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Interview with Arthur Gautier around the concept of philanthropy

Arthur Gautier is Assistant Professor at the ESSEC Business School in the Public and Private Policy Department and Executive Director of the Philanthropy Chair. 
The subject of the interview is an article he has just published on the evolution of the concept of philanthropy: GAUTIER Arthur (2019). “Historically contested concepts: A conceptual history of philanthropy in France, 1712-1914”, Theory and Society, 48 (1):95-129.

This interview is about the French word “philanthropy” and the French context.

What is philanthropy? In what way is it a contested concept?

Today, when we hear the word philanthropy, we can think of many different things. The term is often used to refer to all financial donations made by private actors to organizations of general interest (public interest): humanitarian associations, medical research institutes, museums, universities, etc. For some, philanthropy has a more restrictive meaning and refers only to the gifts and foundations of the richest, such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. For others, philanthropy remains a virtue, an altruistic ideal of wanting the good of others, often used in contrast to selfish behavior (“if he does so, it is not philanthropy”).

Several questions often arise in contemporary debates about philanthropy: is it really altruistic or do philanthropists actually serve their own interests (the question of motivations)? Should it be encouraged, for example through tax incentives or attractive legal status? What rules must be put in place to ensure that it is fair and effective (the question of regulation)? Philanthropy has its critics and supporters, it rarely leaves anyone indifferent. Less present in France as part of the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century, it has regained a certain importance at the beginning of the 21st century, where it has become widely accepted that private donations are essential to supplement public funding in many areas.

All this makes philanthropy an “essentially contested concept”, as understood by the philosopher Walter B. Gallie in a landmark article in 1956. In this article, Gallie describes how some widely used abstract ideas (e.g. justice, art, democracy) are structurally subject to endless disputes and controversies. According to Gallie, a concept is essentially contested when it meets the following seven criteria: evaluative, i.e., it contains value judgments; inherently complex; describable in several different ways; open and subject to successive modifications; recognized as contested by the opposing parties; embodied by a model, an archetype; subject to temporary agreement between the parties. Gallie’s approach is part of a linguistic and socio-cognitive approach to the study of concepts, which differs from the classical or realist approach according to which concepts are mental representations of stable categories of the outside world, with clear boundaries, necessary and sufficient conditions. According to the proponents of the “linguistic shift”, concepts do not have an unchanging definition and are merely language and cultural artifacts that are produced, shared and discussed between human groups.

It seems to me that it is interesting to study philanthropy from this perspective. But as I point out in my article, Gallie’s very notion of “essentially contested concept” is open to criticism because it does not take three essential aspects seriously: the social, cultural and political context in which a concept is used; the identity, intentions and roles of social actors and groups who use it in a particular way; and the history and temporal evolution of its use. It is by taking these three aspects into account that we can understand how the challenge of a concept such as philanthropy can emerge and change in our societies.

What are the main steps in the evolution of the concept of “philanthropy”?

In my article, I study the genesis and evolution of the concept of philanthropy in France by looking for its trace in dictionaries, encyclopedias, essays, novels (primary data), but also in the work of historians (secondary data). More particularly, I began the investigation in 1712, the first recorded appearance of the term in Fénelon’s work, and continued throughout what some historians have called the “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914). It was during this very rich period of modernity in France that many political, philosophical, and scientific ideas were born. Philanthropy is no exception. I have identified four main phases in this “conceptual history”.

In the first phase (1712-1789), the word philanthropy appeared in the modern French language and it is to the theologian, churchman and writer Fénelon that we owe it. In his essay Dialogue of the Dead (1712), he recreates a conversation between Socrates, Alcibiad and Timon of Athens and defines philanthropy as “a gentle, patient and selfless virtue, which bears evil without approving it”. From the Greek phileo (love, friendship) and anthropos (man, humanity), philanthropy is a virtue, a primary quality for encyclopedists and philosophers like Diderot and Voltaire, who consider that man is naturally good and society perfectible. While the word philanthropy was consensual in its early days, it was gradually becoming a secular alternative to Catholic charity. Philanthropy replaces the love of man as a creature of God with man’s love for man, without divine mediation. It is remarkable that philanthropy is one of the qualities required to become a Freemason in Ramsay’s Oration (1736), a founding text of Freemasonry. Inspired by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, the first philanthropic societies were created at the dawn of the 1789 Revolution to try to put them into practice.

In the second phase (1789-1814), I describe how philanthropy triumphed and became one of the keywords of the French Revolution, synonymous with patriotism. Contrary to popular belief, it is not philanthropy as such but charitable organizations, managed by the Catholic Church and congregations, that are targeted by policies of asset seizure and the abolition of intermediary bodies. Philanthropic ideals inspire several of the Convention’s public assistance measures to eradicate poverty, but they are abandoned due to lack of resources. It is only under Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign that a form of stability can be achieved before private philanthropic initiatives in France flourish in many fields: construction of decent housing and dispensaries, protection of orphans, distribution of food vouchers, vaccination against smallpox, campaigns to abolish slavery or the death penalty, etc. They were financed and led by the progressive and liberal elites of the time (doctors, industrialists, bankers, congressmen), with the aim of improving the situation of the most vulnerable in a concrete and lasting way. Philanthropy clearly stands out from traditional charity through the promotion of science, the search for autonomy for beneficiaries, and participation in public debate.

