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”.

Afro-Amsterdamers in the 17th Century

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661
Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 17th Century, there was a community of people of color living in Amsterdam. This community was linked to the maritime industry: black women established permanently in the city were married to black men who worked as sailors for the VOC and the WIC, the Dutch West and East India Companies. Mark Ponte, who has been studying this community’s traces in the collection of notary deeds at the Amsterdam City Archives, explains:

From the moment the Dutch became active in the Atlantic world, people of African descent came to Amsterdam. Their presence is evident from baptismal and marriage registers and from seventeenth-century notarial deeds. (via Twitter)

The painting above, made by Rembrandt in 1661, most likely depicts two men who belonged to this community of afro-descendents, which was located around Jodenbreestraat, known today as the Old Jewish Quarter. In his article about the topic, Ponte shows the location of this community on the map below, a an adaptation of “Amstelredamum emporium Hollandiae primarium totiusque Europae celeberrimum”, Balthasar Florisz Berckenrode, 1625 (source: Amsterdam City Archives Collection).

Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century: 1. Huiszittenhuis en turfpakhuizen 2. Leprozenhuis 3. Sint Antoniespoort 4. Pauwegang 5. Vlooienburg 6. Huis Moyses 7. Atelier Rembrandt 8. Ververstraat

It is super interesting for me to get concrete primary evidence of the close proximity of the Afro-Amsterdamer community to the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam, whose archival traces have been the target of my attention. According to Ponte’s article,  women of African descent very often were employed as servants at the houses of Jewish merchants.

This raised so many research questions in my head… Jewish servants working at Christian households and Christian servants working at Jewish households were often the target of unwanted sexual attention by their respective masters, which often resulted in unwanted pregnancies and serious problems for the woman involved. I know this from the work of Elisheba Carlebach (Hamburg and Altona) and Lotte van de Pol (Amsterdam). I wonder now what the archives can tell me about unwanted pregnancies among the community of people of color in Amsterdam. I guess this is a question for my next archival trip!

Sources:

Carlebach, Elisheva. “Fallen Women and Fatherless Children: Jewish Domestic Servants in Eighteenth-Century Altona.” Jewish History 24, no. 3–4 (2010): 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10835-010-9114-y.

Pol, Lotte van de, and Erika Kuijpers. “Poor Women’s Migration to the City: The Attraction of Amsterdam Health Care and Social Assistance in Early Modern Times.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 1 (2005): 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144205279198.

Ponte, Mark. “‘Al de Swarten Die Hier Ter Stede Comen’ Een Afro-Atlantische Gemeenschap in Zeventiende-Eeuws Amsterdam.” TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 15, no. 4 (March 11, 2019): 33–62. https://doi.org/10.18352/tseg.995.

Charity as Healing: Dealing with Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century France

Last October, the Centre for Privacy Studies organised a symposium in collaboration with the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, called “Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV”. The idea behind this event was to tackle the conflicting role of charity in the court of Louis XIV. Charitable acts were expected, as a Christian duty, to be performed humbly in private. However, at the same time, they were used as a tool for ostentation and political manoeuvre. As the event description puts it: “There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality.”

My presentation at this event focused on how charity could be understood as public masking of private intentions during the Affair of the Poisons. Madame de Brinvilliers, a noblewoman involved in a poisoning plot, was said to pretend to perform charity at the hospital in order to experiment the efficacy of poisons on the paupers. Hospitals were a central focus of charity, but they were also a place where people were extremely vulnerable, which exacerbated the anxieties of the time – such as the fear of poisoners. In such a context, the charity that was closely associated with healing could also be considered suspicious or dangerous.

Adam Elsheimer ( 1598 ). Wellcome Images L0015276

While working at the hospitals and healing the sick was considered an important charitable act, charity was also seen as a form of healing. Nobles would donate to religious institutions asking for prayers or masses to heal a loved one. Good actions were seen as purifying the soul, and therefore, acted to cleanse one’s body. I am very curious about this tangled reciprocity between charity and healing. Could this be a useful tool to explore how charity existed in this threshold between private duty and public performance?

