In: Shaping the Profession
Tiziana Faitini
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Hannah Arendt, in her 1958 essay on the human condition, judged it urgent to deplore the “theoretical glorification of labour.”1 Sixty years later, however, it is instead the “theoretical glorification of profession” which has gained momentum. The knowledge economy and neoliberal rationality – the nouvelle raison du monde, as it has been called2 – emphasise the value of a free, innovative, intellectual occupation, usually referred to as a “profession.” And, at least in the eyes of important sectors of western society, the “profession” has become the quintessential occupation. The “professional,” with their high standards of professional conduct, has become a crucial figure, often, indeed, presented as a model for individual self-development, in spheres of existence which extend far beyond the limited circle of the specific types of (traditional and liberal) occupations. But how and when did this figure arise? And what has led professional activity to become such an essential part of our personal, social, moral, economic, and political life?

In an attempt to address these questions, this book will look at professionalism as an experience, that is – to recast the definition of the latter notion given by Michel Foucault in his genealogical studies on sexuality – as the correlation “of fields of knowledge, types of normativity and forms of subjectivity.”3 Taking this approach, it will investigate the conditions under which professional activity has been the object of a wide problematisation, involving different fields of knowledge (including law, philosophy, sociology and theology), specific norms (legal and ethical), and a distinct way of conceiving one’s own identity, behaviour, duties, and abilities (the skilled professional, acting with professionalism). Rather than contributing directly to the history of the professions and professionals in modern and contemporary times, a genealogy of professionalism thus understood is a historical investigation of the valorisation – at a moral, legal, social, economic, and epistemological level – which appears to have shaped the “professional” as a specific form of existence.

The professional has, in fact, become the linchpin of multiple discourses and studies, undermining that figure of the “worker” which was so central to the debates of the twentieth century. That century – as chapter 1 will make clear – witnessed a growing discussion in the sociology and history of the professions. Professional values and duties are now themselves minutely scrutinised. Not only has professional ethics been consolidated as a field of academic research entirely geared toward shaping professional conduct and moralising behaviours, it is also a legal source of normativity. However, a comprehensive historical inquiry into the discourse of professional ethics as such (in different professional areas), and the historical conditions of possibility of both this discourse and the very figure of the “professional,” is still lacking.

Starting to fill this gap is precisely the goal that this book hopes to achieve. Drawing on a rich corpus of philosophical, juridical, and theological Western European sources, from Ancient Rome onwards, it undertakes a historical inquiry into the concept of the “profession” and the discourse of professional ethics, aimed at questioning the multifaceted valorisation of professional activities in contemporary European society. Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – and particularly the first – will provide most of the sources and examples discussed throughout the book in its longue durée journey.4

An extended time scale means, inevitably, approximation and selection. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote about a Chinese emperor who commissioned a perfect map of his empire: the result was wonderfully detailed and totally accurate, but was the same size as the empire itself, becoming as vast as it was useless. This paradoxical outcome wittily reminds us that a map – to be of any use – must inevitably be reduced, simplified, and even deformed. Similarly, descriptive and partial maps are all that genealogical research aims to produce. Following again in Foucault’s steps, from this perspective intelligibility in history lies more in the study of “the constitution or composition of effects” than in the search for a cause.5 And a critical inquiry does not focus on the universal a priori of reality or its knowledge, but plunges into purely historical and empirical conditions to show that reality, its knowledge, and its apparatuses, are “no less and no more than possible. An unnecessary intelligible.”6

Of course, when exploring a complex question over two millennia, establishing precise and deterministic causalities is not an option. Providing one of the possible, and incomplete, descriptions of the intricate network of relationships and interactions which exist in actual historical reality is the most one can hope to do. A partial map that enables intelligibility is the only possible outcome, established by pointing to a few incidents of conceptual shifts and crystallisations, the reciprocal reinforcement of ideas, the close intertwining of juridical, religious, and economic notions, and the dialectics between theorisation and practice. Accordingly, some of those relations of mutual attraction and reinforcement between religious, political, economic, and cultural forms that Max Weber, echoing Goethe, called “elective affinities” can be traced.7

