Private academic debates and public knowledge: Hermann Conring’s analysis of the Holy Roman Empire at the University of Helmstedt

I wish to present my on-going research on another case I work on, Helmstedt 1620-1681. During this period, the University of Helmstedt was one of the most important ones in Germany. The university opened officially in 1576 and closed definitely in 1810. Studying the life at the university and the city is interesting from the point of view of privacy because it was religiously liberal by the days’ standards and formed a closed community with its own laws inside the city. This provoked many tensions. The production of knowledge is one of our foci, and here the interesting part is the relation between private lectures and public lectures, private lives and public lives of professors, and the publication or dissemination of novel ideas.

I presented recently the beginning of my work on Hermann Conring (1606-1681), a professor at Helmstedt, at the symposion “Practices of Privacy”, organised by my wonderful colleagues Natália da Silva Perez and Natacha Klein Käfer, who had to re-organise the whole conference to an online discussion platform.

In 1641, a student of Conring’s defended publicly a dissertation called ‘exercitatio’ On the Roman-German Emperor, based on Conring’s private lectures. These student theses were usually printed and published. The argument was that the German kings had no claim to continue the Roman empire. A year later, a book entitled New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor was published under Conring’s name, but without the name of the publisher or the place. It was almost a fac-simile of the dissertation. Conring disavowed strongly authorship for this book in 1644 by publishing his own work, The Roman Empire of the Germans. He also claimed that the dissertation was the student’s own work, not reflecting entirely his views. However, the argument, which was a controversial one at the time, is roughly the same in all versions, and many sentences are similar. Fasolt in various articles and The Limits of History has therefore argued that Conring was the real “author” of all three. Conring’s 1644 book is, however, more detailed, more academic in its referencing and added resources.

There is no doubt that the New Discourse is Conring’s, if not in ownership, at least in meaning and spirit. We have therefore a case and a question mark, which have been investigated by Constantin Fasolt in several articles and a book. Why did Conring refused authorship for the Discursus Novus, and the Exercitatio? What Fasolt investigated was the question of authorship, and the question of meaning and intent by Conring. Building on this secondary literature and analysis, I want to investigate the question of privacy in developing knowledge and ideas, and the relation to public knowledge in 17th-century Helmstedt. It is a presentation of a work-in-progress by formulating thoughts and hypotheses for future analysis of primary sources. But before presenting the case, let me introduce you to Conring.

Hermann Conring

Hermann Conring (1606-1681)
From wikicommons

Hermann Conring was born in 1606 in Norden, Ostfriedland, and died in 1681 in Helmstedt. He can be considered as a typical “Renaissance man”: he was a polymath and applied the method of the humanists in his studies. He studied philosophy in 1620 in Helmstedt, with interruption due to the war and the plague. In 1625-1631 Conring studied in Leiden natural science and medicine. In 1632, Conring returned to Helmstedt as professor for two chairs (to save the university money) Natural Philosophy and Rhetoric. In 1636 he became professor of medicine and, in 1650, professor of politics (Politik). He taught and supervised students in philosophy, medicine, law, and politics.

Problem of the time

Holy Roman Empire 1648 (from wikicommons)

In 1642, when The New Discourse was published, the Thirty Years’ War was still decimating Europe. The Holy Roman Empire, led by the House of Habsburg, was the overall political organization ruling a collection of different states. Helmstedt was part of the Principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel ruled by the House of Welf, part of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The Holy Roman Empire got its name from the claim of being the successor of the Roman empire. The German kings considered themselves successors of the Roman emperors and held their power from them. They would go to Rome to be crowned by the Pope.

Private lecture

In the catalogue of courses offered at the University of Helmstedt for the semester 1640, Hermann Conring gave a private lecture ‘Domi differet’ entitled De republica Germanica. Private lectures, unlike public ones that took place in the university building, took place at the professor’s home. Professors were called ‘Braut, Beer, und Küchen’ professors because students paid to live in their large house and were fed. They also followed the professors’ lectures in their private houses. My colleagues Natalie Patricia Körner and Johannes Ljungberg are working on the professors’ houses.

Conring’s house in Helmstedt (my own picture)

You can read more about the professors’ houses in Das Athen der Welfen, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, 2010, the third part “Der Professorenhaushalt” p. 129-167 is dedicated to this topic. Also, Elizabeth Harding, Der Gelehrte im Haus: Ehe, Familie und Haushalt in der Standeskultur der frühneuzeitlichen Universität Helmstedt (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), writes about the professors’ houses.

Exercitatio

On 8 May 1641, Conring’s student name Bogislaus Otho von Hoym submitted Exercitatio de imperatore Romano Germanico, (Exercise on the Roman German Emperor), a public examination at the University of Helmstedt, presided by Conring. These public defenses were different than today’s in that they were supposed to demonstrate that the student had understood the professor’s lectures. The author of the dissertation was either the student entirely (rarely), the professor entirely (rarely), or both. In any case it was always based on the professor’s lecture and therefore the dissertations reflects the professor’s views. Otherwise, the student would not pass the examination. These dissertations were printed for the public defence.

