Luis de Miranda on Esprit de Corps
DP: Welcome Luis! It’s wonderful to have you here again! In case some readers missed it, let me briefly mention that we had talked previously on this site in a detailed and fascinating interview about your background and your ideas, including your work on philosophical counselling and the Philosophical Health movement.
Today we’re here for another, very special reason. You recently published a book with Edinburgh University Press: “Ensemblance. The Transnational Genealogy of Esprit de Corps.” Looking at the title (and let’s ignore “Ensemblance” for a moment), you’re proving a “genealogy” of the term “esprit de corps” in this book. You write:
Despite a tendency to reduce the meaning of the phrase to team spirit and camaraderie, the … signifier is still active within a rich semantic field of meanings: ‘cooperation’, ‘joint ownership of projects in the workplace’, ‘togetherness in combat’, ‘common consciousness’, ‘common sense of purpose’, ‘sport’s greatest appeal’, ‘collective genius’, ‘patriotism’, ‘anti-cronyism’, ‘community spirit’, ‘nepotism’ …
… and a whole lot more. Now this may be so, but could you briefly explain to us the significance of this? Why should we care about the many meanings of the phrase “esprit de corps”?
When I started researching about esprit de corps, I had no idea how important the phrase was in the modern history of the West. Some people wondered why I was working on what seemed to them to be a niche topic. I confess my first reason was purely a philosophical fascination for the explosive combination of the two ideas in the same phrase, spirit and body in French.
Now, just one year after I started working on esprit de corps, the then Brexit chief British politician David Davis wrote, just a few weeks before the historical vote, that England needed to rebuild a “national esprit de corps”. And again a bit later, Donald Trump started to use “esprit de corps” in his official speeches, both before and after his election.
In fact when we look at the last 300 years, a great deal of people who have made history or the history of ideas at least have been fascinated by the ambiguous meanings of esprit de corps, including philosophers or sociologists like Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Bourdieu. They cared and wondered and we should care and wonder because the phrase addresses one of the most important questions of modernity, which can be put simply in the manner of Hamlet’s dilemma: to belong or not to belong? To be an individual or to be in a group? Esprit de corps is both an ideal without which great achievements seem impossible (“all for one and one for all”) and sometimes an ideological risk (groupthink).
DP: I seem to understand that part of your project is to provide an account of collective consciousness. This is obviously of great importance, especially when we consider the responsibility debate as applied to collective actions: Who is to be held responsible for global warming? Who is responsible for the actions of a bank or a fossil fuel company? Who is responsible for democratic decisions?
Could you briefly sketch out whether and how your approach could help us approach such questions of collective responsibility and agency in a new way?
Most of the available contemporary approaches to collective consciousness and social ontology in philosophy are analytic and very a-historical, as if we could speak of eternal truths regarding group spirit.
In the book, I show that these questions need to be examined first as a dynamic process in different contexts and times, if we are to learn from them. It is not the same thing to ask who is responsible in a globalised world and in the pre-industrial world. Now, we are still in an epoch that is fascinated by the individualist narrative, where we blame or praise such and such a person for collective problems or solutions. Our mainstream view of who makes history is slightly naive, based on a super-hero/super-villain imagery.
It is time to invent a global social contract and a global mind, in order to distribute the chain of responsibility, not so much to blame but rather to facilitate co-creation. My book gives several study cases of admirable cooperations, in the hive-mind mode, that led to a significant improvement.
DP: Your book covers an enormous amount of ground, touching on politics, the social contract, democracy and human bonding, and the military history and connotations of “esprit de corps”.
Reading your work, I was wondering whether perhaps you are stretching the concept too far. I can understand that a tightly knit, military elite unit might have its own version of “fighting spirit” and “camaraderie,” but isn’t it a bit far-fetched to look for esprit de corps in our multicultural democracies? Is there anything beyond a purely formal and institutionalised organisation that holds together a population like, say, that of the United States? You have immigrants, native Americans, white and coloured Americans, right-wing and left-wing Americans, the rich and the poor, the educated and the flat-earth supporters, vaccine proponents and deniers. Is there an “esprit de corps” that holds all these people together?
