In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe and America,
a network of scholars, scientists, theologians and literary figures who
exchanged ideas across decades and national boundaries formed the basis
of an intellectual community known as the Republic of Letters
. Now humanities scholars are collaborating with technology specialists and "cyberscholars"
to reach a deeper understanding of that metaphysical republic.The Republic of Letters: The Electronic Enlightenment Project
at Stanford University has produced extraordinary social network maps
that visually represent the thousands of letters sent and received by
the luminaries and their lesser known contemporaries whose opinions
profoundly influenced modern thinking.Dan Edelstein,
assistant professor of French and principal investigator, describes some new insights about the spread of ideas in a YouTube video.
A Stanford Report by Cynthia Haven
tells how Professor Edelstein and his collaborator, Paula Findlen,
a history professor, created maps that offer a new overview
of broad historical patterns.
Voltaire admired England's institutions and freedom, for example, most
of the of the 15,000 letters he wrote in his lifetime went to Paris, and
very few to England. By contrast, Jesuit Scholar Athanasius Kircher,
whom Findlen calls the first scholar with a global reputation,
corresponded with intellectuals in China, India and the Americas.
Oxford University supplied metadata for some 50,000 letters.
says the Republic of Letters was "a remarkable institution because it
was the first kind of peer review," with scholars discussing and
evaluating each other's work and methods, offering encouragement and
fostering excellence. "This was a kind of separate state, a republic
that had its own laws, its own governance," he said. "It was not a
monarchy, but represented a kind of ideal, a Platonic city for
intellectuals, except that it stretched across cities, even continents.
tend to think of networks as a modern invention, something that only
emerged in the Age of Information," Edelstein said. "In fact, going all
the way back to the Renaissance, scholars have established themselves
into networks in order to receive the latest news find out the latest
discoveries and circulate the ideas of others."
Associate History Professor Caroline Winterer
says the project allows scholars to think about figures of the past "in
the same historical space" and ask new questions. For instance, she
said, "When you have a rich, dense and geographically expansive
correspondence network, what exactly puts you in the hub?" Original
thinking? The ability to bring people together? Benefits to bestow?
While Benjamin Franklin was renowned as a man of ideas, his
correspondence suggests his own central position arose from help he
provided for many Americans and Europeans with a multitude of mundane
and financial matters.
For more on virtual teams and networks see Jessica Lipnack's blog EndlessKnots