The phenomenon of the ‘amateur’

The September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières, studies the phenomenon of amateurship in several disciplines and cultural backgrounds. It aims to articulate sociological, rhetorical and poetical perspectives, as the term ‘amateur’ is considered to refer to a social type or role, to a discursive figure and to a creator at the same time. In this blog post, Enrico Mattioda explores how the very definition of the word amateur sparked confusion, controversy, and clashes throughout the 18th century.

The amateur has been the subject of new interest in recent years, not only in the German sphere, where attention to this theme has never been lacking, but also in France, thanks in part to Charlotte Guichard’s studies in the discipline of fine arts. The eighteen essays included in the present volume, edited by Justine de Reyniès and Bénédicte Peslier Peralez, are the result of contributions made by distinguished experts in the field, and all offer a vision of the phenomenon in Europe as never seen before. The book does not claim to solve all the problems related to the amateur; rather, its importance lies in its ability both to challenge the notion itself and to offer different arguments and perspectives.

L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is the September 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The investigation of the figure of the amateur is not limited to the classical fields of the arts and sciences. Instead, a vision of the concept of amateur is expanded, extended into other human activities ranging from literature to journalism, from sociabilité to coups d’œil, and continuing into the subject of women who express themselves in music or literary judgements.

The impetus to extend the concept of amateur to other human activities may perhaps be located in the limitations to be found in Alexander Rosenbaum’s book, Der Amateur als Künstler, published in 2010. From a personal point of view, I do not agree with Rosenbaum’s anti-historical approach, which seeks to define amateurs starting from the Italian Renaissance and trivializes the concept of sprezzatura developed by Baldessar Castiglione. It should be remembered that in the 15th and 16th centuries, the distinction between professional and amateur was not recognized in Italy: it was only in 1620, when the Accademia di San Luca in Rome received permission from Pope Urban VIII to establish who was an art professor and who was not, that the distinction between the fields began to be defined. Historical dictionaries indicate that the first attestation of the word ‘amateur’ was seen from 1682 onwards; my own research pushes the date to 1660, but certainly not any earlier.

These considerations lead us to a more general problem. For too long it has been claimed that there are synonymous terms to define the phenomenon within the various European countries; instead, we must accept the fact that these terms are false linguistic friends and do not cover the same semantic field. Confusion already reigned in the 18th century: the entry amateur in the Encyclopédie linked the French word to the Italian word ‘virtuoso’; Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de musique stated, instead, that the French word is a translation of the Italian word ‘dilettante’. These are two very different concepts, and neither of them grasped the great semantic difference imposed in France with the creation of the amateurs honoraires within the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, wherein these amateurs honoraires came to establish the taste in the artistic field and to dominate the art market. In 1757 the Encyclopédie initiated a violent backlash, which then continued with direct clashes between Caylus and Diderot and with a series of art dictionaries published by the amateurs.

This controversy surrounding the definition was immediately acknowledged in Germany, where we first see the use of ‘Dilettant’ starting in 1759. The term held negative connotations in all fields except music, where the Italian word was used to mark a clear distinction with respect to the previous ‘Liebhaber’. From the French controversy, the critique of amateurism developed in Germany. The new negative concept of the dilettante was established. No longer was it the amateur who limited himself to the knowledge of an art-form or who presented himself in private and non-profit spheres; it was now the bourgeois amateur who worked in an art-form and presented himself in public without knowing the rules of the art itself and without precise know-how. While we can find a fundamental document in the notes written by Goethe and Schiller in 1799 for an article that was never finished, entitled Über den Dilettantismus, in France the controversy had already come to a close in 1788 with the publication of Amateur, an entry by Claude-Henry Watelet for the Encyclopédie Pancoucke. Here Watelet proposed two alternative solutions: to open the category of amateurs to the female world and to sociabilité, or, in the opposite direction, to withdraw from society and ensconce oneself in a utopia of solitary refuge in classical values. The following year, the French Revolution would bring an end to the amateur Ancien Régime.

The strongest merit to be found in L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is in the volume’s drawing of attention to this cultural and social phenomenon – one which was fundamental to the culture of the eighteenth century – through its presentation of the different achievements of the amateur and its suggestions of updated readings of the various fields of knowledge and social sciences.

– Enrico Mattioda, Université de Turin

Enrico Mattioda is a contributor to the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Digitization of the Enlightenment and Manifold Scholarship

Last month, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment released the first volume in the long history of the series that is devoted to the application of digital humanities methods to the study of eighteenth-century intellectual life, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein. To accompany this important and innovative book, we are pleased to be releasing our first-ever digital companion to an OUSE book through the Manifold Scholarship platform.

