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.


Greg Brown, new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

Un éditeur ‘est un homme de lettres qui veut bien prendre le soin de publier les ouvrages d’un autre’ [1]


Denis Diderot, in the Encyclopédie, defined the role of the editor in terms of the values of Enlightenment. It is, first, an act of care; an editor brings forth the works of others. At the same time, it is an act of humility and toleration; an editor must neither take the place of the authors by revising texts to reflect his own opinions nor distort authors’ distinct styles and ideas in pursuit of uniformity. Finally, it is an act of community; the editor must ensure consistency in different authors’ usage and placement of terms and must ensure that authors engage with other writers on the topic. Above all, for Diderot, the editor’s role is to put the best material possible before readers.

In assuming the general editorship of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, I am inspired and humbled to take on the challenge set forth by Diderot and incarnated for the past 60 years by the high editorial standards of the series long known as the Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century / SVEC. I aspire to retain and build upon those high standards, even as I am excited to guide forward its editorial evolution. I understand my role then as a duty to the authors, readers and editors of the series – past, current and future.

The Studies is a world-renowned series of rigorously peer-reviewed monographs, themed volumes, and collections of edited documents – published in both English and French. It is known as well for its breadth – ecumenical in spirit, cosmopolitan in make-up, and transdisciplinary in coverage. It presents the Enlightenment with French literature and thought at its heart but not its limit. It engages an Enlightenment not defined by any particular theme, nation, or subject but as an ongoing dialogue about culture. As General Editor, I look forward to working with an editorial board whose members span six nations on three continents and represent seven distinct academic disciplines. I intend to draw upon the breadth of this board to maintain this aspect of its identity; for the same reason, I intend to continue and deepen its close relationship with the International Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies and ISECS’s constituent national societies.

Diner de philosophes

Jean Huber, Un dîner de philosophes (1772/1773)

While I will be the first American to serve as General Editor and moreover the first not to be in residence in Great Britain since the establishment of the Foundation in 1976, I am no stranger to the British and European academic worlds. I will be the first historian but I am deeply engaged with and committed to study of littérature in all senses of the term. I have engaged across the past 20 years in many interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarly endeavors, and I am committed to being responsive, to board members, staff, authors, and readers, whether I am working from Las Vegas, Oxford or Paris.

Taking on the editorship of the Studies at this time represents a civic duty to advance the broader set of Enlightenment values. The horrific attacks of November 13, on the city of Paris including the boulevard Voltaire make clear that the values of Enlightenment and the work of Voltaire and his kindred spirits retain an undiminished urgency. While these events remind us that there is indeed evil in the world, and that optimism alone is an insufficient response, we also know that the “infamy” we seek to crush is not any particular doctrine, belief or creed; it is indifference and non-comprehension. We who devote ourselves to the scholarly study of the Enlightenment must maintain and continually renew our enterprise to better understand the full range of human experience, thought and belief.

– Gregory S. Brown

[1] Encyclopédie, article ‘Editeur’ (vol.5, p.396).


L’Autoédition: phénomène récent depuis le XVIIIe siècle


Saury, Des moyens que la saine médecine peut employer pour multiplier un sexe plutôt que l’autre (Paris, l’auteur, 1779)

L’automne dernier, les auteures à succès Arlette Cousture et Marie Laberge ont semé l’émoi dans la communauté du livre au Québec en décidant de tourner le dos à leurs éditeurs et de publier à leur compte, directement sur leur site internet personnel. Pour les libraires, il s’agissait ni plus ni moins qu’une véritable ‘trahison’ de la part de ces deux romancières.

Cette récente controverse ainsi que l’omniprésence des médias numériques qui chamboulent depuis quelques années les circuits habituels de l’édition nous amènent à nous questionner sur les rôles culturels, professionnels et commerciaux que jouent les auteurs, les éditeurs et les libraires dans la société. Si ce débat refait particulièrement surface alors qu’un nombre croissant d’auteurs s’autoéditent un peu partout dans le monde, il n’est pourtant pas nouveau!

Déjà en 1759, Malesherbes, alors Directeur de la librairie, déclare que, contrairement à la loi qui dicte alors que seuls les libraires ont le droit en France de vendre des livres, ‘Ce sont les auteurs, qui, suivant le droit naturel, devraient tirer tout le profit de leurs ouvrages, en ayant la faculté de les vendre eux-mêmes.’ D’ailleurs, comme le demande Arlette Cousture dans une entrevue accordée à Radio-Canada, pourquoi devrait-il être honteux pour un auteur de vouloir maximiser les revenus de l’écriture, de garder la mainmise sur l’édition et la diffusion de ses œuvres?

Felton-bookcoverAu XVIIIe siècle, dans la foulée du procès qui oppose la communauté des libraires de Paris et Luneau de Boisjermain, accusé de vendre ses propres livres en 1768, Diderot se demande également: ‘N’est-il pas bien étrange que j’aie travaillé trente ans pour les associés de l’Encyclopédie; que ma vie soit passée, qu’il leur reste deux millions, et que je n’aie pas un sol?’

Dans mon livre Maîtres de leurs ouvrages: l’édition à compte d’auteur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, on découvre que ce sont des centaines d’auteurs qui, déjà au siècle des lumières, ‘s’autoéditent’. Profitant particulièrement de la nouvelle loi qui permet aux auteurs de vendre leurs ouvrages en toute liberté dès 1777, un nombre jusqu’ici insoupçonné d’écrivains de toutes sortes publient à leurs dépens de façon à conserver les droits de leurs œuvres et de les vendre directement aux lecteurs, ‘À Paris, Chez l’Auteur’. Malgré tous les risques et les défis qu’une telle entreprise comporte alors, le jeu n’en valait-il pas la chandelle?

La Beaumelle title page

La Beaumelle, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Madame de Maintenon (Amsterdam, l’auteur, 1755).

Dans une lettre qu’il adresse à son frère, Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, qui édite quelques ouvrages à son compte, écrit: ‘Mon édition de Maintenon m’a endetté jusqu’aux oreilles; je n’ai pas le sou […] mais si Maintenon réussit, je ne serai point mal. […] Vous me grondez d’avoir fait imprimer à mes dépens: jusqu’ici je m’en suis bien trouvé, & qui m’auroit payé mon manuscrit? on ne m’en auroit pas donné 400 L.’

–Marie-Claude Felton