Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter

To whom it may concern: open letters turn private public (Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau) — Isabelle C. DeMarte, Lewis and Clark College


As scholars across studies in cultural and intellectual history have demonstrated, the commerce of letters and its expansion fueled major Enlightenment developments such as the formation of the Republic of Letters and the “invention of human rights.” Dena Goodman’s and Lynn Hunt’s respective studies of these phenomena suggest a dynamic parallel between the intellectual engagement epistolary exchanges generated in salons and repeated beyond them, on one hand, and the emotional identification epistolary exchanges in novels generated across social and gender lines on the other.1 “Through the circulation of letters,” D. Goodman argues, “philosophes and salonnières established a network of intellectual exchange,” to the point where “letter exchanges [and] correspondences, often initiated by men of letters [were] continued by the public itself.”2 Indeed, just as “[t]he philosophes increasingly and creatively used letters to bridge the gap between the private circles in which they gathered and the public arena that they sought to shape and conquer,” so did the circulation of Richardson’s and Rousseau’s best-selling novels evoke in unprecedented fashion the private expression of self turned public.3 A radical outcome in this expanding use of the letter form as one of communication and creation, is that “writers and readers” were brought together “to interact on a footing of equality,” and that, as novel readers learned to “empathiz[e] across traditional boundaries,” “equality could have [deeper] meaning [and] political consequence.”4

D. Goodman’s and L. Hunt’s arguments identify respectively letter writing and letter reading as a vector for spreading equality. Yet, as Goodman privileges the communicative dimension of letter writing expanding into print media, and Hunt privileges the creative aspect involved in learning to imagine another as oneself whilst reading a letter novel, their perspectives seem to underplay one another. They perpetuate a binary opposition between communication and creation that begs re-examining since both frame a concurrent move between the private and the public. Questions bringing their perspectives together arise: What kind of imagining would occur if one read letters coming out of salons or published on their own as one reads letters in novels rather than news and polemics feed? What if, for instance, through their appearance in print, the Lettre à un premier commis, the Lettre sur les aveugles and the Lettre sur les sourds et muets, the Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles “embod[ied their respective] writers” in a way that “facilitated the development of ‘character[s]’” named Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau – characters with whose inner self as a Philosophe one could identify?5 What story would any, or perhaps all of these open letters be telling, then?

This essay addresses such questions and examines the texts cited above as exemplars of the Enlightenment’s characteristic exploration of new and often subversive forms that channelled new and often subversive content. In focusing on Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s choice to write these texts as letters, this essay argues that their understudied form links to the advent of the author, of the subject, or of human rights as we know them. But why these particular letters, one might ask. One obvious answer to this query could be that all three authors invoked here were major figures of the Enlightenment, all immensely popular hommes de lettres of highly controversial stature, and the three major letter writers around whom Georges May’s study on eighteenth century epistolary literature revolved.6 Another, less obvious, answer — and therefore a more intriguing one — could also be that these works, self-entitled Lettres as they are, and often referred to as such, are rarely, if at all, studied from the point of view of their epistolary form.7 A curious omission, to be sure, given that they deal with the morality of reading or theatre-going, the existence of God and the foundation of religious dogma, censorship and freedom of expression, i.e., matters that partook in bringing about the Enlightenment project to change the way people commonly thought.8 In order to explore the role which these letters, when read as letters, may have played in advancing that project, we proceed in four stages. The first one situates Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters against other epistolary outlets to see how open letters turn the model of the private conversation into a public medium. The second one situates them against the epistolary novel as the prevailing literary form of published letters to reveal greater similarities than might first appear between these two kinds of letter writing. The third one applies literary theory to open letters as a means to understand better why, and how they ought to be read as letters. Finally, the fourth and last stage focuses on the epistolary situation (who writes to whom) in each of the Lettres, and examines it as the place where communication and creation allowed Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau to both reflect and inflect the Enlightenment’s attempt to put man and his ability to reason at the center of the universe.9


Part One — Open Letters in the Republic of Letters

As epistolary commerce spread ubiquitously during the eighteenth century, it actively participated in creating and transforming the literary public sphere. With Parisian salons and intellectual circles at the forefront of this evolution, and provincial urban centres a close second in spreading new and subversive ideas further into the public, social networks and communities kept emerging that, in turn, fuelled the demand for more ideas, more news, and more letters to read. Instrumental in this broadening of conversational circles into reading circles were a decrease in handwritten epistolary media and increase in printed epistolary media: literary correspondences, nouvelles à la main, and periodicals.10 They literally erected the Republic of Letters by making lettering a flowering commerce each varying iteration of which constituted an integral stepping-stone toward the Habermasian public sphere.11

D. Goodman depicts how crucial letter exchanges are in the tentacular expansion of the Republic of Letters beyond salons. This depiction provides an apt background to sketch out the role of open letters in the Republic:

The problem posed … concerns the link between the narrowly circumscribed world of salon conversation and the expanding reading public. How did the philosophes, from their base in the salons, reach out to (create) that public discursively? [. . .] The philosophes increasingly and creatively used letters to bridge the gap between the private circles in which they gathered and the public arena that they sought to shape and conquer. [. . .] [H]owever, [they] did not simply return to the seventeenth-century epistolary mode of learned exchange between scholars and academies. They did not simply write letters. Instead, they employed and deployed an epistolary genre in the public sphere; they transformed letters and correspondences into a variety of public media, which, because they were extensions of epistolary commerce, retained the crucial reciprocity that made their readers members of a community. Through the circulation of letters, philosophes and salonnières established a network of intellectual exchange which was the first circle of expansion beyond the walls of the salons. As letters and correspondences became the bases and models for print media of broader circulation, this network expanded to become fully public. The letter was transformed into the newsletter and then into the journal. The pamphlet wars of the eighteenth century were letter exchanges, correspondences, often initiated by men of letters but continued by the public itself. The epistolary genre became the dominant medium for creating an active and interactive reading public.” (137)

Letters gain all the more power as they gradually “create” and “transform” the literary public sphere. They function not only as an extension of the salons, but also as an extension of the philosophes themselves, endowed with a performative ability to do what they might have done in person, i.e., so to speak, that they quite literally “spread the word” of the Enlightenment. Letter exchanges are implicitly compared with the spokes gradually reaching from the hub-like conversation culture in salon “private circles,” “deploy[ing]” into the “public arena,” and into further circles of expansion as time passes. Moreover, letter exchanges are also implicitly compared, more linearly this time, with a path (“the link between”). As such, they bridge the distance between conversational salon gatherings — where letters would be read — and the “expanding reading public” that would, in turn, read copies of these letters, thereby getting a sense of what happened in salons, and duplicating the experience through reading the same material. In the process, letters implicitly merged the way letters were used in the salon culture and the way they were used outside of it. They functioned as avatars of the philosophes, as emissaries of their ideas and of the ways in which all behaved within the salons. In the end, the circulation of letters analogically conveys the continuous back-and-forth movement and expanding circularity inherent in an epistolary exchange in the Republic of Letters. As it repeats and duplicates that same material, it also creates something different with it through the addition of a new letter reader every time a letter passes through different hands and eyes, sketching out the eventual mass production of print material in the Republic of Letters.

How do open letters in general, and Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s in particular, fit within this scheme? Open letters belong to the broad generic category of the letter, and the sub-category of the published letter. They are addressed to someone, anonymous (a book trade official in the Lettre à un premier commis, a semi-anonymous Madame de P*** in the Lettre sur les aveugles) or identified (semi-identified as Abbé Batteux, author of Des Beaux-Arts réduits à un seul principe in the Lettre sur les sourds et muets yet broadened to any reader of the treatise; clearly identified as Monsieur d’Alembert in The Lettre à Monsieur d’Alembert sur les spectacles broadened as any reader caring to hear Rousseau’s published point of view). And they are addressed to that someone by someone else, likewise anonymous (Lettre sur les aveugles); or identified, whether by its publication in a volume of works by the same individual (Voltaire), by its publication under a familiar title (Lettre sur les sourds et muets), or by its very title (Rousseau). As a sub-category, they are “open” because they are not part of sustained correspondences in the strict sense, but instead are isolated published letters. The very fact of their publication makes their addressee highly visible as much as it does their content. They can also be called ‘open’ because, by virtue of being published, they are addressed to certain audiences beyond their internal addressee, which also makes these audiences public.12 As a result of their openness, they stand out as letters of public interest. As such, they become de facto of interest to the state, since, as is the case with the letters we consider here, they deal with scientific, philosophical, political, aesthetic or religious matters, i.e., basically any subject that, of interest to philosophes and salonnières alike, made them good candidates for surveillance.13

To that extent, letters written by a Voltaire, a Diderot, or a Rousseau, taken collectively, must provide a basic illustration of what an open letter might be and might do in relation to the expansion from the private to the public which characterizes the Republic of Letters. Better yet, because salon conversations “held the monopoly of first publication” according to Jürgens Habermas, Voltaire’s, Rousseau’s, and Diderot’s open letters can act as exemplary print extensions of salons conversation and offer insights into what happens as they turn private public.14 As salon attendees themselves, the philosophes would be invited to give readings of letters they had written — or of pieces they might have written as letters — to try their matter on the salonnières and their entourage’s receptive audience.15 In that sense, open letters were directed both toward that initial audience and toward the avatars — virtual and actual — that multiplied them into its readership after the letters had been sent, i.e., sold, to the printer, the bookseller, and the next participant in the chain of communication and publication that these letters initiated. Once into the reading public, however, the open-endedness that characterized them through the publishing mechanism first of the salons, then of the book trade, was both altered and enriched. What they made public through writing and through the print medium, in addition to the content they reproduced, multiplied, and distributed in a “fully public” fashion, was the conversational salon setting involving at the very least two individuals.16 Put differently, the open letter made it obvious that the letter form inherently lends itself to being read by others besides its intended addressee.

