The Well-Ordered Mind and the Port-Royal Logique

A few weeks ago I participated in a workshop organised by my colleague Gaby Mahlberg on translation in early modern history. I spoke on a case-study of the translation into Italian of the 1662 Port Royal Logique ou l’art de penser. Here is a brief summary of the pertinence of the paper for this project.

Thinking with moderation – thinking moderately – is a state of mind. It demands an attitude of healthy scepticism, an aversion to intellectual extremism, a criticism of fanaticism or dogmatism. To those who practice it, as well as those who preach it, it feels like a sense, an aesthetic, something ineffable. But it is also a set of rules which can be taught and learned. This is the view of Aurelian Craiutu, who here lists ten. It was also the view of Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, as they laid out in their 1662 Logique, ou l’art de penser.

Arnauld and Nicole’s Logique was, on the one hand, a formal philosophy textbook: its authors sought to pour the new epistemology of Descartes, with some adaptions, into the old bottles of Aristotelian-Scholastic logic. On this count, it is a strange book, a kind of hybrid, containing, as has been remarked, at once too much and too little for a serious philosophy of logic.

At the same time the Logique is an intellectual manifesto, almost a work of early modern scholarly activism. Produced within the Jansenist theological framework of the Abbé de Port Royal, it preached epistemological release through an acknowledgement of human frailty. For Arnauld and Nicole, learning how to think within the limits of the human mind could remedy the intellectual, and by extension moral, ills which, in their view, dominated the world in which they lived. People simply didn’t know how to think properly. Further, when they thought about thinking, they tended to either over-estimate or under-estimate what they could know.

The solution, for Arnauld and Nicole, was intellectual self-discipline. This is a complicated procedure, which takes up much of the fourth book of the Logique, ‘On Method’. In basic terms it consists of recognising three levels of knowledge about human things: at one extreme lies things which can be known absolutely, and often inherently; at the other extreme lies things about which we cannot know anything at all. This leaves a middle stratum of things which we don’t inherently know but about which we could potentially attain knowledge (though this knowledge will often be partial). This, for Arnauld and Nicole, is the character of most objects of human knowledge. When judging the testimony of others, they write:

“(We are led) astray in two opposite ways. One way is taken by people who believe too readily based on the least rumour; the other is taken by people who absurdly set their mental powers to not believing the best testified things whenever they conflict with their prejudices. We can, however, mark certain limits that must be reached in order to attain this middle ground between these two kinds of limits which is closer to certainty or uncertainty, depending on whether it approaches one or the other set of limits”

Attaining this ‘middle ground’ of sufficient certainty is the fruit of what could be termed the ‘well-ordered mind’: the verb associated with ‘methode’ in the French Logique is ‘ordonner’ (in the Latin (and then English and Italian) translation it is tied to ‘dispositio’, a rhetorical term for arrangement). If the rules laid out in the ‘Method’ of the Logique are followed – if the operations of the human mind are properly restrained and ordered – then the ‘search for truth’ can be pursued most effectively.

Much of the Logique, and especially the second and third books, reads as a dry philosophical manual in search of this scientific truth. But the narrowness of this agenda is challenged by both the framing of the work as well as a shift in emphasis in specific chapters and passages. In both, the ‘civilising’ agenda of the Logique comes to the fore.

We read in the preliminary discourse that, in Arnauld and Nicole’s view:

“people are not born to spend their time measuring lines, examining the relations between angles, or contemplating different motions of matter. The mind is too large, life too short, time too precious to occupy oneself with such trivial objects. But they are obligated to be just, fair and judicious in all their speech, their actions, and the business they conduct. Above all they ought to train and educate themselves for this”

Subsequently, the defects of the mind, which they seek to address and remedy, “causes not only scientific errors, but also the majority of mistakes committed in civil life.” The moderation of social relations emerges as a theme at the end of the third book, where the authors take on the “fallacies committed in everyday life (‘la vie civile’) and in ordinary discourse”. Here it becomes clear that the epistemological shortcomings of the majority lead to a generalised mistrust and a toxic combination of excessive scepticism and excessive dogmatism:

“People simply do not like to make distinctions. Discriminations confuse them; they want things to be all or nothing. If they give credence to one person on some topic, they believe him in everything. If they do not on another, they believe him in nothing. They like short, decisive, abbreviated ways.”

If what is needed is a sharper mind committed to cutting through the hypocrisy and dogmas which abound in the social imaginary, this also requires a heavy dosage of moderation:

“Thus not only modesty and prudence, but justice itself requires us to take on a muted air when we argue against common opinion or accepted authority, because otherwise we cannot avoid unjustly opposing an individual’s authority to a public authority or to one that is greater or better established. We cannot show too much moderation when it is a question of disturbing the grip of a received opinion or a belief acquired from long ago.”

The people, prone to being led further astray by the exploitative powers that be, need to be carefully prised away from received opinion. They will thus be emancipated through an enhanced self-consciousness.

Drawing out these ‘civilising’ passages of the Logique is suggestive of the radical potential of Jansenism in the ancien regime. Earlier I described the Logique as an intellectual manifesto, or a work of scholarly activism. It might almost be read as an early modern self-help book. Written in the vernacular, for the most part in simple prose, it was a physically small book and explicitly designed to be widely read. On these terms its authors were wildly successful, the work going through around fifty French, English, Latin and Italian editions in the seventy-five years after its composition. Its agenda was the transformation of minds through their own endeavour.

Mapping the dissemination of the Logique can act as a window onto the development of technologies of self-regulation which Europeans were developing over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This turn to self-regulation could be seen as a sub-trope within the ‘disciplining’ or ‘ordering’ process which marked, for Michel Foucault, the classical age, for Norbert Elias, the civilizing process.

I prefer to think of it as the ‘moderating’ process.

This association is firmed up if we look at dictionaries of the day. In the Italian Vocabolario della Crusca, the dictionary published intermittently through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the Florentine Accademia della Crusca, the Vocabolario gives a single definition for ‘Moderazione’: ‘dar regola, o temperamento, alle cose’, that is “to give rules, or temperament, to things”.

The Port Royal Logique was designed to give rules to the mind. On these terms, it becomes a force for moderation.

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