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December 18, 2009

Stanford technology helps scholars get 'big picture' of the Enlightenment

By Cynthia Haven

The road back to Paris was paved with letters. Lots of them. The author of Candide wrote about 15,000 during his 83-year life, many from his base in Ferney, near the Swiss border.

Voltaire's life was superbly successful – but it was a life with sorrows, too. Voltaire’s famously acerbic tongue caused his banishment on more than one occasion.

"His whole life, in a way, was an effort to get back to Paris," said Dan Edelstein, assistant professor of French. The French Enlightenment's leading philosophe eventually achieved a pyrrhic victory, returning to Paris a few months before his death in 1778.

So what does this correspondence have to do with the colorful images, lines and maps on the computer screen of the "collaboration room" in the Humanities Center?

Edelstein, principal investigator for "Mapping the Republic of Letters" with history Professor Paula Findlen, has mapped thousands of letters that were exchanged during the period of the Enlightenment to uncover hidden truths about the "Republic of Letters."   The latter is "a shorthand that scholars use to refer to writers and philosophers and clergymen and other early modern intellectuals who corresponded across Europe and even across the world," said Edelstein.

On the computer screen, a map of Voltaire's correspondence shows a complex geometry of red lines to major European cities – but the heavy yellow line, showing the most frequent correspondence – connects directly to the heart: Paris.

The "Republic of Letters" project attracted a three-year Stanford Presidential Fund grant in 2008, which awarded the project $60,000 a year, and earlier this month received $99,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Providing tools for scholars

"With this grant, we'll be able to pull out significant data" that will "provide tools for scholars and the questions they want to ask," said Nicole Coleman, the academic technology specialist for the Humanities Center and "technical lead" for the project. She compares the three-year project to "standing up on a high mountaintop and seeing broad patterns."

According to Edelstein, "We tend to think of networks as a modern invention, something that only emerged in the Age of Information. 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."

"We've known about these correspondences for a long time – some of them have been published – but no one has been able to piece together how these individual networks fit into a complete whole, something we call the Republic of Letters."

There have been surprises. For example, although Voltaire admired England for its tolerance, freedom and political institutions, surprisingly few letters actually went to England. Was England more a mystique than a reality?

"There are these mythical values attributed to certain places like England, but then when you look at what's really happening and what ideas are circulating – it's nothing like what we thought it was," said Edelstein.

Insights at a glance

"While you could have teased that out of the 20 volumes of Voltaire's correspondence," with GIS (geographical information system) mapping technology, you can see it at one glance.

"You immediately see that he is not corresponding with many people in England, not that many in Italy, and almost no one in Holland," said Edelstein. "This really reconfigures the map of Enlightenment Europe."

Compare Voltaire's efforts, for example, to those of the polymath Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher a century earlier (the project collects letters from the late Renaissance, as well as the Enlightenment). Findlen has described the early scientist as "the first scholar with a global reputation." His correspondence reached to China, India and the Americas.

The Republic of Letters "was also a remarkable institution because it was the first kind of peer review," said Edelstein.  "These scholars were discussing each other's work, they were evaluating each other's methodologies. They were able to produce scholarship that met the highest standards of excellence. They were constantly encouraging each other."

"This was a kind of separate state, a republic that had its own laws, its own governance. It was not a monarchy, but represented a kind of ideal, a Platonic city for intellectuals, except that it stretched across cities, even continents."

The project began at a Stanford conference in 2007, where a group of scholars, including Edelstein, discussed their inability to get the "big picture" of the Republic of Letters. Jeff Heer, an assistant professor of computer science, produced a visualization prototype with his class. Oxford supplied the metadata for about 50,000 letters, allowing the project to go "beyond any of our expectations," said Edelstein.

The project is currently negotiating to receive more data from other European sources. It has all Benjamin Franklin's correspondence, thanks to the Packard Humanities Project.

Caroline Winterer, an associate professor of history, said the project has allowed researchers to think about people like Voltaire, Kircher and Franklin "in the same historical space."

Raising new questions 

"We can begin to ask questions about them that were not necessarily apparent before," she said.

For example, "when you have a rich, dense and geographically expansive correspondence network," what exactly puts you at the hub?

In other words, are you the leading light because you are a great thinker with provocative ideas? Or are you a good patron who can bring people together? Or is it that "you have goodies to give?"

Surprisingly, said Winterer, Franklin's chief attribute appears to have been that he had goodies to give. Although he was a notable patron and renowned as an ideas man, "there were things he could do for people – like helping Americans in Europe with the smallest kinds of things."

"All these things generate paperwork," said Winterer – that is, much of Franklin's correspondence had to deal with these utilitarian, often financial, matters.

For scholars, it means "we're really filling out our picture of the way the Republic of Letters really worked." For a Franklin scholar, such as Winterer, it's a bonanza.

"We all get excited about possibilities we're seeing in other people's networks," she said. "These kinds of collaborative activities have opened up new worlds for us." 



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Dan Edelstein, French & Italian: (650) 852-9791,

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