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Mapping Networks in the Republic of Letters Modern Technology Meets the Enlightenment

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 21, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
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.

While 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.

Edelstein 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.

"We 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.

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