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Système comes from a Latin word whose Greek roots mean “to stand with” and which refers to a constituted group or organization. A technical term in music theory, and later in astronomy and philosophy, its first recorded use in French is in Pontus de Tyard's 1555 Solitaire second ou discours sur la musique. The subject is of considerable philosophic import. The proximity of music theory and philosophy for the ancient world and Middle Ages is echoed in Tyard, who finds in music ‘the image of all the Encyclopedia.” Looking back to this text, one must be struck by the fortuitous resonance of music, the original context of “system,” and the evocation of the circle of knowledge or encyclopedia in which the figurative derivations of “system” would play so great a role. Tyard specifically calls attention to the word système and indicates that it is a technical term that he does not expect his interlocutor to know. The definition comes a few pages later in the course of the discussion of diasteme (“a distance of two or more intervals”): “among reputable Authors the word System means several things, always however signifying a group or assembly, and signifying among Musicians an assembly of voices containing both intervals and Diastems” (90).
If the women and men of the Enlightenment felt an affinity for the esprit systématique, a sense of the importance of complex networks of mutually defining, yet mobile, relationships, this affinity was reflected in and reinforced or perhaps even prompted by their participation in the widespread and engrossing practice of letter writing, beyond any encounters with trees of knowledge or Linnaean classificatory schemes. For us to understand the power of systematic reason and its critique, it is important to look beyond the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy and science. Sorting, naming, and classifying are not the exclusive province of the taxonomists. As I hope to show in this and subsequent chapters, the gulf between the love letters of Julie de Lespinasse and the abbé de Condillac's Traité de systèmes is not as wide as one might think.
Both social history and literary criticism have had a great deal to say in recent years about correspondence, real or fictional, as one of the eighteenth century's primary expressive forms. Like the salon conversation with which it was closely allied, letter writing was both a personal and a public performance, a means of affirming the importance of social relations, and a vehicle for furthering the exchange of ideas, the imparting of information, and the construction of a self, beyond the contacts immediately available to one. This is ground on which over-sharp distinctions of “public” and “private” founder. The most private, inward-looking letter is, as Terry Eagleton has remarked, “ineradicably social.”
In this 1999 book, Julie Candler Hayes offers an ambitious reinterpretation of a crucial aspect of Enlightenment thought, the rationalizing and classifying impulse. Taking issue both with traditional liberal and contemporary critical accounts of the Enlightenment, she analyses the writings of Denis Diderot, Emilie Du Châtelet, the Abbé de Condillac, Buffon, d'Alembert and numerous others, to argue for a new understanding of 'systematic reason' as complex, paradoxical and ultimately liberating. Hayes examines the tensions between freedom and constraint, abstraction and materialism, linear and synoptic order, that pervade not only philosophic and scientific discourse, but also epistolary writing, fiction and criticism. Drawing on the insights of a wide range of theorists from Adorno, Habermas and Foucault to Deleuze and Derrida, she offers a dialogue between the eighteenth century and our own, an ongoing exploration of the question, 'what is Enlightenment?'.
For philosophers and scientists as well as the non-specialist reading public, Newtonian science presented a model of conceptual clarity and methodological purity. Even if Newton's prestige was not enough to save the word “système” from its negative connotations, for d'Alembert, Newton “gave Philosophy the form it should preserve.” To the notion that Newton had brought philosophy to definitive perfection one can frame several sorts of replies, and for a number of commentators, aspects of his method and textual practice are problematic, especially as they intersect with specific historical circumstances and institutions. Margaret C. Jacobs goes so far as to assert that “the Newtonian version of the Enlightenment looks increasingly like a vast holding operation against a far more dangerous rendering of Enlightenment ideals.” In France, Newton's experimentalism achieved high prestige, but other emphases shifted. French thinkers tended to adopt Newton's insights in mechanics and optics, but tried to fit them into other conceptual frameworks. One can find the effect of what I. B. Cohen calls “the Newtonian style,” or mathematicization of the natural world, in Condillac and d'Alembert, but the lingering influence of Descartes, among other factors, prompted a greater tolerance for hypothetical thinking and a continuing concern with explanatory principles in natural philosophy, as opposed to an acceptance of the inexplicable functioning of phenomena. There are few philosophical “purists” in eighteenth-century France.
There have been many narratives of Enlightenment, ranging from euphoric accounts of intellectual courage and progress in the face of superstition and inequality, to dystopian unmaskings of reason's darker motives. In the second half of the twentieth century, from the early Frankfurt School to the work of Michel Foucault, and that of a number of feminist, Marxian and other historicist critics, the analysis of the covert strategies of domination inherent in our “enlightened” institutions cautions us against the liberal tradition's Age of Reason. A major focus for these critiques rests on the classical episteme's drive toward classification and systematization as the discursive space for what Foucault called “disciplines” and “sciences of order.” Although I am not taking issue per se with the work that has been done on the relationship between the purifying of classical reason and certain institutions, and strategies of domination, this intellectual current as a whole reminds me of another interpretative narrative.
