Tony La Vopa

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.

This is primarily an historical work, but I also hope to show how close attention to the literary properties of texts can help historicize them. I read texts, both “public” and “private,” as rhetorical performances, with rhetoric in the broad sense mediating between the author’s subjectivity and the actual or imagined audience he/she addresses. The labor of the manly (but polite) mind was a performance of character in prose style, and so from text to text I examine what “style” meant and how it was practiced. I argue that the labor/aisance distinction is essential to understanding the development of several modern literary genres, including the polite (or purposely impolite) essay, the essay in literary criticism, and experiments in the philosophical treatise.

Selected publications

  • Fichte. The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • “Thinking about Marriage: Kant’s Liberalism and the Peculiar Morality of Conjugal Union,” The Journal of Modern History 77:1 (March, 2005):1-34.
  • “Women, Gender, and the Enlightenment: A Historical Turn,” The Journal of Modern History 80:2 (June, 1908): 332-57.
  • “A New Intellectual History?: Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment,” The Historical Journal 52:3 (August, 2009): 717-38.
  • “Sexless Minds at Work and at Play: Poullain de la Barre and the Origins of Early Modern Feminism,” Representations 109 (Winter, 2010): 57-94.