Alessandro Duranti on his edited volume, Rethinking Politeness with Henri Bergson

Interview with Q

The following dialogue is a transcript of an interview by a member of our staff (who will remain anonymous) with Alessandro Duranti, editor of Rethinking Politeness with Henri Bergson, (Oxford University Press, 2022), a collection of chapters inspired by a lecture on politeness given by the famous French philosopher Henri Bergson to high school students in the late nineteenth century.   

Q:        Why “politeness” again? And why this time with Bergson? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Politeness was a theme that captured the imagination of linguists in the 1970s but has been somehow forgotten over the // last couple of decades … 

Q:        Speaking of forgetting, I’m sorry. I forgot to introduce you.  

Alessandro Duranti:    Don’t worry, I assumed this would be informal. 

Q:        Not really. It’s an interview after all. If you are familiar with Conversation Analysis… 

Alessandro Duranti:    Well, then, I should have thanked you for inviting me. 

Q:        Did I? 

Alessandro Duranti:    You mean I invited myself?   

Q:        It’s okay. I don’t mind people being a bit pushy. After all, writing a book is a big deal. 

Alessandro Duranti:    True. 

Q:        Even though actually … you didn’t really write the book, you edited it, didn’t you?  

Alessandro Duranti:    uh, I- I- yes, I edited it, // but- 

Q:        That’s what I thought. 

Alessandro Duranti:    I- I also wrote a chapter and the introduction.  

Q:        Ok, then please go ahead and again apologies for going straight into the first question without formalities. I should have been more polite.  

Alessandro Duranti:    Well, that’s one way of being polite, which Bergson called “politeness of manners.”  

Q:        You mean there is more than one kind of politeness? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Yes, according to Bergson there are three kinds.  

Q:        Not surprisingly. The French seem to like sets of three.  Liberté, fraternité, egalité.  

Alessandro Duranti:    That was actually Bergson’s point.  

Q:        What? 

Alessandro Duranti:    That his three kinds of politeness match the three key concepts of the French Republic.  

Q:        Is that what attracted you to the essay? This kind of parallelism? 

Alessandro Duranti:    No. I’m not sure the parallelism works. What attracted me to Bergson’s lecture was // that- 

Q:        By the way, is the lecture included in the volume? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Yes! It is translated for the first time in English.  

Q:        That’s a coup.  Did you translate it? 

Alessandro Duranti:    No, no. I was fortunate to find a really good translator who happens to be an expert on Bergson and his times, Mahalia Gayle. She contributed a chapter on the aristocratic origins of the modern French notion of politesse, which she calls “political” because it is still grounded in privilege and inequality.   

Q:        So the book is mostly about French politeness? 

Alessandro Duranti:    No, only in part. Let’s see. There is a chapter by Aliyah Morgenstern about how French girls in Parisian middle-class families are currently socialized to be polite and another one by Graham Jones based on a popular comic strip by a Franco-Syrian artist who gives vocal and gestural expression to two Black teenagers discussing in the métro their moral outrage toward the lack of politeness shown by their school principal.  

Q:        You mean readers will also find something about impoliteness in the book …  

Alessandro Duranti:    For sure.  In another chapter, Terra Edwards writes about her experience hanging out with DeafBlind people who have developed a tactile system of communication that when applied in the presence of sighted people can easily appear impolite or aggressive.   

Q:        You mean there’s more in the book than the usual face-to-face communication … 

Alessandro Duranti:    Indeed, we have hand-to-hand, hand-to-neck, and more.  

Q:        Fascinating. Well, thank you so much. 

Alessandro Duranti:    Are we already done? Aren’t you going to ask me if there is anything about politeness and gender? 

Q:        Should I? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Well, as I was trying to say at the beginning before I was interrupted … 

Q:        I’m sure our readers will appreciate the polite use of the passive voice to avoid blaming me directly for interrupting you.  

Alessandro Duranti:    You are still using the term “polite” in a very narrow way.  

Q:        I’m open to other possibilities.  

