A French Spirit is Haunting The Global World: On The Concept of Esprit de Corps, a talk by Luis de Miranda
The University of Edinburgh
David Hume Tower – LG09
18 November 2015
‘In September 2014, I have set up an online tracer dedicated to a day-to-day taxonomy of current uses of the compound ‘esprit de corps’, a French-born and now universal idiom that qualifies tight-knit organisations or human groups of high cohesiveness. (The Esprit de Corps Tracer: https://researchonespritdecorps.wordpress.com/). The first results of that observation can now be analysed. They show that the US media and institutions are nowadays using the expression ‘esprit de corps’ at a steady pace, on a daily basis, even more so than the French.
‘Esprit de corps’ was and still is to a certain extent commonly used in France with a pejorative denotation inherited from the eighteenth century and its pre-revolutionary suspicion towards intermediary bodies. Conversely, the contemporary American use of ‘esprit de corps’ is unanimously laudative. This is also true of global English use, including in the U.K: for example, in a 2015 article on sexism and the Silicon Valley, The Economist wrote: ‘The Valley’s testosterone–infused culture needs to change so as to address this [issue], without losing the esprit de corps that seems essential to success.’ Esprit de corps is a very unique case of French foreignized idiom that has gone through a vivid, dialectical and international evolution since its print-birth in the early eighteenth century. The expression first appeared in the context of military discourse, and more specifically among the Mousquetaires, to designate a positive quality of cohesion, élan, and solidarity, as illustrated later by Alexandre Dumas’ motto: ‘Tous pour un! Un pour tous!’
It is only around the 1750s with Voltaire, d’Alembert, Diderot and around the same time Lord Chesterfield in England, that ‘esprit de corps’ entered the political discourse, gained a critical meaning, and became what Ian Hunter calls a combat concept. Perhaps the clearest definition ever of that critical denotation was produced in the second half of the eighteenth-century by Alexander Jardine, a British consul: ‘Every society of human beings, be it a nation, a corporation, or a company, we know will act with a certain secret esprit de corps, or bias towards its own interests, against all mankind; and in a manner more unjust and unfeeling than individuals: and every corporate body, if not controlled, would tyrannize over all the rest. Hence the great difficulties of regulating the lesser bodies, of which the great one, the nation, consists; and of forming a system of government, wherein the different parts may not combine against the rest of the community.’
More recently, however, echoing Durkheim’s or Tarde’s positive re-evaluation of esprit de corps and intermediary bodies, the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari have defined esprit de corps as being the singular force of minorities and communities fighting against the tyranny of the State or of any form of totalitarianism. So should we consider the current global English revival of the use of ‘esprit de corps’ with Enlightenment glasses and be suspicious of it? Or should we encourage the idea of a return to new forms of togetherness that this French idiom has the potential to designate?
I will explain my methodology, based but not dependent on a culturomics layer of analysis, through which I trace the uses of ‘esprit de corps’ since the early eighteenth century in diverse discourses (literary, political, legal, philosophical, sociological, etc.).
I will also indicate how the study of the concept of esprit de corps is related to contemporary issues in philosophy, cognitive sciences, epistemology, politics, psychology, and sociology, such as community politics, collective intentionality, collective self-awareness, co-metacognition, group mind, group cohesiveness, extended minds and bodies, group agency, etc.’
Luis de Miranda.