In that sense, open letters align and overlap with literary correspondences. The latter were typically written by salon insiders and without an actual respondent, concerned, D. Goodman remarks, with “creating an informed and critical readership” through the exchanges between individuals that they modelled in epistolary fashion. (158) Literary correspondences and open letters, then, can be said to have modelled conversations and debates as the basic mechanism for obtaining and diffusing information, for making knowledge emerge, in order to interpret it and make sense out of it. The absence of an authentic addressee, or, rather, the pretext of an authentic addressee, is compensated by the fact that the topics in the letters retain authentic currency (e.g., the timeliness of the publication of “Genève” in the Encyclopédie, or that of Diderot’s allusion to the Molyneux problem through his discussing Réaumur’s cataract removal on a young woman).17 Put differently, if elements otherwise essential to actual correspondences are missing, what is always present is the private dimension of the address, a dimension that seems to become the vehicle for knowledge, for its consumption and interpretation.

As open letters broadened the epistolary commerce “often initiated by men of letters but continued by the public itself” beyond salonnières’ circles, their publication repeated the philosophes’ gesture toward an ever-expanding public, foreshadowing posterity’s readership as Diderot often portrays it, only with increased efficacy. In turn, readers sharing the philosophes’ open letters with their own audience would cast themselves as a Voltaire, a Diderot, or a Rousseau that they would impersonate. To that extent, we believe that these published letters did provide a way to carry out the ambitious mission in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (“changer la façon commune de penser”). They actually reached a broad readership much more quickly — and cheaply — than the multi-volume project ever could over the decades that it took to publish it (1751–1772). Key in D. Goodman’s description of the Republic of Letters, then, is the notion of epistolary commerce as a model that one can imitate, and as a communicative medium critically endowed with a fascinating power to create and recreate.


While the texts with which we are concerned here proclaim themselves as letters, scholars, however justifiably, generally do not read them as such. Instead, they focus on their religious, political, philosophical, economic or aesthetic stances. As tradition would have it, open letters seem to stand alone in unchartered territory, a no genre’s land without any generic label attached to them.18 The matter of these oftentimes rather long texts, then, would account for why critics affiliate them with more formal discourses, turning de facto the label “letter” into either a misnomer for a text one couldn’t think of as a letter proper, or an insignificant marker reducing letter-writing to an invisible medium. Nevertheless, it remains that Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau chose to write these texts in the letter form. Because these Lettres sum up some of the most important debates of the era, that very choice suggests one ought to construe their letter form in more problematic fashion. Moreover, because their public appearance in print likens them to salon conversational exchanges and letter exchanges all at once, the philosophes’ choice suggests that their letter form carries the blueprint upon which the Republic of Letters was built. The issues to which we turn next, then, concern further the ways in which Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau’s open letters correspond or not to the criteria which make a letter a letter. Discussing open letters as letters will lead us to consider two lines of inquiry over the next two sections of this essay: 1. How the inclusion / exclusion paradigm interferes with an epistolary analysis of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters; 2. How using this paradigm interfaces with the dominion of the “epistolary genre” over the Republic of Letters on one hand, and the movement of expansion from “private circles” to the “public arena” analyzed by D. Goodman, on the other.


Part Two — Are they letters, or are they?

Does the fact that it is published make an open letter written by Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau, relinquish, if not its title, perhaps its identity as a letter (whether or not it has been read in the trial ground of the salon)? To the extent that an open letter passed through the publishing industry rather than through postal services to arrive at its multiple final destinations, it does stand out between unpublished actual personal correspondences and published fictional letter exchanges. An open letter would be published alone as opposed to the sustained letter exchanges in actual correspondences and epistolary novels. The kind of correspondence of which they may be considered to have be a part, then, could be in the most public form of polemics: see, for instance, the scandal around the publication of Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques, which delayed the publication of his Lettre à un premier commis to the point that it did not appear on its own but instead, amidst other works by the philosophe; see also scientific discussions of the Molyneux problem from which Diderot’s singled itself out by its anticlerical content, jeopardizing the launch of the Encyclopédie in the process; the publication of Batteux’s treatise on aesthetics; or the polemic between Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau that crystallized in the latter’s Lettre à d’Alembert. In that sense, the public status of an open letter, especially one written by a Voltaire, a Diderot (whose Lettre sur les aveugles was thought to have been authored by Voltaire), or a Rousseau, did ensure its visibility despite the keen eye kept on it by the book trade administration and its police, oftentimes thanks to the efficacy of the black market.19

D. Goodman’s argument that “[t]he reciprocical [sic] exchange crucial to the Republic of Letters” actually drove the expansion of the Republic of letters into Habermas’s “critically debating public,” uses letter writing and reading as the symbolic cornerstone for private discourse to gain public status.20 The “vast web of readers [united] into a network of intellectual exchanges,” she writes, which made that “vibrant epistolary network a two-way street.” On that street, readers turned into writers as they increasingly gained ground and visibility in the periodical press. This two-way street imagery seems falsely analogical, however. While it originates in the actual practice of letter writing, it relies on letter writing as a metaphor for communication in the Republic of Letters, and overlooks the fact that letter readers did not necessarily physically return to the salon’s point of departure as they turned into writers themselves, but, instead, might well bifurcate into another street. In the case of open letters, distinguishing different ‘levels’ of metaphorical street networks more or less closely related to one another makes more practical sense. It helps one distinguish between actual personal responses to a Voltaire, a Diderot, or a Rousseau (the original two-way street), and less personal responses to their open letters, e.g., if published in periodicals in a duplicating rather than a reciprocating gesture (a two-way street differing from the original). The kinds of responses open letters could generate might have occurred in salons and reading rooms, in periodicals, but not as actual personal responses, or at the very least far from exclusively actual personal responses.21

Diametrically opposed, Marie-Claire Grassi’s study of eighteenth-century correspondence as private discourse argues that the grounding of a letter in actual relationships between individuals who do write to each other and back gives it its quality as a letter.22 In addition, it contrasts actual correspondences to letters in epistolary novels such as Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, setting them apart starkly from the more direct (though less reliable) delivery of a single letter by postal services. The royal monopoly on the post shaped correspondences through delivery schedules, which facilitated their surveillance.23 The difference in delivery method suggests a rapprochement between open letters and epistolary novels as they undergo the same material transformation and multiplication through type setting, printing, and so forth.24 Granted the existence of multiple copies of it, an open letter could not run the risk of being lost, never delivered, or intercepted before reaching one of many final destinations, in the same way a single private letter might have. The way it did run such risk, one might object, occurred at the level of the heavy state apparatus overseeing the publishing process.25

Like D. Goodman’s perspective, M.-C. Grassi’s does not settle the epistolary dimension of open letters, either because Grassi’s operates at a literal level restricting the meaning of correspondences to describe private communication outside of the Republic — thereby leaving open letters outside its purview — or because Goodman’s operates at a figurative level expanding the meaning of correspondences to characterize public communication in the Republic of Letters and lack an actual referent — thereby also making open letters something other than letter exchanges. Each perspective with its obvious merits, neither offers convincing grounds for denying Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters the epistolary title they claim for themselves. Rather, what this suggests, is that somewhere inbetween, there must be a meeting point where these two notions complete one another, as D. Goodman herself argues in surveying traditional scholarship on the public and the private. As a result, the epistolary status of these texts becomes problematic, and calls for closer inspection.

What seems to be absent not only in open letters, and in epistolary novels, but also in the Republic at large, then, is an element of absolute authenticity, one that restricts or limits the application of the reciprocity in the epistolary situation (I write to you, you respond to me, etc.) to existing individuals. That absolute authenticity appears as the implicit norm for assessing whether a text might be a letter or not. As importantly, as the contrast between actual and fictional correspondences aligns open letters with fictional letters to make them inauthentic, it also links their inauthenticity to their private-turned-public dimension whether through the salon culture driving the expansion of the Republic of Letters, or through the print culture created by the publishing industry. The perceived lack or absence of an actual addressee in epistolary fiction or in open letters thus must be rephrased in more positive terms. Turned around like a sleeve, it can thus be considered as depersonalizing the position of addressee or letter reader, and as dramatizing the expression of self by bringing it into the public eye, opening it to whomever might feel concerned by it.

Georges May uses an example that supports reconsidering open letters as letters when examining Rousseau’s intention to publish authentic letters written to Malesherbes around the time he was writing the Confessions. Rousseau’s open lettering combines what G. May calls a “soif de sincérité absolue” with the staging and the fictionalizing of authenticity in publishing correspondences — and, we would argue, in publishing open letters. The reciprocity of an authentic exchange may not carry as much weight or convey as much truth-value in an open letter. An open letter, however, does underscore the value in making public examples of lettering offered as private, which conflates the figurative and the literal elements in D. Goodman and M.-C. Grassi’s views: indeed, it imparts to open letters a power more often ascribed to epistolary literature, i.e., the power to spread freedom of thought (“la liberté de pensée”), the freedom to think and create oneself (“la liberté de se penser soi-même”).26 That freedom becomes key in going beyond what is starting to feel like a sterile opposition between private correspondences, public debates, and fictional letter exchanges.

As the philosophes adapted “the seventeenth-century epistolary mode of learned exchange between scholars and academies,” one will readily agree with D. Goodman that “[t]hey did not simply write letters.” Implied in this statement is that the letters they wrote were indeed letters whose added value, however, made them more complex than regular letters as they “employed and deployed an epistolary genre in the public sphere.” (137) Letters that explicitly and consciously participated in the Republic of Letters would be read to others, only generalizing customary practices whereby regular mail would be read by others in addition to their internal, direct addressee. In this instance, the salon setting conversation duplicated what would happen routinely in a regular household where mail had been delivered, differing from it only as it would turn private custom into public phenomenon. The collective reading of an open letter in the semi-public setting of the salon as the primary institution of the Republic of Letters shifted these practices for a potential readership that expanded as the very same time as it expanded the Republic. From the moment an open letter or even part of it was read in a salon and passed around in what amounted to its first public appearance, the conflation of oral and written discourse around it foreshadowed its more official public fate: after reaching the bookseller or editor’s desk in exchange for a contractual stipend, it would go through the printing process, ultimately to land on a bookshelf from which it would be picked up, purchased, read, and likely passed around further. The household and the salon shared a common reading context despite the crucial difference in the final destination of the letter read within one or the other, i.e., an actual individual in the former vs. the semblance of an actual individual in the latter.

