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the Meaning of Politeness LAWRENCE E. KLEIN As an object of inquiry, George Berkeley has been a property al­ most entirely of philosophers.1 The result of this attention has been that, while Berkeley's relations to certain aspects of the discourse of his era have been widely studied, his relations to other aspects of this dis­ course have been relatively neglected. One implication of this philo­ sophical focus has been that examination has concentrated largely on the early works in which Berkeley worked out the theory of vision and the ideas comprising his so-called immaterialism, while the later works have been neglected.2 One of Berkeley's later works which has received little attention from those interested in his philosophy is Alciphron, a dialogue (or really a set of dialogues among the same participants), first pub­ lished in 1732.3 The central concern of Alciphron is religion and belief. The dialogue is, in the concluding words of a rather long subtitle, "An Apology for the Christian Religion, against those who are called Free-Thinkers."4 Indeed, this dialogue is one between two free­ thinkers and two serious Christians.5 One possible and obvious ap­ proach to Alciphron is to consider it in the context of the continuing early eighteenth-century discussions about the nature of and relations among such topics as natural and revealed religion, reason and faith, matter and spirit, the Trinity, miracles, and so forth.6 Alciphron, however, is not a single-minded text:7 not only is it a dia­ logue between freethought and religion, but also it is a dialogue about "politeness." To show this, I will first define that key term in early 57 58 / KLEIN eighteenth-century English discourse, then show how Berkeley in­ serted it into the dialogues offering a critique of the notion, and, fi­ nally, indicate how Berkeley appropriated a redefined notion of po­ liteness for his own use. In so doing, I hope to broaden our understanding of the relation­ ship between George Berkeley and another eminent Augustan, An­ thony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury. Berkeley's attitude toward Shaftesbury is usually seen as a mixture of genuine philo­ sophical complaint about Shaftesbury's moral thought and of rather scandalously ad hominem commentary on Shaftesbury's person.8 How­ ever, it will become clear here that Berkeley was taking on more than just Shaftesbury's moral thought and that there was a discursive justi­ fication for the entire range of Berkeley's criticisms of Shaftesbury. This justification was the fact that the sort of "politeness" to which Berkeley was objecting in Alciphron found its most elaborate, interest­ ing, and influential expression in the writings that comprise Shaftes­ bury's Characteristicks (first published in 1711). The word "politeness" was at the center of a discursive phenome­ non of considerable importance and complexity in late seventeenthand early eighteenth-century England.9 At that time, "politeness," with a distinctive set of related words, came to occupy a central place in English discourse. The vocabulary of "politeness" helped organize, characterize, and evaluate a diverse and extensive set of human in­ terests and activities. Because "politeness" found a home in texts of great diversity, it meant many things. However, for present pur­ poses, the word "politeness" can be understood to designate a cul­ tural ideal of urbane sociability, appropriate for a secular elite. In the early eighteenth century, the word "polite" ranged most typically over the personnel, the venues, and the characteristic activities, interests, styles, and cultural productions associated with that ideal of urbane sociability. In the first place, "politeness" was the way gentlemen and ladies were to deport themselves in each other's company. The "company" which it presupposed consisted of social interactions that were nei­ ther intimately private nor formally public, but rather semi-public and informal. Accordingly, its characteristic milieux were drawing rooms and salons, coffee-houses and chocolate-houses, parks and squares. It was recognizably urban in provenance, and it often did not hesitate to sneer at rural life and cultural provinciality. This urbane sociability was epitomized in polite conversation. On one hand, polite conversation was well informed. In substance, it dwelled on politics, history, the arts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 57-68
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-20
Open Access
No
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