Interestingly, cases of possessions were among the ailments that could require charity as healing in early modern France. One of the most well-known cases of possession in seventeenth-century France was the one involving the Ursuline nun Jeanne des Anges. In the 1630s, the superior of the Ursuline convent in Loudun was said to be possessed by several demons, having to undergo numerous exorcisms. Jeanne became notorious for her suffering at the hands of demonic forces and for her faith throughout the laborious process of trying to remove them.[1] In her memoir, charity is shown as being a key part of her battle against the demons:


“One night during my prayer, as I prayed to Our Lord to let me know his will on this subject, I was told internally that I had to fight this demon by acts of charity, patience, and submission; with those, I would get over it.”[2]


After having all demons expelled from her body, Jeanne made pilgrimages that attracted a broad public. The notoriety of this case fostered a cult-like following of the nun who went through so many miraculous exorcisms. She began to act as a miracle-worker, and  her fame allowed her to meet Richelieu and King Louis XIII.

Scene from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie “Mother Joan of the Angels”, also known as “The Devil and the Nun”, from 1961.

She became a consultant in cases of possession or ecstasies, as her intimate experience with exorcisms would enable her to identify which effects had a divine origin and which were of demonic influence. In the records of these consultations, Jeanne continued to stress the role of charity in dealing with cases of possessions and illusions. After examining the case of a nun from a convent in Pontivy who was having visions, Jeanne had divine revelations, in which a voice said that the woman was under a dark influence. The angelic voice also pointed out the need for charity to save the woman from the devil.

The charity referred here seems to be two-fold. One the one hand, there was the need for charity towards the woman, in the form of spiritual guidance by the priests and nuns around her. On the other hand, there was the need for charity by the nun, as the engagement in charitable acts would help to keep her illusions away. Jeanne also dedicated herself to charity after her exorcisms in order to make sure that the supernatural evils could not return to her body.

This seems to indicate that there is a different private dimension to charity. Beyond being a Christian duty, charity appears to have a direct power within the body, being intimately related to control over one’s own personhood in the face of supernatural challenges.

In the future, I aim to compare healing as charity and charity as healing from Catholic and Protestant examples to see how it can help us understand the interplay between health, faith, and privacy in the early modern period. For now, I am pleased to inform that the event “Conspicuous Privacy” will result in a published special issue! More information will follow here on the blog and on PRIVACY’s website.



[1] More information on the whole phenomenon of the possessions of Loudun can be found in Michel de Certeau’s “The Possession at Loudun”. Sarah Faber also described in amazing detail the events surrounding Jeanne in particular.

[2] “Une nuit, pendant mon oraison, comme je priais Nostre-Seigneur de ma faire connoistre sa volonté sur ce sujet, il me fut dit intérieurement que je devois combattre ce démon par les actes de charité, de patience et de soumission, et, qu’avec cela, j’en viendrois à bout.” (Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle : autobiographie d’une hystérique possédée, d’après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris : G. Charpentier et Cie, 1886, p. 148.)

Speculations on the Private Life of a Fictive Milkmaid

Fig. 1: Johannes Vermeer, Milkmaid (1657/1658)

A problem we often come across at the Centre for Privacy Studies is how to extract the truly private from our sources. Can a letter ever really be a source of private information, considering that the most private notes would usually be burnt? Similarly, how much insight can we gain from paintings of private homes? This question was raised during a seminar at the Centre on the private in early modern Dutch paintings of interiors. The paintings explored in this seminar somewhat intimately reveal the private context of Dutch upper-class homes. Some of them display privately exhibited luxury, for example Pieter de Hooch’s Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (1629–1684), where gilded leather hangings feature prominently, or Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670–71), which shows a bejeweled lady writing a possibly private letter in the company of her maid in a handsome interior. The implicit self-staging of the patrons inevitably stands at odds with privacy and makes these interior paintings a difficult source for privacy studies. The truly private – the messy, the embarrassing and the ugly – is likely to have been removed from view, hidden behind curtains, inside coffers and beyond the picture frame.

Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid (1657/1658) is especially evocative in terms of the hidden, the secret and the private. The painting has remained an important narrative object for 360 years.[1] Like the Mona Lisa, the Milkmaid seems to carry a secret, an intriguing story, hidden behind a thick layer of paint. Onlookers have speculated profusely for three-and-a-half centuries about the milkmaid’s private life,[2] or rather her employer’s. Since the milkmaid was depicted at work, if there was a secret hidden somewhere in the adjacent private world of the painting, then it was most likely linked to her master.

As the truly private is mostly concealed from view, I will engage in an exercise of speculation informed by the existing art historical analysis of the Milkmaid and some of the actual or overpainted objects in the painting as a starting point to (re)construct the potential or imagined private life in a Dutch home in the early modern period. To initiate this conjecture on the private, we might imagine Vermeer’s painting as a contemporary photograph. While portraying the milkmaid, Vermeer the photographer might have instructed his assistant to “remove that dishcloth from the nail on the wall.” And if you picture it hanging there as in my photoshopped version (Fig. 2) – it does interfere disadvantageously with the milkmaid’s cotton bonnet.

But even beyond the possibly removed objects from the actual scene, the painting’s own materiality embodies hidden entities. Previous detectives of privacy have examined the painting through x-rays to uncover two paint-cloaked objects: A world map and a clothes basket had for some time coexisted with the milkmaid, before Vermeer painted them over and replaced the basket with a foot warmer. The latter, simultaneously conjuring sentiments of warmth and the lack thereof, has been written about extensively in terms of iconography that evokes a woman’s sexuality, since the coals inside the little box would not only warm her feet but all other body parts hidden underneath her layered skirt.[3] The foot warmer may thus have accentuated the prevailing reputation of kitchen maids – and especially milkmaids – as sexually available.[4] Next to the footwarmer there is a tile of cupid[5] and of a travelling man with a walking stick – two males with pointy devices, at least one of them most certainly aimed at a female (heart). With these loaded symbols in mind, I will now dive into two speculations on privacy to go beyond common clichées and to endow both the painter and the subject with more subtle storytelling and agency respectively.

Fig. 2: Speculative Enhancement of the Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Speculation 1 (based on the x-rayed, overpainted objects):

At first, Vermeer, relatively well-off and possibly a little biased when it came to lower working-class people, whose lives were naturally transmitted via stereotypes, imagined the milkmaid in love with a sailor when he saw her wistful smile.[6] He painted the map behind her, as a clue for the onlooker to the “back of her mind” – her love, out in the world, while she waited in another family’s home, tending to their dairy until her love would return and marry her. The girl is a symbol of virtuous work – diligence and patience. The clothes basket conjures more work, and there is no cupid lurking to distract her from her patient wait. This version would have been a little flat: the milkmaid as a stereotype condemned to a life on hold, her only realm of action entirely determined by her employers, for as long as her sailor was at sea, himself subject to the volatilities of the weather and a captain.

Speculation 2 (based on the objects that were added later):

The type of foot warmer that Vermeer then replaced the basket with, also appears in several paintings by Pieter de Hooch. For example in A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680 (Fig. 3), with which de Hooch depicted his day’s emphasis on womanhood as nurturing: The lady of the house is nursing her baby, with one foot resting on a foot warmer, while her older daughter is petting the cat, mimicking her mother’s gestures. In this picture, a maid carries in a bucket – she is part of scene, but clearly outside the nursing realm of her employer’s family.

