Two Years On: the State of the Studies, by the General Editor

The arrival of the New Year of 2018 marks two years since I began as General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. The past two years have been rather dramatic ones for the nations in which most of our readers and authors live, in ways in which the study of the literature and culture of the eighteenth century might seem to be either irrelevant or utopian. The cosmopolitan and rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment has been all too scarce among our leaders.

From a liberal perspective, the events of the past two years have provided an unending series of coups de théâtre. We have seen major political peripeteia in the UK and the US, with parallel subplots of unexpected reversals of fortune in Italy, Germany and Austria. Where the political plot has not been tragic it might best be characterised as ‘labyrinthine confusion’, most notably in Spain – with nothing less than full-on farce in Russia.

With even Canada offering something of a political romance, and French politics staging a one-man show based on a mythopoetic hero’s journey, the past two years have been experienced by many academics – especially humanists – as Sturm und Drang. The sense of dread has ranged from visa and residency issues for international students and scholars in the US and UK (to put it bluntly, in the case of the US, the exclusion of visiting scholars and the prospect of mass expulsion of students) to existential threats to the institutions from their own governments at the Central European University in Budapest and the European University in St Petersburg.

Beyond politics and academia the gothic has been all too evident. Just as in my original post I noted the spectre of terrorism haunting Paris, violence inflicted on otherwise unsuspecting audiences has been a leitmotif of the past two years, with particularly horrific incidents in Orlando (site of the upcoming ASECS conference) and less than a mile from my home campus in Las Vegas.

And all of this of course is only to think of the wealthiest and most economically developed parts of the globe. In such a moment, the Enlightenment might seem to have lost all relevance.

Yet those who might maintain that ‘the Enlightenment’ has no historical meaning and offers little to no value as an area of scholarly inquiry have not been reading the pages of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Since I became General Editor, we have published 24 books counting our most recent volume, and many of these have directly addressed many of the circumstances framing today’s events.

Our authors have explored issues of European politics such as how print media impacted reading practices and the formation of public opinion across Europe; the political uses of satire on stage and in image; transnational correspondence networks; the experiences of continental Europeans residing in England; and the continental influences on English populist and radical discourse.

Through study of literature and thought, our authors have delved into the foundations of contemporary European culture by studying the essential tensions within and boundaries around human nature and collective identity. We have published books on such topics as English aesthetic conceptions and appropriations of the Far East; the interplay between rationalism and belief among Orthodox Christians; and the same interplay among Maurist Benedictine Catholics. We have published on the tension between national and cosmopolitan culture at the Russian court; the tension between indigenous and colonial societies in North America; that between sexes and races in conceptions of the family in Scottish thought; and also on human conceptions of the sentiments of animals. Our authors have written on gender and science; and on the physics of the body.

Our books have also shown the contemporary relevance of classical Enlightenment topics, notably in the highly original works on the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns; Holbach; Rousseau and publicity; and Rousseau on stage. And we have continued to find original interpretations of Voltaire!

Thanks to the hard work of many, beginning with the Voltaire Foundation director Nicholas Cronk, the Studies are positioned to go forward in the coming years to explore and reiterate the relevance of the Enlightenment while also questioning the cogency of it as a category of historical analysis. Our new strategic partnership with Liverpool University Press will give our books wide exposure and distribution and will help achieve the VF’s longstanding goal of creating an electronic library of the Studies backlist. Thanks as well go to the many readers who participated in our first-ever survey on scholarly reading practices, the results of which we are analyzing and plan to publish in the coming year.

Thanks to our internationally prominent editorial board we have a rich and broad network of authors, which will see us publish in the coming two years our first volumes on Digital Humanities in the Enlightenment; major works on penal law and on human rights theory in the Enlightenment; several works on political theory and social change; and works on the reciprocal and dynamic relationship between various forms of religious belief (or disbelief) and Enlightenment culture. We will in the coming years see an enhanced breadth to our books, as numerous works in the editorial pipeline address the Enlightenment as a global topic: on cultural, intellectual, political and economic encounters between western Europe and eastern Europe, central Asia, south Asia, Persia, New Spain and beyond. We have multiple books in preparation or under consideration as well on nature and the environment, and several more drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks to provide original views on gender identity and power relations.

