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Letters to the Editor in Eighteenth-Century France: An Enlightenment Information Network, 1770-1791


My dissertation presents a new approach to the history of the Enlightenment: the examination of letters to the editor published in French newspapers at the end of the eighteenth century. This rich, and previously overlooked source, allows me to explore one of the most difficult problems in cultural history: how the literate population understood and responded to the intellectual debates of their age. My dissertation is designed to render a more nuanced understanding of how the eighteenth-century French public understood the important ideas of their day. Informed by theoretical studies of public opinion formation and networks analysis, my work examines the structures through which readers consumed, debated, and transmitted information before and during the Revolution. I argue that the existence and impact of information networks, like letters to the editor, were at least as important to the spread and impact of the Enlightenment as were the specific publications of writers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Thus, the Enlightenment should be understood not as a canon of philosophical and political ideas, but as a new psychology and epistemology, a spirit of optimism about the human capacity to know the world and change society.

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