Minutes of the Paris Conference 2014

Languages of Reform in the 18th Century

Organisation: Manuela Albertone, Thomas Maissen, Susan Richter


The central topic of this conference were questions of reform languages in the 18th century. The conference analyzed conceptions and terms of reform. In the 18th century, reform discussions were an international phenomenon. These discussions treated the need for reforms, which was not a unique phenomenon of the 18th century, but which took place with a new sensation for political and social change and for ideas of improvement.

The approach to these questions was taken as an intellectual historian’s approach. The word “language” in the title of the conference was chosen because it is not clearly defined and can offer an approach which allows to analyze discussions as a pattern of talking “what can be said in the historical context”. Following the considerations taken by the Cambridge School, the topics of this conference did not only refer to “famous” historical texts and not only to cultural artefacts, but to cultural practices as well. Diversity of method is one of the things to be discussed during the conference.



Section I was opened by Céline Spector (Lesprit de lEurope au XVIIIe siècle: commerce, civilisation, Empire) who talked about the Reform spirit in Europe in the 18th century between criticized despotism and utopia. Spector carved out the development of a new language of commerce, circulation and emancipation which was also significant for a new political spirit.

Wyger Velema (The Transformation of Republicanism) applied the historiographic debate on the transformation of republicanism to the political discourse of the Batavian Republic. He characterized this discourse on the size of a republic (federalism vs. unitarism), participation vs. representation and the connection of liberty and virtue as a continuity of early modern republican thought. Altogether, he concluded, the Dutch revolution cannot strictly be termed a „democratic revolution“ as for the continuity of the tradition of republican thought.

Manuela Albertone (“Federalism” between Reform and Revolution) presented the debates about Federalism between Reform and Revolution. In her research project, she explained the ideas of election and participation as part of a reform debate. She argued that forms of political representations have economic origins: The agricultural thought, as Physiocracy for example had a political and social dimension in the 18th century.

The first topic of discussion examined the tension between economic debates and political discourses. The central question if the economic debates had a minor importance in view of the political debate was discussed in view of the example of the role of the Dutch decline. Wyger Velema pointed out that the debate was primarily on political institutions, while the role of commerce was less prominent. The actors of the Batavian Republic were dealing with topics like „Can you be free in a representative system?“ Johan Lange pointed out the methodological question whether political debates can be separated from the economic interests that lay behind.

The Questions of the right form of the Republican state were connected to prototypes: France was seen as the ideal for those who wanted a unitary state while the American colonies were the prototype for those who wanted a federal state. The old Dutch republic being discredited, the Federal model was not in favor. But the example of the Terreur in France in mind, the unitary state model had its opponents as well. One more question was if the Holy Roman Empire was part of this discussions. There are no direct references, but it can be assumed that the model was in mind.



Section II was opened by Susan Richter who presented the Languages of Reform in Economic Essays in the 18th century. The central expression which can be found in Justi’s work is “nöthige Verbesserung” („necessary improvement“). Richter explained that agriculture was seen as a political science and the state as a machine. The Chinese paternal form of government was seen as an existing role model (success through knowledge of order) for the reformers who asked how support of agriculture could be provide in this regard, but: China as Justi’s construction.

Lina Weber presented her research on Languages of Economic Reform in the Dutch Republic. Dutch writers who saw the decline of their republic in the second half of the 18th analyzed it as a loss of dominance in trade. This discourse which criticized those tendencies as decadent resulted in a form of Economic patriotism which came up in the 1780, concept of moral and economic improvement in order to advert economic decline. The ideal of commerce was replaced by the idea of the balance of economy. Seen as a ‚restauration‘ of a former state rather than a reform towards something new. Connecting political reforms with economical reforms.

The discussion opened with the question how to distinguish words, meaning and form to analyze the reform languages. Is there just a specific vocabulary or is there an interaction of power and social reality in form of individual remarks or common concepts beyond the words? Edoardo Tortarolo asked for the equivalence of the concept of ‚reform’ though the word is not used in Dutch, German and other languages. For example, as Susan Richter confirmed, the word “reform” does not appear in Justi’s work, but the metaphor of an “easy path” („gangbarer Weg“). Does this show a lack of reform concepts in German and Dutch reform, or is it just a lack of vocabulary? Thomas Maissen suspected that the religious context/confessionalism could be the reason for avoiding the term. The word “nöhtig” appears as a reason for new legislation: SR ‚urgent‘, ET: example for performative language. Concluding this point, Lina Weber stressed the general question concerning the equivalencee of concepts and terms. Lipschitz suggests to talk about semantic fields (Verbesserung, reform, utopia, etc.).

