Enfilade

A Warm Welcome to a New Journal

Posted in opinion pages, resources by Editor on October 24, 2009

From the Editor

Last week, the Art History Newsletter noted the premier of a new online journal, Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts. The posting concentrates on the editorial by Dan Edelstein addressing the question of theory’s role in the humanities today. For the issue of eighteenth-studies, the larger news is simply that such a journal now exists! With support from Stanford University and contributions for the first issue from the likes of Anthony Grafton, Paula Findlen, Peter Miller, and Margaret Jacob, the journal is positioned to garner considerable credibility and respect. It also seems to open up the possibility for thinking about the eighteenth century not in isolation but in relationship to the early modern period generally. Any number of changes occurred over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in my own work, I have argued that we must be able to think of them together (at least from time to time) even if only to understand more fully the character of the changes that happened. That this new journal seems well placed to handle issues of both continuity and change is evident from Antoine Lilti’s contribution, “The Kingdom of Politesse: Salons and the Republic of Letters in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” in which he challenges Dena Goodman’s reliance upon the Republic of Letters as a way of understanding salon culture:

Using the notion of the Republic of Letters, however, to think about the salons is misguided because it leads us to misinterpret both the historical significance of the salons and the social history of the Enlightenment. It induces us to consider salons as literary or intellectual venues, whereas they were, above all, the social spaces of elite leisure. Moreover, it entails odd consequences: that eighteenth-century salons had nothing to do with their predecessors of the age of Louis XIII and Louis XIV or with their nineteenth-century successors; that they stood totally apart from the royal court; that women who received guests in their homes were moved by the desire to contribute to an intellectual endeavor. The aim of this paper is to show that it is much more effective to think about the salons as the main institution of cultural sociability for social elites, and then to understand why the philosophes spent so much time there. . . .

As a site for sociability, they [Parisian salons] were, above all, venues of entertainment for polite elites, and were deeply rooted in court society. The ideal which guided the writers who attended these salons—Morellet, Thomas, Marmontel, and many others—was not the Republic of Letters, but Parisian high society (le monde), where some men of letters, polite and successful, were welcomed because they conformed to aristocratic norms. In other words, they were dreaming about the kingdom of politesse rather than the Republic of Letters.

Whether one is convinced by the argument is, of course, a separate matter. Personally, though, I’m thrilled that there’s now a space so well-suited for such scholarly debates.

-Craig Hanson