Hutcheson’s moral philosophy and privacy

Bernard de Mandeville

In my previous post, I laid the foundation for considering the study of moral philosophy as an important part to understanding notions of privacy at a particular time and place. I argued that, if we understand privacy as keeping private information secret from other people’s knowledge, some motivation for doing this might be to avoid reprobation from others. Now, this reprobation is related to a conception of morality. Therefore, the study of morality at a place and time gives a good orientation as to what was considered publicly

acceptable and what was hidden from public knowledge. As the Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733) provocatively argued in The Fable of the Bees (1714), morality is a social construct.[i]

We can identify two sources of moral authority in Scottish eighteenth-century society: The church and the university. I shall focus on the university for no other reason than my personal interest. It should be noted, however, that ministers of the church received their education at the university. Therefore, my focus on the university also bears some rationale.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

As previously argued as well, this explains why there was strong political interests at play for controlling influential positions in the church and at universities. The Chair of Moral Philosophy was one of the most important ones, since the holder taught future elites in the church and state administration about moral virtues and duties, what is morally ‘right’ and what is morally ‘wrong’. Francis Hutcheson (1694—1746) was appointed at the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the university of Glasgow in 1729 as a result of Islay’s influence over factional rivalries.

It is easy to know what Hutcheson taught in moral philosophy because he published a textbook for his students, first in Latin, then translated into English. He was the first to introduce teaching in English at the university. The Latin textbook was published in 1742 in Glasgow by Robert Foulis as Philosophiae Moralis Institutio Compendiaria.

A short introduction to moral philosophy (2nd edition 1753)

The translation, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, in Three Books, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature was printed posthumously in 1747 in Glasgow by Robert Foulis as well. In the following, I shall use the facsimile editions prepared by Bernhard Fabian, volume IV of the Collected Works of Francis Hutcheson, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim-Zürich-New York, 1990.

I shall now focus on Hutcheson’s teaching regarding human nature and print and censorship. These two foci are guided by the research interests of my colleagues working on privacy for the Glasgow case. Natacha Klein Käfer and Natália da Silvia Perez investigate body-snatching and dissecting: post-mortem privacy. It is therefore relevant to understand how morality regarded the body, the soul and human beings in order to understand how these were treated. Jesper Jakobsen investigates print culture and regulation. It is therefore relevant to understand what morality regarded as worthy of expression in printed or uttered words.

Hutcheson’s moral philosophy

For Hutcheson, moral philosophy is the ‘commanding art’ which dictates how other arts must follow. Moral philosophy is the art of regulating the whole life (p.1). Therefore, it is interesting to look at how the notion of privacy in moral philosophy is determined. The chief point to be inquired in moral philosophy, according to Hutcheson, is what course of life is according to nature, wherein is happiness, and what is virtue (p. 2)? Hutcheson implies that following what is ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ is a way to achieve happiness, or else by being ‘virtuous’. It also has to be specified what happiness and virtue are. One could here infer, that hiding shameful vices is unnatural; so, in this sense, privacy is unnatural.

Human nature

There is no explicit notion of privacy, but it can be inferred from several elements. The first element, perhaps, is that human nature was formed by a Deity (p. 2). Looking at human nature, thus, requires looking at what God intended for humans. Looking at our natural senses and perceptions gives us a sense of what nature intends for us. Therefore, we must first look at the ‘constitution of nature’, rather than God’s will directly, in order to find about our first notion of duty (p. 2). This is important because it implies not to look at texts—the Old Testament and the New Testament. Rather, it requires an empirical enquiry following a scientific method. Through this, we discover the will of the design of our Creator as to our conduct (p. 3).