This highlights three points: 1. That open letters were read publically as private letters, whether they might have been letters in the strictest sense or not; 2. That they shared in the ambiguous mix of privacy and publicity offered by salons; and 3. That the potential impact of open letters gave them added value they might not have accrued if left unpublished via salon conversations or literary market transactions. To state that an open letter might be left “unpublished” without qualification would revive the unproductive binary between private and public, however. To follow Janet Gurkin Altman’s fascinating idea, one might more fruitfully recognize that the writing of a letter constitutes an act of publication, each stage of this process characterized by an outward intention and forward movement toward the addressee, whether or not the letter reaches and is read by its intended addressee, and whether that addressee is a single person, several individuals, or the readership at large.27 The one way in which open letters might differ from this model lies not so much in the author’s shaping the letter’s itinerary, as it lies in the directness with which s/he does it, blending the directness of a personal exchange with the reading public and the indirectness of a fictional exchange as that reading public remains undefined other than by its ability to read and the purchasing power to sustain that ability. The “liberté de se penser soi-même” evoked by G. May resonates with the imaginative investment that L. Hunt locates in the reading of epistolary novels, both applying to our reading of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters.

As these letters go out into the reading public, the latter’s generic anonymity comes next in the features allowing one to discuss the letter form of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters. As postal services will deliver any letter to their named addressee, one still expects an anonymous letter, i.e., one whose sender remains unnamed to be considered a letter, and to be delivered. Now, because the book trade substitutes for the postal service in the delivery process taken as a frame of reference, not only can anonymity carry over into the open letter, but it can also be heightened since both sender and addressee can be unnamed, and either or both can be fictional. While this makes anonymity an inherent part of the open letter format, and offers yet another way in which open letters align with epistolary fiction, the open letter remains within the structural purview of the letter form as a broader classification category. Moreover, the fictional potential brought by anonymity in the epistolary situation of open letters highlights the conventionality of identity and naming through publication.

Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis and Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles both boast an anonymous addressee, paired with an anonymous sender in Diderot’s case. In an unlikely world where all letters would be delivered to whomever they might concern, the fact that these open letters were not, in fact, delivered to addressees, but instead, purchased by readers, underscores the logistical anomaly discounting their authenticity. While their publication downplays the authenticity effect that named names might have had on the readership at first sight, upon closer inspection, the very fact that they are published also reinforces that authenticity by leaving names unnamed in the same way the preface of a novel might. In the case of the Lettre à un premier commis, the absence of a name for the addressee is compensated for rhetorically by the title reference to his profession, as the staff in the book trade administration of the earlier part of the century was not as large as it would soon become.28 If Voltaire acted out of caution, it might have been to remain out of the center of attention that led his Lettres Philosophiques to be barred from being published, or else, to protect an easily identifiable official from suspicions of overfriendliness with the letter writer.

The way anonymity plays out in the Lettre sur les aveugles increases the pertinence of literature and epistolary novels as another frame of reference to discuss the letter form of open letters. On one hand, the sender’s cautious use of asterisks to veil Mme de P***’s supposed identity suggests that, were she to be identified, trouble might befall unto her for engaging in private correspondence with the letter writer of Diderot’s Lettre. On the other, the Lettre was originally published anonymously.29 Even though this did not save Diderot a stay in prison once the police established his authorship, the original absence of a nom d’auteur for the Lettre raises three important and closely related points. It suggests that writing in public and owning to one’s name at the same time was no small matter. It suggests that the next best thing to do was not to own to one’s name when writing in public, even though keeping one’s own name private or anonymous may not have been much safer. And it also suggests that, in fact, the act of writing publically as a private individual was more subversive in an open letter than in another format. Here, the link that D. Goodman examines “between the narrowly circumscribed world of salon conversation and the expanding reading public” takes on particular significance for the French Enlightenment as the era that changed people’s way of thinking, eventually to overturn the Ancien régime and give birth to human rights. Writing anonymous open letters turns out to embed the publishing of open letters as a strategy, both ideal and actual, to spread Enlightenment ideals within the Republic of Letters. Indeed, through their respective engagement on the intellectual scene of the century, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau embodied and furthered Enlightenment through their open letters, extending their ideas and the salon-like discussion thereof, first in writing, then in print.

What to make of the anonymity of address in Diderot’s two Letters in the face of a subtitle “à l’usage de ceux qui voient” [for the use of those who can see] and “à l’usage de ceux qui entendent et qui parlent” [for the use of those who can hear and who can speak]? Or, conversely, what to make of it in Rousseau’s Lettre à Monsieur d’Alembert when its title and title page trumpets both its author’s and its addressee’s names? On one hand, the description of Diderot’s subtitles is directly linked to the letter appearing in print, at once reminiscent of chapter subtitles in eighteenth century novels and indicative of a need to add some reading guidelines or reading descriptors — not unlike those in a dictionary definition or a library search — for the use of those who purchase and read the Lettre(s). On the other, in the case of Rousseau’s Lettre, the actual and authentic addressee “Monsieur d’Alembert” identified in the title of the letter ends up performing the same function — that of reading guideline and reading descriptor. Just as pretending to publish a personal letter lends it an air of authenticity, so does publishing a personal letter makes whatever authenticity it might have had in the first place appear to be staged. The publication of the open letter highlights that both d’Alembert and Rousseau had already become characters in the epistolary saga of the Enlightenment. In the process, just as printing mediated the reading of the letter during a salon conversation and in the privacy of another salon, so did open lettering and the publishing of open letters, with or without names, mediate the Republic of Letters’ intended and guided move towards a larger audience.


To recapitulate, it seems as though open letters either display features that make them letters, or lack these features, but in a way that evokes, by default, the norm outlined by these features. In particular, in considering the role they played in building the Republic of Letters, the fact that they are published makes them the equivalent in print of the link between Parisian salons’ private circles where public opinion originates, and the public sphere where it grows to expand full force. In the process, there unfolds a dialectics between the letter as authentic document and the letter as rhetorical play. This dialectics places open letters at the strategic meeting point between the increasing use of the letter form as a personal means of communication, and two other, overlapping developments in the history of letter writing, i.e., the evolution of epistolographic traditions in the 17th century — ancient eloquent epistles and polemic letters in particular –, and the rise of the epistolary novel in the 18th century. According to Alain Viala, thanks to its adaptability, the letter form is transformed by a new rhetoric and the awareness of intertextual possibilities.30 In his survey of the ancient sources of early modern epistolography, as he identifies in the middle of the 17th century a turning point at which expectations are geared for 18th century developments, A. Viala concludes: “Nouvelle rhétorique, conscience d’une nouvelle intertextualité dans le genre épistolaire : c’est par le sentiment de la diversité qui le caractérise que devient possible la dialectique entre réalité (la lettre est donnée comme un document authentique) et fiction (elle est aussi jeu rhétorique) qui nourrira le genre tant dans le roman que dans le débat d’idées ou le reportage polémique au long du XVIIIe siècle.” (183) Put differently, the fact that Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters do not involve real exchanges the way correspondences do but instead, only pretend to do so, allows them to combine the power to communicate authentically attached to private correspondences, with the power to communicate creatively attached to fictional correspondences.


Part Three — Literary theory and the letter form in the Republic of Open Letters:

Up to this point, in examining the letter form of open letters in general, and that of open letters by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau in particular, we have relied explicitly on the either/or paradigm contrasting open letters with private, authentic correspondences on one hand, and public, fictional correspondences on the other. The use and the structure of this paradigm beg re-evaluating. The question concerning open letters now becomes how to characterize that letter form, if that ‘old’ paradigm does not hold true, and whether reading them as letters, in fact, allows one to doff that old paradigm and do away with it. Even as open letters did not fit exactly the mould of authentic private correspondences, they did not fit exactly the mould of fictional correspondences published in print as authentic.31 At the same time, they also related to both models as they participated in the Republic of Letters and appeared in print, ultimately to circulate widely.

As the lens of cultural studies lends itself organically to discuss the place of open letters in the Republic of Letters, so literary theory becomes a like companion in pursuing and reframing our examination of the open letter form.32 J. G. Altman’s landmark work on Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, which studies mainly British and French epistolary novels, underscores that fictional correspondences and authentic correspondences operate on the very same dynamic principles. Starting from an opposite angle, Deidre Dawson and Caroline Warman approach authentic, private correspondences as epistolary novels.33 While in Voltaire’s correspondence: An Epistolary Novel, D. Dawson “explores the potential for fictional discourse of [Voltaire’s] authentic correspondence” based on the fact that Voltaire would edit his personal letters prior to publishing them, C. Warman analyzes how Isabelle de Charrière’s authentic correspondence with Constant d’Hermenches displays the qualities of a best-selling novel. Thus, D. Dawson’s reading of Voltaire’s correspondence as a novel anticipates C. Warman’s notion of a “useful non-distinction” between authentic letters and fictional letters, and, beyond the letter form, between actuality or reality, and fiction.

The blurring of entrenched binaries undertaken by D. Dawson and C. Warman goes beyond J. G. Altman in questioning the interpretive paradigm privileging authenticity over fiction, outlining new possibilities to interpret the letter form in open letters. Through D. Dawson’s perspective on Voltaire’s authentic letters as fictional the private and the public coalesce, suggesting by extension that the non-fictionality of Isabelle de Charrière’s letters mirrors the non-authenticity of Julie d’Étanges’s letters in La Nouvelle Héloïse, for instance. Looking at these three correspondences, one can infer the following: if the private characterizes de Charrière’s unpublished, authentic correspondence, if the private turned public characterizes Julie’s published, fictional correspondence, and if the private initially characterizing Voltaire’s letters turns public through the publishing process, once more the line between authentic and fictional letters is blurred, and again, the print medium is where it happens if not what makes it happen. The difference between de Charrière’s and d’Étanges’s correspondences is that Julie is a fictional character, which makes her correspondence de facto fictional, and that Isabelle is not, which makes her correspondence de facto authentic. While the same difference applies to Julie’s and Voltaire’s private correspondences, the fact that they both became public underscores that Voltaire acted as an author, but Julie did not. Across the spectrum sketched out by these three cases, as private correspondences get closer to publication, the letters in them get closer to fiction. De Charrière and Voltaire’s status as authors and letter writers credits their correspondences with a heightened awareness of the written word, whether that awareness is accompanied by an intention to publish or not. J. Altman’s, D. Dawson’s, and C. Warman’s respective approaches, then, collectively indicate that the literal and figurative crossroads where private meets public and authentic turns fictional, is the publishing industry.

