Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).


Digitizing Raynal (and Diderot): New Digital Editions of the Histoire des deux Indes

A collaborative digital research project

On the heels of Cecil Courtney and Jenny Mander’s recent publication, Raynal’s ‘Histoire des deux Indes’ colonialism, networks and global exchange (OSE, 2015), I am pleased to announce a new international research project aimed at further exploring Raynal’s monumental work and its impact on Enlightenment thought. Thanks to the generous support of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota, the Centre for Digital Humanities Research at the Australian National University, Stanford University Libraries, and The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago, we have recently completed the digitization and text encoding (in TEI-XML) of the three primary editions of the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes. These editions – the first edition of 1770, the second of 1774, and the 1780 third edition – were those that Raynal himself oversaw during his lifetime.

Our digital editions are based on high quality PDFs provided by the BNF’s Gallica online library (1770 and 1780 editions) and the Bodleian’s Oxford Google Books Project (1774 edition). A preliminary search interface has been built using the ARTFL Project’s PhiloLogic software and can be accessed here: Raynal search form. Users can query one or all of the above editions, which represent the first publicly available full-text digital edition(s) of the Histoire des deux Indes. In the coming months we will release a new version of the database running on ARTFL’s state-of-the-art PhiloLogic4 system, along with a preliminary ‘intertextual interface’ that will aim to incorporate the text of the three separate editions into one reading interface.


Title page and frontispiece of the 1780 edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (Gallica).

Diderot, Hornoy, and the 1780 edition

What is perhaps most exciting about these new digital resources is the inclusion of a unique 1780 edition of the Histoire des deux Indes recently made available by the BNF. Acquired at public auction in March 2015, this particular edition had been conserved since the late 18th century in the private library of Alexandre Marie Dompierre d’Hornoy (1742-1828). A lawyer at the Parlement de Paris and great-nephew of Voltaire – he in fact inherited Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s infamous nude statue of Voltaire upon his great-uncle’s death – Hornoy corresponded with many of the philosophes, Diderot included. His copy of the Histoire contains pencil marks in the margins of some passages, an unremarkable fact, perhaps, were it not for a note written by Hornoy just above a three-page insert at the beginning of the first tome. The handwritten tables included in the insert list all the sections marked in pencil over the four volumes of text: ‘mourceaux qui sont de M. Diderot’, Hornoy writes, ‘marqués en crayon par Mme de Vandeul’. Madame de Vandeul was, of course, Diderot’s daughter.


Handwritten insert of the 1780 edition (Gallica)

The existence of such an annotated volume of the Histoire was posited in the 19th century, notably by Joseph Marie Quérard in his Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (5 vols., 1845-1856). Quérard claimed that there supposedly existed a copy of the 1780 edition on which Diderot himself had marked in pencil all the passages that belonged to him [1]. According to Quérard, this copy became the property of Madame de Vandeul shortly after Diderot’s death. Whether or not the copy acquired by the BNF is the same as that owned by Vandeul we cannot say for sure, but Herbert Dieckmann, in his inventory of the ‘fonds Vandeul’, also mentions the hypothetical existence of a copy of the in-4o edition (e.g. 1780) that was purportedly annotated by hand, but that had since been lost [2].

Some preliminary experiments

While consensus as to the validity of Hornoy’s assertion that the marked sections are in fact those authored by Diderot will most likely take years to accrue, we can begin, using the new digital edition, to ask some basic questions as to the authorship claims indicated in the text. Thanks to extensive markup in TEI-XML notation, sections purportedly belonging to Diderot are clearly indicated, and perhaps more importantly, can be extracted as one test corpus. Using some basic statistical measures drawn from authorship attribution studies, or Stylometry, we can begin to think about how the ‘Diderot’ sections may, or may not, differ stylistically – i.e. in terms of comparative word usage over the most common words, an established metric of ‘authorship’ in stylometry and forensic linguistics – from the rest of the text.


Page from 1780 edition with ‘Diderot’ section marked in pencil (Gallica)

Working with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle (Australia), and in particular with their Intelligent Archive software for stylistic and statistical text analysis, we extracted the top 200 words for each ‘author’ (e.g. those drawn from sections putatively by Diderot, and the remaining ‘Raynal’ sections). As a result, we were left with 4 ‘Diderot’ tomes (containing all of the text marked in pencil) and 4 ‘Raynal’ tomes (containing the remainder), representing their unique word lists over the entire edition. For a first preliminary test, we ran a cluster analysis on the 8 tomes to see if they would cluster together or separately:


Cluster analysis of ‘Diderot’ tomes vs. ‘Raynal’ tomes, based on top 200 word lists

Cluster analysis works by separating (or clustering) the most similar texts first and the most distinct last, in this case into 2 branches. A division like the one above, clearly separated into two distinct ‘trees’ is a very clear indication that the texts in each of the two branches are highly likely to be those of two different authors.

Principal component analysis (PCA) provides another method of examining our corpora. PCA is a procedure for identifying a smaller number of uncorrelated variables, called ‘principal components’, from a large set of data. The goal of PCA is to explain the maximum amount of variance with the fewest number of principal components. In our case, it is a technique that allows for the first two principal components of our two sets of texts, i.e. their word variance, to be plotted on a bi-axial or two-dimensional graph. One of these plots (using the 100 most frequent words of the full text) with both text corpora divided into 10,000 word blocks, is shown below.


Principal component analysis using 10,000 word blocks and 100 most frequent words

The disparity in size of our two test corpora meant that while there were 68 text sections for Raynal (in green), there were only 14 for Diderot (in blue). Nonetheless, the separation between the two authorial sets is almost complete, with just two of the Diderot sections located in the outer fringes of the Raynal set. Since the word variables underlying this plot were the 100 most frequent words of the whole text, this is a convincing stylistic division, one that suggests a strong distinction in terms of authorship signal between the two sets.

In order to account for the size discrepancy between the two corpora, we ran another PCA test but this time we increased the number of Diderot sections by segmenting his text into 5,000 word blocks and running these against the previous Raynal 10,000-word sections. This plot is shown below:


Principal component analysis on 5,000 word blocks (Diderot) and Raynal, using 100 most frequent words

Here we see the same sort of authorial/stylistic separation as we saw above, but this time (with the Diderot sections halved in size) the distinction is even stronger, as there is only one section located within the Raynal set of entries, indicating an even greater likelihood that the sections marked in pencil were written by a different author than the rest of the 1780 edition.

These are obviously very rudimentary experiments, but they nonetheless indicate several promising future avenues of exploration. Moving forward, we intend to apply a full suite of computational and stylistic approaches to the 1780 edition and its predecessors, including sequence alignment tools developed by ARTFL, text collation software, and the MEDITE system developed by the labex OBVIL at the Sorbonne for computational genetic criticism. All of these approaches will allow us to explore the textual evolution of the Histoire from 1770 to 1780 in an unprecedented manner, as well as its relationship to other Enlightenment texts and text collections such as Electronic Enlightenment, TOUT Voltaire, and the Encyclopédie.

– Glenn Roe

*I would especially like to thank Alexis Antonia and the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Newcastle for their generous help with the above stylistic analyses.

[1] See Michèle Duchet, Diderot et l’Histoire des deux Indes ou l’écriture fragmentaire, Paris, Nizet, 1978, p. 22.

[2] Herbert Dieckmann, Inventaire du fonds Vandeul et inédits de Diderot, Genève, Droz, 1951.

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

To find out more about Diderot, please visit our dedicated page.