I have titled the book Ensemblance to indicate that we should always be careful with personifications of groups and ideologies of uniform unity, especially at a national or power-group level. I am not the one who is stretching the concept: it was stretched by history itself.
Here it is important for the reader to know a bit about my methodology: I have read virtually all books and documents available since 1800 that use the phrase “esprit de corps”. I prioritised such documents because I wanted to follow the genealogy of the phrase like an archaeologist follows a bone, rather than speculate a priori on what counts as esprit de corps or not. The fact that right wing politicians are trying to bring back the idea of “national esprit de corps” is interesting, because in their case it manifests an anti-globalisation protectionist discourse. But it was the makers of the French Revolution who invented the expression “national esprit de corps,” and in their mind this was a left wing endeavour, an important step in the creation of a humanistic nation state of equal citizens.
Indeed, that is what makes esprit de corps interesting as a historical combat concept. Sometimes it works as a liberating idea, like when the French philosophers intentionally used the phrase to get rid of the Jesuits’ monopoly on education in the 1840s (in this case esprit de corps was thought as being as “dark" as the uniform of the Jesuits, a form of privileged and anti-democratic groupthink).
Sometimes it works as an elitist concept, like in the First English translations of Nietzsche, where esprit de corps is the proud contempt of the dominating lords of the world.
My book is of course by no means a praise or a systematic critique of esprit de corps, but rather a close observation of how the idea could perform different things at different times, because it embodies our deep questioning about not only well-being, but well-belonging. Indeed, life, like history, is not black and white, but more nuanced and ambiguous.
We need to look at our belongings as ensemblances, semblances of togetherness that should never dissolve our potential to think independently (or try at least, since our thoughts can also be the product of esprit de corps).
The ethics of ensemblance I recommend is also valid epistemologically, for our concepts of unity. Most of what we think of as one is in fact only quasi-one (this is also true in the natural world) and always transformed by flows of multiplicity and constant dissolution and recomposition elsewhere.
In the book, there are several cases, for example in American corporations, where a leader would praise esprit de corps in public but consider his employees as cattle in private. During the Second World War, the phrase esprit de corps was used on all sides of the political board. For example, the British military developed many sport activities next to the battlefield to create the kind of solidarity and loyalty that would get the soldiers to run wildly towards their own death. Esprit de corps is a powerful device in which the ego is dissolved to serve a higher cause. But of course, we need to remain vigilant about the nature of the higher cause.
Again, the mystique of esprit de corps is not the product of my fantasy: it was often discussed in the last three centuries, including by Kant (who criticised it) and Hegel (who thought it was essential to becoming a dedicated citizen).
I coined the term hieropoiesis, which is a fancy word to designate the co-creation of the sacred: we need sacred spaces of well-belonging, we need to belong to a community of practice that pursues a purpose we find admirable, and in which we forget about our painful egos. We need to become concepts to a certain extent, but not to the dangerous point of total self-oblivion.
My book is meant as an ethical guide that gives enough insights, I hope, such that the reader will be more careful in the future about her or his commitments to groups. It is possible to transform an ethos (a subconscious collective attachment) into an eidos (a more explicit and creatively critical allegiance to a set of core values). The quest for singularity and individual independence is noble, but real independence can only be reached by learning to identify the discourses that have colonised our body and soul.
Luis de Miranda: Ensemblance. A wonderful example of the ‘archaeological’ approach to culture studies, this book traces the long and complex history of the “Esprit de corps” concept through the centuries.