As open letters only pretend to be part of an authentic personal correspondence, their private or personal form of address in a published letter simultaneously draws them toward fiction in exemplifying C. Warman’s “useful non-distinction” between fiction and non-fiction. If the letter form in open letters problematizes the link between the salon’s private circle and the public arena comprised of the Republic of Letters and the literary market, how does it do so, then?34 A look at the major epistolary novels and open letters written and/or published throughout the century easily shows that open letters do not disappear in an epistolary vacuum, but rather, keep good company with novels within the letter form as a continuum. Montesquieu’s novel Lettres persanes first appeared in print 1721 as a translation, only to be reedited in 1758 with a new preface discussing its reception as a novel.35 Mme de Sévigné’s authentic Letters to her daughter were published in 1725, rapidly becoming the literary model of letter writing for the century. Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis, written in 1733 when his Lettres philosophiques were burnt publicly for spreading English thought in France, only appeared in print in 1746 among other works.36 Mme de Graffigny’s 1747 novel Lettres d’une Péruvienne referenced the Lettres persanes in her Avertissement.37 Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles, initially thought to have been written by Voltaire himself, landed the new co-director of the Encyclopédie in prison in 1749 as it made his epistolary debut in the Republic of Letters in the middle of the controversial launch of the Encyclopédie. Despite these aggravating circumstances, it was closely followed in 1751 by the Lettre sur les sourds et muets and its additions. Rousseau’s 1758 Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles was written at the same time as his Nouvelle Héloïse, which quickly became a bestseller in 1761. In 1784, Choderlos de Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses would mark another peak in but also the decline of the popularity of the epistolary novel.

Whether one looks at the emergence of public opinion and the public sphere concurrently with the Republic of letters, or whether one looks at the advent of the subject and human rights from all sides of the novel in the literary market (the writing, the publishing and the selling, or the reading), writing authentic letters, fictional letters, open letters, nouvelles à la main, gazettes, periodicals, literary correspondences, i.e., any kind of letter-writing, it all takes place at the same time. Open letters ought to be studied then, as instances of socio-communicative and literary practices (letter writing, letter exchanges, personal or private correspondences) that intersect without prescriptive weight lying more heavily on one side or the other. Ancient letter writing provides a helpful step in invoking literary theory further to read open letters from the point of view of the letter form. A. Viala’s study of the genesis of epistolary forms in French connects the language of epistolary theory with that of cultural studies. He describes Ancient letter writing by the then analogs of eighteenth century philosophes, in terms of ambiguity between private communication and public discourse since the man and the writer are one and the same person: “[L]e modèle cicéronien implique que l’homme public garde sa prééminence même dans la correspondance d’allure privée [. . .]: on n’écrit pas tant pour se confier à un intime que pour adresser au public à travers lui un discours de forme et de portée générale.” (170) The Ancients’ influence on Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau adds weight to the idea that the private dimension of letter writing in their open letters is closely tied with the public arena that the philosophes sought to “shape and conquer,” and that the public dimension opening their letters through the print medium did play a significant part in shaping public opinion and the public sphere beyond the Republic of Letters.38

As we keep this in mind, J. G. Altman’s work on the letter form contributes to sketching a literary portrait of the open letter.39 Recall that, whatever the kind of letter one deals with, the dynamics of letter writing remains the same, governed throughout by the epistolary situation — who writes to whom. We consider ‘open’ the letters Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau wrote because, in publishing them, they shared them with the broadest possible audience. The address in their letters, both internal and external, therefore drives their content as well as their form all at once, while the public persona of their authors comes through. The letter bridges absence and presence, distance and closeness as it establishes, refers to, and represents contact with the reader (the external addressee) in the public arena at the same time as it does the same with the internal addressee. The latter becomes both the destination of the letter and a relay for the public reader to step into the conversation as a private exchange. In essence, as one reads an open letter written by Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau, because the relationship between the sender and the addressee informs the writing of the letter, all its qualifiers — anonymity, profession, title, gender, as the case may be — make one imagine themselves in that addressee’s position, and relate to the letter writer as such, ultimately experiencing what it is like to assume both the position of the internal letter reader and that of the letter writer.

The ensuing two-dimensional identification entails a kind of personality split followed by a reconstruction and greater understanding of the relationship between the philosophe (the open letter writer) and their addressee. Better yet, it sketches out an intellectual analog to the psychological process invoked by L. Hunt, as the reader’s internalization of the sender’s and the addressee’s perspectives will inform their interpretation of the letter and transform them. Let us superimpose the model of the novel onto that of the ancient polemic letter and use it as a guide to read the open letter. This renders the philosophe’s persona as “homme public” (public figure) more accessible to a readership eager to be enlightened. In addition, it also contributes to make that persona one with which the reader can relate and that s/he can choose to adopt. L. Hunt’s analysis of the reception of Richardson’s and Rousseau’s best-selling epistolary novels makes such identification — at a deeply psychological level — a catalyst in the mentality shift that enabled individuals across socioeconomic and gender boundaries alike to think about one another in terms of equality. Though the topics in the open letters of interest to us here differ from the matter of sentimental epistolary novels like Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48) or Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), we propose that they triggered something similar to what these novels did, but they did so at a deeply intellectual and cognitive level. If the characters in Richardson’s and Rousseau’s novels became household names as rapidly as their books sold and read, so did the notoriety enjoyed by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau make them household names in salons and beyond, as high-profile representatives of the Enlightenment, whose popularity was enhanced by the sensationalism now of an exile, now of a stay in prison and the threat of having the Encyclopédie not published, now of a break from the Encyclopédie coteries.

As one takes the letter form as a model for the open letter even further, the function of the letter as a bridge (between absence and presence, distance and closeness) creates a virtual world, a virtual time-space continuum across which the identification evoked above occurs through the writing, the sending, the receiving, and the reading of a letter. In terms of time, the letter unites letter writer and letter reader virtually through compressing the time of the writing, the time of the event written about, and the time of the reading into the letter as it passes from the writer and sender to the addressee. In terms of space, a letter creates and becomes a virtual meeting point for the sender and his or her addressee: s/he projects her/himself as s/he writes; her/his words take on the life-likeness of their author displaced through the assumed materiality of the letter, from the philosophe’s desk to the bookseller (often a printer)’s counter, before it reaches the reading place of choice of each of its eventual readers. This projection of self through words includes and reflects the relationship between letter writer and letter reader.

Though the publication process undergone by an open letter and an epistolary novel are technically the same, the reader potentially identifies with the philosophe and the philosophe’s addressee in the open letter in more immediate fashion than with the lover and the lover’s addressee in the novelistic letter. Indeed, the philosophe is the author of and the main character in the open letter, and the reader stands at the other end of the publishing — or the sending — of that letter. In contrast, the publication of a novel is further removed from the world of that reader who, as a reader of novels, also stands at the other end of the publishing and the selling — but not the sending — of the epistolary novel. To that extent, the genre of the novel trumps its epistolary sub-genre, despite the conventional suspension of disbelief fostered in novelistic prefaces. In reading the correspondence between Julie d’Étanges and Saint-Preux, even as the reader identifies with both ends of their letter exchanges, s/he only reads above their respective shoulders. In reading an open letter by Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau, the reader also identifies with both ends of the letter exchange, with the crucial difference that s/he inherently holds the letter into her/his hands, owing to its open address. As a result, the fact that the addressee of any letter functions as a confidante — someone to whom one imparts knowledge they did not have and/or knowledge one wishes they had — reinforces the philosophe’s persona as one that unlocks the door to knowledge acquisition, and that of his addressee as its willing recipient and acquirer.


The subjects which Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau explored by lettering in the open, were directly linked to the subversive diffusion of the Enlightenment’s characteristic goal to change the way people commonly thought in putting man and his ability to reason at the center of the universe. Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis advocated for the free exchange of ideas at the time his Lettres philosophiques were burnt at the stake in 1733. Diderot’s 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles examined the religious implications of empiricism by rebutting God’s existence through the atheist voice of English mathematician Nicholas Saunderson, which earned him three months in prison and risked jeopardizing the onset of the Encyclopédie publishing venture. As for Rousseau, his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles touched on the questionable morality of authorizing theatre houses in Geneva in response to d’Alembert entry “Genève” in the Encyclopédie, and became the token both of Rousseau’s ideological disengagement from the Dictionnaire raisonné and of his personal break with Voltaire and Diderot. By approaching the form of the open letter, and the Lettres mentioned above through the lens of epistolary theory, as we have done, one can appreciate more fully the extent of Altman’s statement that the dynamic in a letter remains the same across different types of letters.40 In particular, the private dimension in the address of the letter, combined with the public identity associated with the philosophe writing the letter, puts at the forefront of our discussion the specificity of the epistolary situation in an open letter written by Voltaire, Diderot, or Rousseau. Through the print medium, the private letter form publically becomes the Republic of Letters’ pedagogical tool par excellence in shaping a critical readership. The relationship between the role-playing inherent in the reading of their letters and the knowledge to be gained by engaging in open letter reading can now be examined further so that one may gauge more fully the impact that the experience may have had on their readers.41


Part Four — To Whom It May Concern:

As the reading begins, and the role-play unfolds, the significance of the open letter as subversive confidence increases the likelihood for the reader to want to acquire knowledge, as well as the chances that reading an open letter by a Voltaire, a Diderot, or a Rousseau, will enable her/him to duplicate the key, the knowledge, and distribute them in their stead. A general outline of this reading plot might read something like this. Philosophe X (Philosophe V, D, or R if you will) writes to Individual Y. Note that the reversibility of that situation is not strictly reciprocal — except in the case in which the actual individual after whom Individual Y is modelled will read Philosophe X’s open letter as personal. In other words, Reader Z is not Individual Y. However, Reader Z reads Philosophe X’s open letter to Individual Y, and identifies with Philosophe X as well as with Individual Y. Reader Z can now imagine her/himself privately as Philosophe X writing to Individual Y, and as Individual Y reading Philosophe X’s private letter. As s/he acts out Philosophe X’s part as well as Individual Y’s part while reading that letter, Reader Z’s own individuality turns her/him into a private figure (Individual X’) turned public (Philosophe X’). Now equipped to address Individual Y’ publically in a new open letter (or the like thereof) casting her/him as Philosophe X’, s/he may assume Philosophe X’’s writerly persona. The epistolary flow of information from the open letter to its critical readership is thus only potentially and minimally reciprocal in the strict sense. In a broader sense — the term “broader” characterizing, here, the direction and the essence of open letters — the epistolary flow of information is actually and maximally open to being re-appropriated, redirected, and redistributed further to whomever it may concern.

Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis (1733; pub. 1746)

The epistolary situation in Voltaire’s very short Lettre à un premier commis provides the framework for our study as it presents the theoretical stakes of the Republic of letters, i.e., the conditions for the free circulation of speech, ideas, and books. A letter written by a prominent homme de lettres to a book trade official, it calls on him directly and his position of power to limit restrictions on speech as the letter opens: “Puisque vous êtes, Monsieur, à portée de rendre service aux belles-lettres, ne rognez pas de si près les ailes à nos écrivains, et ne faites pas des volailles de basse-cour de ceux qui en prenant l’essor pourraient devenir des aigles; une liberté honnête élève l’esprit et l’esclavage le fait ramper.” Voltaire’s appeal is scathing: the State as it works is authoritarian and keeps the natural potential in its intellectual power house (“ceux qui en prenant l’essor pourraient devenir des aigles”) down-to-earth as mere barnyard domestication of free-thinking (“ne rognez pas de si près les ailes à nos écrivains, [. . .] volailles de basse-cour”). In passing, the monarchy becomes little more than a farm, and the production of its writers little more than cackle. State economic and political integrity is at stake, Voltaire argues, through comparisons between wealthy European states flourishing on printing French writers that the French system seems to encourage to flee or at least publish abroad: “Les pensées des hommes sont devenues un objet important du commerce. Les libraires hollandais gagnent un million par an, parce que les Français ont eu de l’esprit” Meanwhile, he continues, writers come to Paris from all over Europe to learn from France’s implicitly passing glory: “les étrangers [. . .] viennent s’instruire chez nous.” And as the French capital is also compared to a library and the circulation of books to that of foods and goods, the business of supporting the commerce of belles-lettres becomes the basis for erecting a powerful state on the international scene. Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques echo in the background, as he repeats his opening address to the Premier commis to end the Lettre à un premier commis: “Vous, Monsieur, qui [. . .] êtes à portée de donner de bons conseils, [. . .] faites, si vous pouvez, du bien aux lettres, qui en ont tant fait à la France.” As one author speaking for all his peers, one surmises, the letter writer attempts to influence his respective addressee toward legislative action.

Reading the letter, one will at least have experienced the double intellectual position 1. of Voltaire addressing a figure of power, or put differently, of an author addressing a figure of authority (and one granting the author authority through the system of printing privileges); 2. of a figure of power being addressed by an author with a fair amount of authority given his high profile as an homme de lettres. Whether one will be convinced by Voltaire’s argument is almost irrelevant. However, the tone of the letter and the public epistolary set-up Voltaire chose pits his opinion against the state of the library, against the regime’s ideology. Going through the scenario sketched out above, reading Voltaire’s open letter may well have enabled any reader to weigh the respective (lacking) merits of author and state legislator alike, likely to react in favor of belles-lettres lest one might appear to be an uneducated peasant thoughtlessly preventing his fowl from becoming eagles to the disadvantage of an impoverished State, instead of being like an enlightened ruler thoughtfully encouraging his subjects to become free-thinkers for the benefit of a thriving State.

Read as a letter, Voltaire’s Lettre regains the subversive modelling power that D. Goodman attributes to letter exchanges as the master trope of the Republic of letters.42 The epistolary situation of his piece thus stages an exchange wherein position taking makes interchangeable the power of the letter writer and that of the letter reader beyond the internal addressee, with the politically radical implications of the reversibility of letter writing pointed out by John Howland.43 This reversibility, which lies at the core of the development of the Republic of letters, acts as an equalizer and eraser of hierarchical differences.44 With a broader readership in mind than the Premier commis, as the open letter’s message and communicative gesture awaits being vetted by its addressee (once it passes or escapes censorship), the sender provides that readership with comparisons to take home with her/him, and arguments to be referred to and used in the face of poor policing. In its calling for a response from the Premier commis, Voltaire’s text can also be interpreted as an individual’s attempt to assert the emerging role of the author in the literary market. In that sense, his Lettre doubles up as a how-to manual for the author-to-be. In particular, it models the epistoler’s stance as symbolizing the writer’s voice, one that challenges the State’s legislative power and authority in matters intellectual as Diderot’s Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie would do in the 1760s.45

The anonymity both of the sender and of the addressee, however transparent the epithet of “premier commis” might have been, lays out powerful foundations for the form of the open letter to “soar to become an eagle.” As anonymity withdraws Voltaire’s identity from the text, it leaves bare his personal address to the other of the conversation (“Vous me dites”) that the letter transfers in print. The fact that Voltaire did not publish it in print until over a decade after the public burning of his Lettres philosophiques reinforces the need for the freedom expressed in the Lettre. By default, the conditions for preserving the exercise of free speech, peace and freedom that London and other great urban cultural centers enjoyed at the time, become a crucial factor to the health of any State, though they are yet to be experienced under the French monarchy. Voltaire’s decision to delay publication also underscores the necessity for an individual to take extreme care in deciding to go public with their personal, i.e., polemic opinion —both qualifiers interchangeable. When contrasted with the 16 times it was published between 1746 and 1789, though never as a separate piece, this editorial self-censorship signals the subversive power that publishing an open letter carries.46 One does not choose to be a Voltaire without taking risks.

Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) and Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751)

One does not choose to be a Diderot without taking risks either. As the Philosophe who outlasted his co-director and editor d’Alembert at the head the Encyclopédie, Diderot stands out as the Enlightenment figure whose open letters deal with the core value that knowledge represented for the era. Diderot’s involvement with the Encyclopédie began in the late 1740s at the same time as he made his official debut as a published writer beyond contributions to periodicals when his two monumental open letters on the blind and on the deaf and mute appeared in print. This context suggests that publishing open letters may have been a more efficient, more subversive, even, and certainly less expensive way to propagate one’s ideas than the unwieldy production of the 17-volume encyclopedia between 1751 and 1765, then completed by 11 additional volumes of plates through 1772. As R. Niklaus recalls, the publication of the Lettre sur les aveugles bypassed the regular channels of the printing process: “pour un homme de 1749, la Lettre sentait le fagot. Son auteur, ainsi que son éditeur, n’avaient pas même songé à obtenir le permis d’imprimer du censeur royal.” (ix) Moreover, this suggests that the anonymous epistolary situations and the fictional exchanges in the Lettre sur les aveugles, while they functioned as a protective mechanism for its subversive matter, also enhanced this subversive dimension, and indicated that publishing material in the letter form could maximize the distribution and expansion of knowledge beyond salons conversations.

As in Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis, the matter of Diderot’s acclaimed 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles and of his 1751 Lettre sur les sourds et muets pulls Diderot’s texts towards the form of the essay or the ideological pamphlet, making them less obviously epistolary than their titles otherwise claim openly.47 Carol Sherman categorizes under the umbrella of the essay the forms of essay, the letter and the dialogue as lower equivalents for more “formal [modes] like the treatise, epistle, and drama”.48 C. Sherman’s interest in “the discourse-relation that the essay establishes with its reader” in Diderot’s works parallels our own focus on the epistolary situation in Diderot’s open letters. According to her, the “aggressive oral quality” of Diderot’s style flouts the principle of exchanges in which both speaker and hearer cooperate. (18) As a result, the speaker addresses not one, but many hearers, which blurs the situation of address through “the seduction of anarchy and multiplicity.” (25)

The Lettre sur les sourds et muets embeds its epistolary nature in its very publication and blurs the situation of address associated with it.49 In a “lettre d’envoi” to publisher Bauche, Diderot’s diction exhibits the truthfulness and authenticity associated with letter writing concerning revisions to his text. Most notably, Diderot opens his letter of introduction to Bauche by insisting that the latter keep the title of letter, and the form of the letter in the edition combining Lettre and Additions: “Je vous envoie, Monsieur, la Lettre à l’Auteur des Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe, revue, corrigée & augmentée sur les conseils de mes amis, mais toujours avec son même titre,” (37) As he seemingly agrees with Bauche’s suggestions for increased clarity — one surmises — Diderot contemptuously dismisses their validity two paragraphs later: “Jeconviens encore qu’il est fait à l’imitation d’un autre qui n’est pas trop bon; mais je suis las d’en chercher un meilleur. Ainsi, de quelque importance que vous paroisse le choix d’un titre, celui de la Lettre restera tel qu’il est.” (37) Because the preface must appear with the Lettre and Additions, as Diderot insists, the genre of the Lettre gains more significance through the expectations revealed by such insistance.

What Diderot does here is to pit the integrity of his text against the rights that Bauche had acquired through buying the manuscript for publication, asserting the public value of his words, and apparently assuming that the readership will know what to do with them while sketching out disarmingly its diversity as applicable to a great many or the very few in the Lettre’s subtitle: “Je conviens que ce titre est applicable indistinctement au grand nombre de ceux qui parlent sans entendre, au petit nombre de ceux qui entendent sans parler, & au très-petit nombre de ceux qui savent parler & entendre, quoique ma Lettre ne soit gueres qu’à l’usage de ces derniers. As Diderot requests further that Bauche preserve his anonymity in publishing the Lettre, he retracts “himself” from the frame of the Lettre, against the expectation of authorial signing: “Vous pouvez donc m’imprimer, … mais que ce soit sans nom d’auteur.” (37) His gesture contradicts the allegedly insignificant choice of the title as, once the letter is published anonymously, the readers will look to the Lettre sur les aveugles for identification purposes. The title choice cannot but appear strategically and rhetorically mindful, however, pointing toward implicit conventions of letter writing, as well as toward Diderot’s flouting thereof, as his systematic rejection of publisher Bauche’s objections suggests.

