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The Ideal and Reality of the Republic of Letters in the Enlightenment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Lorraine Daston
Affiliation:
Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Universität Göttingen

Abstract

The Republic of Letters of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries teaches us two lessons about style in science. First, the bearer of style—individual, nation, institution, religious group, region, class—depends crucially on historical context. When the organization and values of intellectual life are self-consciously cosmopolitan, and when allegiances to other entities (e.g., Protestant versus Catholic, or urban versus rural) are culturally more compelling than those to the nation-state, distinctively national styles are far to seek. This was largely the case for the Republic of Letters, that immaterial (it lacked location, formal administration, and brick and mortar) but nonetheless real (it exercised dominion over thoughts and deeds) realm among the sovereign states of the Enlightenment. Second, that form of objectivity which made science seem so curiously detached from scientists, and therefore so apparently unmarked by style at any level, also has a history. The unremitting emphasis on impartial criticism and evaluation within the Republic of Letters encouraged its citizens to distance themselves first from friends and family, then from compatriots and contemporaries, and finally, in the early nineteenth century, from themselves as well. Although this psychological process of estrangement and ultimately of self-estrangement may seldom have been completely realized, the striving was genuine and constitutes part of the moral history of objectivity.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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