Philosophy and literary genres in the Eighteenth Century (GCSI Issue)
Is a history of the expressive forms of philosophy which is also a social history of the role of philosopher possible? The present lack of an answer to this question is not surprising. It is true that the boundaries between philosophy and literature have been disputed by some of the most prominent philosophical personalities of the last two centuries, from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Derrida, Rorty and Cavell. The conceptual frameworks upon which their claims were based, however, could hardly have provided the point of departure for an organic historical inquiry. To reverse this trend, we suggest following up on, among others, Paolo D’Angelo (2012), and focusing on the concept of literary genre. The work on genres carried out within literary studies offers a theoretical and methodological blueprint for rigorous research. It also directs our inquiry not only towards individual authors and texts, but towards the contexts and tendencies constituted by cultural conventions, technological innovations, audience expectations, as well as their wider economic and institutional structures.
In the search for a time frame capable of providing a suitable testing ground for our question, the choice almost naturally fell upon the Eighteenth Century. Parallel with the claim for a renewed idea of philosophy and its role was the Eighteenth Century tendency to experiment with style and formal choices – a tendency whose intensity has no equivalents in the history of philosophy. In the age of Enlightenment, aiming toward the wider public becomes an actual programmatic goal, and making philosophy “popular” is therefore considered an inescapable aspect of a renewal of knowledge. Periodicals multiply and reach unprecedented circulation, while a vast clandestine literary production circulates despite censorship. Salons offer the opportunity to discuss new, cutting-edge philosophical texts, with authors often invited to read selections from their works ahead of publication. New formats foster the dissemination of books. The whole field of stylistic choices, of the relations between philosophy and rhetoric, and between philosophy and literary genres, changes in the Eighteenth Century. Such changes still need to be accounted for in depth, although recent studies, for instance on clandestine literature, have shown the fruitfulness of this field of research.
It would therefore be interesting to analyze the philosophical literary genres of the Eighteenth century, identifying significant thresholds for each. Some, such as the philosophical novel and short story, will endure through the centuries to come, while others will abandon the stage soon after their arrival. The prevalence of empiricism deeply transforms the essay genre, whose roots go back at least to Montaigne. Utopia finds new possibilities with the publication by Mercier of the first uchronia. The encyclopedia radically changes under the impulse of the project by Diderot and D’Alembert. Genres with an even longer history mutate just as radically, for instance the dialogue, the aphorism, the epistle, the satire, and even philosophy’s favorite literary genre, the treatise, whose evolution should be examined through the lenses of the Eighteenth Century pitting of esprit systématique against the metaphysical abstraction of esprit de système. An inquiry into the philosophical production by women – its importance peaking around the end of the century with Olympe de Gouges e Mary Wollstonecraft – would also be significant in order to understand whether and for what reasons women showed a preference for specific genres. In addition, of great importance would be the investigation of such unformal and unconventional points of philosophical elaboration as clandestine literature, epistolaries, philosophically inclined biographies and autobiographies, articles for periodicals and cultural journals, for example Kant’s famous Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, and literary forms such as poetry and the theater which were consciously used by figures the likes of Diderot and Goethe as vehicles for the emancipatory ideals of Enlightenment.
Would, such history, have something to teach about the present state of the philosophical profession (and vocation)? In a time where philosophy’s relation with academic institutions – as well as with the only literary genre that prospers within them, the scientific article – appears stronger than its relation with culture at large, the variety and complexity of the system of philosophical genres of the Eighteenth Century might represent a more than healthy reminder.
Issue editors: Raffaele Ariano and Valentina Sperotto
Deadline: September, 30 2021
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