The Enlightenment in Practice

The Enlightenment in Practice: Academic Prize Contests and Intellectual Culture in France, 1670–1794

Jeremy L. Caradonna
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 532
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  • Book Info
    The Enlightenment in Practice
    Book Description:

    Public academic prize contests-the concours académique-played a significant role in the intellectual life of Enlightenment France, with aspirants formulating positions on such matters as slavery, poverty, the education of women, tax reform, and urban renewal and submitting the resulting essays for scrutiny by panels of judges. In The Enlightenment in Practice, Jeremy L. Caradonna draws on archives both in Paris and the provinces to show that thousands of individuals-ranging from elite men and women of letters artisans, and peasants-participated in these intellectual competitions, a far broader range of people than has been previously assumed.

    Caradonna contends that the Enlightenment in France can no longer be seen as a cultural movement restricted to a small coterie of philosophers or a limited number of printed texts. Moreover, Caradonna demonstrates that the French monarchy took academic competitions quite seriously, sponsoring numerous contests on such practical matters as deforestation, the quality of drinking water, and the nighttime illumination of cities. In some cases, the contests served as an early mechanism for technology transfer: the state used submissions to identify technical experts to whom it could turn for advice. Finally, the author shows how this unique intellectual exercise declined during the upheavals of the French Revolution, when voicing moderate public criticism became a rather dangerous act.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6390-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Abbreviations and Translation
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Map of France
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    In a sense, the story of prize contests in France begins on a balmy afternoon in October of 1749, on a dusty road connecting Paris to the nearby royal dungeons at Vincennes. On that day, a thirty-seven-year-old music teacher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau set out on foot to visit his friend Denis Diderot in prison. The crown had incarcerated the luckless philosopher a few months earlier for publishing two highly scandalous books, Lettre sur les aveugles and Les bijoux indiscrets. After several kilometers of dehydration and fatigue, Rousseau, who usually tramped with a literary magazine under his arm, sat down beneath...

  7. Chapter 1 The Rebirth of the Concours Académique: Cultural Politics and the Domestication of Letters in the Age of Louis XIV
    (pp. 14-39)

    Literate Frenchmen in the age of Louis XIV could not graduate from collège, attend a university, or participate in a literary society without at some point encountering an intellectual battle of wits. Indeed, France possessed what we might reasonably term a “concours culture”; competitive examinations, prize contests, and award ceremonies protruded from every corner of the cultural map.

    To begin with, intellectual competitions saturated the curricula of Jesuit and Oratory institutions. From an early age, social elites at colleges and universities learned the time-honored art of disputation, or “disputatio scolaire,” in which pupils competed in logic-chopping philosophical battles judged by...

  8. Chapter 2 À la Recherche du Concours Académique
    (pp. 40-87)

    Prix, prix littéraire, couronnes, combats, concours académique—the academies of the Old Regime designated public prize competitions with a variety of terms. The multiplicity of labels is a strong indication of the diversity of the practice. Poetry and essay contests were the most common form of structured academic concours, but many new types of competitions came into existence over the course of the eighteenth century, including virtue, éloge, and emulation contests as well as prizes for agricultural achievement.¹ Despite the numerous studies on Parisian and provincial academies that have appeared in the past half-century, we still know relatively little about...

  9. Chapter 3 The Participatory Enlightenment
    (pp. 88-117)

    Like the cunning, guileful, recurring ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Louis XIV haunted the concours académique. Although the Sun King died in 1715, he continued to appear and reappear in academic contests throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Nothing demonstrates more clearly the colossal imprint that Louis left on the academic establishment than his posthumous career in the concours of the French Academy. In the thirty-five years from his death to midcentury, the Academy upheld the wishes of its seventeenth-century sponsors by dedicating fully half of its competitions (23 of 46) to the glory of the late king, including...

  10. Chapter 4 Dijon Revisited: Rousseau’s First Discourse from the Perspective of the Concours Académique
    (pp. 118-142)

    Countless historians have considered what the concours académique—and particularly the prize contest of 1749–1750 at the Academy of Dijon—meant to the intellectual development of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.¹ Yet virtually no one has ever inverted the question to consider what Rousseau might have meant to the concours académique. Almost overnight, a newly established and relatively unknown academy in Burgundy had catapulted a provincial hack into the upper stratosphere of literary celebrity. What does this say about academic prize competitions in the mid-eighteenth century? And how did Rousseau’s phenomenal success affect the role of academic prize competitions in French intellectual...

  11. Chapter 5 The Concours Académique, Political Culture, and the Critical Public Sphere
    (pp. 143-179)

    In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere—still the most influential interpretation of the public sphere in Enlightenment Europe—Jürgen Habermas argued that the liberal public of the eighteenth century, grounded in the intimacy of the conjugal family and facilitated by the rise of bourgeois consumerism, broke off from court society and established itself as a sphere of cultural action free from the absolutist state. In the story told by Habermas, the enlightened public sphere provided a range of venues in which private individuals could join together, criticize sociopolitical institutions, and exert their collective or respective wills on the...

  12. Chapter 6 The Practical Enlightenment: The Concours Académique, the State, and the Pursuit of Expertise
    (pp. 180-201)

    The bureaucratic expert is an offspring of the nineteenth century. From Napoléon’s reign through the end of the century, a paid legion of professional technocrats slowly came to replace the polymathic, semiautonomous “men of letters” who doubled as governmental consultants during the Old Regime. Indeed, viewed through the prism of the Third Republic, with its elite universities and well-financed research labs, the eighteenth century may as well be the Wild West. As Robert Gilpin put it, the “alienated intellectuals” of yesteryear eventually gave way to a “technocratic elite on which the modern scientific state depends.”¹

    The advent of the modern...

  13. Chapter 7 Prize Contests in the Revolutionary Crucible: Decline and Regeneration
    (pp. 202-219)

    What happened to the concours académique in the French Revolution? Did prize competitions keep pace with the evolving political culture? Did the practice remain a site of critical intellectual exchange, as it had been in the last decades of the Old Regime?

    To answer these questions first requires an analysis of the academies during the Revolution, since the history of prize contests is intimately tied to the plight of the scholarly institutions that organized them. From the summer of 1789, when deputies to the National Assembly began to question the privileges of the royal academies, until August of 1793, when...

  14. Conclusion: The Enlightenment in Question
    (pp. 220-226)

    Bruised and battered, the concours académique reappeared shortly after the bloody paroxysms of the Terror. In 1795, only two years after the abolition of scholarly societies, the Revolutionary government reestablished the academies in the form of a centralized body known as the Institut de France, and this new heterogeneous body immediately began organizing prize contests.¹ Indeed, the Institut has continued holding public contests almost continuously up to the present day. The French Academy, the most important branch of the Institut, still offers around fifty annual and biannual prizes in literature, history, sociology, singing, philosophy, and poetry.² Twenty-two of the fifty-four...

  15. Appendix A: Academies and Societies in France That Held Public Prize Contests from the Fourteenth Century to 1794
    (pp. 227-228)
  16. Appendix B: Female Laureates of the Concours Académique, 1671–1790
    (pp. 229-232)
  17. Appendix C: Contests Founded by the Abbé Raynal
    (pp. 233-236)
  18. Appendix D: Contests on Poverty, Begging, and Poor Relief
    (pp. 237-238)
  19. Appendix E: Contests Related to Urban Drinking Water
    (pp. 239-240)
  20. Appendix F: Prize Contests Offered by Academies, Scholarly Societies, and Agricultural Societies in Continental France from 1670 to 1794 (available at
    (pp. 335-516)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 241-296)
  22. Works Cited
    (pp. 297-324)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 325-334)