In this passage from his essay ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’, David Hume identifies the ‘spirit of the age’ as one of sociability. Men, and women, meet in polite and easy company and together they create a revolution in manners and thinking. Crucially, they need one another: men can educate and elevate female understanding, women can refine and make more polite the behaviour of men.1 Although Hume’s is the more famous, Henry Fielding’s essay ‘On Conversation’, published in his Miscellanies (1743), makes broadly similar points: ‘Man is generally represented as an Animal formed for and delighted in Society’ (DeMaria 1996, 825). Similarly, if more briefly, Samuel Johnson referred to his own period as a ‘clubbable’ age (1775). Clubs, societies, coteries, conversational circles, literary groups, salons, coffee houses — all of these are ideas and spaces we associate with the eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century literature also associated these ideas with its own culture. While other cultures and histories have just as good a claim on many of these terms, it is the eighteenth century that presents these ideas as its own dominant self-image. The very term ‘sociability’ was coined by natural law theorists in the early eighteenth century as a response to the sense that ‘society’ existed outside of the state. This is the foundation on which Habermas builds his theory of an eighteenth-century public sphere.
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