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Very good point, which I also address in the book. While it is important to distinguish flocking, which is a biological concept, and esprit de corps, which is a political concept, indeed many thinkers, in particular American psychologist at the end of the nineteenth century, had that discourse about a continuity between natural forms of collective behaviour and human forms of cohesion. This allowed some of them to justify the family nucleus as natural, which is American’s favourite essentializing perspective (family as another us against them).
It is a fact that beings tend to form societies, even at a molecular level. But we must never forget that the definition of a society is never a fully objective phenomenon, it is also a human convention. Whitehead called this the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, when we believe that our perspective on the world is in fact how things really are. I thing we project a lot of our desire for community in our observations of natural hive minds. But certainly bird flocking or fish schooling are fascinating.
Thanks for changing Louis into Luis in the aforementioned brand, it makes me feel luxurious! You are right, there is a lot of clustering going on, which is in fact performative. Think about online recommendations. If you watch or purchase what is presented to you as “people like you also watched or purchased this”, you end up in a feedback loop that seems to be predictive and faithful to who you are but is in fact induced behaviour, precisely the production of an ensemblance.
The paradox of consumerism is that it taps into our feeling of being unique by mobilising our least unique behavioural traits. Capitalism works so well because it neutralises at the same time our reptilian brain and our ideal-self, tapping into a psychological phenomenon called jouissance in cultural psychoanalysis. I published a book in French a decade ago about this phenomenon: “Peut-on Jouir du Capitalisme?” (Amazon France), in which I used the theories of Lacan, Marx and Heidegger. I was asked by some English editors to translate it, but I am afraid I won’t find the time for that (any translators out there are welcome to do it!).
Esprit de corps was one of the core concepts of study when sociology was invented by Comte and Durkheim. Durkheim’s studies about the prophylactic power of esprit de corps, for example in religious or criminal communities, are exemplary. Later, Bourdieu, also a key figure in sociology, continued the work on esprit de corps, which he also called habitus and ethos.
I am not a sociologist myself, but I bring something new that is a typology of four modes of esprit de corps which can also be considered as stages through which a group goes: creative esprit de corps, autonomist esprit de corps, conformative esprit de corps, and universal esprit de corps. There is an open access article (PDF) in which I summarise this typology and try to demonstrate its relevance to understanding the current anthrobotic world. I argue, in dialogue with two computer scientists, that our understanding or human esprit de corps needs to incorporate digital and robotic corps.
People keep asking me why do we need this or that new word, because I tend to coin more neologisms, especially portmanteau words, than the average. It’s interesting that we don’t ask a poet why she is inventing new words. I believe in the power of words very much, and if there is no word around to say exactly what I am trying to say, I may coin a new term. Ensemblance is a semblance of ensemble, I think it is pretty self-explanatory but for a more detailed theory of ensemblance I point the reader to the conclusion of my book.
Note also that two chapters are available for free, the introduction of the book, called A Thousand Platoons (PDF), including the very fascinating timeline of esprit de corps, and the chapter about capitalist esprit de corps, called The Way of Hilton (PDF).
The book is published by Edinburgh University Press and can be now found in paperback at a reasonable price.
Many thanks, Andreas Matthias, and once again, I am very grateful for your sharp and important questions.
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If you are interested in knowing more about the topic, here is a more in-depth interview with Luis de Miranda about his book “Ensemblance”:
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Luis de Miranda lives in Sweden and is a philosophical practitioner, author of essays such as Being & Neonness (MIT Press), Ensemblance (Edinburgh University Press), and novels such as Who Killed the Poet? and Paridaiza (Snuggly Books). Some of his books have been published in various languages, such as English, French, Chinese, Arabic, Swedish, etc.
He works currently as a researcher at the Center for Medical Humanities of Uppsala University, and is the founder of The Philosophical Parlour, through which he offers online philosophical counseling sessions to individuals around the world. He is currently working on the contemporary revival of philosophical health and a related theory of crealectic intelligence and practice, based on a process philosophy of creativity.
Cover image provided by Luis de Miranda.