In the wake of the French Revolution, as attempts to restore political stability to France repeatedly failed, a group of concerned intellectuals identified a likely culprit: the prevalent sensationalist psychology, and especially the flimsy and fragmented self it produced. They proposed a vast, state-run pedagogical project to replace sensationalism with a new psychology that showcased an indivisible and actively willing self, or moi. As conceived and executed by Victor Cousin, a derivative philosopher but an academic entrepreneur of genius, this long-lived project singled out the male bourgeoisie for training in selfhood. Granting everyone a self in principle, Cousin and his disciples deemed workers and women incapable of the introspective finesse necessary to appropriate that self in practice.
Beginning with a fresh consideration of the place of sensationalism in the Old Regime and the French Revolution, Jan Goldstein traces a post-Revolutionary politics of selfhood that reserved the Cousinian moi for the educated elite, outraged Catholics and consigned socially marginal groups to the ministrations of phrenology. Situating the Cousinian moi between the fragmented selves of eighteenth-century sensationalism and twentieth-century Freudianism, Goldstein suggests that the resolutely unitary self of the nineteenth century was only an interlude tailored to the needs of the post-Revolutionary bourgeois order.
A singularly lucid and original study of how public and private spheres, politics and psyche, fused in post-Revolutionary France. Goldstein shows us the micro-mechanics of how generations of educated, middle-class Frenchmen came to understand their inner life and essence in terms supplied and enforced by new institutions. This remarkable book is a model for a new kind of history which understands politics from the inside out and psyche from the outside in.
The research is truly impressive in its scope and depth; the intellectual range and breadth of perspective are outstanding; the writing is limpid, the exposition elegant, the argument forceful throughout. Bold and original, the book will be seen as a fundamental contribution to European intellectual history and to our understanding of the modern idea of self.
Goldstein’s book shows in a remarkable way how politics, the philosophy of the human mind, and an educational system interacted to create a new sense of what it is to be a human being. It matters to more than history. Today’s discussions of ‘consciousness’ and ‘the self’ too often suppose that items such as these—and, for example, imagination—are timeless elements of the human condition. Goldstein’s work shows how strongly they have been formed by forgotten events in our past.
This important book intervenes in several historigraphical debates with the commanding air of an author sure of her sources while equally cognizant of their limits… This elegant, deeply researched book convincingly grounds three different theories of the psyche in the politics of their day.
This is an extraordinary work of intellectual history, thoroughly researched, exciting to read, and insightful. Goldstein, like Foucault, aims at nothing less than an histoire totale.
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to this intelligent and engaging book. It is full of interesting anecdotal detail and, at the same time, rich in complex philosophical ideas… Goldstein has at her command the intellectual resources of a post-Cousinian world, among them the work of Foucault and Freud. And she uses them to great advantage in the writing of this impressively researched and cogently argued book.
- 2005, Winner of the David H. Pinkney Prize
- 430 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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