Voltaire Lab case for support

The political, social, and economic world we know today was shaped, and continues to be shaped, by the principles laid down during the Enlightenment by thinkers such as John Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith and Voltaire. These thinkers placed rational thought at the heart of debate, questioned authority, challenged tyranny, argued for the separation of church and state, and believed that men and women should be given the autonomy and opportunity to determine their own fate. Their influence was crucial on men like Franklin and Jefferson as they imagined the new constitution of the United States of America. A transnational movement, 18th-century thinkers freely exchanged ideas and writing across borders, creating an international network of scholars not unlike our digital networks today.

For over 40 years, the Voltaire Foundation has been at the forefront of Enlightenment studies with an international reputation for stimulating and publishing the most rigorous and up-to-date research into the 18th century. The Foundation has also led the field in digital projects, notably Electronic Enlightenment (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) and Tout Voltaire (created in partnership with the University of Chicago). In 2022 the Foundation completed its flagship project – the Complete Works of Voltaire, a 205-volume collection considered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to be “one of the most important ongoing British-based publishing projects in the field of French literary studies” (2008).

On the strength of these and other seminal publications and projects, the Foundation is now poised to expand its focus and activities, bringing the works of Enlightenment thinkers to a wider and broader audience than ever before through the creation of the Voltaire Lab. This ambitious and dynamic department will become a hub for innovative and interdisciplinary digital research across the whole spectrum of Enlightenment and 18th-century studies, using new digital methods to help better understand the Enlightenment and its legacy. The transformational programme outlined in this document will place the Voltaire Lab at the heart of developments in digital humanities and digital publishing, making full use of today’s technologies to demonstrate and promote the contemporary relevance of Enlightenment thought.

The Voltaire Lab is building a new virtual space for cutting-edge research and experimentation on a broad spectrum of subjects, examining the impact on the intellectual and literary landscape of the long eighteenth century and beyond. The Lab consists of several key elements:

  1. Fellow in Digital Enlightenment Studies: responsible for the creation, dissemination, and teaching of digital methodologies and texts. Our understanding of what constitutes an authoritative or correct text is shaped by how it is presented, edited, and even the medium in which it is produced. When then of digital texts? How are digital texts more problematic or more transparent than traditional texts, and what constitutes an authoritative digital 18th-century text?  The Fellow in Digital Enlightenment Studies will be key to addressing these and other questions, and will be able to teach these new methodologies as they are being developed.
  2. Doctoral scholarships: to further nourish and grow this academic community, we propose the funding of several doctoral scholarships, open to any area of Enlightenment research from Literature to Politics, History, Philosophy, Economics and beyond. This breadth of possible research areas is unique for an Oxford DPhil scholarship, and pays homage to the nature of Enlightenment thinkers who could be, at once, philosophers, poets, and scientists who understood the need for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural discussions.
  3. Visiting Fellowships: the exchange of ideas across disciplines was crucial to the development of Enlightenment ideals. Equally, the exchange of ideas between different nationalities was instrumental in developing Enlightenment theories of government, economics, scientific, and social organisations. We propose to create a Visiting Fellowship fund that will allow scholars world-wide the opportunity to contribute to the work of the Voltaire Lab, strengthening the reach and impact of its scholarship. The fund would be flexible, allowing scholars to take advantage of shorter or longer stays. This would enable scholars the widest possible access to the Voltaire Lab, creating an unmatched research network.

We are now looking to bring together a visionary group of supporters and advocates who share our belief in the importance of intellectual curiosity and rational enquiry, to help us launch the Voltaire Lab at the Voltaire Foundation for Enlightenment Studies. By nature interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, the Voltaire Lab will create a digital home for 18th-century scholars worldwide.



The Voltaire 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 18th-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 Volatire are the first critical edition of the totality of Voltaire’s writings, arranged chronologically to reveal the evolution and influence of his thought. In 2020 the Foundation will complete the final volume of the Complete Works, comprising 203 volumes in total. 

With the completion of this monumental series, the Voltaire Foundation is now in a position to bring these and other 18th-century writers to the widest audience possible, democratising access to this wealth of material through digitisation. The creation of the Voltaire Lab also opens up exciting possibilities to engage fully in contemporary research in Digital Humanities, encouraging doctoral students to work alongside more advanced scholars to experiment with the data and explore new digital methods and how they interact and intersect with more traditional modes of literary and historical analysis. It is our hope that work undertaken in the Voltaire Lab will contribute substantively to current debates about the validity of digital methods for humanities research, while, at the same time, uncovering new avenues of inquiry into the Enlightenment’s legacy.


Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

One of the best know and often quoted phrases from the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), mainly written by Thomas Jefferson, the notion that all people have the right to freedom and well-being was central to Enlightenment thought. 

Some historians find the origin of this famous phrase in John Locke (Christ Church, Oxford 1652-1658), who wrote that ‘no-one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions’

Others also trace the phrase back to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone was a student at Pembroke College at Oxford from 1738.