These printed dissertations often ended with a separate set of briefly stated theses called corollaria. It is not exactly certain what they are, but they may be points, which validity the examined student had to prove. Questions that could be asked to the student to answer and substantiate.

Fasolt concludes that the Exercitatio was not a regular dissertation, destined to be forgotten as soon as defended. It dealt with a potentially explosive constitutional question about the legitimacy and origins of the Holy Empire. It must reflect Conring’s views during his lecture. However, Conring refuted being the author of the Exercitatio in his own publication later, De Germanorum imperio Romano.

Discursus Novus

https://books.google.dk/books?id=V1AAAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Discursus Novus

The unauthorised published version of the Exercitatio, the Discursus Novus, is very similar except for some minor typographical details, as Fasolt’s analysis shows. Interestingly, some misprints were corrected, but others were not. For Fasolt, the two major differences are the first page with a different title and only Conring’s name, not the student’s, and the absence of corrolaries at the end. As Fasolt notices, this transforms the nature of the work from an obscure academic dissertation by a student to get a degree at the university, to a book, which reached a wider audience beyond the university.

This is most likely the main reason for provoking Conring’s anger, besides not getting paid for the book and the alleged ‘greed’ of the coward printer. As Conring remarked 30 years later, his radical ideas about the nature of the Holy Empire were exposed to the general public with an ‘insolent title’ that was ‘dangerous at a time when war was still raging’ (see Fasolt).

We do not know the circumstances of the publication of the New Discourse. Had von Hoym a hand in it? Was it someone who knew Conring’s lecture and the dissertation and thought it should reach a wider audience? Was it meant as a malicious way to expose Conring and his radical ideas, create trouble for him? Was it Conring himself, who tested the waters with his ideas, but then refuted the book?

We do have public expressions of Conring’s dissatisfaction with the New Discourse. In the preface to his De Germanorum imperio Romano he calls the book a ‘primitive supposititious child’, and was appalled by the damage done to his reputation. He claimed that he wanted nothing but the peace and quiet of his academic life, but now he was forced to leave his research and studies in medicine to write an answer to this book. As Fasolt notes, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Conring did constantly show an interest in the legal and historical matter of the Holy Empire, by teaching and presiding students’ examinations on that topic throughout the 1630s.

Conring’s poem in Lampadius’s work

Moreover, as von Moeller notes, Conring started being interested in this topic after meeting and befriending Jacob Lampadius in 1632, who was then Counsel of the duke of Braunschweig. (61) A few years earlier, when Conring was a student at Helmstedt, Lampadius was teaching constitutional law. Conring expressed in his conversations with him his eagerness to study thoroughly and precisely the circumstances of the German empire. (62) Lampadius gave him the doctoral dissertation defended in Heidelberg under professor Reiner Bachoff (Bachofius) about the jurisdiction of the German empire. This gave him an overview of the latest state of the constitution. Conring liked the book so much that he asked Lampadius to work anew on it and publish it. 2 years later, Conring published it with a different title: De republica romano-germanica. He added 2 other small papers by Lampadius and de Thou’s description of Germany from (from his Historia sui temporis), published by Johann Maire in Leyden. Conring did not mention himself as editor, but he wrote 8 couplets to praise the work at the beginning. In these, Conring expressed for the first time the pride concerning its past, the pain concerning its present, and the faith in its future. Formerly, Germany had conquered Rome, the mistress of the world, and had taken the name and the power of the Romans. Today, the situation is dire and Germany is being defeated, but there is still hope: “tempus erit quondam, post cum sua busta resurgens hinc repetet vultus, juraque prisca dabit.” (my translation: there will be a time, some day, when, after having risen from its tomb, it [Germany] will return to appearances and it will surrender to the ancient laws.) Many years later, in 1671, Conring re-edited Lampadius’s work and added some supplements after he had made it often the basis of his lectures.

I have yet to examine this work and compare it to Conring’s own.

De Germanorum imperio Romano

Early 1644, and about half a year after Conring had a copy of the New Discourse, he published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. The subject is the same as Discursus Novus, but it is more detailed and better structured and argued. It has more quotations from primary and secondary sources.

The argument developed in De Germanorum imperio Romano is seemingly different from Discursus Novus and Exercitatio. The Exercitatio and Discursus novus arrived at the conclusion that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. De Germanorum imperio Romano distinguished between Germans and the Roman Empire, implying that there was no German Empire and concluding that the Roman Empire still existed. The German kings had a right to rule over the Roman empire and Conring accused the papacy of usurpation of imperial rights.

Or so it would seem. As Fasolt notes, Conring’s understanding of the ‘Roman Empire’ is double. When meaning the vast empire of beyond the city of Rome, Conring actually argued that it was defunct. In the second sense only, does Conring argue that it still exists: and it is limited to the city of Rome. So Fasolt sees two differences between the Exercitio and De Germanorum imporio Romano:

1.      Papacy’s control over city of Rome might be legitimate in Exercitio. In De Germanorum imperio Romano it is not.

2.      In Exercitatio, German kings were wasting their time when seeking control over the ‘Roman empire’ (understood as the city of Rome). In De Germanorum imperio Romano they were not.

