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.


Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.


New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.


TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.


New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.


New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’


Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

Voltaire Foundation appoints Digital Research Fellow

I am delighted to announce my appointment as Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation for the academic year 2017-2018. This is the first Digital Humanities appointment in French at Oxford, and is made possible by the generosity of M. Julien Sevaux and the John Fell Fund. As Digital Research Fellow, I will oversee the creation of a pilot Digital Voltaire project, establishing a dataset that for the first time contains all of Voltaire’s works, including his correspondence, as well as undertake a series of computational experiments around the theme of ‘Visualising Voltaire’.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

As the monumental print edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire nears completion, the Voltaire Foundation is currently preparing the ground for Digital Voltaire, an interactive and innovative digital edition of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes. The pilot project we are embarking upon will thus bring together two key existing datasets: TOUT Voltaire, developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago; and Voltaire’s letters, drawn from Electronic Enlightenment. The combined dataset will include more than 20,000 individual documents and over 11 million words, making this one of, if not the largest single-author databases available for digital humanities research. This resource, together with a focused research project to scope and understand its potential uses and applications, will enable the Voltaire Foundation to begin to create a conceptual and infrastructural framework for a broader, transformational Digital Voltaire, for which fundraising efforts have already begun.

The Visualising Voltaire project will become part of the soon-to-be-created ‘Voltaire Lab’ – a virtual space for new research experimentation and dissemination centred on Voltaire’s textual output and its relationship to the broader field of eighteenth-century studies. By interrogating the ‘big data’ of Voltaire’s texts at both a macro- and microscopic level, we hope to shed new light on Voltaire’s use of intertextuality, his most commonly used themes and literary motifs, his intellectual networks, and his development as a thinker. This research project will further benefit from close existing ties with the ARTFL Project and the newly-established Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago, and with the Labex OBVIL (‘Observatoire de la vie littéraire’) based at the Sorbonne; centres for digital humanities research and development in French studies where much of this type of analysis has been pioneered.

Visualising Voltaire will include a number of literary experiments to test the scholarly and critical value of a combined digital archive of Voltaire’s texts. Following on from the work of Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, the project will investigate how we can apply distant reading approaches to this large corpus in order to discover new connections and patterns at scale, and, at the same time, how these new approaches can interact and intervene with our traditional close reading modes of analysis. To this end, we have identified two areas of research that we will pursue in 2017-2018, and that we hope will lead to further projects in the future.

Sequence alignment.

Sequence alignment in the intertextual edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes, Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Australian National University.

In the first instance, we will focus on Voltaire’s ‘intertextuality’ and how computational techniques such as sequence alignment – borrowed from the field of bio-informatics – can help us better understand the rich complexity of Voltaire’s writing practices. Indeed, one of the major research questions that has arisen from the preparation of the Complete Works of Voltaire concerns Voltaire’s unacknowledged use and reuse of other texts. This takes two forms: the widespread reuse (borrowing/theft/imitation) of works by other writers, and the equally widespread reuse of his own work. This is a huge subject that has never been satisfactorily studied until now.

In a second instance, the completion of the Complete Works of Voltaire on paper has also created the opportunity to provide an index to the whole of his writings, notably using automatic indexing and classification techniques developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to our ‘traditional’ indexes of the paper editions, which can be digitised and leveraged for computational analysis, we will also aim to generate ‘thematic maps’ of Voltaire’s works and correspondence using both supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms such as vector space analysis and topic modelling. These sorts of approaches will, we hope, open up Voltaire’s writings in wholly new and exciting ways, creating opportunities for high-profile public engagement activities such as hackathons, and generating new areas of investigation for potential doctoral research students.

Choix de Chansons.

From Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons, 1774 – subject of the ARC Discovery grant ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’.

And finally, beyond these specific research projects, my role as Digital Research Fellow will entail making and maintaining connections with digital humanities teams both locally and internationally, building on past and current relationships to generate new research initiatives moving forward. We are interested, for example, in establishing a better understanding of the importance of Voltaire’s Enlightenment network and its participation in the larger eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, questions that can be addressed in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Network Analysis at Stanford, and the Cultures of Knowledge project based in Oxford. The Voltaire Lab can thus become a venue for engaging with other complementary Oxford digital projects, such as the Newton Project, which will allow for broader access as well as further fundamental research. Newton is often seen as the key thinker who sets the agenda for Enlightenment scientific thinking – through his emphasis on empiricism and the experimental method – while Voltaire, the dominant intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, helps to popularise Newton’s scientific method across Europe. Voltaire’s role as a key critic and disseminator of ideas and texts is also an area of research to which digital approaches can bring much to bear, in particular by linking his correspondence to projects such as Western Sydney University’s French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment.

We are equally keen to investigate the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Voltaire’s work beyond the purely literary or even textual, and, more generally, of his role in the often-overlooked interplay of music, images, and text in eighteenth-century print culture. This is in fact the subject of our recently awarded Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, which brings together a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Australian National University, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and Oxford.

The above are just a few of the countless avenues of research opened up by digital approaches to Voltaire’s work and legacy, and to which many more will be added as the larger Digital Voltaire project takes shape over the next few years. As the newly appointed Digital Research Fellow at the VF, I very much look forward to keeping you all informed on the results of these experiments and of the project’s evolution in due course.

– Glenn Roe