The third phase (1814-1848) was much more confrontational. Under the Restoration (1814-1830), royalists and conservative Catholics responded to the rise of philanthropy with a formal attack on its conceptual foundations and a rehabilitation of charity. As historian Catherine Duprat has documented, philanthropists are accused by conservatives of being vain, materialistic, cosmopolitan, and defending abstract ideals. For Chateaubriand, philanthropy “is nothing else but the Christian idea of charity overturned, renamed, and too often disfigured” (Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1841). With the July Monarchy (1830-1848), the era seemed more favorable to the development of philanthropy. But in the face of the emergence of the social question and the revolt of the working poor in several large cities, philanthropic initiatives seem insufficient and out of step with the scale of the social problems accompanying the first industrial revolution. Filous en troupe (“troop of crooks”) are mocked in Flaubert’s novels or in the gazettes for their naivety, mediocrity or careerism. From the 1840s onwards, philanthropy suffered a new attack, this time on its left: socialist thinkers considered it a hypocritical mask (Fourier), an obstacle to the voluntary emancipation of workers (Proudhon), or a way for the capitalist elite to make people forget the exploitation of workers (Engels).

In a fourth and final phase (1848-1914), despite regulatory encouragement during the Second Empire (1852-1870), philanthropy lost its importance and was challenged by a new concept that appeared in the Civil Code and was conceived as a principle of political and social organization: solidarity. Made famous by Léon Bourgeois’ book (1896), it represents a tacit contract between the members of a society who recognize their interdependence and the mutual debt that binds them. Unlike charity and philanthropy, which are part of individual morality, solidarity implies legal coercion. Seeking a third way between revolutionary socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, republican and radical leaders championed solidarity as a key concept of the Third Republic. Despite the French obsession against any form of “legal charity”, the republican state eventually passed the first social welfare laws: free medical assistance (1893), industrial accidents (1898), assistance to the elderly and the disabled (1905). Philanthropy and charity remain active on the ground but are relegated to the background.

What do these developments reveal about the concept of philanthropy today?

This conceptual history of philanthropy reveals several interesting things for current debates. First of all, it is striking to note that philanthropy has a rich history in France and that this history is inseparable from the treatment of the social question. While the poor were cared for by the Catholic Church and the congregations in the Ancien Régime, the republican state that emerged from the 1789 Revolution tried to establish a secular and progressive alternative by promoting the concept of philanthropy. While it was Fénelon, a theologian, who introduced it into the French language, it is clear that philanthropy was a rival concept to charity, creating intense quarrels during the Restoration. As the secularization of French society progressed during the 19th century, the rivalry between philanthropy and charity declined and it was finally the concept of solidarity that emerged, and with it the first measures of public assistance financed by taxes (and not by donations).

It would be very interesting to extend this work with a conceptual history of the renewal of philanthropy at the beginning of the 21st century. Neglected and old-fashioned with the rise of the French welfare state after 1945, the word philanthropy is reintroduced precisely when this welfare state is the subject of a multifaceted crisis. It should be possible to document how philanthropy’s renewal took place: which actors wanted it? To achieve which objectives? How did they do it? Who opposed it and why? There would certainly be data to be collected within the public administration, in parliamentary archives, in some major foundations, in think tanks, in the media... There is of course the influence of “philanthro-capitalism” and the ripple effect of Gates and Buffett’s Giving Pledge in 2010, but the American influence and globalization certainly do not explain everything. French-style philanthropy has grown remarkably fast in the last fifteen years or so. More visible in the public arena, more accepted by public opinion, philanthropy has also been encouraged by the French State thanks to several key laws (law on patronage, associations and foundations of 1 August 2003, law on the modernization of the economy of 4 August 2008) which have made its legal and fiscal framework more attractive. Far from being two opposing poles in the management of intérêt général (another concept whose genealogy should be seriously considered!), philanthropy and the State continue their common history, between encouragement and control, but with different relationships than in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite the renewal of the concept of philanthropy in France, contestation still exists and it resurfaces in the context of highly publicized events, such as the extraordinary wave of donations after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. Some arguments are akin to those used by socialist critics in the mid-19th century, such as the hypocrisy of the ultra-wealthy who become philanthropists to compensate for their predation in the business world. There are also new arguments around the issue of inequalities under democracy or the decrease of State funding for several public policies. For populists and nationalists, philanthropy is sometimes seen as an enemy of the people, an agent of influence from abroad, including the world’s financial elites. The most striking example lies outside of France: that of George Soros, who was severely ousted in Hungary by Viktor Orban. It will be interesting to see how the philanthropy sector and its advocates, for whom philanthropy is a source of pluralism and social innovation in open societies, will take into account and respond to these new challenges, in an uncertain context where ultimately all scenarios are possible.

Interview and translation by Anne Monier

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