When we see a man for the first time, we observe his features, we search them for his soul. If his face has any charm or beauty at all, even if it is only distinguished by some singularity or other, we study it carefully, attempting to grasp the impressions that cross it, and to tease out those that habitually do so. There is no one whose character we cannot guess at least a little from the first sight of a face, enough that we may draw some conclusion, favorable or not, about it. Soon, the impression made by a person’s physiognomy is enhanced, altered or undone by their movements, manners, words, or by whether their words agree or not with their actions. If in the eyes, which betray the soul, or the voice, which modulates it, the physiognomy, which tells of its habits, and the manners which reveal them, we think we find a character, or the signs of some quality that particularly interest us – either because they are like ours, or because they are amongst those we most highly approve of, or because together they strike us as extraordinary and engaging – then a feeling of benevolence rises in us towards the person who seems thus gifted. We feel drawn to him, we enjoy thinking about him, and the interest we feel intensifies our observations, and increases their accuracy. Sometimes, yet, this first impression is so strong as to confuse us, and it takes over our capacity to observe. In lively souls, the effect of such an impression is to give rise to prejudices that blind them, rendering them incapable of right and sometimes even reasonable judgment.--Sophie de Grouchy, Letters on Sympathy, Translated by Sandrine Berges (forthcoming),* Letter 3 (see here for a French version).
In context of this section of the Letters, De Grouchy is discussing (among other things) the problem of tragedy which exercised many philosophers in the eighteenth century (see Dadlez's very useful introduction). In the quoted passage, De Grouchy adopts the first person plural perspective. It is not entirely clear who is included in this 'we.' As the title of this post suggests, I want to suggest that De Grouchy is articulating something like the (hetero-)female gaze.
In the first sentence of the Letters, De Grouchy speaks in her own authorial-persona voice (first person singular): It seems to me that man [L'homme] has no more interesting object of meditation than himself. If the sentence is read sarcastically (and feministically), (such that L'homme is not 'mankind' but MAN) then she accuses (intellectual type of) men of a species of narcissism. (The sentence has an implied addressee, 'C'--generally thought to be Cabanis, De Grouchy's brother-in-law and a famous physician, and so one wonders how he took it.) If the sentence is read straight up (and a generic claim about mankind) she shows her anti-theistic hand (which shows up throughout the Letters), in which our study is rightfully oriented toward man (not God) and this life (not the afterlife).
The first person plural voice is introduced in the second sentence of the Letters: Is there, indeed, a more fulfilling and pleasant way to pass the time than to turn one’s soul onto itself, study its operations, trace its movements; to employ our faculties to observe and puzzle each other out and to seek out and understand the fleeting and secret laws that guide our intelligence and our sensibility. Here the first person plural seems to be describing a generic experience common to all of us.** Now, this enterprise of self-knowledge, which is about the discovery of hidden laws of (human) nature, includes non trivially (in an age when women are not assumed to be philosophers) women.
During most of the Letters, the first person plural describes such generic common experience and it is pretty irrelevant if this experience is gendered or not. But, it's not too much of a stretch to say that in the quoted passage articulates a version of what we may call (pretentiously and essentializing -- with all the problems this entails) the female gaze. In fact, she describes what's it like to be infatuated ("this first impression is so strong as to confuse us, and it takes over our capacity to observe.") As she puts it in the next paragraph (from the quoted above): When we see in a man the promise of qualities that please us, we feel drawn to him.
I don't mean to belittle the passage by calling it the female gaze (or to suggest that according to De Grouchy only women have the female gaze.) De Grouchy's text leads the reader to see an analogy between infatuation of a pretty man and being under the sway of a demagogue (a topic that becomes central later in Letter 4, recall here). For, a few pages before she had already had introduced her political interest in the attraction of public spectacles, "which leads the crowds to gather constantly around scaffolds, and to witness there sometimes, in all their horrors, tortures which, nearly always, bring them to tears? The human heart is, in some ways, drawn to what moves and stirs it."
Now, I don't mean to suggest that De Grouchy is the first to articulate the female gaze from within. (I am not an expert on such matters, but I suspect we need to go back to at least Sappho.) But she is notable for articulating the female gaze within a clearly philosophical treatise that itself is not aimed at belittling women's experience.*** (Again, I am not claiming she is the first to do so, but I do welcome learning of other, earlier instances!)
While De Grouchy is clear that there are potential bad consequences of the female gaze, she does not dwell on them. Rather, she goes on to treat the infatuation stage as a path toward moral education into necessary friendship+ and its good political consequences (her main topic):
This is because once alert to the possibility of those qualities, we long for all the rewards we implicitly associate with them. Thus, a necessary effect of the most basic and the least reflective kind of self-love is that we love those whose opinion conforms with ours and who thereby raise in our own eyes the value we attach to our own judgment, and reassure us that we are not mistaken. Similarly those who recommend themselves to us by their virtue, their humanity and their charity interest us either because their memory brings help and support to our plans or projects, or because the very idea of the good they have done or might yet do renews in us the emotion usually produced by the sight or anticipation of public happiness, or the relief of private unhappiness.
This leads her to deviate strongly from Hume and Smith and offer a positive account of enthusiasm+ (about which another time more). Contrary to first appearances, perhaps, De Grouchy does not assume that infatuation will always lead to the moralized and humane friendship. Her larger argument requires the existence of proper institutions that make possible the proper cultivation of our feelings both in us qua excitable individuals as well as in us as qua members of a would be mob (who enjoy the frisson of political action and delusion).
*This post is written in celebration of my lunch partner, today, Sandrine Berges, who is producing a translation and commentary on De Grouchy's Letters (with some modest assistance by me).
**As an aside, De Grouchy treats abstract ideas as havinga s their content such generic claims. [This matters for he rmoral theory.]
***In the context of romantic love (where the first person plura denotes both sexes), she writes, "We tend to give beautiful people’s words, manners, feelings, deeds more weight, simply because they are more delightful: we love them naturally ...This power of granting us happiness at each instant, of drawing, engaging, binding, filling our senses completely, if only by arousing them, has a greater empire on the whole of mankind than either the pleasures of friendship or the charms found in the company of virtuous men.
+"If this person is often near us, if our enthusiasm intensifies the happiness he derives from our friendship, as well as the happiness we may derive from it, then the pleasure we have in loving him grows. And when we have felt this pleasure often enough that our sensibility feels its attraction and comes to need it, the person who is the source of it becomes dearer to us, and what we feel for him becomes a necessary part of our existence."