Historically contested concepts: A conceptual history of philanthropy in France, 1712-1914

Abstract

Since W. B. Gallie introduced the notion of essentially contested concepts (ECCs) in 1956, social science scholars have increasingly used his framework to analyze key concepts drawing “endless disputes” from contestant users. Despite its merits, the ECC framework has been limited by a neglect of social, cultural, and political contexts, the invisibility of actors, and its ahistorical character. To understand how ECCs evolve and change over time, I use a conceptual history approach to study the concept of philanthropy, recently labeled as an ECC. Using France during classical modernity as a case study, I analyze key events and actors from the concept’s inception in 1712 as a virtue of the Enlightenment to its triumph after 1789 as a secular alternative to Catholic charity, until its decline at the end of the nineteenth century as a new consensus emerged around the concept of solidarity. By introducing the notion of historically contested concepts, I make several contributions to research on ECCs, conceptual contestation, and conceptual change.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In particular, I used Gallica, the open access, digital library of Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) containing more than 4 million documents, as well as Sudoc, France’s academic documentation system, which comprises more than 12 million items.

  2. 2.

    His note on virtue (Vertu) contains this statement: “As to charity, is it not that which the Greeks and Romans understood by humanity—love of your neighbor? This love is nothing, if it does not act; beneficence is therefore the only true virtue.”

  3. 3.

    Fénelon’s famous controversy with Bossuet about quietism led him to be condemned by Pope Innocent XII in 1699 and banned from the King Louis XIV’s court. While he was held in high esteem by many Enlightenment philosophers and freemasons, Catholics were more divided about his legacy overall (Hogu 1920).

  4. 4.

    In 1757, Turgot wrote the article “Foundations” for Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and was very critical of several shortcomings of charitable foundations: vanity of founders, loss of tax revenues for the State, immobility of capital, mismanagement and obsolescence over the years.

  5. 5.

    State councilor Montyon created prizes to reward virtue, literary and scientific achievements. Gérando, a pioneering anthropologist, developed empiric method of visiting the poor to understand the cause of their ills. Champion, a Parisian jeweler wearing a distinctive “little blue coat,” gave away all his fortune to the poor (Duprat 1993).

  6. 6.

    In a letter to Ms. Royer de Chantepie written in March 1857, Flaubert wrote: “I hate despotism. I am a rabid liberal, which is why socialism seems to me a pedantic horror that will spell the death of all art and morality.”

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my colleagues Joel Bothello, Anne-Claire Pache, and Greg Molecke for their wise suggestions on earlier drafts of this article. Thank you to Eugénie Bapst for her precious help on data collection and tracking definitions in dictionaries and encyclopedias. I also benefited from the guidance of archivists at the Hôtel de Ville and CEDIAS-Musée social libraries in Paris. Finally, I thank the Editors and the reviewers of Theory and Society for their insightful comments. A version of this article was presented at the European Research Network on Philanthropy conference in Copenhagen, 2017.

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Gautier, A. Historically contested concepts: A conceptual history of philanthropy in France, 1712-1914. Theor Soc 48, 95–129 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-018-09335-z

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Keywords

  • Charity
  • Essentially contested concepts
  • French history
  • Secularism
  • Socialism
  • Solidarity