Such blurring of an elusive situation of address, though it can certainly be interpreted as disorderly and unbecoming, yields more interesting results as one reads its ‘anarchic’ multiplicity constructively. In the context of our analysis of open letters, the readership of the Lettre sur les sourds et muets — as that of the Lettre sur les aveugles — becomes all inclusive, as the semi-anonymous or anonymous addressee in the letter serves to personalize the undefined readership in the subtitles and beyond.50 From the very beginning, then, the destination of the Lettre becomes more intricately layered and polyphonic with the fugue-like orchestration in the Additions augmenting the original Lettre shortly after it appeared. The Lettre and the Additions superimpose several epistolary exchanges on top of the internal exchange evoked by Diderot’s writing in response to Abbé Batteux’s treatise. Rather than a mere extension of the corpus of the Lettre, the Additions constitute a multi-faceted reaction to extra-textual responses triggered by the corpus. Glancing at the layout in the Additions, three distinct sections appear, each of them embedding another addressee in the Letter, individual or collective, and each time in a different typographical, stylistic, and thematic fashion. First comes a short and rather impersonal “Avis” (Notice) addressed “à plusieurs hommes” (to several men). It introduces the following section, a “letter” as a fictional preface might have done in order to guarantee the authenticity of the upcoming text: “Les questions auxquelles on a tâché de satisfaire dans la Lettre qui suit, ont été proposées par la personne même à qui elle est adressée; et elle n’est pas la centième femme à Paris qui soit en état d’en entendre les réponses.” This hybrid statement sets an ambiguous epistolary stage for the Additions. One is uncertain whether to consider the Avis one of the Additions, or a preface after the letter to Bauche, or a cameo-letter embedding the reader’s interpretation of “la Lettre qui suit.”

Second comes the “Lettre à Mademoiselle” which, as announced, responds explicitly to a young lady’s questions regarding the Lettre sur les sourds et muets, while implicitly extending the readership of Diderot’s personal response to her to the wider audience of individuals who can both hear and speak. The “Lettre” unfolds with the expected form of address, periodical second person references to her questions on Diderot’s discussion of sensory perceptions and their role in forming a judgment. It closes with the conventional epistolary greeting “J’ai l’honneur d’être avec un profond respect, Mademoiselle, votre très humble and très obéissant serviteur.” As one of the Additions, however, the letter reinforces the epistolarity of Diderot’s open letter as the matrix for polite conversational exchanges in the Republic of Letters, and the virtual matrix for discussing further the original Lettre sur les sourds et muets. Third, to complete this panel of educated men and a woman, some “Observations” on the choice of excerpts from the Lettre sur les sourds et muets made by Father Berthier in the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux explore yet another epistolary variant on the commentary revisiting the original Lettre sur les sourds et muets. Indeed, throughout this last section, quotations from the Journal (including page numbers) alternate with the text of Diderot’s “Observations” in direct response to Berthier’s own interpretations of the Lettre. Like the other additions, they prolong the Letter and supplement its address by staging multiple exchanges on the fine arts. Diderot’s open letter turns into a metaphoric translation of salon happenings diffracted through several epistolary conversations at once, within the virtual space opened by the published text.

This virtual dimension of the letter form is of tremendous importance as it literally compounds on the same page various facets of topics discussed at different times, each time by different speakers, each time in different contexts — professional, public, private, familiar and inviting, antagonistic and polemic. Simultaneously, these contexts situate Diderot as a member of various social circles — that of philosophers in contact with others of his kind, that of writers dealing with the constraints of the publishing industry, or that of personal relationships. Better yet, they make it quite challenging to even pinpoint a Diderot that stands out among all the avatars of the letter-writing philophe’s persona within his two Lettres. Diderot’s epistolary craft, as an idiom the meaning of which arises from the sum of its individual components, makes these avatars produce what amounts to an objective and performative statement on perception and interpretation. The Lettre simultaneously illustrates, reproduces, and comments on the phenomenological conditions for the experience and the emergence of meaning in demonstrating its reliance on context vs. the single dogmatic principle featured as the backdrop of Diderot’s epistolary experiment.

Reading backward toward the Lettre sur les aveugles and the search for knowledge defining Diderot’s role at the head of the Encyclopédie, the epistolary set-up of the Lettre sur les sourds et muets models different kinds of exchanges that offer the reader living beyond Parisian salon society the tools necessary for her/him to engage on her/his own terms in conversations with others — epistolary or otherwise — about knowledge, about the relationship between language, interpretation, and knowledge. In applying the phenomenon of intellectual identification accompanying letter reading, one finds that it overlaps dynamically with the phenomenon of psychological identification examined in the reading of novels by L. Hunt. The evolution of reading practices and the role of open letters in pursuing the expansion of the Republic of Letters beyond salon conversations, all combine with the concurrent development of emotional empathy to suggest that, in the case of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters, the epistolary situation as an intellectual exercise of fictionalization must have played a key role in gradually shaping the intellectual profile of the Enlightenment audience targeted by the Philosophes in the Republic of Letters.

The Lettre sur les aveugles channels one striking opportunity for intellectual and emotional identification through the letter form. Diderot’s letter to his anonymous friend Mme de P***, as part of its reflection on the Molyneux problem, presents conversations between Diderot and blind individuals, channelling the reader’s identification with Mme de P*** as well as with these individuals. The most famous and controversial of all is one scene that features mathematics genius Nicholas Saunderson as the representative of atheist sensualism, on his deathbed, and pastor Holmes as the representative of organized religion eager to convert him. Saunderson’s argument against the existence of God rests on his inability to see nature’s wonders or to touch God, leading to his wondering why God might have let monsters like him live unable to adhere to Holmes’s argument for the existence of God. As Diderot describes to Mme de P*** the pastor's emotional reaction to Saunderson’s plight which causes him to shed tears, the epistolary situation opens up a space for the reader (Reader Z) to insert her/him-self into the conversation between Saunderson and the Pastor via the conversation between Diderot (Philosophe X) and Mme de P*** (Individual Y), and to step in their respective positions.

The subversive power in Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles at the heart of Diderot’s imprisonment for his anticlerical piece lies in the very embedding described above. The epistolary situation or exchange models a conversation about knowledge acquisition through the senses, which leads to a cognitively intellectual identification. In synchrony, the narrated conversation or exchange models Saunderson’s near conversion to the god of religion, and perhaps even more forcefully, Saunderson’s near converting the Pastor through his appeal for empathy, which leads to a cognitively psychological identification. It speaks to the mind, and it speaks to the heart. In other words, the identification phenomenon inherent in letter reading offers the intellectual side to L. Hunt’s psychological argument on the invention of human rights. The combination of communication and creation in the letter form as well as in the form of Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles and Lettre sur les sourds et muets sketches out knowledge acquisition as a multifaceted creative process based on an exchange at the historical intersection between science, esthetics, epistemology, and authorship.

Echoing the story of Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis, the publication of Diderot’s open letters reinforces what Anne Chamayou calls “une montée en puissance de la personne” (a powerful rise of the individual) in the eighteenth-century novel, and more especially the epistolary novel, attesting the “privilège accordé au sujet du discours à travers l’authenticité stylistique de l’énonciation.”51 Concurrent with this phenomenon is the development of the literary market that grants significant importance to the readership at the receiving end of the book trade industry. Within open letters proper, the authority granted the “sujet du discours” by the readership’s purchasing power and consumption of the letter turns the open letter into a mechanism propagating a model for exchanging information and disseminating knowledge. The undefined identity of the readership mirrors the anonymity of the open letter writer, inscribing within its publication the reversibility principle of letter writing (I write to You, and make You de facto the next I in the chain of communication) as well as the equality principle implicit therein. “La Lettre,” as A. Chamayou puts it, “semble ainsi substituer au principe hiérarchique de transmission de l’oeuvre entre un écrivain et ses lecteurs un principe solidaire de réception fondé moins sur les privilèges institutionnels du statut de l’auteur que sur l’autorité du sujet de discours.” [The Lettre seems to substitute the hierarchy principle inherent in the writer transmitting his work to his readers, for a solidarity principle inherent in the reader receiving the work, which rests less on the institutional privileges of the author’s status than on the authority of the subject of discourse] (105).

Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758)

Book ending the beginnings of the Encyclopédie at the other chronological end of Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis, Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles shows an epistolary situation both broadly echoing with but also discordant from Voltaire’s and Diderot’s. Far from having started in authorial or addressee anonymity, its publication remains the culminating point of a high-visibility querelle in the century’s intellectual history.52 D. Goodman recounts the escalation in tension between the Encyclopedists and Rousseau as a metaphorical correspondence mounting from d’Alembert’s 1753 “Essai sur la société des gens de lettres et des grands,” to Rousseau’s 1754 Essai sur l’inégalité, back to d’Alembert’s Encyclopedic article on Geneva, and finally to Rousseau’s 1758 Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles: “[It] was Rousseau’s philosophical break with the Enlightenment Republic of Letters and his personal break with his friends who constituted it and battled for it against the monarchy, the church, the parlements, les grands, and now himself.” (36–39) A link from the publicity of the querelle back to an epistolary reading of Rousseau’s Lettre springs from the fact that Rousseau’s break occurred both at the level of public opinion (“[his] philosophical break with the Enlightenment Republic of Letters”) and at the level of personal opinion (“his personal break with his friends”).53 That these friends “constituted” the Republic of letters recalls the ambiguity noted in the epistolary situation sketched out earlier between philosophers and individuals. It also echoes with Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau’s symbolic status as the collective hinge between the Republic of Letters, open letters, and the Enlightenment project.