Privacy analysis

Using the heuristic zones, what does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that Conring’s real thoughts are absolutely private to him. We only have the external manifestations in the written words.

Second of all, we do not have any record of what he actually lectured in the privacy of his professor’s house to his students. We can only assume from the Exercitio and the published New Discourse, that this may have been the content of his lecture. We can also assume that he used Lampadius’s work for his lectures. We can deduce from the Exercitio and how Conring reacted to the Discursus Novus that what made him react was not the content, which was identical, but the extension of the audience beyond the university. By his own account, the Discursus Novus reached a wider readership in Italy, France, Spain, and England. At the time of the Thirty years war, Conring may have feared that his views could be used and misused as political weapon.

Exploring how legal and historical arguments moved from a private lecture of a few students destined to civil service, some of them noble as von Hoym, to a public defence by a student in the close community of a university, and then to a vaster public readership in Europe is what I shall focus on in the coming months.

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.

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.

Privacy at Sea

Last week, on November 7, my colleague Jesper Jakobsen invited me to a seminar at the Saxo Institute (University of Copenhagen). In this seminar, Dr Catherine Beck was presenting her work “Understanding madness at sea in the eighteenth-century British Royal Navy”. After working on a project about superstitions surrounding shipbuilding at the Arquivo Municipal de Vila do Conde in 2015, I was very excited to get in touch with sea-related research again.

In her presentation, Dr Beck discussed how the idea of “madness at sea” was portrayed in surgeon’s logs and court martial transcripts of the late-eighteenth-century British Royal Navy. Discipline, obedience, and self-care were crucial to survival in the context of a Navy vessel, especially due to the limited space and only occasional access to land. Life at sea was tough, and sailors were generally perceived as being resilient, but also superstitious and naïve. At the shore, sailors represented almost the opposite of the Enlightenment ideals, being associated with drunkenness and absence of “reason”. In a certain way, to the world outside the ship, sailors were already “mad”. So what would constitute “madness” at sea?

Night Alarm, Prepare for Action, 19th-century caricature

Looking at her medical and legal sources, Catherine Beck could identify different “marks of insanity”. Acting in inexplicable ways, incoherent speech, and non-conforming appearance were associated with madness, but also physical signs like red eyes, indigestion, and fevers could be indicators. Interestingly, these marks alone would not necessarily be correlated to insanity at first glance. Madness at sea was less a matter of the “acts”, and more a matter of the “actor”. Similar symptoms would be understood differently depending on the ranking, responsibilities, and social background of the individual. The accumulation of several “marks of insanity” was crucial to a sufficient diagnosis. These contingencies of diagnosis were also related to the individual’s usefulness within the ship. Official diagnoses of madness were mostly used for temporary discharges after trial, in order to avoid executions that would waste experienced sailors.

These sources, however, have their limitations. The cases that came to court were the ones in which the individual’s actions became too extreme, and some trials show that the person’s mates usually managed the symptoms by themselves, creating dynamics to protect the “mad” person and each other. This idea of social dynamics within the ship being a critical factor in how the individual was treated led me to think that these dynamics probably played a massive role in the creation of privacy at sea.

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease”

While high-ranking officials would have their own quarters, most of the crew had to share their space. As someone who lived for almost a year in a student commune that was just a large room filled with bunk beds to accommodate people, I can imagine that the sailors would find ways of creating privacy, just as us students did. While the materials (or lack thereof) onboard imposed difficulties, sailors improvised walls with sheets and created spatial definitions for themselves. Even in crowded sleeping quarters, one’s own hammock became their private space.

Ship deck, 1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In his work “Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy”, B.R. Burg describes how sailors would use the ship’s space to try to conceal acts of sodomy. Efforts to keep sodomy as private as possible in the Navy would take place especially due to article 29 of the Articles of Wars, which dictates: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial”. But given the spatial constraints, where would people engage in sodomy?

Sodomy trials show that members of the fleet would take advantage of any chance of seclusion, using any spatial nooks that could conceal them. A particularly important element of privacy at sea was darkness. Burg describes how the trials regularly mention the need to “grab a lantern” when people suspected of being committing sodomy were found. “Hidden places” were a bit harder to come by. Usually, the spaces described are between the ship’s guns, behind chests, or in burrows between shipboard gears (p. 66). However, the information we have at hand are of those cases in which people failed to conceal themselves. Or more importantly, they failed to conceal themselves from the wrong people. It is safe to assume that just as crewmates accommodated their mentally ill colleagues, they also found ways of providing privacy for other acts as well.

Privacy was not (and could not be) a matter of isolation from the others. Privacy was the systems created to allow everybody “their space” – not necessarily physical, but also mental. These dynamics of privacy did not depend only on spatial definitions, but of intentional acts that enabled one’s privacy: to turn one’s back, to avoid looking at something, to use one’s own body to become the “wall” for someone else, to ignore or keep secret information about others.

I am by no means a specialist in maritime history, so I would love to hear from my fellow historians about what kind of dynamics of privacy at sea they see in their sources. Any comments are more than welcome, but please bring your best “privasea” puns or keep them at bay.

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.