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An Enlightened Idea

Multiple sources provide histories of Enlightenment-era institutions founded to enhance public discourse, deliberation, and social interaction.  A library or Internet search provides a wealth of information that explain the similarities and differences of European, especially French, salons, British coffeehouses and less well-known entities, such as the Parisian Café and London salons, sometimes referred to as bluestocking assemblies.  “Shaping the Public Spheres: English Coffeehouses and French Salons and the Age of the Enlightenment,” by Bonnie Calhoun (2008) is an entertaining and informative brief history that includes a helpful biography.


Calhoun borrows from Jürgen Habermas to help the reader understand just what the public sphere is, “a place for social interaction outside the private sphere (the home) and the sphere of public authority (the state/court).”  Calhoun also provides insight into the similarities and differences, the strengths and weaknesses of the different institutions created to promote deliberation and social cohesion. 


Habermas’s notion of the public sphere seems immediately difficult to reconcile with salons which were invitation-only events held within the comfortable confines of a person’s estate.  Reconciliation is possible, however, when one considers that salonnières, the women who ran all or almost all of the French salons, went to great lengths to invite a disparate collection of participants and to conduct the proceedings to protect all members from undue criticism and to foster egalitarian inclusiveness which, in turn, promoted sociability, equality and communications and ultimately underscored excellent levels of discussion.  Salons essentially represented the antithesis of the daily norms of the estates that hosted them.  Heterogeneous groups of citizens of both genders and different social classes comprised salons where wit rather than rank earned exhaled status among discussants.


The high degrees of control and the decorum that assured free expression and inclusiveness did not appeal to all, however.   Jean Jacques Rousseau was a critic.  He thought that the strict rules trivialized the discussions that occurred.  He believed that the pursuit of harmony came at the cost of in-depth discourse that typically follows expressed dissent.  The result, he thought, was shallow and tedious discussion that amounted to little more than entertainment and superficial contentment.


The British coffeehouse offered some advantages and disadvantages compared to the salon.  In one sense, even with their egalitarian-promoting rules, salons were not as inclusive as British coffeehouses, for discourse at a coffeehouse was open to anyone who could patronize the coffeehouse, a commercial establishment.  The admission standard, therefore, was quite literally, the price of a cup of coffee.


But here, the devil is in not so much in the details, as in the social norms of the time.  Eighteenth Century English social norms disallowed women to patronize coffeehouses.  Thus, even with the low admissions price, egalitarian sounding coffeehouses excluded half of the adult population from contributing to the discourse.  On balance, however, notwithstanding the substantial fact that women were not participants in British coffeehouses, it is likely that the coffeehouses were more heterogeneous than salons with respect to culture, creed, and ethnicity. 


But even if the composition of the discussants within coffeehouses were more heterogeneous than the composition of those whom attended salons, the conduct of the coffeehouse might have made it less democratic in a relative sense.  While salons were places of strict decorum, places where all participants had the opportunity to express their ideas, coffeehouses were often boisterous affairs, where good ideas could be snuffed out by those who expressed their ideas, possibly with less merit, with a higher number of decibels.


Discourse for Democracy attempts to extract and combine the best characteristics from salons and coffeehouses.  The discussions are held within the confines of the home, but invitations to join are made with no regard to political power, political persuasion, or social standing.  All who do join find that the climate of Discourse for Democracy allows ample opportunity and even encouraged active participation – to express and defend their ideas and to listen to and challenge the ideas of others.  Refreshments help to communicate that all are welcome, and rules are enforced in a way that allows for passion, not polemic.


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