In this understanding, Hutcheson follows the path of his predecessor at the Chair of moral philosophy, Gershom Carmichael (1672–1729). Carmichael made Pufendorf’s De officio hominis et civis (1672) the set text in moral philosophy at Glasgow, which Hutcheson also followed.[ii] Pufendorf’s work was widely used for teaching moral philosophy at European universities.[iii] Carmichael was influenced by Pufendorf (1632—1694) in discussing natural law with a focus on this life and not the after life, in examining the external manifestations of human conduct.[iv]

Human nature consists of a soul and a body. If we want to understand notions of privacy in human nature, therefore, it has to go along the lines of body and soul. One may note here, that the separation of soul and body implies an understanding of bodily privacy and soul privacy.

 

Concerning the body, Hutcheson is curt; it is better explained by physicians and anatomists. Hutcheson notes only that the human body is superior to other animals because of possessing senses and has a certain dignity in being erected (p. 3). What is interesting is that the body decays if it is not properly taken care of. Food obviously, but also against ‘dangers from without, by cloathing, shelter, and other conveniencies” (p. 4). Hutcheson means probably a minimal existential threat from nature: protecting from the cold, from rain and wind, etc. But clothing and shelter are elements of bodily privacy. Even if not meant as such, they are basic elements in protecting the body from external dangers. In this sense, it is more bodily safety than privacy.

What matters is the soul, to Hutcheson. Regarding death, Hutcheson is not concerned with the body, but only the soul, which must be cultivated in a certain way by piety and devotion to God: ‘Hence the hopes of future happiness after death, and a strength and firmness of soul in all honourable designs. Hence the soul shall be filled with the joys of Piety and Devotion; and every good mind shall expect every thing joyful and glorious under the protection of a good Providence, not only for itself but for all good men, and for the whole universe’ (p. 38). Hutcheson answers to the metaphysicians, that he only considers the structure of the universe that points towards an artificial intelligence, a Creator, who must have a just moral government over his creatures (p. 101). Since happiness and misery do not necessarily come to the virtuous and the vicious in this life, it must be in the other.

‘… all things related to this mortal state are fleeting, unstable, corruptible’ (p.90). In the last hour, what is important is the enjoyment to have acted virtuously, which gives the joyful hope of a happy immortality.

A nightwatchman disturbs a body-snatcher who has dropped the Wellcome V0010463

This may be important for the treatment of bodies after death. The body of a non-virtuous person may be less regarded. The commerce of cadavers and their public dissections in front of medical students may not be considered immoral when performed on convicts and executed criminals.

Moreover, this view has consequences for the behaviour of a person both in public and private, as Hutcheson requires practice and exercise for the soul in the form of ‘piety and devotion towards God, adoration of his perfections, prayers, confession of sin, and pious desires, and vows of obedience’ (p. 91). However, natural desires and passions are not evil in kind, they may be of use in life, either to the person or to mankind (p. 91). What matters is the moderation and whether they are pernicious to society: moderate desire of self-preservation, a moderate relish for sensual pleasures, frugality and liberality, moderate desire of power, moderate desire of fame, some anger, etc. (pp. 95-98).

Regarding print and censorship

Hutcheson considers print and censorship indirectly. It can be deduced from what he writes on speech, since Hutcheson writes that speech includes ‘communicating our sentiments, viz. common writing’ (p. 196). The general principle regarding speech is that it is a gift given by God to mankind, setting it above other animals, together with the other gift of reason. That speech is related to reason is not fortuitous in Hutcheson. As Hutcheson wrote in the advertisement to the students or preface, his textbook serves as an introduction to ancient philosophers, in particular Aristotle and Cicero. Maccari-Cicero They both have written about rhetoric as being speech in the service of reason and truth. Hutcheson takes a similar point of departure. Since speech is a gift from God, it must be used the way God requires it of us. This indication can be found by looking at our ‘nature’, which requires of us to use speech in line with the ‘common interest’. We must use speech with truth and fidelity in conversations otherwise we lose this advantage of social life (pp. 195-196).