The word “Oeconomie” had high potential for social mobilization. Schilling asked about the openness of the term, because there is a difference between the economy or economic thinking? Everyone feels touched and wants to change things if the Economy has to be reformed because the word is semantically open. In the 18th century, Economy is not defined as a science, but as an aspect very close to everyday life. It is related to questions of virtue. Moral decline was often the argument to explain economic decline, which leads to the pattern of a “golden age” in the past. The “golden age” is an invention which explains a decline. Because of the question of the influence of national and international exchange of economic ideas, it was added that an opposition between patriotism and cosmopolitanism does not make sense for the 18th century.

Velema suggested to trace the history of the word ‚patriotism‘ when seeing economic patriotism as a language of reform, suspecting that there is a transformation from the 1770s that drops the economic and describing patriots in a more political sense. Economic reform is not possible without political reform. Thomas Maissen argued that patriotism and cosmopolitanism cannot be opposed in the 18th century.

Johan Lange proposed that there should be a discussion on what the interest of our research actually is: different projects where ‚change‘ is legitimatized – not the actual economical reforms.




Section III, which was the second panel of the Reform and Economy section, was opened by Lothar Schilling who talked about Reform Languages in German territories in the second half of the 18th century (Le langage de la réforme agraire dans les pays germanique (Deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle)). Analyzing agrarian reform not only as a change of language, but as a real dynamic of discourse, social change and agrarian theory, Lothar Schilling explained that many subjects were involved a very progressive agenda of agrarian reform. The texts of agrarian reform often having various names and using many different key words like “Erfahrung”, “Erprobung”, “Bewährung”, “Vernunft, it seems that the language of agrarian reform offers an open concept which guarantees many forms of innovation. The reform projects were seen as a necessary reaction to unreason which does not allow these reforms. This unreason was often identified with inefficient bureaus.

Antoine Liliti analyzed the relation between the “Lumières” and the colonial reform (Les Lumières et la réforme coloniale). Explaining that the research opinion often declared the French Enlightenment as imperialist and pro-slavery, Antoine Lilti used the example of the “Histoire des deux-Indes” to explain that colonial questions were used as an object of symbolization of commerce and of a hidden reform project. The language of reform in this sense was used by philosophers, but by an administrative elite as well. The ministry of the marine wanted colonial reforms which shows that this discourse took place in the administration and the enlightenment area.

The discussion opened with some general remarks about the relation of text and context. To catch both the actor and the level of performance, it is important to find proves of colonial practices or memoire literature. Integrating these perspectives may help to answer the question if slavery was contrary to the enlightenment project. It appears that Colonial reforms were proposed avoiding a political context.

This reflections transferred to agrarian reforms help to understand the meaning of Societies and their political significance: The example of the Society of Bern in mind, the conclusions are that they had a strict political limit and were more interested in the application of agrarian knowledge. Did the agrarian reformers just want technical reforms, and did they archive a transformation of society? The word “Reform” does not appear regularly in the agrarian language. If it is used, it does not touch specific technical improvements, but tends toward structural reforms of legislation or of the society (“wahre Reform“!). The base of the practical knowledge of agrarian improvement was seen as something new and seems to be specific for the 18th century.



Section IV was opened by Avi Lifschitz who presented the Languages of Religious Toleration in Prussia between 1781 and 1789 (From Civic Improvement to Confessional Union: Languages of Religious Toleration in Prussia, 1781–1799). Taking Michali’s “Über die Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden” and Mendelssohn’s “Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht” as basic texts, he analyzed the interaction of religions, especially the debate about confessional unions between Judaism and Protestantism. There were different steps of toleration: The Cameralism wanted to transform Jews into profitable residents while Mendelssohn wanted the religious sphere being separated from the public sphere. Religion should be connected to morality, the state should have a supervisor role. While Schleiermacher recommended to abolish unequal treatment of Jews and Christians (1799), he did not want a confessional union. Friedländer wanted the citizenship for Jews. The aim of these discussions was to have Jews as productive citizens, but not to transform them into Christians. This can be understood as Civic improvement.

