Middelburg (the Netherlands), 13-14 December, 2019
UCR, (City-hall) Raadzaal
The Historiography of Learned Societies in the ‘Age of Sociability’
The eighteenth century is often referred to as the ‘age of sociability’, an idea that can be traced back to eighteenth century authors marvelling at the amount of ‘academies’ or, more generically, learned and literary societies, that were founded throughout Europe as well as in European colonies both in the East and the West. These authors (and later historians in their wake) tended to identify the rising tide of local, provincial and national learned/literary societies as a single and homogeneous phenomenon. They did so despite the striking variety of societal names, organizational structures, types of activities, and groups of members.
In writing histories of how the age of (learned) sociability came to be, historians often (unreflectively) take eighteenth century evidence and claims as their starting point, while also working within an established paradigm of methodological nationalism. As a result, with only a few exceptions, writing European or even global syntheses of the history of learned sociability, from before the eighteenth century and from then on, has not yet been tried. James McClellan’s Science Reorganized published in 1985 remains one of the very few attempts to write a European history of the eighteenth-century phenomenon. It situates the academies in the history of the Scientific Revolution. Others have studied the academies from the perspective of the history of the Enlightenment. Since the 1980s no major shifts seem to have occurred in the study of the academies.
Writing transnational and long-term histories of academies is complicated due to the lack of a common framework for the comparative study of academies and their interactions. Thus, creating a sound working definition of the object of study remains one of the major challenges in the slowly emerging field of transnational histories of academies. Definitions that remain unreflectively grounded in eighteenth or (maybe more often) nineteenth century definitions of the phenomenon run the risk of tacitly accepting long-established genealogies and hierarchies of the academies. Before embarking upon further research, it seems crucial to investigate our categories of thought and their genealogies, and analyse attempts at writing histories of the phenomenon from the eighteenth century up until the present day.
Against this background, the organizers of this symposium have invited participants to reflect on the historiography of the (paradigmatic) eighteenth-century academies with a focus on 1) eighteenth century histories and genealogies, 2) later surveys and their implicit and explicit biases, 3) historiographical debates and controversies. The aim is to uncover genealogies, definitions, and categories as well as theoretical frameworks, and assess them critically as a first step towards a more rigorous definition of the object of study, and to identify the issues, questions, problems, hypotheses and certainties that drove the field so far in various national historiographies and in the emerging comparative/transnational ones.