Hutcheson draws a distinction between natural and artificial speech, by which he means speech, or use of signs, that was intended by the author to someone or not. In the case of natural speech, there is no reason to demand any veracity from the author. Artificial speech is the one intended for someone else (pp. 196-97), and there is an obligation not to hurt one’s neighbour without a just cause. In this case there are some ‘laws of speech and writing’. First, ‘Where others have a right to know the whole sentiments of the speaker, he is obliged not only to speak truth but to reveal the whole truth’ (p. 198). This may be in a court of law, or in a classroom. Second, ‘Tho’ others may have no peculiar right to know our sentiments, yet when we speak to them, we should say nothing but what agrees with our sentiments according to common interpretation which obtains among men of understanding’ (p. 198).  This is so because speaking contrary to one’s sentiments makes one guilty of lying or falsehood. Hutcheson insists particularly on the fact that maintaining veracity in all our conversation is important to society. Therefore, it is unlawful to use false speaking in any small motives in life (to pacify anger, to comfort the sorrowful, to obtain any advantage or avert evils not of the highest kind). However, it is allowed to deceive in some circumstances, particularly in the case of entertainment (198-99). Works of fiction are playing with our notion of truth and veracity in order to entertain.

Moreover, there are sacred duties in the use of speech:

  • ‘that we study to make our speech profitable to others, in recommending and cherishing, admonishing, exhorting, comforting, and sometimes reproving sharply, and all these shewing an hearty intention of doing good’. (201)
  • ‘to reconcile friends… to prevent animosities, or to compose them’ (201).
  • avoid hurting the characters of others, avoid spreading false calumnies, but also ‘conceal the secret fault of others, unless he be forced to divulge them to prevent the seducing the innocent, or to avert some publick evil’. This may be difficult regarding men who are publicly infamous already.

Hutcheson makes one final note regarding the effect of speech on the speaker and the listener, which may move them in delight or aversion. The case here is when obscenity is involved. Obscenity is when the speaker or the hearers delight or are depraved by speaking about the dissolute temper in others because it kindles a like vicious passion in the minds of the hearers (p. 202). It is ‘hateful and detestable’.

In summary, there is no clear mention of how and when to censor speech. However, one can take several general guidelines. When a printed text is intended for communication to others, it must be close to the truth, not deceive, and not hurt the character of others. Works of fiction, however, may deceive as long as they are not obscene and do not hurt anyone’s character.

Hutcheson actually gives an example of something that he finds ‘censurable’, but the word meant ‘reprimandable’ or subject to blame. The ‘censurable’ part is Plato’s Republic, when he writes that states should overtake the parents’ role as educators. ‘This natural love of the sexes, and equally natural love of offspring, shew that Plato and some other excellent writers are justly censurable, for departing too audaciously from nature, in appointing their states to be supplied in new subjects by children unknown to both the parents…’ (257)

Some further directions for research

Hutcheson beyond the classroom

Were Hutcheson’s views discussed in cafés, salons, in the media. Where should we look? The Scot Magazine is a good start.

What has been the impact of Hutcheson’s ideas on his students, and what has been the impact of his students on social norms? How to assess them? This would require, first, looking at the students enrolled in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. There are archives for this. Second, it would entail selecting those who have published or whose ideas have been recorded in some way (correspondence, diary, debates in societies, etc.).

Commercial society, morality, and privacy

https://gph.is/1qsIq9b

The discussion of virtue and vice related to commercial society was an important one at the time. It was not as obvious to contemporaries as it is today, that a commercial society was a viable and successful one. Here comes the discussion from Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees regarding selfish interests working for the public good. For Mandeville, greed is good. Accumulating wealth, luxury, indulging vices enable work for many people and make a commercial society prosper. This view influenced one of Hutcheson’s brightest students, Adam Smith (1723—1790), but also David Hume (1711—1776).

If the common good requires a functioning commercial society where citizens are ‘merchants’ (i.e. depending on one another for their survival, and not autarkic individual), then morality needs to be redefined. Displaying wealth, indulging vices, may no longer be frown upon, and no longer belong to the realm of the private. Hence, it may be possible to formulate a working hypothesis regarding the relationship between capitalism, morality, and privacy.


