Chair of Enlightenment Studies
Case for support: Chair of Enlightenment Studies
To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.
John Locke, English Enlightenment philosopher (student at Christ Church, Oxford)
The University of Oxford is at the forefront of Enlightenment scholarship and is home to some of the world’s leading Enlightenment scholars across a wide range of subjects including literature, politics, economics, history, and science. One of the University’s greatest assets in this area is the Voltaire Foundation, a vanguard of research, print and digital publication, and dissemination of Enlightenment scholarship for over 40 years. Inspired by the success and international reach of the Foundation, we are now looking to create a new interdisciplinary chair of Enlightenment studies to bring a fresh focus to the field of eighteenth-century scholarship, and to highlight the importance of its research and teaching.
The new chair of Enlightenment studies will bring a transformational focus to the field and will capitalise on the momentum already established by the Voltaire Foundation in both traditional and digital scholarship. The chair will also have a strong focus on digital research and publication in line with the University’s Vision ‘to maximise the global social, cultural and economic benefit derived from our research and scholarship’.
The chair of Enlightenment Studies will:
- Secure and develop the University’s position at the forefront of eighteenth-century studies world-wide by attracting and supporting the best scholars and students in the field.
- Create, for the first time in the University’s history, a chair that is fully interdisciplinary and not restricted to a specific subject area.
- Take a leadership position for the University’s new vision of digital scholarship, creating a post that can contribute to teaching the new M.St. in digital humanities.
- Anchor the importance of this interdisciplinary and groundbreaking period of history into the fabric of the University.
The University of Oxford is seeking an endowment of £4.2 million ($5.3 million USD on 15 April, 2020) to create this historic chair in perpetuity.
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was the period during which Western society began to embrace the principles of democracy, intellectual inquiry, rational thought, religious tolerance, free market economics, and the separation of church and state. These ideas spread from Europe to North America where the theories of Adam Smith, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were embraced and incorporated into the fabric of the fledgling nation. Throughout Europe and America’s histories, these ideas continued to be shared, and shape politics and policy across nations to the present day.
Now, more than ever, these systems on which Western society are founded are under pressure and the ideals that they embody are under threat. This was powerfully illustrated in the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, when Voltaire became a symbol of widespread demonstrations, and many turned to his writings on tolerance. Even our modern preoccupation with ‘fake news’ was anticipated by Enlightenment thinkers who challenged received wisdom and prompted their audiences to rethink their natural positions. A better understanding of the Enlightenment means a better understanding of the world that we live in today.
Europe and the world expect us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places.
President Emmanuel Macron, 7 June 2017
The mission of the Voltaire Foundation is ‘to disseminate world-leading research into the Enlightenment, and to bring the debates of Voltaire and his contemporaries to the widest possible audience’. The Foundation came to Oxford in 1976 following a bequest by the visionary bibliographer and Voltaire scholar Theodore Besterman. Since its inception, the Foundation’s core activity has focussed on the publication of seminal Enlightenment writings to the highest possible scholarly standard, most notably Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment and the Complete Works of Voltaire. The Studies, the leading book series devoted to eighteenth-century studies, spans some 600 volumes and covers a wide range of Enlightenment topics from gender studies to political theory, and from economics to visual arts and music.
Where the Studies covers all aspects of Enlightenment thought from multiple perspectives, the Complete Works of Voltaire are the first critical edition of the totality of Voltaire’s writings, arranged chronologically to reveal the evolution and influence of his thought. In 2021 the Foundation will publish the final volume of the Complete Works, comprising 203 volumes in total. To celebrate this momentous achievement, the Voltaire Foundation will create a new hub for Enlightenment scholarship that will be unmatched world-wide with the new chair of Enlightenment studies at its heart.
As the anchor point for this new hub, the chair of Enlightenment Studies will act as ex officio Director of the Voltaire Foundation and, as the public face of the Voltaire Foundation, will be responsible for its future strategic growth. Voltaire is considered by many to epitomise Enlightenment values such as intellectual curiosity, the importance of scientific enquiry, and the measured understanding of political systems. The study of his extensive and varied body of work, which for decades has been advanced by the Voltaire Foundation, is a catalyst for the broader study of the eighteenth century in all its facets. Additionally, as the most senior Enlightenment scholar within the University of Oxford, the Chair of Enlightenment Studies will take on academic leadership for this important and enduringly relevant subject, producing world-class research and bringing together colleagues across relevant academic disciplines to foster a culture of collaborative and interdisciplinary research.
Supporting the new Chair of Enlightenment Studies
It is inconceivable to imagine a world in which Enlightenment values do not exist and flourish, but, sad to say, we do not believe we can take that for granted. That is why we are seeking to create a home for supporters, advocates, scholars, and enthusiasts through the creation of this new chair.
If you believe that intellectual curiosity and rational enquiry are worth encouraging, exploring and explaining – and, indeed, defending – then please join us.
Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.
Joseph Addison, English Enlightenment essayist (Queen’s College & Magdalen College, Oxford)