One of the facets of intellectual history that has distinguished it as a distinct field of study virtually from its inception has been the attempt to interrelate ideas from different academic disciplines. More recently, intellectual historians have also grown proficient at relating the ideas of individuals and groups to concrete local circumstances of time and place and thereby to social and economic forces and political conditions. It is less clear, however, that we have grasped fully the consequences of the organisation of intellectual activity across broader expanses of space for the development of intellectual traditions over longer periods of time. Nowhere is this spatial dimension more inescapable than in the patterns of international intellectual exchanges so formative in the early modern period. Bringer together case studies and conceptual talks exploring the roots of local, regional and national intellectual traditions within concrete features of political, economic, confessional, and even physical geography, this conference is designed to initiate discussion of what we might call ‘intellectual geography’ as a means of dealing with this challenge.

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What is Intellectual Geography?

‘Intellectual geogaphy’ might be conceived as operating on a number of different levels:

  • At its most basic and descriptive level, it aims simply to map out the distribution of intellectual activity in space and time. For this purpose, a variety of data – from correspondence networks, matriculation lists, library or printers’ catalogues, subject bibliographies, and professorial prosopographies, to travel diaries – can be aggregated to help localize intellectual traditions spatially, establish the geographical scope of their influence, chart the media and routes through which they communicated with other centres, and plot their rise and fall relative to neighbours and competitors.
  • Digging slightly deeper, these and other sources can reveal the pre-existing networks– confessional, academic, mercantile, or diplomatic – which helped translate intellectuals and their interests from one place to another, and which shaped much of this communication in turn.
  • What we might call ‘analytical intellectual geography’ probes deeper still, to reveal how entire intellectual traditions and practices are deeply grounded in political, economic, confessional, and even physical geography. Such analysis suggests that much of the significance, fertility, and disruptiveness of early modern correspondence networks arose from their capacity to link regions in which radically different historical environments had nurtured radically different cultural and intellectual species. Viewed from this perspective, the extraordinary intellectual turbulence of the seventeenth century can be seen to result from the way in which the revolts and reformations of the period cross-fertilized European intellectual cultures by destroying established intellectual centres, scattering individuals, uprooting whole communities and traditions, and transplanting them to new contexts.

Conference Context

The event is the second international conference of Cultures of Knowledge: An Intellectual Geography of the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters, a collaboration between the Humanities Division and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Our first conference took place in 2010, while a third will take place in 2012. For full details of our activities, please see www.culturesofknowledge.org.

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