Within the immediate context of the Republic of Letters then, the Lettre à M. d’Alembert arises from the juncture between power and the citizens in that republic, the philosophes. This context creates multiple levels of address, public and private, diffracted within, or around, the writing and the publishing of the Lettre. The title page, the Preface of the Lettre, the Lettre itself, a personal missive to d’Alembert even, or yet again d’Alembert’s own open letter, all become epistolary statements that exude the rhetoric of open letters and their multivalent private and public levels of address.54 These epistolary situations in and beyond the Lettre bring the significance and performativity of Voltaire’s and Diderot’s Lettres to another level, as the publicity around the querelle informed and infused every aspect surrounding the text as letter.55 They put variants of the same faces and names on the typically semi-anonymous address in the open letter. And as they do so, they provide a more concrete illustration of the Republic of Letters than Voltaire’s and even Diderot’s open letters.

Let us open the volume in which the Lettre appears, and examine the title page as it presents the text of the ensuing letter.56 It encapsulates the rhetoricity of the open-ended epistolary situations of Voltaire’s and Diderot’s respective letters. The title page stages the epistolary situation of the Lettre as a focal point, SHOUTING its rhetoric with all the font formatting found in modern day electronic mail: the largest capital letters single out Rousseau’s name, preceded only by the familiar initials of his first name, against D’Alembert, preceded by the more formal, abbreviated use of Monsieur (“M.”). This introduction of the internal sender and receiver of the Lettre already emphasize the personal against the public, the individual against the institutional. Below Rousseau’s names, italicized and capitalized, one sees the single civil attribute of “citoyen” followed by its geographical marker “de Genève”. In contrast, the attributes following d’Alembert’s formal title paint a different portrait of the citoyen’s addressee, and mock him as the arch-philosophe through his many lengthy titles as a member of learned academies across Enlightenment Europe in addition to his editorial position at the head of the Encyclopédie. The third — Benvenistian — person of this portrait de-personalizes d’Alembert, precisely, to make him the character of the philosophe defined by his affiliation to Académies, i.e., the institutions of the Ancien régime inherited from Louis XIV’s absolutist monarchy, and the sign of a dependency that Rousseau was known for repelling forcefully. There follows a citation of d’Alembert’s entry on Geneva, the transparent topic of disagreement already known publically but only implicit in the diverging ways Rousseau and d’Alembert are just introduced on the title page. A Latin quote from Virgil’s Georgics at the bottom of the page reinforces this implicit staging of one party against the other. It separates the man and the citizen from his addressee(s) further by invoking divine judgment aligning the good and the pious with those siding with Rousseau, and equating those siding with d’Alembert with erring wanderers.

This antagonistic strategy pervades all the epistolary statements listed earlier. It recycles the “audacious discursive strategies likely to capture, disarm, strike, and even scandalize the addressee” that one finds not only in novelistic prefaces throughout the centuries, but also in legal briefs.57 Rousseau is on the defensive despite the polite manners he takes pains to display. The Préface that officializes the opening of his Lettre to the public sets the tone in the first sentence: “J’ai eu tort, si j’ai pris en cette occasion la plume sans nécessité. Il ne peut m’être ni avantageux ni agréable de m’attaquer à M. d’Alembert. Je considère sa personne, j’admire ses talents, j’aime ses ouvrages.” However, Rousseau presents his duty as indebted, not to his respect for him, but to every man’s loftier obligations to justice and truth, and his like zeal for humanity and his country (“Justice et vérité, voilà les premiers devoirs de l’homme. Humanité, patrie, voilà ses premières affections”). Rousseau, as a good citizen, must thus be concerned by the general good, and by all rather than one. Hence, the second paragraph of the Préface announces that it reproduces for “tout le monde” [every one] d’Alembert’s entry on Genève, in a statement that articulates the turning public of a private affair.58

The Lettre opens with the very same language, more personal in its tone, yet somewhat obsequious: “J’ai lu, Monsieur, avec plaisir votre article Genève dans le septième volume de l’Encyclopédie. En le relisant avec plus de plaisir encore, il m’a fourni quelques réflexions que j’ai cru pouvoir offrir, sous vos auspices, au public et à mes concitoyens.”59 Rousseau continues to signal the combination of the private and the public in addressing d’Alembert directly while dedicating the Lettre to the broader public as well as to his fellow Genevans. In publicizing his personal reaction to d’Alembert’s public statement in the Encyclopédie, Rousseau validates the open letter form as the individual’s recourse against the collective weight that the Encyclopédie carries. Put differently, as the debate is already public, the rhetoric with which Rousseau presents his side of it underscores that very gesture of putting forth one’s dissenting opinion in the face of a collective body. Similar to Voltaire’s in putting a face onto the subversive institution-like bastion of knowledge that is the Encyclopédie, the Lettre à M. d’Alembert points to a reading of the great dictionary as the open letter of the Enlightenment in responding to no less than its co-editor and author through the case of the entry on Geneva.

Overall, the staging of the epistolary situation in Rousseau’s open letter goes well beyond the general Philosophe X and Individual Y within its text as it occurs at the concrete level of the publication of the Lettre. Through its careful fugue-like orchestration, Rousseau repeatedly presents Jean-Jacques in the same epistolary gesture, in defense of Genevan citizens and more broadly of the public’s ability to stand for themselves as representatives of their constituency who can decide for themselves whether to open theatres in it or not, as opposed to following blindly the views expounded by Philosophes in the Republic of Letters. This eventually creates the epistolary conditions for Reader Z to question not only forces against the Encyclopédie’s large-scale project to reform the way people thought, but also Enlightenment itself. If one considers open letters as an instance of epistolary expansion of the Republic of Letters beyond the semi-private confines of Parisian salons, then the Lettre à d’Alembert undermines its conversations: its readership can perpetuate Rousseau’s questioning the very authority of the Encyclopédie over knowledge-making and knowledge distributing. Especially interesting to an epistolary reading of the Lettre à d’Alembert, the highly public status of the Lettre within the Republic turns it into an intermediary link between the other open letters we have considered on one side, and the Republic of Letters on the other. Rousseau’s editorial masterpiece offers an epistolary mise en abyme of the tension between the Encyclopédie and the monarchy: in an allegorical replay of the Ancien régime as a conflict between the individual and the institution, the author, or the citizen, and the state as absolutist knowledge maker and keeper, ironically, Rousseau embodies the Encyclopédie’s goal against the Encyclopedist monarchy.


Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis and Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert taken together provide a snapshot of how the epistolary situation in these open letters reflects the core dynamics of the Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment. In particular, the identification process inscribed therein outlines the contours of an enlightened subject able to hold his/her own in the face of State authority, or any authority for that matter. Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles and Lettre sur les sourds et muets, with their particular focus on sensory knowledge acquisition, not only provide that emerging subject with the tools to enact the Encyclopédie’s envisioned democratization of knowledge, but also distributes these tools on a scale more easily extensive and individualized than the great dictionary could.60 All the letters we have approached as case studies of lettering in the open provide models of communication around these themes: from the inflammatory Voltairian appeal which an individual can make to a power representative; to the various ways in which, following Diderot’s conversational style, individuals can debate a topic with each other, within the salon circles of Paris in front of other listeners, or beyond their urban bounds; to the Rousseauian model turning up the Republic of Letters to expose its own dogmatic bend. In the process, open letters have, indeed, appeared as the print equivalent of the salons, creating, modelling, and multiplying networks of exchange through the circulation of letters and epistolary commerce that they embedded.

The private or personal dimension of the address in these key Enlightenment texts appeared originally to be but a pretext, and yet turned out to be so much more. It played the framing role that the novelistic preface would in epistolary fiction throughout the century, guaranteeing the authenticity of the events recounted therein.61 What that recurrent epistolary situation in open letters continuously fed the readership of the Republic of letters was the increasing familiar assurance that the private individual carried its weight of authenticity as much and as well as any public body of authority. In fact, in making the private exchange public through their letters, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau concomitantly publicized that exchange as an integral part of the subversive power otherwise attributed to their content. Their open letters explored what it meant for a private individual to be not speaking but writing in public at a unique level — the reach of their discourse more profound, and more profoundly symbolic than most. Just as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau disseminated Enlightenment via the Literary Correspondence that only the crowned elite of Europe would receive, so they disseminated it the other way around through open letters that could potentially reach everybody else. The epistolary models of communication in their open letters provided the mental and intellectual space for individuals to imagine themselves as, and identify with the great philosophes they may not have known personally.62 Ultimately, through their open letters, these extraordinary individuals and public figures outlined and guided the way the private could overlap with the public. They emulated epistolary exchanges and correspondences as a pathway that created and fostered relativism at the very same time it communicated it as a way of writing, a way of becoming, and a way of being that continues to resonate with us today.

— Isabelle C. DeMarte, Lewis and Clark College


1 See Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters. A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1994; and Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights. A History, New York, N.Y., W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. This essay is greatly indebted to both studies.

2 Though we quote D. Goodman selectively here — she compares “[t]he pamphlet wars of the eighteenth century” with “letter exchanges” — the context of her comparison does apply to all forms of correspondence. (137) Our focus is on the dimension of these epistolary exchanges as a multi-level phenomenon whereby letters simultaneously constitute not only the vehicle of the exchange, and its signal, as it were, but also the springboard enabling and performing the expansion of the Republic of Letters as it establishes continuity beyond the salons. See infra for a fuller quotation of this passage.

3 See D. Goodman 137 (we underline), and L. Hunt 35–50.

4 See D. Goodman 138 and L. Hunt 40. Mireille Bossis and Charles A. Porter co-edited a volume that explores the doublet of communication and creation in epistolary writing in L'Epistolarité à travers les siècles, geste de communication et/ou d'écriture: colloque, Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1990.

5 See D. Goodman 143, and L. Hunt 43. For the editions of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s Lettres referenced hereafter, see respectively Voltaire, Lettre à un premier commis, Pierre Rétat, ed., in The Complete Works of Voltaire, 9. 1732–1733, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1999: 319–322; Denis Diderot, Lettre sur les aveugles, à l’usage de ceux qui voient, Robert Niklaus, ed. Genève: Droz, 1970, and Lettre sur les sourds et muets, à l’usage de ceux qui parlent et entendent, Paul Hugo Meyer, ed. Genève: Droz, 1965; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles, Léon Fontaine, ed. Paris: Garnier-Frères, 1889.

