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  • Public Knowledge, Natural Philosophy, and the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters
  • Sarah Irving (bio)

On a frozen morning in January 1773, the members of the American Philosophical Society assembled in Philadelphia for an oration delivered by a Scottish-born Church of England clergyman, Rev. William Smith. Having immigrated to New York two decades earlier, Smith taught natural philosophy and logic at the Academy of Philadelphia. That morning, Smith pointed out what he viewed as one of the great virtues of the Republic of Letters. The "mixing of Men of different Parties and Persuasions in one grand Pursuit" would enable each man's personal prejudices to be "worn off" (Oration 8). Moreover, "those Labors, that might otherwise run contrary to each other are brought to center in one Point for the public Good" (9). In other words, in the Republic of Letters, the pursuit of knowledge would maintain good social order because men's personal "parties," "persuasions," and "prejudices" are left at home. Smith's rhetoric was not just republican, and his point was not just political. He was also making an epistemological claim about the nature of public knowledge. Upon entering the Republic of Letters, one leaves one's subjectivity behind. The fortuitous result is knowledge that is simultaneously credible and conducive to civil peace.

There is a burgeoning scholarly literature on the Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century America, and indeed the Atlantic world. Originally inspired as a critical response to the 1989 translation of Jurgen Habermas's Structural Translation of the Public Sphere, this literature has made important critiques of Habermas's thesis, including challenging his notion of a singular public sphere with that of a plurality of competing counterpublics, as Michael Warner, Anna Brickhouse, and others have, and questioning the dominance of print culture by demonstrating the importance of the performative politics of oratory and rhetoric, as Sandra Gustafson and Jay [End Page 67] Fliegelman have done. Other significant contributions have shown the importance of issues of gender (Dillon), religion (Searle), a private, affective sphere of friendship (Parrish), and codes of sociability (Goldgar).

This article suggests a further dimension to this field by illuminating the role of natural philosophy in shaping the conception of public knowledge in, and the discursive practices of, the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters. I argue that Smith and his colleagues' concern to ensure that personal beliefs were removed from public debate was primarily shaped by their participation in a long-running discussion in natural philosophy concerning how reliable natural knowledge was produced. This debate focused on whether trustworthy natural knowledge depended on having credible, gentlemanly informers, or by contrast, whether it was produced in a realm that removed personal subjectivity from the business of natural philosophy. This epistemological concern, as much as the culture of republicanism, I argue, shaped the belief that participating in the Republic of Letters required keeping one's "parties, persuasions, and prejudices" to oneself.

I explore the persona of the public citizen and that of the scientific observer in the eighteenth century, showing that the processes through which men entered the Republic of Letters, leaving what Smith called their "Parties and Persuasions . . . [and] Prejudices" at home (Oration 8), was intimately connected to their construction of themselves as objective scientists, leaving their subjectivity out of their scientific endeavors. Before discussng this debate, I examine natural philosophy's role in shaping the intellectual landscape of the Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century America. I begin with the publications of the American Philosophical Society and other eighteenth-century societies, and show that their members used a natural philosophical vocabulary of the purpose and usefulness of knowledge to help shape the unofficial rules of conduct and the practices of public discussion.

The Purposes of Knowledge

For William Smith, putting knowledge to good use required transcending the boundaries of nation and religion, a project to which his own life was testament. Smith was born in 1727 in Scotland, where he was educated at the University of Aberdeen before moving to America to join the Long Island household of Josiah Martin, as a teacher. In 1753, Smith wrote a tract [End Page 68] on education entitled A General Idea of the College of Mirania...


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