Weber will be a – sometimes present, sometimes unseen – conversational partner throughout these pages, and not just because of their deployment of his methodological insights. When talking about the “profession” and the valorisation of occupations, it would be unthinkable not to enter into dialogue with Erfurt’s renowned sociologist and philosopher. His interpretation of the Protestant elaboration of the Beruf – that is, the idea that a worldly, economic-acquisitive, activity is intrinsically also a calling or vocation – plays an eminent, and well-recognised, role in explaining both the contemporary experience of professionalism and our economic rationality. However, this eminence should not delude us into underestimating the significance of the part played by the Latin perspective on professio in the achievement of the same ends.

This perspective can usefully orchestrate a contrapuntal dialogue within the texture of Weber’s reading of modern rationalisation, stressing the political implications of this experience, which remained unexpressed within the aforesaid texture. The present volume has, in fact, been conceived as, and the sources and contexts been selected in view of, an exploration of the “Latin history” of the concept and practice of the “profession.” Long before it came to indicate, in contemporary society, the type of occupation analysed by the sociology of the professions, or, indeed, before it found itself being equated with the Protestant and Weberian Beruf, the “profession” was something very different. Entwining semasiology and onomasiology,8 this book will show that “profession” emerged as a concept in the semantic field of citizenship and inclusion. Only much later did it enter the semantic field of economic-acquisitive activity and occupation.

Remote as it may seem, this fact will be shown to have considerable significance as we endeavour to identify a cornerstone of European social and political rationality, that is, the crucial nexus between occupation and socio-political inclusion which eventually led to work-democracies and their social conceptualisation of citizenship.9 Prominent scholars – Ulrich Beck,10 André Gorz,11 Robert Castel,12 Bruno Trentin,13 Alain Supiot,14 and Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly,15 among others – have provided us with penetrating sociological, philosophical, legal and historical insights into this nexus, which now faces the unprecedented challenges posed by the radical transformations occurring within an increasingly precarious and automated global labour market. Others, meanwhile, have posited (or queried) the necessity, and pondered the costs, of removing this nexus, imagining a post-work society in which political bonds are no longer forged through productive work.16

The investigation carried out in the following chapters will frequently go in directions that put considerable distance between it and today’s popular understanding of the profession, and will often touch only fleetingly upon the wider subject of occupations that these studies, from different viewpoints, tackle. And yet, it implicitly shares many of their concerns about the future of our work-democracies, and the possibility of a society in which socially organised work would not remain the highest moral duty, nor full citizenship be achieved only through a productive, Western- and gender-biased, way of existing. Crucial as they are, these aspects fall beyond the explicit scope of this book. Nevertheless, further, gender-sensitive and postcolonial, genealogical research on them – and on women’s experience of professionalism, first and foremost – is much needed.

Chapter 1 will outline the object of inquiry, in an attempt to define the discourse of professional ethics as such. It will provide a brief overview of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century discourse on professional ethics and professionalism, a necessary task since only partial accounts of this field – and of its history – exist in the literature. This overview will show that the aforesaid discourse maintains a strong connection with the idea of work as the grand intégrateur, and with the paradigm that grounds socio-political inclusion in a person’s occupation and economic activity. In so doing, it will build a case for an in-depth analysis of the concept of “profession,” which will be undertaken in subsequent chapters, following a thematic, rather than a strictly chronological, order.

Chapter 2 will explore the Latin lexicon, and practice, of the profession. It will consider both the various layers of meaning of the target word itself (the verb profiteor and the noun professio) and the different words or phrases – work (opus), occupation (artificium), and skill/liberal art (ars and ars liberalis), among others – related to the modern meaning of profession as a (mainly intellectual and liberal) activity. Moral, medical, and juridical sources will be examined to claim that no direct correspondence between ancient and modern languages, and valorisations, can be immediately established. Although the use of professio to denote the exercise and teaching of an art long predates the late Middle Ages, the semantic field of “profession” must be firmly distinguished from that of the “liberal arts” with which it has frequently been equated.

