On cultural transmission. A case study: Condillac and Italy
Andrea Gatti, University of Ferrara
The period that Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–80) spent in Parma at the court of Philip and Louise Elizabeth (1758–67), as tutor to their son Ferdinand1, off ers an interesting model for inquiring under what specifi c assumptions the concept of “cultural migrations”, or intellectual transmis-sion, between diff erent philosophical cultures should be considered. Th e dif-fi culties for the historian of ideas in formulating hypotheses about the rel-evance and modes of cultural transmission are evident even in a case such as Condillac’s, whose actual presence in Parma and Italy seems to support the obvious belief that such transmission necessarily occurred through the philosopher’s direct action: his conversations with local scholars, contacts with other philosophers, intellectual exchanges and so on. However, one may legitimately question this sort of easy conclusion. For the philosophical novelties that the French philosopher introduced and which met with favor in the rest of Europe were sometimes dismissed or neglected in the Duchy of Parma and throughout Italy, even by scholars less conservative and orthodox in their philosophical positions who were more open to novelty. Moreover, the migration of authors does not entail the migration of their ideas. Given such questions, a preliminary analysis of some of the methodological assumptions underlying this type of inquiry is worthwhile. Intellectual historiography is a particular and specific genre of historical research. In a broader sense, the latter tends to reconstruct a fact that occurred at a certain time and place on the basis of actually existing documents. While aspiring to reconstructions that are no less faithful and objective, historians of ideas seek knowledge about cultural transmission, and they are compelled to proceed even when documents may be inadequate or do not exist. When Immanuel Kant speaks about the powerful influence that David Hume’s thought exerted on his own philosophy (Kant 19945, p. 8), one is led to believe him not only on the basis of his confession, but also because the three Critiques actually seek to answer some crucial questions raised by the English philosopher: each of the three treatises offer a long and complex reworking of issues that Hume had synthesized in pages of very elegant and simple writing. Likewise, in his Enquiry concerning Human Under-standing (1748) Hume quotes the writer and critic Joseph Addison, commenting that he is likely to be read with satisfaction when Locke is instead completely forgotten. Furthermore, in his essay On the Standard of Taste(1757), Hume takes up similar topics to those that Addison addressed in his papers on the Pleasures of the Imag-ination (1712), particularly those relating to aesthetics, a subject into which Locke never delved. Nevertheless, few would be willing to argue that Addison influenced Hume’s philosophy more than Locke.Reconstructing facts is different from establishing a relationship between them, because such a relationship may sometimes not be based on fact. I do not intend to dwell here on issues concerning historiographic practice; nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to question the basic assumptions of the method that should guide research in the particular field of cultural exchanges. For the absolute value of individual documents or events becomes relative depending on the relationships in which those facts are embedded or observed (Gatti 2001, pp. 157–168). For example, how should one consid-er the documented collective consciousness-raising that brought about the proliferation of youth movements in the 1960s, and the intense production of literary, figu-rative, musical and cinematic works that accompanied it? As an expression of the spirit of the age, the Hege-lian scholar will say by relating facts; as a deterministic result of a set of socio-historical premises, the positiv-ist will assert on the basis of no less compelling docu-mented relationships among facts; as a profitable busi-ness, the follower of the Frankfurt School will argue after a keen analysis of the historical and social develop-ments he witnesses. How much freedom are we willing to accord the historian of ideas in selecting and reading facts before denying our assent to his hypotheses? How can we determine, when objective data are lacking, what the most objective data possible are on which to draw an intellectual historiography? Facts are not unequivo-cal proofs of a definite state of things: the fact that there are certain books in our libraries in no way supports the hypothesis that their authors influenced our thoughts, nor even that we ever read or studied them. Like any other non-epistemological and object-oriented field of inquiry, the historiography of cultural migration is usu-ally based on assertions that are never self-evident but rather conditional.Moreover, in intellectual historiography, the produc-tion of documents is more often aimed at demonstrat-ing interpretive assumptions. In the Preface to his Iter italicum Paul Oskar Kristeller writes: «… the study of any historical area cannot be placed on a solid founda-tion until the relevant primary sources are more or less fully inventoried, and thus made available for further study» (Kristeller 1965, p. xxi). However, the impressive digest he offers in his work is neither neutral nor merely anthological but instead aims at emphasizing the impor-tance of the Aristotelian tradition, overshadowed by the Platonic, in the humanistic and Renaissance intellec-tual system. Thus, Kristeller’s exposition of documents is objective and impartial, but the purpose is not. On the other hand, an anodyne list of sources would fall into the flaw stigmatized by Johan Huizinga, according to whom the need asserted with the renewal of nineteenth-century historiographical inquiry to always and in every case go back to direct sources «however salutary it was […], could in time lead to an unnecessary and copious collection of historical sources, without any elaboration of the same sources and a sufficient distinction being made between the important things and those almost devoid of value and meaning. Moreover, rigid and con-scientious criticism could also easily turn into hypercrit-icism, which precisely by its excessive concern to obtain fully assured data nullified the most basic norms of his-torical certainty»5.The study of Condillac’s influence in Italy may be exemplary in this sense: it has an implicit premise in the improper idea, already brought forward, that every great scholar who resides more or less permanently in a for-eign cultural environment ends up modifying it with his mere presence by directly influencing the mental hab-its of his foreign colleagues to a greater or lesser extent. However, the hypothesis that the presence of a foreign scholar in a certain place constitutes cultural influence should be accepted only under certain conditions, that is, only in the case where facts of a certain kind occur. It is therefore worth trying to point out such conditions and whether there are sufficient and necessary elements to speak on actual grounds — and not just because it is suggestive to think so — about Condillac’s possible influ-ence on Italian culture. The following elements are generally considered essential for truthful hypotheses about an alleged cultural transmission: 1) popularization of an author’s work in for-eign cultural circles, which may occur not only through book circulation, but also through reviews, literary notes, and partial translations or summaries; 2) documented acceptance (more or less enthusiastic) by foreign scholars of the main contents of that work; 3) appreciable chang-es, or strenuous resilience, in coeval and later thought, in terms of theoretical assumptions, as a result of the circu-lation and knowledge of those contents. The three points are not related to each other; nor does the third necessari-ly follow from the first two. There are works that circulate in other nations or cultures but do not attract the atten-tion of scholars, and thus remain dead letters in cultural environments other than their original one. Other works, once read, do not exert any fascination on readers or fos-ter any broadening of speculative horizons. The first two elements are therefore necessary conditions, but in them-selves they are insufficient to guarantee the transmission of ideas. It is the third element that is essential and worth focusing on for our analysis.
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