Through a close reading of texts on moral theory, politics, economy, law, and aesthetics, this three-week seminar for university and college professors explored the complexity of eighteenth-century attempts to theorize the relation between the imaginary, yet very real bonds that make up a stable society, and the autonomous individual self. Held from July 9-27 at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, this seminar included daily sessions to discuss the readings, periodic seminars in the afternoon to discuss participants’ works in progress, and a public lecture.

Dialogo recently sat down with Paul Cheney, Professor of European History at the University of Chicago and co-director of the seminar, to recap this summer’s session.

Dialogo: Who participated in this seminar, and were you pleased with how it went?

Cheney: Our participants were college and university professors from all over the country, a couple from abroad, from different disciplines. My co-director, Alexander Schmidt, who is at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, and I vetted carefully who was going to be in the program, but we had no idea how these people would work together. As it turned out, we had a great group who were prepared to work, discuss, and disagree with each other if necessary. We managed to do a lot of close, textual work during our daily two-hour sessions, which was gratifying. There was also some levity amidst all this seriousness and so we got to know and like each other well. In that sense and others it exceeded a lot of my expectations. One never knows how groups are going to be; there's an element of chance, and we had good luck to have good people.

Dialogo: Why did you organize this?

Cheney: The seminar had its genesis as a way of extending my collaboration with Alexander. He was here for about a year and a half as a fellow in the Committee on Social Thought, and during this time we began to have constant conversation about Enlightenment social and political thought. Once he returned to Germany, we felt that we had to continue our collaboration. The seminar program through the National Endowment for the Humanities seemed a good platform for us, so we applied. That's really how it began: as way of maintaining a transatlantic collaboration with a close colleague.

Dialogo: What discussions arose from the sessions?

Cheney: The overall premise of this seminar was that many of the questions surrounding the organization of society and politics that emerged during the Enlightenment are still alive. The Enlightenment in some ways is known for iconoclasm vis-à-vis religion and politics – the idea being that traditional forms of social organization through religion or direct state repressive control are not only undesirable but unnecessary. Society has within it forces for spontaneous social organization, mainly the market, but other things as well – the family, socialiblity – so that it is no longer necessary to make an appeal to external coercive power. The Enlightenment science of society was a constant search for ways of organizing social life that are less coercive and that allow for free human development.

Most of these mechanisms of spontaneous social order rest in one way or another on individual self-interest. There was much debate during the eighteenth century about whether this kind of sociability is actually positive, or whether it is fundamentally asocial, competitive, and egoistic. The question is: can this order subsist on its own? We live in complex capitalist societies where people count on the organizing force of the market but we're uncertain whether that leads to domination by the rich, or perhaps to social anomie of various, often morally disturbing sorts. We seem to be living through a period of particularly intense social fragmentation. During the Enlightenment, Rousseau and others were prescient observers of an emergent modern society and its potential vices. Many thinkers started to look for antidotes to self-interest and egotism, thinking about how human faculties such as pity or sympathy could serve as counter-balances. The seminar was organized as a dialogue between different forms of self-interest versus solidarity. What do these two principles produce? What are their real capacities for social organization? Does market society moralize individuals or hand them excuses for anti-social irresponsibility?

Also, there is another debate in contemporary political theory between liberals and communitarianism. This debate was very lively during the eighteenth century, except they looked backward to ancient societies – Greece and Rome, for example, as examples of this kind of communitarian virtue. They were ambivalent about what they saw as the constanty self-sacrificing virtue they saw in Greece and Rome; what we would call liberal forms of social and political organization promised less conformism and communal violence, and more scope for individual develpment. Ancient modes of life seemed completely incompatible but even some advocates of modern individualism were nostaligic for these small, very cohesive ancient societies.

Dialogo: How were those questions discussed?

Cheney: Many of the participants were interested in the way that the Enlightenment promised new universal forms of equality and freedom, since so many of these emergent models of society were based on some form of equality. The social contract is based on the basic equality of people, otherwise they can't agree to the contract as it were. The market is based on people's capacity to contract, so they're premised as equal on some level; and models of market exchange are premised on some sort of abstract commensurability of people’s labor. Many scholars who are concerned with these questions are reading thinkers like Hume, Smith, Rousseau or Montesquieu who may have been--consciously or unconsciously—excluding groups such as women, people of color or the indigent from their accounts. Many of our particpants, I think, were uncertain whether Enlightenment values are truly universal and therefore applicable to our modern, multi-cultural societies. If there was one dominant vein of skepticism about the Enlightenment in our seminar it was this.