Now more than ever the Enlightenment matters – and now more than ever we are seeing that scholarship on the Enlightenment is vibrant and has a dynamic home at the Voltaire Foundation and in the Studies.

– Gregory S. Brown

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Globalising knowledge in the eighteenth century: the Linnaean story

Iter Hispanicum

A copy of Linnaeus’s student Pehr Löfling’s posthumously published work Iter Hispanicum that once belonged to the prominent Spanish-Colombian botanist José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) (Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia, F. Mutis 2996).

One of the most familiar chapters in the history of early modern science is the birth, expansion and global deployment of Linnaean natural history from the 1730s onwards. It is a compelling story that begins with a gifted and determined young man of obscure background who became obsessed with botany and, eventually, the classification of all living things. At a time of epistemological crisis caused by the rapidly growing mass of information in Europe about plants and animals across the world, it was Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who succeeded in establishing a universal system of classification. He also prescribed procedures and methods for observing, describing, collecting, transporting and displaying specimens, and for scientific travel, the teaching of future naturalists and ways of organising botanical gardens. In this narrative Linnaeus was the princeps botanicorum, the ‘Prince of Botanists’, whose ideas – initially resisted – soon conquered Europe and the world. To this day the publication of his global flora Species Plantarum in 1753, in which Linnaeus launched his new binary names for plants (and later animals), is considered to be the beginning of the history of modern botanical nomenclature.

While there are some unique elements in this story, it is also very familiar in more ways than one. It conforms to a narrative and explanatory model that, for a long time, shaped much scholarship on the history of science – be it early modern, modern or contemporary – and that is sometimes labelled as the ‘diffusionist model’: one associated with the notion of ‘the great men of science’. It is a view of science, or of intellectual history more generally, marked by a belief in the importance of individual, inventive minds in the creation of new ideas that spread outwards to the four corners of the world. More specifically, in this (Western) historiographical tradition, Europe has tended to be the birthplace of ‘great ideas’ of ‘great men’, illuminating the world’s dark peripheries.

Dutch naturalist Laurens Theodorus Gronovius

Dutch naturalist Laurens Theodorus Gronovius (1730–1777) and his two sons surrounded by natural history objects in a portrait by Isaac Lodewijk la Fargue van Nieuwland from 1775 (Lakenhal Museum, Leiden/Wikimedia Commons).

This view has been radically challenged over the last few decades by a revival in history of science research, where the perspective is instead one of emphasising the circulation of knowledge as a collaborative, multidirectional process in which people, objects, practices and ideas are constantly on the move, or, as James Secord has put it, ‘in transit’.[1] The field of Linnaean natural history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a prime example of this, since it provides an extraordinarily fertile ground for exploring how knowledge is constantly (re)produced and (re)negotiated through travel and interaction in local and national contexts that spanned, and often connected, the globe.

Our edited book Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledge sets out to globalise our understanding of Linnaean science. ‘Globalising’ should be understood here in a broad sense as a process that encompasses several different dimensions. Firstly, Linnaean natural history was a collective and collaborative enterprise and not the work of one man; in other words we need to de-centre Linnaeus himself from his traditional role as ‘the great man of science’. Secondly, Linnaean science was not merely a set of ideas and abstract principles, since it largely consisted of and was shaped by materiality and practices. And thirdly, ideas as well as practices were continually renegotiated in spatially diverse contexts that were both local and global.