Gabriella Silvestrini presented Languages of Toleration and Persecution between Utopia and Reform. The tension between penalty and tolerance is part of the discussion of human rights of the Enlightenment. The struggle with confessionalisation and with sorcerers were phenomena that show the limits of tolerance. Beccharia discussed the difference between penalty law and religious tolerance. He wanted reform law without touching the society of law. One part of the discussion was to replace the death penalty because it was interpreted as against human nature and should be replaced by exile.

Tortaro started the discussion with the example of the “Gesangbuch” which shows how states could interfere in discourses of religious tolerance. This discussion produced arguments against the Republic of Letters, but the arguments were not used in the discussion about Jews.

Another part of the discussion took about the practices of integration. With the example of the Jews, it appears that integration was performed in step-by-step privileges. The integration was not only motivated by economic benefit, but also by the idea of a civic community. Lina Weber stressed toleration as a means to economic flourishing like in a Dutch debate of the 17th century? Lifschitz: debate of the 18th century is different and more related to the civic sphere.

Edoardo Tortarolo presented his project about the difference between the Pre-Secular Society and the Secular states as politics of religion (Pre-Secular Society vs. Secular State? Politics of Religion in the late 18th and Early 19th Century and the Concept of Secularization). Using the concept of Koselleck’s “Sattelzeit”, he analyzed the transformation into secular societies in descriptive and performance discourses (focus on revolutionary transition) – the interaction of the descriptive and performative discourses on the relevance of religion for public order and politics. He had two main assumptions: (1) conceptual change coexisted with and made possible the changes in legislation concerning relationship between civil and religious agencies, change occurred between 1760 and 1820; (2) this conceptual change has not been adequately described due to the insufficient research tools. Digitalized sources lead to a new method: big data collecting to describe corpora of digitalized books.

Gisela Schlüter presented her reflections about the meaning of “Tolérance – tolerance universelle – tolérantisme”. The notion of universal tolerance was a phenomenon of the 18th century as a time of “esprit de tolerance” (Voltaire). As a clima of the epoque. Universal tolerance was seen as the antidote to human failure. The word “tolérantisme” was a neologism. Being defined as an engagement for tolerance at first, it turned into a pejorative meaning: It was a word for generalizing the tolerance practices without criticizing them. Indifference was seen as the result. This critics were not only reproduced by the church and the Anti-Enlightenment-movement, but from the radical enlightenment as well.

The discussion opened with the question if the conceptual change of secularization could be proved by a big data project, and how central parameters should be defined. The indicators for the conceptual change in the 19th century must be defined. The following aspects seem to be relevant: A new balance of opinions in Europe, new expressions of individual opinions, a new form of popular belief in the countryside and the role of the book market in the 19th century. Maissen asked for the additional value of a big data examination of the concept of secularization. Skeptics of the big data method. Problems of the corpus-linguistic method. ET wants to balance big data with imdividual studies, combining a qualitative and quantitative approach.

The other question was if tolerance and tolérantisme are on the same conceptual level (Maissen). Was tolérantisme only the opposition? Did the victory of tolerance produce the negative concept? The example of Turgot (“heureux tolérantisme”) shows that this word can have a positive connotation as well.



Section V was opened by Urte Weeber who looked at the topic of languages of reform from the aspect of temporality (Framing the Future. Ideas of Reform and their Corresponding Notions of the Present and the Future). Assuming that the idea of reform is linked closely to a specific concept of time, she examined whether state descriptions of the 18th century include a perspective of historical evolution and comparability. Weeber concluded that ideas of reform are necessarily linked to the idea of progress. The notion of an open future not only during the “Sattelzeit” but already in the first half of the 18th century made it possible to forecast the future by describing the present and consulting conclusions from past experience.

Isabelle Deflers presented her reflections on “discipline” in military reform programs (La “discipline” dans les programs de reforms militaires). The new public sphere after the Seven Years’ War made military experts think that reforms would be necessary. This spirit of reform was released by an apparent deficit of discipline. The ideal was either seen in antiquity or, with actual references, in Prussia. The ideal of soldiers behaving like automats proposed by some French writers was criticized as a form of discipline lacking creativity by others. The discussion tended towards a “de-demonization” of discipline from the Prussian notion. The Prussian way of discipline should be replaced by instruments of the nobility. The professionalization of the French army can be seen as a result of this process.