Fig. 3 Pieter de Hooch, A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680

Inspired by the role of the foot warmer in nursing activities, one might conjecture that the simplistic, first speculation contained a grain of truth. Possibly there was in fact an absent lover, but he had left the milkmaid pregnant before he continued his travels. She then found herself in the precarious position of having to confess, begging to keep her job. And to spin the narrative further, into the maid’s workplace, maybe this shameful revelation secretly suited her employer, as his wife was unable to nurse – to her great distress, as at the time, middle-to upper-class women were expected to nurse their children, “rather than rely on a wet nurse.”[7]

In early modern Dutch society children were especially beloved[8] and they were often depicted in paintings of domestic interiors. Children would have been running around, but Vermeer, who had an unusually high number of children – eleven – barely ever painted any.[9] Unlike in de Hooch’s painting, in the Milkmaid, the mistress of the house as well as any children are absent. In the photoshopped version (Fig. 2), I have included them, borrowing them from The Van Moerkerken Family, ca. 1653–54, by Gerard ter Borch the Younger. The child in this rendering has most likely just about outgrown nursing, but may – like the toddler Catharina Hooft in Frans Hals’ portrait from ca. 1620 (Fig. 4) – feel quite attached to his wet nurse. In this speculative scenario, the child would have been pulled away from the wet nurse / milkmaid by an irritated mother (her nursing shortcomings amplified by her son’s affections for the maid), and Vermeer would have been left to wonder about the maid as he continued to paint her, without a map, without a basket, but with the milk jug and a foot warmer. Possibly he glimpsed her wet nursing her master’s child before she laced up and rushed in for her sitting. Or maybe she was called away from Vermeer by the cries of a child, which was not hers, nor her duty to feed. The cloth on the wall of my visual alteration might then have been a nursing cloth rather than a dishcloth.

Fig. 3: Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse, ca. 1620

And this is where the true privacy of such a painting might rest, in the clues the objects give us. Some of them are loaded with iconographic meaning beside their actual meaning. The gazes and facial expressions also give us hints, as does the vantage point of the onlooker. Had Vermeer bent down to greet the little boy when he noticed the optimal (unusually low) angle for his painting? True privacy remains in the speculative realm. Can this speculation exercise teach us about privacy and its construction in the early modern period, beyond the conjuring of a family’s dirty laundry or my possibly overly empathetic projection? Privacy – like the milkmaid’s dress and the painting’s coats of paint – is best described in terms of layers. The layers of privacy are always laced with speculation. They are shifting and difficult to uncover. We might see through them with the help of x-rays and other means, but through the reading between the lines, the guessing at what has not been written down, and the imagining of whispers, we, as historians, can turn restrained speculation into a probing tool.

 

[1] It fetched the second highest price at an auction of 22 of Vermeer’s 35 paintings in 1696, off the estate of the original owner’s son in law, Jacob Dissius.

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, August 2009, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/milk/hd_milk.htm.

[3] Liedtke.

[4] Liedtke.

[5] H. Rodney Nevitt, Jr., “Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the DIscourse of Love,” in Ut Pictura Amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700, vol. 48, Intersections (Brill, 2017).

[6] During Vermeer’s lifetime, painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer himself began to represent maids more neutrally than their predecessor who emphasized the easy sexuality associated with maids. See also “The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer,” accessed January 28, 2020, http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html.

[7]  See also Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (University of California Press, 1988), 540.

[8] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.

[9] Children are only pictured in The Little Street, c. 1657–1661 and in The View of Delft, c. 1660–1663.

 

Pedagogical Practices and the Teaching of Historical Privacy

I think we can all agree that privacy is a subject that affects us. In the current socio-political climate, we are facing unprecedented conflicts with social media exposure, the data economy and the sale of personal information, and increasing systems of surveillance, that breaches the thresholds of our private lives. This concern has led to advocating for the protection of privacy, which is in the mind of individuals and governments alike. At the same time, escalating social anxieties related to cyber bullying, terrorism and criminal activities continuously send us the message that privacy can also be a threat. However, the ambiguity of privacy that exists now was evident in the historical past.