The operative “story” is that of the Anti-Oedipe: desire is formless, partitionless, boundless, and “excessive” energy. It is the “un-masking” gesture of the analyst that actually imprints desire, defines its territory, grounds it in a master narrative. Now, according to Jean-François Lyotard (to take but one well-known example), Enlightenment is the source of many of our culture's coercive grands récits. But I will argue here that “systematizing” is energy, unimpeded relationality, movement, emphasizing relations rather than entities, potential rather than fixity.
As we have seen, within the early-modern and Enlightenment preoccupation with systematization, mathematicization, and natural order, the tension between linear, sequential, or temporally-oriented modes of thought or presentation, and synoptic or analytic modes takes on many forms. While they can be offered as alternatives, as when Arnauld and Nicole consider the narrativizing “order of inventionr” alongside the systematizing “order of analysis” in the Logique de Port-Royal, as we move into the eighteenth century there is more often a clear opposition between the two, as when Buffon challenges Linnaeus's “system” in the name of his own “method.” Sometimes they produce significant disruptions in textual continuity and logic, as when d'Alembert tries to integrate “encyclopedic order” and “genealogical order” in the Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie. We have seen how Du Châtelet and Condillac, despite what appear to be very different programs, both engage the notion of the “philosophical system” in ways that can be problematic and contradictory, but which are also richly productive.
I have been arguing that to the extent to which systematization can be shown to be heterogeneous and mutable, rather than monolithic, the severe view offered by the radical critique of Enlightenment should be called into question. The work of Denis Diderot is a crucial reference point in this process. Diderot shares with Buffon an intuition of the radical contingency of the connections that we map onto the world; both mistrust totalizing categories and classifications.
In 1749, the year of Du Châtelet's death, the year Buffon published the first three volumes of L'Histoire naturelle, Etienne Bonnot, abbé de Condillac, delivered what many considered the final blow to the activity of “systematizers,” his Traité des systèmes. The Traité became an important reference point for d'Alembert in the Discours préliminaire and would furnish the substance for two of the Encyclopédie's articles in the series “Systême” (rubrics Métaphysique and Philosophie). In the twentieth century, despite strong interest in his approach to Lockean empiricism, his linguistic theories, and his logic, there has been relatively little analysis of the Traité per se. In this chapter, I shall look first at some general issues in Condillac's language theory and logic, in particular at his form of genealogical critique and his understanding of the key notions of analogy and identity, before turning to the Traité des systêmes. From Buffon and d'Alembert to Du Châtelet, we have been made aware of the degree to which the split between analysis and synthesis, the linear and the simultaneous, method and system, constitutes a founding problematic in Enlightenment thought. It is no less so in Condillac and, as we shall see in the following chapter, in Diderot. Certainly one aspect of Condillac's thought that makes him interesting in this context is what Foucault called his “hesitation” between the two.
Consider an episode from the history of landscape architecture. There once was a labyrinth in the gardens at Versailles. Located to the east of the Bassin d'Apollon and part of Le Nôtre's original plans for the garden, the Labyrinth achieved its final form in 1672. Among the many salles d'eau and bosquets, the Labyrinth was the most elaborate. Charles Perrault recommends it “for the novelty of its design and the number and diversity of its fountains.”
Il est nommé Labyrinte, parce qu'il s'y trouve une infunité de petites allées tellement mélées les unes dans les autres, qu'il est presque impossible de ne s'y pas égarer: mais aussi afin que ceux qui s'y perdent, puissent se perdre agréablement, il n'y a point de détour qui ne présente plusieurs Fontaines en mesme temps à la veûë, en sorte qu'à chaque pas on est surpris par quelque nouvel objet. (3–4)
[It is named Labyrinth because there are an infinity of little paths so mixed together that it is nearly impossible not to become lost; but in order that those who become lost, do so pleasantly, there is not a single turn that does not present several fountains to one's view, so that with each step one is surprised by a new object.]
The forty fountains, as Perrault's book with full-page engravings by Sébastien Le Clerc amply testifies, were themselves small marvels, each incorporating rocailles and lifelike painted lead sculpture to illustrate one of Aesop's fables.
We are in the west of Ireland around the turn of the century. On his first day at school, a boy confronts a menacing schoolmaster.
After a while he directed a long yellow finger at me and said:
– Phwat is your name?
I did not understand what he said nor any other type of speech which is practised in foreign parts because I had only Gaelic as a mode of expression and as a protection against the difficulties of life … I heard a whisper at my back:
– Your name he wants!
My heart leaped with joy at this assistance and I was grateful to him who prompted me. I looked politely at the master and replied to him:
– Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas's Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot ….
The recital is interrupted when the master sends his student reeling across the room with a violent blow to the head.
… before I became totally unconscious I heard him scream:
– Yer nam, said he, is Jams O'Donnell!
The scene is repeated for each child in the school.