Project: The Manly Mind and the Specter of Effeminacy in Enlightenment Cultures

My book project is a study of early modern European gender discourses in the milieus of polite sociability, conversation, and letters of seventeenth-century Paris (Guez de Balzac, Madeleine de Scudery, Fontenelle, Nicolas Malebranche, Madame de Lambert, etc.), England in the early eighteenth century (the Third Earl of Shaftsbury), Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century (David Hume), and Paris in the 1770s (Antoine-Leonard Thomas, Suzanne Necker, Denis Diderot, and Louise d’Epinay). Taking intelligence as a normative social and cultural construct, the project focuses on ways in which male and female intelligence were differentiated. The axial distinction, I argue, is between the “manly” labor of the mind, in solitary, concentrated and sustained ascents to abstract universals, and the aisance, or effortlessness, assumed to be “natural” to the female mind in the world of social and psychological particularity and “taste.” I follow this distinction through a tension field in which polite men of letters had to find a via media between two violations of the natural, effeminacy and the excessive masculinity of the pedant; and in which female authors had to avoid being branded “learned ladies” (femmes savants), engaged in intellectual labor unnatural to their sex. My aim is not simply to deny to the concepts in question the unimpeachable authority of the natural, but also to provide in-depth analyses of the social, cultural, and intellectual contexts in which their numerous variations were formed and sustained.

This requires bringing “the social” back into intellectual history, with emphasis on status norms (criteria for “honor”) that tend to be neglected in the usual conceptual triad of class, gender, and race. Wherever possible I integrate a wide variety of “life traces” – correspondence, diaries and journals, etc. – to reconstruct biographical episodes to which the selected texts can be related. At the same time I practice a thoroughgoing intellectual history, examining the ways in which the labor/aisance dichotomy was articulated in, and made a formative contribution to, several intellectual discourses, including Stoicism, Augustinianism, civic humanism, the culture of sensibility, and mechanist and vitalist body/mind paradigms.