The question won’t go away. After two centuries of debate, you would think it had been worried to death, but it keeps reviving and now looks livelier than ever: What was the connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—or, to put it more broadly, how did the cultural system of the Old Regime contribute to the political explosion of 1789?

The latest revival of this problem, which appears in two books published recently by Roger Chartier and Keith Baker, belongs to a shift away from social history, and toward intellectual history in current research. It also confirms the decline of Marxism as a means of understanding early modern history. A generation ago, Marxists (e.g., Albert Soboul in France) and anti-Marxists (e.g., Alfred Cobban in England) argued about the connection, or lack of it, between social structure on the one hand and ideology and politics on the other. Their successors argue about “discourse” and “conceptual space.”

For Chartier, the leading post-Soboulian in France, the Revolution is the culmination of a centuries-long process of de-Christianization and of the creation of a “public sphere” outside the authority of the state. For Baker, the best of the neo-Cobbanites in the Anglo-Saxon world, the Revolution is the expression of heterodox “political languages” developed during the reign of Louis XV. Neither historian has anything to say about economics or any tolerance for attempts to reduce ideologies to the interests of social classes. Neither can be considered a Marxist or an anti-Marxist. They belong to a generation that has abandoned the quarrels of its predecessors and that is rethinking old problems in new ways.

The result is a refreshing sense of rediscovery and a great deal of confusion. Gone are the old certainties about the rising bourgeoisie, the importance of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the terms of the problems themselves. Yet the question about the intellectual origins of the Revolution has returned, dressed up more fashionably in queries about discourse, and the point of departure for discussing it remains the same: Daniel Mornet’s imposing treatise of 1933, Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française.

Uninhibited by epistemological doubts, Mornet traced the Revolution’s origins to the Enlightenment, or the development of a “critical spirit” derived from the works of the philosophes. He argued that Voltaire and the Encyclopedists began to conquer public opinion in the middle of the eighteenth century and that their ideas, increasingly radical and widespread, determined the climate of opinion during the 1770s and 1780s. Mornet allowed for complex combinations of causes, both social and political, in explaining the Revolution, but within the intellectual realm he envisaged a straightforward process of idea diffusion—from the texts of the philosophes to the actions of the revolutionaries.

That will not do for Chartier and Baker. They insist that ideas do not translate directly into actions; that intellectual origins cannot be understood as a one-way, trickle-down diffusion process; and that a great deal besides the Enlightenment went into the creation of the ideological climate in prerevolutionary France. Neither of them has much patience with the old-fashioned Enlightenment-to-Revolution model. Chartier goes so far as to dismiss the Enlightenment as an invention of the Revolution, which needed an intellectual pedigree in order to legitimize itself. And for Baker, the “inventing” took place in “language games” under the Old Regime, when the Revolution was devised as a “script.”

Those arguments may be exaggerated—the Enlightenment certainly existed as a cause that marked the consciousness of the French before 1789, and the French could not conceive of anything comparable to the Revolution until after 1788—but that is what makes both books such good reading. They are meant to be provocative rather than conclusive. Instead of smoothing over difficulties, they take risks, force issues, and argue the hardest cases. They do so with such insight and intelligence that together they mark a turning point in eighteenth-century studies: the modernization of Mornet.

Before examining them more closely, however, I would like to put in a word for the old Mornet. He was not so simple-minded as his successors make him out to be. True, he wrote straightforward, almost Voltairean prose, without the benefit of a postmodern academic vocabulary, and he constructed his Origines intellectuelles so clearly that it looks too neat. But in his other books, notably Le Sentiment de la nature en France de Jean-Jacques Rousseau à Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Les Sciences de la vie au XVIIIe siècle, he treated intellectual life in a broad, cultural setting. And the Origines intellectuelles can be read not only as an encyclopedic synthesis but also as an agenda for research that has kept French socio-cultural history going for the last half century. It opened the way for studies of provincial academies, intellectuals, education, libraries, the book trade, journalism, freemasonry, popular culture, and other subjects which have now turned into academic industries. Mornet needs to be assimilated, not merely modernized.


But Chartier and Baker are correct to point out his conceptual shortcomings. Chartier would improve them by directing the discussion toward the sociology of culture, Baker by turning it toward political theory. So Mornet’s “intellectual” origins have been reworked as “cultural” in one case and as “ideological” in the other.