Chapter 3 will focus on the precise juridical meaning of professio as the census, which entailed declaring one’s property and the correlated possession of Roman citizenship. The various reinterpretations of this Roman institution, which was introduced into Christian thought by the exegesis of the passage on the universal census ordered by Augustus in Luke’s Gospel, will then be taken into account. Reading legal and theological sources from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, this analysis will identify the act of including and positioning the worthy within an established order – earthly or otherworldly, and to some extent salvific – as a recurring feature of the professio.

Chapter 4 will tackle the semantic field of “professional duty.” It will explore the polysemic concept of officium (variously translatable as “duty,” “office,” “service,” or “function”) from late antiquity to the early modern period, investigating its connections with the concepts of status (“status,” “state,” “estate” or “condition”)17 and professio, and its relation to the Protestant concept of Beruf (“profession” or “vocation”) studied by Weber. Different Latin and (mainly) Italian sources will be discussed, and particular attention will be paid to the early modern ecclesiastical theorisation of the “state of life.” The chapter will suggest that the re-elaboration of the concept of the officium paves the way for the very concept of “professional duty” itself, and, indeed, for the modern conception (and practice) of professional activity as implying specific duties and having ethical value. It will also argue that the implications of this re-elaboration (and its corresponding translation into practice and the institutions) are far-reaching and touch on European economic and socio-political rationality in a very wide-ranging way. A semantic field is defined, in which a close link between socio-political position, the carrying out of an economic/professional activity, and the fulfilment of a moral and legal duty is established.

Chapter 5 will trace an outline of the activity of the professors or doctors at late medieval universities. Drawing some examples from the Italian doctrinal and practical contexts, it will shed light on the politico-juridical and economic dimensions of the medieval learned professions, and the concerns that those working in these areas voiced about their professional duties. The inclusion of intellectual occupations in the contractual and remunerated sphere was tantamount to the gradual subtraction of these occupations from the dimension of a (passively assumed) position, and their categorisation as (actively carried out) actions. The analysis will reveal the valorisation of the active and economic import of these occupations to be another element which has made the development of a set of ethical norms for professional activities possible.

Chapter 6 will discuss the minor literature on professionalism and professional ethics produced between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which was explicitly intended to shape the professional life of doctors, lawyers, and an ever widening range of figures. The debate on the “profession” and the promotion of a morally informed practice will be outlined, in order to enable a brief discussion of the pivotal role that the occupation eventually took in establishing a person’s “social and civil status” and identity. In these texts, the “profession” is (still) held to offer a sense of belonging and a position within a – political, social, and professional – body and order. Yet, whereas previously someone’s occupation had just been one form (minor and derivative) of a “state of life” forged within a religious and ecclesiastical context, it will now be shown to be singled out as the status and the profession by definition.

This study of (some aspects of) the concept and practice of the “profession” over the very long term attempts neither to identify a consistent, unbroken thread, nor to attribute undue importance to etymology. Instead, as I will endeavour to highlight, it reveals some conditions of possibility which, between semantic slippages and breaks, have given rise to the contemporary experience of professionalism. The hope, too, is that it might help us to assess the impact of the major changes that professionalism is undergoing today – thus, perhaps, opening up conditions of (other) possibilities.


H. Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, [1958] 1998), 4.


P. Dardot and C. Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, trans. G. Elliot (London: Verso Books, [2009] 2014).


M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. R. Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, [1984] 1985), 4.


On the long-term perspective, D. Armitage and J. Guldi, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).


M. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, ed. M. Senellart, trans. G. Burchell (London: Palgrave, 2007), 8 March 1978, 315. On the genealogical approach, see also M. Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971), in The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1991), 76-100.