 

[i] Hutcheson commented on Mandeville’s work in his correspondence, published in 1729 as ‘Thoughts on Laughter and Observations on “The Fable of the Bees”’.

[ii]  James Moore, Michael Silverthorne (eds.), Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment : The Writings of Gershom Carmichael, Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 2002, p. 74.

[iii] Ibid. P. 77.

[iv] Ibid.

Privacy and Moral Philosophy

What does privacy have to do with moral philosophy? A lot, depending on how we conceptualize privacy. Privacy was a word people used in the eighteenth century, albeit not in the exact same way as we do today. The notion of a ‘right to privacy’ did not exist, neither legally nor in the minds.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘1. the state or condition of not being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion’. One may note a particular legal and political undertone is this definition with the word right and choice, the words freedom and the liberal definition of liberty as freedom from interference or intrusion. Privacy is also the avoidance of publicity, protection from public knowledge. Again a legal and political understanding.

If we look at Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, ‘privacy’ is identified as stemming from the French privauté, meaning ‘familiarity’, but also retirement or secrecy. French dictionaries at the time also defined ‘privauté’ as ‘familiarité’. Privacy as privauté is not of our concern here.

A Dictionary of the English Language 1755 If we look at the 1768 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, privacy is defined as stemming from ‘private’ and designating 1) the state of being secret, secrecy, or 2) retirement, retreat, or 3) privity, grand familiarity, joint knowledge, or 4) taciturnity. ‘Private’ stems from the Latin privatus, meaning 1) not open, secret, 2) alone, not accompanied, 3) being upon the same terms upon the community, particular, opposed to public, 4) particular, not relating to public, 5) in private, secretly, not in public.

One may notice the absence of any legal or political connotation, except perhaps that it denotes something ‘secret’ and ‘retired’ from others. It is first in Brandeis and Warren’s 1890 article on ‘the right to privacy’ that we have a clear legal notion of a ‘right to be left alone’. This right to privacy, also adds to other rights defined in the American and French declarations in the late eighteenth century.

Now, there is clearly a cultural, philosophical, and political change in minds that explains the notion of rights. But, what about the notion of privacy? And why study the history of moral philosophy in particular for an intellectual history of this notion of privacy?

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

In the Book of Genesis, the reader learns that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They were free to do what they wanted and prosper in the Garden of Eden to create humankind. God made them in his image. However, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the tree of life. Tricked by a snake, Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge and offered it to Adam. As a result, they gained knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge came shame, the shame to discover they were naked. They hid their genitals from each other. They equally tried to hide from God as they knew they did something wrong and disobey his command. God found out, and, fearing they could also eat from the tree of life and become immortal like Him, He banned them from Eden to suffer on earth.

If we think about privacy in this well-known story, we can see that knowledge of good and evil is tightly related to secrecy and publicity. The reason for retiring and concealing something shameful is the fear of judgement and knowledge by others. It is a moral judgement we are here interested in, not legal judgement. One would also hide and conceal something illegal in the fear of being sentenced as a result, but that is not of our concern here.

My hypothesis, then, is that looking at how people conceived morality determined how people acted in public and in private. I am here conceptualizing privacy with a restriction to being a state of privation from others, a retreat from others, therefore a voluntary act. It is others’ knowledge of one’s actions. We acquire knowledge through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, and to a certain extent touch and taste.

If someone choses to retreat from other people’s senses, the retreat is voluntary. If the retreat is voluntary then there is a reason for it: a will to keep something away from others. This will is thus influenced by something, which may be a certain public image as opposed to a private one. It may also be that there is a will to keep something away from others. Society may frown upon the condition of solitude because it is suspect: someone may be hiding something contrary to moral standards.