The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution by Roger Chartier demonstrates that there is much more than terminology at stake in this shift of viewpoint. By emphasizing cultural history, Chartier connects the question of the Revolution’s origins to themes covered in his previous work, which ranges over several centuries and a vast array of subjects, many of them inherited from Mornet. He has helped to write and edit a four-volume history of French publishing, a five-volume history of private life, a four-volume urban history of France, and a history of French education from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge and his wit, he stands out as the Diderot of early modern historians. He certainly seems qualified to succeed Mornet.

Like others in the Annales school, Chartier favors history of the longue durée—that is, the study of long-term changes in mental habits and behavior patterns, which took place too slowly to be noticed by the people who lived through them. For him, therefore, the Revolution’s cultural origins go back to nearly imperceptible shifts in world view, and they can be detected by quantitative studies of their symptoms. Thus the attacks on the Church between 1789 and 1794 did not come from a sudden outburst of anticlericalism but rather were the culmination of a de-Christianization process that can be seen in a century-long decline in Masses said for the dead, in a drop in the incidence of religious vocations, in an increase in secular as opposed to religious publications, and even in the beginning of widespread contraception.

All of these phenomena have been studied by other historians. Chartier’s book does not present new research but combines familiar material in fresh ways, exposing fault lines and proposing new interpretations. In the case of de-Christianization, for example, Chartier shows that historians have failed to demonstrate any direct linkage between the decline in traditional religiosity throughout the eighteenth century and the explosion of anti-Catholicism in 1789. He posits an intermediary phrase, a “transfer of sacrality,” which he attributes paradoxically to the increased rigor of the Catholic Church. An unusually late and militant Counter-Reformation drove a wedge between the reforming clergy and the general population, which remained attached to its folkloric practices. The Jansenist movement compounded the problem, because it set such high standards that it produced a backlash. Then the Jansenist-Jesuit quarrel consummated the breach. So the temple was brought down by its own guardians rather than by the Voltairean infidel attacking from outside.

It is a fascinating hypothesis, and it helps to explain the crusading zeal that the revolutionaries directed against the Church. Chartier attributes that zeal to a sacrality transferred from Church to state. Like Alexis de Tocqueville and Crane Brinton, he interprets Jacobinism as a secular religion; but unlike them, he traces the sacralization of the state back to the Old Regime. In a remarkable chapter on royal ritual, he shows how the kings’ funeral ceremonies lost their conceptual coherence after 1610. From 1670 on, the king withdrew into the inner circles of the court, but his symbolic presence was asserted everywhere, in a manner like the Eucharist, through the spread of a new ritual, the Te Deum, introduced by Henry III in 1587 and celebrated increasingly after 1651.

How then did the king himself become “desacralized”? Chartier has no clear answer to this question. Although he acknowledges the flood of libelous attacks on the monarchy after 1770, he doubts that this literature had much effect, because statistics on its diffusion prove nothing about the ways in which it might have been read. He prefers to posit some undocumented “spontaneous reactions of the man in the street.” But he also finds a significant shift in the tone of the cahiers des doléances, or petitions of grievances, that the French drew up before the meetings of the Estates General in 1614 and 1789. In the cahiers of 1789, he detects a “politicization of the village” and a certain “symbolic disenchantment” about the monarchy, even though they continue to celebrate the king as the father of the people.

In the key points of his argument, however, Chartier explains the cultural destabilization of the Old Regime by invoking Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the “bourgeois public sphere” (bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit). Since this idea is also central to Baker’s book and in fact can be found nearly everywhere in discussions of early modern culture, it is worth pausing over. When Habermas first advanced it, in a doctoral dissertation published in 1962, it represented a bright new category of sociological analysis, one that fit somewhere between a Weberian view of the state and a Marxian view of the economy. According to Habermas, Öffentlichkeit developed wherever ordinary citizens discussed public affairs outside the reach of the state. In its ideal-typical form, it involved unconstrained, rational debate among equals at a level above the common people and below the ruling elite. In practice, it flourished in the eighteenth-century world of letters, where writers competed for the favor of readers on an open market, and everyone acknowledged the supreme authority of public opinion.


Chartier’s version of the Habermas thesis includes two characteristics that he takes to be distinctive of French culture in the eighteenth century: first, a democratic style of sociability derived from literary institutions such as salons, cafés, and periodicals; second, the articulation by several writers of a concept of public opinion that turned into a demand for popular sovereignty in politics. When combined, those two elements could become explosive. In fact, they constituted the crucial, cultural ingredient in the great explosion of 1789.