At the same time, others came to the seminar because they are interested in these texts and they believe in the Enlightenment as a general proposition, but they want to enter in some reservations. To think of ways in which this classical approach we took  – reading the key texts of the Enlightenment – to explore how other perspectives can be brought to bear on it; the perspective of women, colonized or enslaved people or merely people along the periphery of Europe who are often subject to exclusion. That obviously has great resonance now; the West seems to have a certain dominant hold on progressive values, at least as it advertises itself, but people aren't really certain whether it deserves to be considered enlightened.

Dialogo: Was there one reading that dominated the conversion?

Cheney: We began by reading Hobbes because of his insistence on self-interest as the basis for the social contract. Through Hobbes, one gets—perhaps surprisingly--what I think of in a way as a first draft of liberal thought. He dominated the discussion intentionally, he was there at the beginning because the question all along was: what is the role of self-interest, what are the limits?

One thinker who emerged as particularly important was Hegel. One thing that is rich about that text is the way that Hegel takes all of these themes – the need individuals have for moral,  economic and political freedom– but also takes seriously the possible limits of individualism in mass societies. Hegel thought a lot about the problems of poverty and social exclusion. We’re now living through a political situation where a good proportion of the population considers itself both economically superfluous as well as culturally and politically scorned. It's this lack of recognition that has become really politically explosive. This is something that a lot of Enlightenment writers thought about, and they were remarkably prescient about the problems that exclusion can cause.  So the extended discussion that Hegel had of recognition—its centrality to individual happiness and social order—is really laden with significance.  

Dialogo: Why was a public lecture part of the program? What did it bring?

Cheney: The NEH wants their programs to be not only for for scholars, and wanted us to reach the broader community and to illustrate the relevance of humanities, not just for academia but for society at large. For us it was also a way of bringing a scholar, Silvia Sebastiani of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), who has studied questions of inclusion, seemingly inherent or maybe not inherent, in the Enlightenment. She talked about gender and the way that the liberation of women seemed to serve as an index for many Scottish historians of the social development of societies at large. This was a way of bringing these questions more expressly into the discussion.

Dialogo: If you could reorganize the seminar, would there be anything you would change or add?

Cheney: I would have had people read about and discuss more explicitly the problem of public opinion. During the Enlightenment, people viewed public opinion as this force that could correct the state's behavior through open, reasoned discussion. Habermas wrote extensively about this and took the Enlightenment conception of public opinion and reason as normative. I think we didn't we pay sufficient attention to that, which is a pity for two reasons: public opinion serves as a basis of legitimation for all governments, even non-democratic ones. But increasingly now, one has cause to wonder whether reason is actually a central ingredient in the constitution of public opinion. Does it matter, do reason and truth matter at all? Thomas Hobbes, with whom we started, plausibly argued that the only hope for political order and an end to violence in a post-truth society (England during its Civil War resembled our own in this sense) was authoritarian dictatorship over truth claims. Obviously we—or at least I and most of my colleagues in academia--don’t want to go that particular route now.  One could develop a whole set of contrasts between then and now. I am not sure if they would be false contrasts, but I’m convinced that there is some value in seeing how Enlightenment social and political thought applies or doesn't apply to the problem of public opinion in mass societies. Everything is so penetrated by media these days—people look at paintings in a museum through their smartphones now and apparently can’t see them otherwise—it could be that the epistemological conditions are incomparable.

Dialogo: How did you become interested in history?

Professor Cheney: I actually thought I wanted to become an economist, I got my undergraduate degree in economics and in philosophy, but it became clear that I was more interested in the way people thought about the way economics related to political and social formations than I was in the formal, analytical apparatus of economics. So, I decided to study history instead.

Dialogo: How would you describe being a faculty member at the University of Chicago?

Cheney: As a faculty member, one is really lucky to have a lot of good students. Both undergraduates and graduate students are a source of constant stimulation. I am in the social sciences but also have a lot of contact with people in the humanities. There are conversations across the disciplines: it actually happens. I had a colleague who joked one time that the University of Chicago faculty is a continually recombinant group of malcontents; this is a negative way of putting it, but this means that if your interests shift over the course of your career, it's possible to find receptive people everywhere. The other great thing about the University of Chicago is that a lot of people circulate through. Since  you see a lot of people coming through, it's an ideal observation post for the wider intellectual world.