This dichotomy of privacy as both a threat and as a quality is at the heart of the Centre for Privacy Studies’ research focus and methodology. Given the role that privacy plays in our everyday lives, it is natural that the subject of privacy and notions of privacy throughout the past have garnered interest from scholars and the wider public. We believe that a historical understanding of privacy is the key to understand how this issue affects us on a daily basis. However, how can we look at privacy in the past without projecting the notion of privacy we carry with us today? This research needs to be performed with care, with flexible ideas of what the concept of privacy entails, informed by an interdisciplinary approach.

As my colleague, Dr Frank Ejby Poulsen, pointed out in his recent blog post, “privacy is however difficult to conceptualise and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing.” I agree with Dr Poulsen’s conclusion that conceptualising privacy results in “everything and nothing” and never gets us anywhere. To me, this approach just leads us to chase our tails.

via GIPHY

As a solution, Dr Poulsen brilliantly directs us to Daniel J. Solove’s determination to avoid “an essentialist concept of privacy with a defined ‘core’.” (1) This means we must challenge ourselves to move beyond our own defined or experienced idea of privacy and think about it as having multiple meanings, that may be expressed and visible otherwise through various sources (i.e. people, spaces, objects, feelings, and events).

Approaching privacy in this way may be innovative and good for interdisciplinary scholars engaged in historical research. However, the pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy can be difficult. This is due to the problematic nature of not having a defined concept of privacy, which may be hard for some students (across all education levels) to grasp as they begin, advance, or innovate their studies in history or the humanities. Throughout my academic and professional teaching career, I have found that students are not entirely comfortable with abstract approaches for various reasons.

First, while students can use their experiences as a starting point to explore the past, they are cautioned to avoid imposing their views on people, events, and concepts of the past. These experiences and ideas that are formed throughout their lives are the roots that anchor them and makes them feel comfortable in engaging the historical topics or materials. Next, when you take away their ability to rely on their experiences to study history and then add that to the fact that the subject that they are studying is based on abstract notions, then students are less likely to engage with or be interested in the topic. Finally, in living “in a world darkened by historical amnesia and obsessed with temporalities of futurity”, students confronted with abstract concepts, like privacy, may either feel embolden to make strong assertions through written or verbal arguments or may be constrained in fully examining the topic. (2)

Siep Sturrman writes that teaching early modern history (and applicable to other periods) “calls for promotion and seduction skills: one needs to lure students into the project and, far more importantly, to get them to engage intellectually with it.” (3) Far too often, from my own teaching experience, students are apathetic about studying earlier historical periods because it does not relate to them or is ‘boring’. This is enhanced with the case of students from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities because all too often the sources used to teach these periods are not reflective of who the students are or the environments of their lived experiences. There is, thankfully, a growing trend in academia to address this discrepancy and I know some incredible colleagues who are making these changes within their own courses. The fundamental problem, as Sturrman highlights, is to get students to “engage intellectually” with the historical problem. In my opinion, this requires students to connect with the materials. This connection (be it personally, politically, socially, or politically) not only makes students interested but also make them feel more willing to express their thoughts and to engage with the topic. The confidence in expressing their thoughts will increase critical thinking and lead to students defending their points of views, which is the goal of historical analysis. While privacy may be a subject that allows for this engagement, the abstractness of privacy has the potential to obstruct the connection.

This conundrum brings me to the key part of this post. To teach privacy within historical periods and to have students engage with it intellectually calls for educators to use a combination of traditional pedagogical practices of source evaluation, group discussions, and critical thinking. But, by employing practices of collective reading, incorporating interdisciplinary research, bringing in interdisciplinary scholars, and soliciting personal observations, the chances of success in the intellectual engagement of students is exponentially increased. The exchange within the research seminar with Professor Heide Wunder, that I alluded in my previous post, provides a good example of this approach.

