Brain Pickings

Visualizing Enlightenment-Era Social Networks


Why Mark Zuckerberg has nothing on Voltaire.

Social networking isn’t really a modern phenomenon. Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.

Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time — an inspired cross-pollination of humanitarian scholarship and computer science. (An important larger trend thoughtfully examined in this New York Times article.)

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

They were able to create and to foster public opinion, critical thinking, something that was going on in one city or country would soon be known and discussed elsewhere. So there was a sort of freedom of information that was created thanks to these networks.” ~ Dan Edelstein

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, we highly recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

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