This version of Habermas provides a way for Chartier to modernize Tocqueville as well as Mornet. For it was Tocqueville who first developed the themes that Habermas later worked into systematic sociology—notably an emphasis on the importance of men of letters, public opinion, and an abstract style of public debate beyond the control of the state. What Tocqueville failed to grasp, according to Chartier, was a “process of privatization” in social life that created an autonomous sphere where public affairs could be debated and the state could be resisted. Before the eighteenth century, as absolutism reached its apogee, family life spilled into the street and no clear boundaries separated the private from the public. After the reign of Louis XIV, the wealthy and the educated withdrew into a domestic world, where they read newspapers and discussed affairs with a new sense of independence. Out of this peculiar “space” they constituted a new kind of public, which was peculiarly susceptible to politicization. Paradoxically, therefore, the private reemerged as the public and thereby opened the way to the Revolution.

It is a tricky argument, and it runs into two kinds of difficulties. The first is semantic. Habermas’s Öffentlichkeit is one of those German words that can be both sociological (meaning the public as a group of persons) or philosophical (meaning making something public—the airing of an idea). When Chartier ran into it in translation, however, it had become spatial. The main title of Habermas’s thesis, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, became L’Espace public (Public Space) in its French edition (Paris, 1978), and it trailed a subtitle that could be understood only by certain readers of Foucault, Archeology of publicity as a constitutive dimension of bourgeois society. By that time, spatial metaphors had begun to proliferate in the French social sciences, owing to the influence of Foucault and his “archeology of knowledge.” But as Öffentlichkeit hardened into “space” or “sphere,” the metaphor lost its suppleness. It became reified and lost much of the meaning that Habermas had infused in it. Thus Chartier’s version of Habermas: “It was precisely the construction of a space for liberty of action, removed from state authority and reliant on the individual, that permitted the rise of the new public space that was at once inherited from and transformed by the creative energy of revolutionary politics.”

If this space was actually constructed, both conceptually and as the site of action, where can we locate it? In the reception room of Mme. Geoffrin? The chambers of the Académie Française? The tables of the Café Procope? Or the columns of the Gazette de France? These are the kinds of institutions evoked by Habermas, but they confront his thesis with a second difficulty. Far from being democratic and egalitarian, they were complex structures with hierarchies of their own, entry and exit points, and modes of differentiating those who were “in” from those who were “out.” Yet Habermas has nothing to say about the realities of cultural life under the Old Regime. He conjures up a world of free and easy ratiocination among philosophic equals. That world never existed, as Rousseau learned when he arrived at the salon of Mme. de Bezenval and was shown to the servants’ quarters.

Habermas’s work provides a rich stock of sociological hypotheses, but it will not do as social history. It contains almost no references to French sources and very few from primary documents of any kind, except some citations of Locke and Kant. In fact, Habermas based his argument almost entirely on the work of German, British, and American social scientists—and appropriately so, because he did not pretend to write history; he addressed theoretical issues raised by writers such as Theodor Adorno and Carl Schmitt. When he mentioned the eighteenth century, he evoked the republic of letters imagined by Kant. It provided him with a standard that could be used to measure the degradation of the public sphere by consumerism and the mass media in the twentieth century, where his interest really lay. So his doctoral thesis, which is now thirty years old, pointed him toward the criticism of contemporary society that he has expounded in his more recent and more important work, The Theory of Communicative Action. It cannot be taken as a guide to eighteenth-century France.

When Keith Baker takes up Habermas’s thesis in Inventing the French Revolution, he has a much easier time of it than Chartier did, because he eliminates the sociological half of the argument. For him, Öffentlichkeit is public opinion, or rather the peculiar concept of public opinion that emerged in France between 1750 and 1789. It has nothing to do with cultural institutions or social life because it is purely conceptual: the conviction that public opinion, as the dispassionate, rational consensus of the informed citizenry, should be the ultimate authority in political life. After tracing the emergence of this concept in a series of treatises and pamphlets, Baker arrives at a conclusion close to Chartier’s; for he, too, understands political culture spatially: ” ‘Public opinion’ had become the articulating concept of a new political space with a legitimacy and authority apart from that of the crown: a public space in which the nation could reclaim its rights against the crown. Within this space, the French Revolution became thinkable.”