The discussion revolved round the concept of an “open future” in the state descriptions discussed by Urte Weeber. It remained doubtful whether future needs to be seen as determined (and therefore predictable) or open (and therefore unpredictable). In this context, in particular the metaphor of the  “state machine” was seen as problematic as a machine usually does not allow any modification. Weeber argued that the metaphor of a machine in the 18th century is understood like a clock: it needs to be moved. Therefore, conjectural thinking can deliver a prognosis which at least excludes many possibilities. Thomas Maissen added that “conjecture” does not mean openness but defines probabilities for a shapable future.

In the military section, there was already a debate about moral discipline in the 16th century. The new comparative perspective of the 18th century included talking about positions in Europe in the current context. The Seven Years’ War creates a special situation for reforms. The concept of modernization of the armies is a new one as well as the questions of discipline of the officers. This can be interpreted as a reaction to new social compositions of the armies. The Prussian army saw itself as a republican army and the soldiers as self-defending farmers. The question remains whether this image was discussed in France.



Section VI was opened by Simona Boscani-Leoni who presented a lecture on scientific languages of reform in the Swiss Confederation (“Languages of Reform” dans les sciences. La Confédération helvétique et l’Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle). Based on scientific texts, she showed how new forms of scientific knowledge were created in their social and political contexts. The new way of understanding nature was a collective experience. An adequate language was necessary for the observation of the nature, combining a new interest in local nature with the history of humans which surround it. The speaking of “Naturwissenschaft” (Scheuchzer) replaced the “Naturgeschichte” which means that the narrative of the humanists is replaced by the image of the empirical approach.

Lisa Regazzoni presented the importance of Monuments of the “anciens gaulois” and their role for local patriotism in the 18th century. The discourse of the Gallic origins tended towards a creation of national identity on a local level. Looking for territorial origins, these discourses were used to defend the local interests against central political ambitions. Questions of fiscal policy and privileges were touched. Conflicts between the “parlements”, represented by the elite of the provinces and the absolute monarchy were taking place. The language of talking about Gallic liberty was used to describe the Republican model.

The discussion started with some considerations about the relation to the Celts and the Germanic peoples as point of references for the Gallic discourses. The Germanic culture was linked to the northern antiquity, the reflections about Celt origins began in German territories. In the 18th century, there was a tendency to find a more real than ideal past, which explains this movement. But the past in this discourse was not neutral. The regionalism as an anti-centralism was something new, a kind of science of regional patriotism. It appears to be more federal than republican: Federalism was seen in the past and was interpreted as the ideal state. It was applied as the defense of liberty of the nobles against the despotic monarchy.

The questions of reform and the sciences lead to the relation between language and reform. It seems that the language was influenced by scientific reforms, but that language itself was not part of the reform projects. The transformation of the institutions were the process where the change of science took place, as well as new forms of scientific writing and new discussions about utility and patriotism. Not the language, but the system was reformed. As an example, the “College hélvetique” created a new form of cultural and political space. The 18th century popularized the scientific developments of the 17th century. New forms of diffusion and socialization can be identified.



In section VII, Johan Lange presented his prospective research on Languages of University Reform in Germany, France and the United Kingdom in the 18th Century. Starting from the hypothesis of the emergence of an enlightened concept of the university as an institution that should be regulated by the state instead of the cliché of academic life as leisure, Lange raised central research questions concerning (1) the definition of a university (2) the interdependence of notions of university, common good, society and state, (3) the metaphors are being used and (4) the public claims that can be found in the source material. Lange’s method was described by himself as „ecclected“: It is supposed to be a combination of hermeneutics, Begriffsgeschichte, the approaches of Pocock and Skinner as well as Foucault.

Sebastian Meurer presented his research on „Staatswissenschaft“ and the British Enlightenment. Rethinking Theory and Practice of Governance in the British Isles (1688–1788). His main interest lies in the structure of reform language that, according to him, consists of an analysis of a present situation and the draft of a better future state which is explicitly not conceptualized as a return to a former ideal. In Britain, where this structure occurred in the context of the economic reform debate in the 1780s, three steps can be differentiated: (1) comparison, (2) establishing principles, (3) explicit reform advice.

Pascal Firges enhanced the geographical research area of the workshop in talking about Late Eighteenth-Century Languages of Reform Regarding the Ottoman Empire. His main source was the first state description by an Ottoman author for a non-Ottoman readership, written by Mahmud Raif Efendi in 1798. According to Firges, it was the military defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century that led to reform ideas. Firges raised the question how the Ottomans do fit into the picture of simultaneous reform all over Europe. His answer: The reforms of Selim III and languages that accompanied them were similar to the reform movements elsewhere in Europe.