Moreover, if there is a will, it also supposes that the person is alive, but what about after death and the will of the person? This touches upon questions as wide ranging as opening a private diary, and opening a cadaver to gain knowledge of the soul or the body. This will to retreat also imply that we study how the person in question understands this retreat and privacy. Closing one’s eyes and joining hands in prayer in the middle of a crowded room may not seem like privacy to us, but might be for the person. By the same token, this person may believe to be alone and thus away from the knowledge of others, but not of God. A private conduct may also be influenced and not considered as privacy by this person.

The teaching of moral philosophy at the university in the early modern period may seem remote from social realities. It is difficult to assess the real impact and it is certainly limited to a society’s elite. However, since society was hierarchically organized, it is relevant to study the elite’s mind-set in order to understand the rules according to which it ruled lesser ‘classes’ or estates. Studying at the university was reserved to a certain elite in the eighteenth century, and this was also true of Glasgow.

The professorial chair was subject to political scrutiny, even if to a lesser

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

extent at Glasgow compared to Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. The eighteenth century saw an increasing patronage by the crown and politicians over the church and universities.[1] The politics of the church and the university is important because it shaped the ideas and values of the Scots. The most influential persons who managed to monopolise patronage were Archibald Campbell, first earl of Ilay, and, after 1743, third duke of Argyll (1682-1761), and afterwards Henry Dundas, first Viscount of Melville (1742-1811).[2] Francis Hutcheson’s appointment at the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1729 was the result of Ilay’s decisive influence over factional disputes.[3]

This is the first step for building my research programme on privacy as it relates to moral philosophy. I start from the hypothesis that moral philosophy is significant for understanding privacy because it defines the standards by which people judged one another. It formed their ‘moral sense’ in a way. The next step is to look at the actual teaching of moral philosophy. I work on the Glasgow case together with my colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies, and I focus on Francis Hutcheson’s teaching of moral philosophy. A third step would be to collect sources and information about how his teaching spread through society by looking at his students and if and how his ideas were discussed in society.

[1] Roger L. Emerson, ‘Politics and the Glasgow Professors, 1690-1800’, in The Glasgow Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Hook and Richard B. Sher (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995).

[2] Emerson, 22.

[3] Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 96–97.


This post is based on the paper I presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8-10 January 2020 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom : “Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural”.

Traduire privacy : Vie privée ou sphère privée ?

Dans mon dernier billet, j’ai présenté, en anglais, mes réflexions méthodologiques sur l’étude historico-philosophique de la privacy. J’ai ensuite présenté la méthode de travail du Centre for Privacy Studies, définie par son directeur, Mette Birkedal Bruun. Je souhaite dans ce présent billet, écrit en français avec une bonne raison, aborder le problème soulevé par mon collègue Michael Green, concernant la traduction des concepts utilisés pour l’analyse de la privacy.

Tout d’abord se pose la question de traduire la notion de « privacy ». A première vue, il est logique de traduire privacy par vie privée parce que nous avons en droit un « right to privacy » correspondant au « droit à la vie privée ». Deux questions se posent, cependant, avec ce choix. D’abord, il limite la compréhension de privacy à une notion moderne et contemporaine liée à l’apparition de ce droit. En ce sens, une étude de la privacy ou vie privée se limiterait à l’évolution de cette notion moderne et contemporaine. Certes, elle pourrait ne pas se borner à une conception juridique et inclure l’histoire des idées avec le développement de la notion de droit de l’homme, de l’individu, du soi. Mais, il n’en reste pas moins que c’est une limitation de la notion de privacy. Il est donc nécessaire de déterminer dès le début qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une histoire du droit à la vie privée lorsque l’on parle de vie privée, tout comme a history of privacy n’est pas a history of the right to privacy.

En outre, l’histoire de la vie privée a une histoire elle aussi. Au dix-septième siècle, on s’intéresse à l’étude de la vie privée des personnes dans le passé. La seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle montre un engouement pour la vie privée.

On s’intéresse par exemple à la vie privée des Romains. Cela montre que la notion de vie privée commence à s’installer dans les esprits.