Baker’s notion of conceptual space carries conviction, because it emerges from a very close and very intelligent reading of eighteenth-century political literature. He takes up one tract after another and shows how each in its own way challenged the authority of the Bourbon monarchy. Since many of these works were written by relatively obscure figures—e.g., Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, Guillaume-Joseph Saige, and Jacques Peuchet—Baker’s volume covers a great deal of unfamiliar territory. It is a book of previously published essays, so it does not offer a new synthesis comparable to the more ambitious work by Chartier. Where Chartier attempts to relate the Revolution’s origins to the whole cultural system of the Old Regime, Baker keeps to fine-grained textual analysis; but fine as his analysis is, it has broad implications. And he, too, keeps his eye on the prize question propounded by Mornet.

His strategy for dealing with it begins with a rejection of the assumption, which was typical of intellectual history in Mornet’s day, that ideas are autonomous units of thought that can be traced through society and across spans of time. Instead of ideas, Baker tracks meaning, which he understands to be contextual—a matter of language games, speech acts, and discursive practices embodied in texts. He borrows those concepts from the work of John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and others who have transformed the history of political thought in the Anglo-Saxon world. When applied to France, they help Baker locate a strain of classical republicanism in places where it had dwelt undetected, such as the writings of Gabriel Bonnet de Mably. But do they alter our understanding of French political culture in a fundamental way?

Much of the ground covered by Baker had already been surveyed by Elie Carcassonne, Jules Flammermont, Félix Rocquain, Roger Bickart, Robert Derathé, and other historians from earlier generations, who appreciated the complexities of ideological conflict even though in their innocence they studied ideas rather than discourses. By emphasizing discursive practice, Baker breaks with their tendency to follow lines of influence from one thinker to another. Instead, he brings out family resemblances in ways of arguing about policies or “languages,” as he prefers to call them, borrowing his own language from Pocock.

He distinguishes three main linguistic tendencies in political discourse under the Old Regime. A constitutionalist strain challenged royal absolutism by invoking the historical role of the parlements (law courts), which polemicists like Louis-Adrien Le Paige construed to be coeval with the crown and representative of the people. A reformist strain reinforced royal authority, but did so in the manner of enlightened despotism—that is, as the rational expression of the nation’s interest as a whole in opposition to the particularist interests of orders and estates. In the hands of someone like Condorcet, this “social reason,” as Baker calls it, could dispense with the king altogether after 1789. Finally, a democratic strain, exemplified by Rousseau and Mably, derived all legitimate authority from the will of the people, whose sovereignty was deemed to be as absolute as that of the absolute sovereigns in the treatises of Bossuet and Hobbes.

Baker traces these “three basic strands of discourse” to a common source, “the traditional language of absolutism.” Somehow this mother language combined three attributes—justice, reason, and will—into a single version of royal authority; and somehow after the death of Louis XIV they fell apart, constituting separate discourses of justice (parlementary constitutionalism), reason (enlightened reform), and will (popular sovereignty). As each discourse followed its own logic, the authority of the crown was torn in different directions. And out of the general contention there arose both the political culture of the Old Regime and the conceptual basis of the Revolution.

There is an attractive neatness to this argument, but it is too neat. Can the traditional conception of the monarchy be reduced to Baker’s trio of attributes? Didn’t seventeenth-century Frenchmen think of their king as the agent of God, the defender of the realm, and the father of his people? And can’t the erosion of that view in the eighteenth century be attributed to a combination of religious and irreligious factors—first the persecution of Protestantism and the ideological backlash it produced, then the Jansenist controversies and the parlementary offensive they provoked, and finally the merger of ancient anticlericalism with a modern critical spirit in the campaigns of the Enlightenment?

In enumerating strains of ideological confrontation, one should also consider the frondeur variety of anticourt literature, the separatist agitation of the different provinces, legalistic dissidence from the subculture of the bar, and sentimental moralizing spread by novels and the theater. Chartier would want to add elements generated by conflicts between peasants and lords in the country and workers and masters in cities, because he includes both in his argument about the politicization of attitudes at the bottom of society. The ideological ingredients of French political culture are so varied that they would seem to defy any attempt to reduce them to three discourses.

That may not matter, however, because Baker does not pretend to take account of everything. He wants to show how the French Revolution was “invented” from concepts developed under the Old Regime. In fact, he claims that the “script” for it was written from the three ideological languages as early as 1774. The key conceptual shift occurred long before the taking of the Bastille, and the crucial revolutionary step took place much afterward—on September 11, 1789, to be exact.