Fonds Foucault, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (NAF 28730, boîte 92, chemise 20, 16.01.1979). I thank Arianna Sforzini for having shared this unpublished text with me. Even more clearly, as Foucault noted in his diary a few words before: “Thinking about reality ‘as if it were possible,’ as a possibility, not so much as among other possibilities; but in itself, and only, as possible. These are the ‘conditions of possibility’.” Foucault’s “historical a priori,” evidently inspired, together with the notion of “condition of possibility,” by Kant’s philosophy, previously appeared in M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock, [1966] 1970). For a definition of “apparatus,” or “dispositif,” see M. Foucault, “Le jeu de Michel Foucault: Entretien avec D. Colas, A. Grosrichard, G. Le Gaufey, J. Livi, G. Miller, J. Miller, J.-A. Miller, C, Millot, G. Wajeman” (1977), in M. Foucault, Dits et écrits, vol. 3, ed. D. Defert (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), text no. 206.


Weber does not explicitly define his reinterpretation of the traditional, Goethian, concept of “elective affinity” (Wahlverwandtschaft) and, in translating this word in Weber’s texts in 1930, Parsons usually adopted a generic “relation” or “correlation:” see, e.g., M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons (New York: Routledge, [1905] 2005), 88. As observed by M. Löwy, “Le concept d’affinité élective chez Max Weber,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 127, no. 3 (2004): 100, an elective affinity might be understood as a process where two cultural, economic, religious, intellectual, or political forms, which have certain analogies or intimate kinships, enter into a relationship of reciprocal attraction and influence, of convergence, and mutual reinforcement.


As suggested by R. Koselleck, “Introduction and Prefaces to the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” trans. M. Richter, Contributions to the History of Concepts 6, no. 1 (2011): 1-37.


T.H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship and Social Development (Westport: Greenwood Press, [1964] 1973). As noticed by the author in describing the social conception of citizenship, not only “today all workers are citizens” but we have also “come to expect that all citizens should be workers” (211).


U. Beck, The Brave New World of Work, trans. P. Camiller (Cambridge: Polity, [1999] 2000).


A. Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, trans. G. Handyside and C. Turner (London and New York: Verso, [1988] 1989), and A. Gorz, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, trans. C. Turner (Cambridge: Polity, [1997] 1999).


R. Castel, Les métamorphoses de la question sociale: Une chronique du salariat (Paris: Fayard, 1995), and R. Castel, La montée des incertitudes: Travail, protections, statut de l’individu (Paris: Seuil, 2009).


B. Trentin, La città del lavoro: Sinistra e crisi del fordismo, ed. I. Ariemma (Firenze: Firenze University Press, [1997] 2014). Following in his argument, see the historical and theoretical discussion made by G. Mari, Libertà nel lavoro: La sfida della rivoluzione digitale (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2019).


A. Supiot, ed., Au delà de l’emploi, 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 2016), and A. Supiot, Governance by Numbers: The Making of a Legal Model of Allegiance, trans. S. Brown (Oxford and Portland, OR: Bloomsbury Publishing, [2015] 2017).


C. Lis and H. Soly, Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012). Stemming from this book, see also J. Ehmer, “Attitudes to Work, Class Structures, and Social Change: A Review of Recent Historical Studies,” International Review of Social History 59, no. 1 (2014): 99-117, and the “Debate Articles” on Lis and Soly’s book in Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis: The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 11, no. 1 (2014): 141-152, collecting insightful contributions from different fields of expertise.


See, among others, P. van Parijs, Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); K. Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011); S. Mezzadra and B. Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013); A. Cukier, “De la centralité politique du travail: les apports du féminisme matérialiste,” Cahiers du Genre 3, no. 4 (2016): 151-73; J.A. Chamberlain, Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); and the recent, critical, overviews proposed by K. Breen and J.-P. Deranty, “Whither Work? The Politics and Ethics of Contemporary Work,” in The Politics and Ethics of Contemporary Work: Whither Work?, ed. K. Breen and J.-P. Deranty (New York: Routledge, 2022), 1-15, and J.-P. Deranty, “Post-Work Society as an Oxymoron: Why We Cannot, and Should Not, Wish Work Away,” European Journal of Social Theory 25 no. 3 (2022): 422-439.


While mainly translating this stratified concept as “status,” I will use the more usual phrase “state of life” and “duty of state” with reference to the theological and canonical elaboration on the status vitae (see §3.5, and §4.1, n. 1). Evidently, however, no sharp distinction can be drawn, and the full semantic range of the term should be kept in mind in reading sources.

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