Billedresultat for de la vie privée des romains d'arnay"

La seconde question qui se pose, à mes yeux, concerne la corrélation dans les deux langues de ce que signifient privacy en anglais et vie privée en français. Linguistiquement parlant, les deux ont en commun le mot issu du latin privatus. Privacy en anglais, est composé de l’adjectif private (du latin privatus, privatum) et du suffixe –acy. Selon le Oxford English Dictionary, la definition de privacy est : “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” L’origine du mot viendrait d’une erreur de copie de privity en 1534.

Vie privée est dans le dictionnaire Trésor de la Langue Française sous « vie »: «  [Constr. avec un adj. ou un compl. prép.] Part de l’activité humaine, de l’existence d’une personne ou d’une collectivité envisagée du point de vue de l’activité exercée, des occupations. » Pour « privé » : « 1. Dont seuls quelques particuliers peuvent faire usage; où le public n’est généralement pas admis. […] 2. Qui appartient en propre à une ou à plusieurs personnes. […] 3. Qui a lieu dans l’intimité, sans public; qui concerne un petit nombre de personnes. […] 4. Qui est d’ordre strictement personnel; qui ne concerne pas les autres. […] − Vie privée. Anton. vie professionnelle, publique*. »

Comme je l’ai argumenté dans mon précédent billet, privacy ne peut se résumer à un concept au sens philosophique du terme. Par conséquent, le problème est moins celui de la traduction d’un concept et des considérations que cela entraîne. Concept qui, de toute façon, n’existait pas à l’époque que nous étudions (1500-1800) au sens où nous l’entendons aujourd’hui.

La définition anglaise commence par la notion « d’état » ou « de condition », dans laquelle on peut se trouver « hors de l’attention publique » « par choix ou par droit ». On peut remarquer l’absence de spécification sur le sujet en question : une personne ou un groupe de personnes. On peut aussi remarquer l’absence de spécification sur la nature de cette « attention publique » : regard, ouïe, odorat, savoir, connaissance d’un secret, etc. Vie privée pourrait se résumer à « part de l’activité humaine, de l’existence d’une personne ou d’une collectivité envisagée du point de vue de l’activité exercée, des occupations » « qui est d’ordre strictement personnel ; qui ne concerne pas les autres ». Il me semble que nous pouvons retrouver les mêmes éléments dans les deux langues concernant la condition ou l’état d’absence d’attention extérieure, et le fait qu’il puisse s’agir d’une personne ou d’un groupe de personnes.

Noisy sphere Cette traduction me paraît aussi bonne parce qu’elle évite la conception de « sphère privée », aussi utilisée en allemand, Privatsphäre. L’idée de « sphère » en elle-même suppose une délimitation. Hors, c’est le propre même d’une étude sur la vie privée de questionner la notion de délimitation. Les limites peuvent être négociées, repoussées, superposées. D’autre part, la notion de sphère implique, même inconsciemment, l’image d’un espace. Cependant, on peut trouver des exemples de privacy sans espace, comme le recueillement dans la prière par l’action d’un voile ou de joindre les mains. L’espace physique, la sphère, est minimale voire inexistante, mais la distance à l’autre est immense.

Pour la traduction de household, en revanche, « sphère domestique » me semble propre. Le foyer ou la maison ne sauraient correspondre car il faut comprendre un ensemble de personnels outre la famille. Ces personnes forment une sphère répondant à l’espace domestique proprement dit, ou s’étendant avec ces personnes lorsqu’elles sortent de cette espace.

Si nous comprenons « vie privée » selon cette définition, il me semble que cela soit une bonne traduction de privacy. Il reste alors à se poser la question avec Philippe Ariès : « Une histoire de la vie privée est-elle possible ? »

[1] Philippe Ariès, ‘Pour une histoire de la vie privée’, in Histoire de la vie privée, ed. Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, vol. 3: De la Renaissance aux Lumières, 5 vols (Paris: Seuil, 1986), 7–19.

Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.