This is the boldest and most controversial point in Baker’s book. In a long essay on the early phase of the Revolution, he refers to July 14, 1789, only as the day on which the National Assembly debated whether to put a Declaration of Rights before or after the text of a constitution. The taking of the Bastille, the peasant uprisings, the overthrow of municipal governments, the abolition of feudalism, and the capture of the king by the Paris crowd in the October Days are mentioned only in passing or not at all. The Revolution appears as nothing more than a problem of political theory—essentially, an attempt to resolve the contradiction between a Rousseauian notion of the general will and a constitutional monarchy with a balance of powers. On September 11, 1789, the deputies voted for a “suspensive” rather than an “absolute” royal veto—that is, they limited the king’s ability to block legislation to the duration of two legislatures or four years. As Baker sees it, that vote committed them to a discourse of will, because it removed the main obstacle to the assertion of popular sovereignty; and at the same time it cleared the way for the Terror: “In the most general terms, it [the National Assembly] was opting for the language of political will, rather than of social reason…which is to say that in the long run, it was opting for the Terror.”

As world-historical moments go, September 11, 1789, seems an odd time at which to locate a turning point. In theory the deputies of the Third Estate took the most important revolutionary step on June 17, 1789, when they laid claim to sovereignty by declaring themselves to be the National Assembly. The most important constitutional decision probably occurred on November 7, 1789, when the assembly rejected the British model of parliamentary government by voting to exclude deputies from all ministries. In any case, the Constitution of 1791 contained enough checks and balances to prevent parliamentary tyranny. Without the religious schism, the war, and the treachery of Louis XVI, it might actually have worked.

Why then does Baker make so much of September 11? Because it unleashed “the ideological dynamic that was to drive subsequent revolutionary events.” As he sees it, the Revolution proceeded by a great discursive leap forward; and the propelling force was ideology. Nothing in recent historical writing could be further removed from the social history that prevailed a generation ago.

It would be unfair to accuse Baker of failing to write social history, because that is not his subject. He provides a wonderfully astute analysis of the constitutional issues debated during the first year of the French Revolution. But the very success of his exegesis raises a problem: Can one write a history of the constitutional debates without taking social conflict into account? Presumably Baker would say no, because at the beginning of his book he makes a convincing argument for erasing the conventional distinction between intellectual and social history: “All social activity has a symbolic dimension that gives it meaning, just as all symbolic activity has a social dimension that gives it point.”

In practice, however, Baker ignores this precept, because he treats the Revolution as the working out of the logic propounded in the constitutional debates. No one would deny the importance of those debates, which received a thorough going-over by the historians of the Third Republic. But their meaning was shaped by events outside the assembly hall. “Feudalism” was not simply destroyed by the decrees of August 4 but by the peasant uprisings, which made it inoperable in farms and villages and forced several revisions of the decrees. “Despotism” was not simply abolished by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; it was defeated first when the common people seized power in Paris on July 14 and then again, after the king refused to accept the Declaration, on October 5–6, when the people marched on Versailles. Throughout the whole period of the Constituent Assembly, the king said one thing and did another, constantly threatening the constitutional order with a counterrevolutionary coup. When politicians like Mounier and Mirabeau took the king’s side in arguments over the royal veto, their moves belonged to party struggles, in which contemporaries saw the opposition of revolution and counterrevolution and not merely propositions derived from political theory.

Of course social conflicts had to be expressed in language, and revolutionary oratory acquired a force of its own. But Baker makes discourse the driving force of the revolutionary process, and in doing so he goes much further than Mornet. For Mornet merely claimed that the spread of enlightened ideas predisposed people to accept political change. Baker sees discourse opening the “conceptual space” under Louis XV that finally swallowed up Louis XVI during the Revolution. At the moment of truth, on September 11, 1789, the revolutionaries let language take over and dictate the course of events. But the language came from the works of Mably and Rousseau. So the tragedy of 1793 was written in the “scripts” of the mid-century.

Baker is certainly correct to insist that historians should study what people thought as well as what they did. But no one in the National Assembly imagined that they faced a choice between will and reason on September 11, 1789, and at that date no one could conceive of the Terror. Whatever the implications of Rousseau’s Social Contract, the Terror was unthinkable without a foreign invasion, economic chaos, a religious schism, a constant threat of counterrevolution, and a civil war. A history of meaning should chart the boundaries between the thinkable and the unthinkable, and in doing so it should take account of what echoed from the street as well as what resounded from the podium. Otherwise, it will fall back on some kind of hidden logic—a cunning of history—that would be meaningless to people in the past.

The point needs emphasis, because the shift from social to intellectual history has led to an overestimation of the power of language. Power also comes out the barrel of a gun, even though Mao said so, back in the dark ages when discourse was undreamt of and Mornet set the pace in the chase after ideas.

This Issue

October 24, 1991