Whatever the ultimate origin of the phrase, it shows how the central tenets of Enlightenment thinking were shared across borders to finally become enshrined in the document that continues to define the United States to this day.



The study of Enlightenment continues to be deeply relevant to our modern world both at home and abroad, among scholars and anyone interested in the forces that drive our political and social systems. This was powerfully illustrated in the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, when many turned to Voltaire and his writings on tolerance.

Europe and the world expect us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places President Emmanuel Macron, 7 June 2017

This continuing significance of the Enlightenment has been widely commented on in recent years. Writing in the New York Times, Professor Robert Darnton said that ‘The protective layer of civility, which makes political discourse possible, is disappearing like the ozone around the earth’ (27 December 2018). His recommendation was to oppose bigotry and defend civil rights by channelling Voltaire’s moral passion and dedication to the triumph of civilisation over barbarity. The writer and academic Shoshana Zuboff listed ‘ideas of democracy, of individual sovereignty, of human autonomy, of moral courage and judgement’ as central to the Enlightenment ethos, and said: ‘I’m willing to give everything that I have to fight for them, whatever that takes, and I think many other people are as well.’ (Talking Politics podcast, 14 February 2019.)

In an age when Enlightenment values, once thought universal, seem increasingly under threat, it has never been more important to protect and promote our ability to learn from the past. New technologies will play a key role in this: advancements in digital humanities and digital publishing not only greatly expand the horizons of research, but also provide the medium to share such research with a broad international audience.

Although dominated by male writers, the rational and egalitarian principles championed by the Enlightenment encouraged female writers to question and publically criticise the traditional role of women. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is best known for her groundbreaking work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). However, she published over 15 other works including writings on politics, education, and morality.


Fellowship  in Digital Humanities

The Fellowship in Digital Humanities, a first for Oxford, will be responsible for deepening our understanding of this important period in human history through the use of emerging digital methods and materials. The post holder will help to drive methodological and technological innovation in the humanities, a key priority for the University and the Humanities division in particular. The application of humanities disciplines to the understanding of our digitally enabled society is crucial to our understanding of how we shape, and are shaped by, texts.

The cost to endow a Fellowship of this calibre is £3m. However, a gift can also be made to support the Fellowship for a fixed number of x years at a cost of £x per annum.

Doctoral (DPhil) Scholarships

A key part of our mission is to encourage the formation of the next generation of young scholars in this field. A suite of endowed DPhil scholarships, which can be taken across a range of subjects linked to the study of the Enlightenment, broadly conceived. These are likely to include English, French, German and History, but applications can be received from any relevant subject. The cost to endow a DPhil scholarship is £999,000. However, the University has recently created a matched funding scheme for endowed scholarships (Graduate Endowment Matching Scheme) which would match eligible donations on a 2:1 basis, reducing the donor contribution to £666,000. This would cover university fees, accommodation, an annual stipend for a period of three years, and other associated research costs.

Visiting Fellowship fund

In the true spirit of the 18th century, the Voltaire Lab will be a community of scholars, both within Oxford and further afield. We aim to expand existing international relationships with other universities and scholars, as well as with cultural organisations such as museums, theatres, and musical groups. However, for this exchange to be as inclusive as possible, it is essential that a Visiting Fellowship fund has the flexibility to allow scholars the chance to visit anywhere from several weeks to a year. 

The flexibility of this fund is essential, allowing early career researchers, who might otherwise not be in a position to take up a year-long post, the possibility of developing their research and contributing to the international scholarship in their field. The fund will cover accommodation and subsistence, as well as overheads incurred during by a Fellow during their visit, and can range from £x for a minimum two week stay to £x for a year-long research trip.

With these three pillars of investment, we envisage that the Voltaire Lab will become a world leader in 18th-century digital research and teaching, and an internationally accessible resource for Enlightenment ideals and theories. 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.

If you believe with us that intellectual curiosity and rational enquiry are worth encouraging, exploring and explaining – and, indeed, defending – then please join us.


Oxford University Endowment Management

A wholly-owned subsidiary of the University, OUem was formed in 2007 as part of a move towards creating a more sophisticated approach to managing the endowment of the University, colleges and other charitable trusts associated with Oxford. OUem manages The Oxford Funds, which allow the collegiate University to pool endowment assets and manage them as one. The Oxford Funds consist of two vehicles – the Oxford Endowment Fund for permanent endowments, and the Oxford Capital Fund for expendable capital.

Investment strategy

The Oxford Endowment Fund exists to preserve and grow the value of the perpetuity capital of the collegiate University of Oxford. The fund seeks to achieve its objectives by investing across a range of asset groups that give a diversified stream of returns and which can function in a variety of environments.

At its heart is the aim of providing sustainable growth and a regular distribution of 100% of any restricted donation, according to the donors’ wishes.

For more information and to discuss making a gift, please contact:

Professor Nicholas Cronk

Dr Heidi Kurtz


Voltaire Foundation

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