The digital companion site to Networks of Enlightenment 1 is hosted on the Liverpool University Press Digital Collaboration Hub, constructed on the Manifold Scholarship publishing platform. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, Manifold Scholarship is described as “the intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing you’ve been waiting for”. In their own words, the platform allows “for a much more expansive archive of primary sources, such as field notes, moving images, audio, interactive data and maps, photographs, interviews, and archival material” and “asks that an author think creatively about the broad set of materials that are collected in the process of researching and writing a book”.2 Liverpool University Press is participating in Manifold’s pilot program – this companion site is a pilot for the OUSE series as well.

The book at the center of this pilot for OUSENetworks of Enlightenment, focuses on the use of metadata to identify and represent social networks, such as those formed by correspondences, by academy affiliations or by the words in a text. As part of this work several contributors to the volume, using data visualization tools developed at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, created 40 data visualizations to demonstrate the structure and density of these network relationships. The visualizations are, in fact, crucial to understanding the arguments presented in this book.

Yet these figures, principally due to their complexity as images, can only be approximately reproduced in the medium of the print book; Manifold allows these figures to be rendered as they ought to be – online, in high-resolution and in full color. This supplemental platform thus opens up the possibilities when it comes to publishing digital humanities scholarship, in this volume and in the future. We hope in the coming years to continue this utilization of Manifold to offer our authors, and readers, scholarship that is innovative in method, in findings and in its format.

We are launching this companion site on July 16th, during the XVth International Congress on the Enlightenment which is being held during the same week in Edinburgh, Scotland, under the auspices of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Today’s digital-focused day consists of the Voltaire Foundation-sponsored day-long workshop “Digitizing Enlightenment IV”, and will culminate in McEwan Hall at the formal launch (and drinks reception) for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, the digital collection which will make available the entirety of the OUSE/SVEC backlist by the end of 2020. Both events will be an exploration (and a celebration) of the efforts already made thus far to consider how scholarship can be enhanced by digital methods, now and in the future.

– Gregory S. Brown (General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, and Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Nicole Batten (doctoral student, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

1 The site, it is important to note, is not a full-text digital edition. The text consists of the full text of the book’s Introduction and Table of Contents, and brief summaries of the nine body chapters of the book.

2 We would like to thank in particular Terence Smyre, Digital Projects Editor of University of Minnesota Press for his help in the assembly of this site. The assembly of the site also had support from the College of Liberal Arts at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which provided support for our time on this project.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

A Year in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

As LUP continues to celebrate its 120-year anniversary, this month we are focusing on the eighteenth century and the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in partnership with one of our Partner Presses, the Voltaire Foundation.

On 1st August 2018, LUP officially joined together with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford to publish the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. The series is international in focus and covers wide-ranging aspects of the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment, from gender studies to political theory, and from economics to visual arts and music, and is published in English or French. Now, nearing one year into the partnership, we’re looking back over the past 12 months in the series and the breadth of scholarship that it has published.

From the first volume under the new partnership, Denys Van Renen’s Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 to the most recent volume, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe by David McCallam, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volumes published in the last year have covered topics as wide-ranging as correspondence networks and social network analysis, Beccaria’s criminal law and d’Argenson’s politics, and philosophical skepticism and narratives of religious faith. Our latest volume sees David McCallam consider the explosive history of volcanoes, drawing on a rich variety of multi-lingual primary sources and the latest critical thinking, to illustrate how the volcano is not only transnational but also transdisciplinary, a fitting subject for a series which aims to be interdisciplinary and global in its reach.

The near future will also see us welcome into the series books on Catherine the Great’s letter-writing as image-makingthe Enlightenment concept of the ‘amateur’, and the omnipresence of Rome as a paradigm in John V’s Portugalamongst many others. After such a successful and invigorating year of publishing, we look forward to many more months and volumes to come, expanding the series into even more thematic and geographical areas.

As part of the collaboration, LUP have developed a new digital collection Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINEa unique resource for research in the Enlightenment that sees the series’ backlist made available digitally for the first time. Now, one year into the partnership, we’re celebrating the launch of the digital collection with a drinks reception during the upcoming International Congress on the Enlightenment at McEwan Hall, Tuesday 16th July at 7:30pm. If you’re attending the conference, we’d love to see as many of you at the reception as possible, and please do stop by the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press stand and say hello during the week!

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This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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, 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.

The age of lightness

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.

Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français, edited by Isabelle Tremblay, is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640-1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665-1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.

Portrait of Madame de Genlis by Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art).

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)

References

[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640-1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34-55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triomphant 1660-1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615-56 (629).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’ [1]

Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753), by François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard.

The French natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’ [2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better than, the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption, which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practice, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s in terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018).

The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in Western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one – but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.) http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/, vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th-century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.