Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.

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