The French Enlightenment Network
Journal Article
Journal of Modern History cover image

“What was the Enlightenment” is a question scholars have been asking since the eighteenth century, but far less often has it been asked who the Enlightenment was. Who were the members of the social, professional, and academic classes that made up the Enlightenment? Who was in and, by extension, who was out? Much is known about the primary producers of Enlightenment works, from the famed philosophes to some of the lesser-known authors (e.g., in France, the Encyclopédistes, the Grub Street writers, or the libellistes).1 Studies have also revealed some of the readers of Enlightenment texts and explored some of its social institutions. And a certain degree of attention has been paid to the major patrons and political supporters of the philosophes: Mme de Pompadour, Frederick the Great, and other influential governmental officials such as Malesherbes. But rarely, if ever, have the different participants of the Enlightenment been considered together as a single entity, or, as we would say today, a network.

That is the goal of this article: to study the social composition of the French Enlightenment network. What sectors of eighteenth-century society were most present? How involved was the government? What role did the aristocracy play? Which intellectual disciplines and fields were most represented? Which ones were not? What was the role of women? And, perhaps most critically, how did it function as a network? These are the kinds of questions we raise, and we seek to answer them by means of a hybrid quantitative and qualitative methodology. We use basic statistical calculations to provide rough estimates of the size and importance of different social groups; given the nature of our data, however, we do not analyze them with standard social network analysis (SNA) methods. Rather, we corroborate, refine, and defend our findings through comparisons with arguments from the secondary literature. While our reasons for this approach are largely driven by the shape of our data (which make most SNA metrics unfeasible), we also advocate a method of network analysis that does not rely on mapping relationships between nodes and calculating such metrics as betweenness centrality or clustering coefficients; rather, it focuses on the relative size of, and overlap between, different subgroups in order to understand the overall structure and social composition of a historical network.

While some of our findings, detailed in full below, will not come as a surprise to specialists (the network is, for instance, overwhelmingly male), the overall picture of the French Enlightenment network that emerges from this study is nonetheless striking. Two features in particular stand out. First, men and women of science are significantly underrepresented. The scholars and writers we find in this network were largely gens de lettres, much more engaged with history, philosophy, political economy, and literature than with mathematics, medicine, or astronomy. Second, the elite segments of society, be they aristocratic, social, or governmental, are remarkably overrepresented. The French Enlightenment network incorporates the crème de la crème of the French state and high society. The presence of so many notables in this network suggests that French Enlightenment authors were more likely to be engaged in collaborative, reformist efforts than in subversive plots; conversely, it also hints at the existence of a fairly extensive and well-represented (at different levels of social hierarchy) parti philosophique within the French state itself.

Publication Materials
Full Text Download


Share This Publication