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Journal of the History of Ideas 65.2 (2004) 251-276

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British Geography's Republic of Letters:

Mapping an Imagined Community, 1600-1800

University of Bristol

Introduction: Geographies of the Republic of Letters

One of the main ways in which scholars molded their self image in early modern Europe was as citizens of the "republic of letters." At the level of professed ideals the concept of the republic of letters was simple: scholars would create an egalitarian world amongst themselves, where views could be expressed without the rancor of national, religious, historical, or other barriers to their exchanges. Recent studies have highlighted the impressive degree to which eighteenth-century scientists ignored war and xenophobia to exchange ideas, thereby enacting the cosmopolitan ideal of a republic of letters.1 Yet the details of this ideal have been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, in part because there were many versions of scholarly cosmopolitanism,2 but more importantly because the reality of the republic of letters was in most instances at some distance from the ideal.3 There have been debates about the chronology of the rise and fall of the republic of letters, Miller seeing it as having risen to prominence in the later sixteenth century but in terminal decline by 1720. By contrast Goldgar shifts the era of the republic of letters to 1660-1750, and most recently Brockliss has argued for the essentially healthy state of the republic of [End Page 251] letters into the era of the French Revolution.4 Such chronological debates have themselves been prompted by a major disagreement over the relationship between the republic of letters and the Enlightenment of the philosophes: was the former a mere token of the ancien régime which was destroyed by an incipiently radical Enlightenment,5 or was the ideal of egalitarian cosmopolitanism which the republic of letters championed the seedbed for such radicalism, thereby making Enlightenment philosophes a subset of the republic of letters rather than their successors?6

Clearly, debates about the meaning of the republic of letters have been sparked by its status as a quasi-political republican body and the extent to which this was mere terminology or was a real spur to new forms of political association. Yet the notion of a republic also presupposes a geography: a polis, fictive or real, needs a territorial scope over which it holds sway. Concerning the geography of the republic of letters, recent scholarship has been both more consensual and less critically acute. A number of scholars have documented the extent to which the republic's cosmopolitan ideals were undermined by national antagonisms and religious schisms.7 Furthermore, feminist scholars have pointed to the complexities of female participation in this arena, their salons enabling while their gender undermined their ability to negotiate a relationship with the public sphere of the republic.8 Clearly, there was a tension between nationalism (together with other forms of parochialism such as gender discrimination) and cosmopolitanism in the political geography of the republic of letters.

At a more concrete level, several studies have analyzed the geography of the republic of letters by trying to map its spatial extent in diagrams or prose. Ultee has looked at the spatial extent of Leibniz's correspondents, and Brockliss has likewise mapped Esprit de Calvet's web of communications.9 Parallel studies of scientific correspondence networks have been conducted for Albrecht [End Page 252] von Haller and the natural historians clustered around Buffon.10 In this respect perhaps the most theoretically sophisticated work has been produced by historians of science galvanized by the work of Latour.11 Thus Lux and Cook have looked to the chains of contact and epistolary exchange by which Oldenberg came to credit knowledge claims for inclusion in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, while parallel methods have been used to analyze the geography of Jesuit scholarly exchange.12

Other elements of the circulation of knowledge in early modern Europe beyond correspondence have also been examined to give readings of the geography of...