At the end of Professor Heide Wunder’s lecture, the Q&A session provided the first idea of ways in which to teach and think about privacy. Through talking with my colleagues, there were two statements made that really helped to solidify an approach to privacy: privacy is always in relation to something and privacy is most often personal. This reference to considering privacy as personal will be expanded further down.

The second day of Professor Wunder’s visit consisted of an intensive research seminar, which illuminated the pedagogical potential of teaching about privacy and discuss how we could develop the notion of privacy in relation to notions of secrecy and intimacy. The seminar began with Wunder sharing her journey, through her research, from examining 12th-century multi-ethnic populations (i.e. Baltic and German people) that settled in East Prussia. This overview was followed by a discussion of each PRIVACY member’s research and Wunder’s generous suggestions of further sources to consider within their own historical investigations. Through presenting various topics via disciplinary scopes (architectural, legal, social/cultural, political and religious histories), the exchange between PRIVACY scholars and Wunder illuminates the ways in which privacy can be used but also how disciplinary perspectives can inform interdisciplinary characterisations of privacy. Furthermore, the experience highlighted how privacy was fluid and can be identified in all fields through different markers and expressions. Using the approach within the classroom would help students to refine and articulate precise questions that are crucial for historical studies. This personal connection and generous exchange drew us in to actually think about privacy, not in a defined context, but as a fluid and collaborative exploration.

The final section of the research seminar was, in my opinion, the best and most insightful part. Wunder provided a copy of a letter (included in her book) that was written in August 1783 between Sophie von La Roche to Elise zu Solms-Laubuch. (4) It was at this point that Wunder asked us to read the source together, after appointing our colleague to read it aloud. Next, she asked us: “In relation to the notion of privacy, what stands out for you?” Immediately discussions ensued and really pushed us to analyse hidden meanings that point to privacy or how descriptions articulate what was private. By asking the group for our personal observations, she allowed us to utilise our experiences and to look for points of significance for us.

What resulted from this was having our eyes opened to the possibilities of employing privacy in a variety of ways and the different ways in which we can identify privacy within the evidence. Through reading the letter, we were able to identify physical and metaphorical boundaries that signified the construction or designation of private spaces within a public space. We noticed the privacy that was inherent in everyday work and public practices, as well as privacy in relation to family and time shared between people. This particular pedagogical practice was particularly successful because it involved people coming from different backgrounds and specialisms, applying interdisciplinary approaches. If implementing this in a classroom or university setting, this practice could be combined with interdisciplinary readings that would encourage students to think beyond one specific discipline. Utilising the two statements about relational privacy and privacy as personal, this exercise would tap into individual life experiences, and each participant could see something unique that provokes further discussion. Through encouraging students to think about privacy in these two ways (privacy as relational and personal) helps students formulate questions and establish a strong starting point to engage with and contribute to how privacy is historically conceptualised and characterised.

This reflection has allowed me to delve further into my research and apply new (to me) ideas that have already helped me to form the theoretical underpinnings of political privacy. I can attest from first-hand experience to the benefits of the collective engagement with sources in the classroom. Therefore, in summary, I would encourage researchers, teachers, and professors to utilise the traditional pedagogical approaches in historical studies in an interdisciplinary way to effectively teach and efficiently research various historical subjects, especially ones that may involve abstract concepts.

The pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy (and similar topics) discussed here is definitely something to consider and to foster a dialogue about. What do you think?


(1) Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, 8; see also Daniel J. Solove, “Conceptualizing Privacy”, California Law Review, 90:1087 (2002), 1099–1123.
(2) Siep Stuurman, “Exploring the Limits of the Thinkable”, in David Conroy and Danielle Clarke (eds.), Teaching the Early Modern Period, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 77.
(3) Ibid., 76.
(4) Heide Wunder, He is the Sun and She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, 63.

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.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy

 

Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)
Source: https://library.princeton.edu/versailles/item/905

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.


Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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.