.

It is somewhat ironical that his book on Pascal is now one of the main sources for those who want to include her work in their studies of 17th century philosophy.

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