Longing for Consolation Emotive failure and changing affective niches for late nineteenth century French materialists.

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The aim of this thesis is to understand the workings and meaning of consolation for late nineteenth century 'Libres Penseurs' - the community of positivist, materialist, anticlerical thinkers that dominated public debate in the French Third Republic. It argues that these thinkers experienced emotive failure as they tried to dismiss Catholic consolation, but continued to experience its lack. Furthermore, it shows that in their attempt to resolve this emotive failure, some of these thinkers started to rely on scientific experiment as an affective niche affording a secular experience of consolation. This thesis is devided in three chapters. The first chapter contrasts materialist and catholic arguments about consolation. It shows how consolation became highly controversial as materialists argued that it was both useless – since science would soon bring an end to human suffering - and harmful – since it pacified sufferers instead of activating them to fight for better living conditions. The second chapter sheds light on materialist writings that are expressive of a certain longing for consolation. Following a biocultural understanding of human experience, this thesis does not explain this longing away as the result of a natural human need for consolation, but argues that these materialists longed specifically for catholic forms of consolation, and that they did so because they were still attuned to Catholic environments that afforded Catholic consolations. It accounts for this on the basis of an enactive framework for the understanding of experience, that sees experience not merely as constructed by discourse, but as emerging from the reciprocal engagement of an actor with other aspects of their environment, such as objects, sounds, or other persons. Despite their firm beliefs in a materialist world, materialists continued, by virtue of their attunement to Catholic affective niches, to long for the Catholic experience of consolation that was no longer rationally tenable to them. Drawing on and expanding William Reddy’s theory of the emotive, this chapter shows that this conflict led them to experience emotive failure: many did no longer allow themselves to feel consoled by religion, but did not succeed to completely give up on it either. In response to this emotive failure, some materialists chose to readjust to the Catholic affective niches they had known from their youth. They converted back to Catholicism to feel the related consolations once again. Others, however, tried to develop new forms of secular consolation, by developing new affective niches. This second strategy forms the subject of the last chapter of this thesis. The secular forms of consolation developed by materialist thinkers were based on the idea of the eternal circulation of matter, and on the idea of the progress of science. In the last part of this thesis, it is argued that to some materialists, scientific experiments, as demonstrations of the power of the mind over matter holding the promise of a future end to all human suffering, became affective niches affording secular consolations.
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