The focus of the discussion was on vocabulary: What did “university” in the the late 18th century? According to Lange “academy” needs to be seen as synonymus to “university”. The word “research” appears only in the late 18th century and replaced the talking ton “erudition”.

Being asked to what extent Raif’s publication was important to Sultan Selim’s reforms, Pascal Firges replied that the Sultan was well aware of the discourse on oriental despotism in Europe. Raif’s propaganda pamphlet served as a attempt to show the world the reform orientation of the Ottoman Empire. The example of the Ottoman Empire, as was concluded, confirms the assumption that times of crisis unleash reforms.



Section VIII was opened by Thomas Maissen who presented the discourses about neutrality and international law in the Swiss context (Le refuge de la neutralité: les puissances moyennes en déclin et leur adaption aux exigences du droit international). At the end of the medieval period, the idea was that neutrality was not corresponding to Gods will and that it did not correspond to the honor of nobility. It was Grotius who asked first about the relation of religion and war in “De iure belli” After 1674, the Helvetian confederation saw itself as neutral states as an axiom and not as a direct reaction. Neutrality was now interpreted as a form of protection and became a legitimate option. The advantages of neutrality were seen as: 1. Religious reason: No war because for religious fanaticism, 2. Moral reason: War was not adequate to merchant nations, and 3. pragmatic: War was imperiling for middle-big territories.

la Kapossy presented the relation between the law of nations and the language of Reform in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Europe (The Law of Nations and the Language of Reform in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Europe). Law of nations was seen as a combination of rights and duties states had one to another. It was composed of the natural law and the voluntary law of states. States saw themselves as an international community. As they were related to each other, the states would have to collaborate and to self-perfect which was part of the voluntary law. Swiss reform thinkers like Vattel were thinking about the relation between domestic and international reforms and developed ideas of a Europe with modern liberties. The idea of a perpetual peace, as suggested by Kant in opposition to Vattel, had very few advocates.

The discussion opened with the question if the traditional Republicanism was opposed to neutrality as a reform idea. Generally, reforms were not only made by republic states. States like France for example had financial reasons to reform. Federal states wanted reform to modernize their territory. One concludes that the discourses often followed practical power politics. Here, the question came up if neutrality discussions were linked to the councils of the end of the Medieval period?

It appears that, as a historical development, peace became more and more the normal state. The well-being of a nation was seen as peace, not as a state of conquering. But what were the points of critic to neutrality? Were “lacheté” and egoism seen as counterparts of neutrality? These accusations were often made to small states. Reforms were not made in war times, but they were not made in isolation from developments in other states. As the language of International law changed, the base of existing for small states changed. Small neutral republics were often experimental fields for politics.

While neutrality came up in 17th century, it became a more universal principle in the 18th century with general references to the Holy Roman Empire. Here, neutrality was declared spontaneously in war time. Reasons for neutrality were for example the existence of enclaves like the France-Comté. So more abstract reasons like geographic positions could lead to neutrality. But states like France an Austria had an interest into neutral states at their borders as well. Another result of choosing neutrality as an axiom was, in the case of Switzerland, an agrarian development to avoid external dependence. neutrality as not only depending on the decision of a country to be neutral: cf. the example of Poland.


first conclusions

After three days of debating languages of reform, the overall themes had become clear. Thomas Maissen pointed out that the comparison of cases from different countries shall be brought into the discussion. Overcoming national perspectives was agreed to be one of the main tasks of the project. The participants, however, do not have to go in the direction he or she has started – as a matter of course the projects can be changed.

Antoine Lilti suggested to think of common questions in order to define the research interest. Following that, Sebastian Meurer asked for a definition of what reform is held to be among the participants. A working definition shall be delivered by Thomas Maissen until the next meeting.

As to the working procedure in general, the participants are being asked for delivering papers or powerpoint presentations with their lectures.

The meeting in Paris is only one of three parts of the discussion. The next meeting is announced at the Villa Vigoni in May 2015 in order to discuss the work of Franco Venturi. For this workshop, Venturi’s book on utopia and reform was agreed to be the general reading. The rest of the work shall be split up; every participant is supposed to choose about twenty pages by the end of January.

At the final meeting in Heidelberg in September 2016, existing articles shall be discussed. Suggestions for the date will be made by the organizers. To link up the research projects, a blog will be set up in order to discuss each others texts. Another possible option would be an open peer review process in the pre-publication stadium.

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