Alessandro Duranti:    As I was trying to say, the linguistic study of politeness started in the 1970s. Robin Lakoff was a pioneer in the field … 

Q:        You mean the “women-are-more-polite-than-men” craze later debunked by the work of Elinor Ochs in Madagascar and Candy Goodwin in Philadelphia? 

Alessandro Duranti:    As a matter of fact, Judith Irvine wrote a chapter on the difficulty of adapting a model developed in one society to another. Bergson was speaking about politeness to male students in an elite high school in Paris …   

Q:        Is this a renewed rejection of the idea that there are universals of politeness? Are we going to read again about counterexamples to the Brown and Levinson model, based on Grice’s maxims and Goffman’s notion of “face work”? 

Alessandro Duranti:    No, there is very little about that. What all essays share is the willingness to rethink about politeness without having to go back to the strategic perspective of earlier accounts.    

Q:        How is that possible? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Because Bergson was a proto-phenomenologist who celebrated intuition and the temporal unfolding of human experience.  He even lectured about the soul.  

Q:        Can you give us a hint about how his view of politeness is different? 

Alessandro Duranti:    He invites us to go beyond manners and protocol and think of politeness as virtue, an idea discussed by Kamala Russell, who wrote about everyday life of Muslim women in Dhofar, Oman.  She shows that what might be glossed as polite behavior in the context of welcoming an unexpected visitor, it is better understood as the result of a spiritual and embodied disposition to avoid an excessive concern for judgment of others and assume instead a concern for one’s soul.  

Q:        An embodied disposition. That’s different from a strategy. 

Alessandro Duranti:    Definitely.  

Q:        It sounds like the politeness discussed in this volume includes ethics and religion.  

Alessandro Duranti:    Yes, it does.   Ethics is in fact the focus of Jason Throop’s chapter, where he retraces the professional and personal relation between Bergson and William James.  They shared the view of experience as a moving stream of activity and applied it to a notion of a creative morality. 

Q:        How does language come into this? 

Alessandro Duranti:    That needs to be figured out because Bergson was skeptical of the ability of language to capture the flow of experience.  As Bill Hanks discusses in his chapter, Bergson thought of language as a static and constraining classificatory system.   

Q:        That’s quite common for most philosophers. 

Alessandro Duranti:    Hanks reminds us that Bergson didn’t seem to know about indexicality and that deictics – words like I, you, here, now, this, and so on – do something different from representing ideas.  They extend the use of language to the sensual perception of the here-and-now, allowing for meanings that exceed the boundaries of pre-given semantic categories.  

Q:        That makes sense. Uhm. Well, thank you.  You have covered quite a lot.

Alessandro Duranti:    Wait. Aren’t you going to ask me if we have anything on new media? 

Q:        Anything on computer-mediated interaction?  

Alessandro Duranti:    I am glad you asked.  Keith Murphy came to the 2019 AAA session where most of the papers were first presented and got inspired to write about the implicit model of politeness that computer programmers adopt in writing software.   

Q:        And what is that? 

Alessandro Duranti:    The computer is meant to serve users who are used to being served. It is a hierarchical relationship mediated by a narrow kind of politeness.  Bergson wanted the students to think beyond polite formulas. He spoke of sympathy towards others and introduced the concepts of “politeness of mind” and “politeness of the heart” …  

Q:        That sounds very romantic.  

Alessandro Duranti:    I would say empathetic and anticipatory of the needs of another human being.   

Q:        That sounds different from what we are used to.  

Alessandro Duranti:    Precisely! Politeness is often defined in terms of rights and obligations or compensating for indirect speech acts like “May I have the salt?” 

Q:        A famously threatening act. 

Alessandro Duranti:    Scarier than one would think.  

Q:        Do you mind if we end now?   

Alessandro Duranti:    I hope I didn’t impose.  

Q:        It wasn’t bad.  

Alessandro Duranti:    I enjoyed it. 

Q:        Really? 

Alessandro Duranti:    Kind of.  

Q:        C’mon. 

Alessandro Duranti:    Ok, it was fun.  

Q:        What kind of politeness is that? 

Alessandro Duranti:    You have to read the book.