This means that Linnaean science became the vehicle for a wide range of objectives – colonial and national as well as individual – and it was also a means of communication, a reason to make contact with others, a system for organising knowledge and much more. Therefore studying Carl Linnaeus himself as well as his works, his students, his readers and his legacy is ultimately a way of understanding the increasingly global circulation of knowledge that marked the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. For example, this circulation can be traced by investigating the collaborative dimension of ‘doing’ natural history. Notes on loose paper slips, and questions raised and answered in footnotes of new editions of books, tell stories about everyday taxonomic toil and delayed dialogues between naturalists working in different countries. Local and economic histories help cast further light on receptions of, resistance to, and survival of Linnaean taxonomy in north-west Europe. Marked-up prices for collections with a Linnaean provenance rendered them worth conserving – consequently they survived to become reference material in the ongoing exploration of nature. Intellectual histories and biographies offer other means of understanding change and movement. In this book we use Carl Linnaeus as a label and a starting-point from which we have traced the journeys of ideas, objects and individuals across the globe.

– Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg and Stéphane Van Damme

[1] James Secord, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis, 95:4 (2004), p.654-72.

Cross-European perspectives on the Enlightenment: academic events at the Voltaire Foundation in early 2018

Avi Lifschitz is the new Academic Programme Director at the Voltaire Foundation. In his first Vf blogpost, he surveys some of the events scheduled over the second and third terms of 2017/18.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

The main aim of our academic programme in early 2018 is to develop comparative and original views on eighteenth-century European culture in a series of events. Enlightenment – in the singular or plural, preceded by a definite article or left indefinite – has long been treated as a largely Franco-British affair, extending from Newton and Locke to the French philosophes and their acolytes. The Enlightenment Workshop, Oxford’s interdisciplinary research seminar on eighteenth-century culture, seeks to challenge this view by examining Enlightenment phenomena all the way from St Petersburg to London via Austria, Prussia, and further afield in Europe. In 2018 the Workshop will take place at the Voltaire Foundation in both Hilary and Trinity Terms. Its speakers come from a variety of academic institutions: as well as showcasing eighteenth-century research conducted here at Oxford and elsewhere in the UK, we are delighted to host speakers from Hungary, Germany, California and the American East Coast.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

While Paul Slack (Linacre College, Oxford) discusses the complex interrelations between seventeenth-century British ideas of socio-economic Improvement and an eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Shiru Lim (UCL) analyses the concept of philosophical kingship by juxtaposing the philosophes’ relationships with Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia. Thematically and methodologically too, the Workshop aims to explore the Enlightenment from a variety of approaches. Elisabeth Décultot (Halle) asks whether we can still use the term ‘Enlightenment’ – and with which controversies and semantic fields we engage when we do so.[1] The theological implications of natural catastrophes, explored by László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest), are followed by a paper focusing on street-lighting in eighteenth-century Paris and its wider significance, to be presented by Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth College).

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

German Enlightenment controversies on art and religion are explored by Katherine Harloe (Reading) and Paul Kerry (Brigham Young University), whereas Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) turns her gaze to more radical thinkers in an overview of French materialism from Diderot to the Revolution. The famous Parisian salons of the Enlightenment are examined from a fresh perspective by Chloe Edmondson (Stanford University); such venues would not have been hospitable to the subject of Adam Sutcliffe’s (King’s College London) paper, Moses Mendelssohn, who is widely regarded as having launched the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah).

The Enlightenment Workshop concludes on 17 May 2018 with an interdisciplinary discussion of new work on gender in different Enlightenment cultures, published in Anthony La Vopa’s recent book The Labor of the Mind (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).  La Vopa will reply to comments on his book by colleagues from several Oxford faculties: Katherine Ibbett (French), Joanna Innes (History), Karen O’Brien (Head of the Humanities Division; English), and Ritchie Robertson (German).

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

This session is not, however, the only reference to the significance of gender for research on Enlightenment Europe in our programme: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Münster), author of a new biography of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, touches upon this issue (among others) in her discussion of the empress and the Catholic Enlightenment. Her lecture on 26 February 2018 concludes a study day dedicated to recent research across Europe, conducted on the occasion of Maria Theresa’s 2017 tercentenary. The study day, convened by Tobias Heinrich, also includes papers by William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford), Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna). The speakers all aim to provide new perspectives on the empress, who has hitherto been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Frederick II and Catherine II (who are discussed earlier in the Enlightenment Workshop).

