The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

In conjunction with the Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy Conference, CHED will be sponsoring a specialist stream.

Sensibilité: The Knowing Body in the Enlightenment

In mid- to late- eighteenth century thought, particularly in France and in the thought of the philosophes, materialism and atheism were seriously considered both publicly in the writings of, for example, d’Holbach, and privately by others such as Diderot. The 1743 treatise Le Philosophe presented the philosopher in materialistic and mechanistic terms as a human thinking machine that reflected on its own motion. In the context of vitalist medicine however, this was far from a mechanistic description in the modern sense and only some philosophes were in fact materialists.

The vitalism of the médecines philosophes from the Montpellier faculty of medicine held the attention of the philosophes in a period in which medicine constituted the master discourse. It was Montpellier theorists who made sensibility a key concept of eighteenth century: sensibility was the basis of a holistic vision of the body, one in which individual organs had their own “tastes” or “lives,” and in which unity came not from a “higher” organizing seat (the soul, brain or noumenal subject) but, rather, from the harmonious interaction of the physical parts. Bordeu, Lacaze, and their disciples (1750s-80s) saw sensibility as a diffuse property conveyed not just through the nerves but also reciprocally through the three main spheres or departments of vital action: the head, the “phrenic” region, and the external organ (roughly, the skin). That the physical and the moral could not be separated was a broadly accepted proposition: the idea of diffuse embodied sensibility is critical for the period’s understanding of affect, the emotions, and of mental functioning. This is evidenced in the highly contested work of La Mettrie but also in Roussel, Tissot and Rousseau.

Central to the wide-spread rejection of innate ideas, sensationism was the highly idiosyncratic epistemology of the period. Formalised and systematised by Condillac, the sensationist presuppositions were widely shared across the French and Scottish Enlightenments and it was arguably the most significant unifying feature of the period allowing thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, and Sade to share common ground. In Rousseau and Adam Smith, sensationism as a theory of physical sensation became a theory of moral sentiments: sensibility as a theory of knowledge was expressly conceived of as a theory of moral knowing. Rousseau was a dualist, a sensationist, a theorist of virtue and purity of heart. For him the violence of passion was itself an enemy, the unnatural product of modernising society. Sade was a materialist, a sensationist and a theorist of vice, cruelty and lust. For him the purity of the heart was an impediment to pleasure. Here the philosophical novel’s power to affect made it the philosophical genre of choice.

Sensibility, then, was an embodied epistemology which briefly flourished in a period before “the theory of knowledge” was taken as a discrete field of philosophical inquiry. Hence sensationism was heavily influenced by the philosophical anthropologies of the day and by medical science: the Enlightenment notion of sensibility provides a paradigm that integrates such diverse fields as physiology, medicine, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, aesthetics and literature. Yet neither sensationism nor sensibility are key Kantian themes and the nineteenth century’s construction of the Aufklärung as leading to an apotheosis in the three Critiques has worked to occlude this feature. This stream seeks then to retrieve a major component of Enlightenment thought from the shadow the Kantian edifice.

Call for Papers

If you would like to submit an abstract, or if you have any queries about the specialist stream, please contact Martyn Lloyd.

Abstracts should be no longer than 250 words and include a list of five keywords. Papers will be 30 minutes long. Please include a short biography (100 words) including institutional affiliation.

The stream will be run with a view to the publication of an edited collection of papers on the theme.

Details of conference registration and suggestions for accommodation will be available here in the next month or so.

Call for papers now closed

Keynote: Anne Vila

Anne Vila is Chair of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specialises in the eighteenth-century French novel, theatre, and intellectual history; the body in literature and medicine; the culture and philosophy of the Enlightenment. Her book Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) focused on the conjunction between scientific and literary/philosophical writings during the French Enlightenment, working against the tendencies of nineteenth and twentieth century notions of epistemology to obscure that which preceded them. She has also published “Penser par le ventre: The Gastric Embodiment of Thought and Feeling in Eighteenth-Century France,” and “Sex and Sensibility: Pierre Roussel’s Système physique et moral de la femme,” as well as papers on Tissot, Rousseau, and Diderot. She is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Singular Beings: Passions and Pathologies of the Scholar in France, 1720–1840.

Also Attending:

Professor Peter Otto, University of Melbourne,

Professor Stephen Gaukroger, University of Sydney


All inquiries please contact:

On this site

Go to top