The main purpose of these events is to bring together graduate students, staff members, and visiting researchers from various faculties in Oxford, as well as guests from outside the University. This interdisciplinary dialogue might lead, we hope, to the creation of an Oxford salon for the discussion and exchange of invigorating ideas on Enlightenment culture – where there is no need for personal invitations or letters of introduction. All are welcome to attend the Enlightenment Workshop at the Voltaire Foundation, 99 Banbury Road, on Mondays at 5:00 p.m. (Hilary Term) and Thursdays at the same time (Trinity Term).

– Avi Lifschitz

[1] For some of Décultot’s views on Enlightenment historiography, see this recent discussion of the German Enlightenment.

Edinburgh – cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment – hosts ISECS 2019… don’t miss out!

Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle.

Last summer’s ISECS Executive Committee meeting and conference left its mark on me. It took place in Edinburgh – also the location of the next ISECS Congress in 2019 – and I was both overwhelmed and impressed by the vibrancy of the city and the thoroughness of the preparations for the 2019 Congress. So admittedly, this blog is my direct appeal to all eighteenth-century scholars to mark the 2019 Congress, which takes place from 14th to 19th July 2019, as a ‘must attend’ in their conference diary. Held every four years and bringing together over 1,000 researchers from all disciplines related to eighteenth-century studies, ISECS congresses are ideal opportunities for scholars to present their latest work, establish new collaborative networks, and, of course, discover great places.

The Voltaire Foundation’s links to ISECS (and indeed Scotland) run deep. Both the VF and ISECS were the brainchild of Theodore Besterman, and the second ISECS Congress was held in St Andrews, just up the road from Edinburgh. Indeed, it was at that very meeting that the idea for the Complete Works of Voltaire (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire) was hatched, and where Besterman established its first editorial committee, headed by William Barber (University of Oxford). Now, over 50 years on, we look forward to celebrating the completion of the project – over 200 volumes in total – at the 2019 Congress.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

Organised by BSECS (British Society for eighteenth-century studies) and hosted by the University of Edinburgh, putting on such a large-scale meeting is no mean feat! Preparations for Edinburgh 2019 were a key topic of discussion at this year’s Executive Committee meeting. From facilities planning (where to run umpteen parallel sessions, making sure that locations are accessible and near each other for possible session-hopping? … what about refreshments?…), establishing the academic programme, organising the early career scholar bursary scheme, to planning an enticing variety of cultural events, I can honestly say that Brycchan Carey and his team have everything covered.

For ‘newbies’ to Edinburgh, consider the city as a place of two halves. To the north of Princes Street, the main thoroughfare, lies New Town, which was built in the late eighteenth century and still boasts fine Georgian houses. To the south is the Old Town, location of the University of Edinburgh and the Congress itself. Edinburgh is compact, and the main tourist sights such as the Castle, the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse are all within easy walking distance.

Edinburgh New Town.

Edinburgh New Town.

So, if you only read one section of this blog, this is why I think ISECS 2019 is a ‘must-attend’ … where else will you be inspired by such a diverse range of papers addressing the central – and pertinent– theme of ‘Enlightenment identities’? What better opportunity to make new connections with early career and established scholars from around the world? What better time to meet publishers face-to-face, discuss your future projects and browse the wealth of books and resources available?

…And some practical tips!

  • bring good sturdy shoes: Edinburgh is ‘undulating’, and your feet are your best means of transport.
  • consider staying in one of the quieter areas of South Side or St Leonard’s (still only a 10-15 minute walk from the University).
  • plan to dress like an onion, i.e. in layers… there’s a reason why the parks are green….
  • don’t limit yourself to the Old Town… walk over to New Town at dusk and admire the sumptuous neo-classical architecture whilst the sun sets over the Firth of Forth in the distance.
  • for refuelling, the Mosque Kitchen is a local gem, tasty, cheap, eat-in or take-out food and right next to the University.

– Lyn Roberts