6 See “La littérature épistolaire date-t-elle du XVIIIe siècle?” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 16 (1967), 823–844. G. May formulates ideas at stake both in D. Goodman’s and L. Hunt’s respective treatment of the letter form, specifically, that the letter form in the eighteenth century opens an endless era of freedom of expression of self, personal and private. Interestingly enough, G. May parallels the ‘invention’ of freedom with that of the letter, linking directly with L. Hunt’s hypothesis. In that sense, we explore the idea that open letters may have played a unique role in the advent of modern notions of subjectivity and authorship.

7 Pierre Rétat’s edition of Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis situates it in the context of debates on the freedom of the press, subsuming its epistolarity under the implicit category of polemic writings, as is the case for Diderot’s Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie, not included in this essay. Rare studies bear on the form of Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles and Lettre sur les sourds et muets. Constance Cartmill’s article titled “ ‘À l’usage de…’: les stratégies d’adresse dans la Lettre sur les aveugles et la Lettre sur les sourds et muets de Diderot” (in Georges Bérubé et Marie-France Silver [eds.], La Lettre au XVIIIe siècle et ses avatars, Toronto: Gref, 1996, 353–365) ranks among them. So does Marie-Hélène Chabut’s study of “La Lettre sur les aveugles: l’écriture comme écart,” which reads the Lettre as “écart” [departure] from a number of norms in SVEC 201 (1982): 163–83, or Mary Byrd Kelly’s piece “Saying by implicature: The Two Voices of Diderot in La Lettre sur les aveugles” which focuses on the letter as conversation in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 12 (1983): 231–41. Its scope rather specific, C. Cartmill’s insights into the dual level of address in Diderot’s open letters apply to open letters in general. More often than not, scholarly work on these letters focuses on specific aspects subsumed within the letter form, and take it as a backcloth or, on the contrary, do not dwell on it altogether, as Ruth Caldwell’s “Structure de la Lettre sur les sourds et muets” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 84 (1971): 109–22. Daniel Brewer’s in-depth look at both letters in chapter III of his book-length study of Diderot’s “art of philosophizing,” the subtitle of his Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France (England: Cambridge University Press, 1993) approaches Diderot’s epistolary style as innovative representation of his philosophical or aesthetic ideas. As far as Rousseau is concerned, Christopher Kelly’s article “Taking Readers as They Are: Rousseau’s Turn from Discourses to Novels,” frames the form of the Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles as a transitional point in the evolution of Rousseau’s style. See Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 33 no. 1 (1999): 85–101. Ourida Mostefai poses the question of Rousseau’s text as a “Troisième discours” in “La Lettre à d'Alembert, troisième 'Discours' de Rousseau?” in Melissa Butler, Rousseau on Arts and Politics: Autour De La Lettre À D'alembert (Ottawa: Association nord-américaine des études Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1997): 161-170. Her work is incorporated in Le Citoyen De Genève Et La République Des Lettres: Étude De La Controverse Autour De La Lettre À D'alembert De Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (New York: P. Lang, 2003) D. Goodman discusses the Lettre à d’Alembert as an inflammatory statement and position-taking made by Rousseau to “break with the Enlightenment Republic of letters” and to officialize his “personal break with his friends who constituted it and battled for it against the monarchy, the church, the parlements, les grands, and now himself,” with the partial result to derail the progress of the Encyclopédie. (The Republic of Letters, 38–40)

8 The idea and its phrasing come straight from Diderot’s entry “Encyclopédie” in the Encyclopédie, at a point where he discusses the revolutionary potential of a well thought-out encyclopedia through the use of cross-references: “Si ces renvois de confirmation & de réfutation sont prévus de loin, & préparés avec adresse, ils donneront à une Encyclopédie le caractere que doit avoir un bon dictionnaire; ce caractere est de changer la façon commune de penser.” (V: 643)

9 Diderot’s entry “Encyclopédie” combines the intellectual argument for doing so with the emotional appeal that it may have on readers, outlining the identification mechanism inherent in letter reading: “C'est la présence de l'homme qui rend l'existence des êtres intéressante; & que peut - on se proposer de mieux dans l'histoire de ces êtres, que de se soûmettre à cette considération? Pourquoi n'introduirons - nous pas l'homme dans notre ouvrage, comme il est placé dans l'univers? Pourquoi n'en ferons — nous pas un centre commun? Est - il dans l'espace infini quelque point d'où nous puissions avec plus d'avantage faire partir les lignes immenses que nous nous proposons d'étendre à tous les autres points? Quelle vive & douce réaction n'en résultera - t - il pas des êtres vers l'homme, de l'homme vers les êtres? […] L'homme est le terme unique d'où il faut partir, & auquel il faut tout ramener, si l'on veut plaire, intéresser, toucher” in Encyclopédie, V: 641.

10 For a discussion of each of these epistolary venues, see D. Goodman, 152–174.

11 See D. Goodman, “Public Sphere and Private Life”: Toward a Synthesis of Current Historiographical Approaches to the Old Regime” History and Theory, vol. 31, no.1 (Feb. 1992): 1–20. Her overview of the traditions established by historians of private life and theoreticians of the public sphere alike frames her questioning the opposition between the public sphere and the private sphere in relation to Habermas’s work. She underscores that the scholarly binary between private and public separates aspects of the same evolution and of the same rather than of diverging phenomena, to claim that “the relationship between public and private spheres can shed light on both the origins of the French Revolution in the Old Regime and the role and position of women in the political culture of the Old Regime.” (2) This claim links directly to L. Hunt’s discussion of the invention of human rights and gender through the reception of epistolary novels and their characters. (58–69) D. Goodman’s framing of the opposition between the private and public spheres overlaps with the opposition that this essay puts into question, between private correspondences and epistolary novels. Her study suggests that history aligns with life, and theory with life as an object of interpretation. Likewise, private correspondences align with life, and epistolary novels with life as an object of representation.

12 We use the term “addressee” to designate the person or persons to whom the letter is addressed. The addressee is qualified as “internal” when referring to the person or persons addressed directly in a letter (e.g., “Monsieur” in Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis, “Madame” in Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles). The addressee is qualified as “external” when referring to the person or persons addressed indirectly through and beyond the internal addressee. Though these labels seem to define the address of the open letter rather clearly at first sight, each of them is often already complicated within the letter itself. Diderot’s two Letters each include a subtitle “à l’usage de ceux qui voient” and “à l’usage de ceux qui entendent et qui parlent” as well as a Latin epigraph, which adds layers of address to the letters, and, of course, diffracts how direct and transparent one might wish the situation of address to be.

13 Cp. with the Encyclopedic entry on “Lettres” and its section on “Lettres des modernes” in which letters are characterized by their ability to encompass anything as opposed to the more serious “Lettres des anciens”. See IX: 405–441 in Jean le Rond D’Alembert et Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 17 vols., Paris: Lebreton, 1751–1772. In Der Offene Brief. Geschichte und Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Günter Grass, Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2000, Rolf-Bernhard Essig offers an extensive typology of polemic letters. Our purpose here, however, is less to examine the polemic dimension of the open letters under consideration, than it is to privilege a literary reading of these texts.

14 See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989, 34. (Quoted in D. Goodman, 148)

15 See D. Goodman: “The salon took its place beside the academics and other cultural institutions of interest to European readers. The receipt and circulation of a letter by Voltaire or a discussion of the politics of the grain trade or the reading of a new poem was news in the Republic of Letters.” (162) Though this remark does not refer specifically to an open letter, or to a specific kind of letter, it gives a sense of the kind of public status one such letter by Voltaire or another of the philosophes inherently carried.

16 See Alain Viala on the transformation of a manuscript: the original, once sold to the bookseller, becomes the “matrix” for the printed text, which, once turned from handwritten to type cast material, can then be printed, and reprinted over and over. (“L'auteur et son manuscrit dans l'histoire de la production littéraire', in L'Auteur et le manuscrit, éd. Michel Contat, Paris, 1991, 95–118)

17 We address the potential obstacle of the epistolary situation in Rousseau’s Lettre in Part Two, infra.

18 The assumption being that such a label does carry meaning, as Gérard Genette recalls: “la perception générique, on le sait, oriente et détermine dans une large mesure l' ‘horizon d'attente’ du lecteur, et donc la réception de l’œuvre”. (Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré, Paris, 1982). (11)

19 Diderot’s 1763 Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie famously complains about the role of state legislation in encouraging book production on the black market. The publication of works in high demand often slowed down due to the bureaucratic delays inherent in the printing privileges system. As a result, booksellers and printers often had an active, if paradoxical, hand in the black market to sustain themselves. See Lettre historique et politique adressée à un magistrat sur le commerce de la librairie, son état ancien et actuel, ses règlements, ses privilèges, les permissions tacites, les censeurs, les colporteurs, le passage des ponts et autres objets relatifs à la police littéraire, in Œuvres complètes, t. VIII, John Lough and Jacques Proust (eds.), Paris, Hermann, 1976, 479–567.

20 J. Habermas, quoted in D. Goodman, 138.

21 D. Goodman does not write about open letters specifically. She does cite Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles and Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert briefly to recall that “the letter was already prevalent by 1760 as the form of writing that brought writers and readers together on a footing of equality” and mentions the genre as one amongst those “uniting a vast web of readers into a network of exchanges.” (137–8) Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert appears in several other instances in the context of ideological debates and querelles as a vector of Rousseau’s “voice,” though not explicitly linked to the letter form. (See “The Rise of the State” in The Republic of Letters, 12–52) The argument made here as in the rest of this essay aims at highlighting open letters against other kinds of epistolary texts current in the Republic of Letters, as well as at making sense of the challenges inherent in this enterprise.

22 See M.-C. Grassi’s “La Correspondance comme discours du privé au XVIIIe siècle” in L’Épistolarité à travers les siècles, 180–183.

23 D. Goodman examines the role of the royal post in creating “a public out of those who sent and received letters.” Its development reached a peak in the early 1760s — around the same time Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse appeared — resulting in the publication of almanacs that listed the “arrivals and departures” of news through the mail. (140–144)

24 The first part in Roger Chartier and Henri-Jean Martin’s L'Histoire de l'édition française (t.2: Le livre triumphant, Paris, 1990) sketches out a comprehensive picture of the book production process.

25 Henri Falk details the intricacies of the printing privilege system in Les Privilèges De La Librairie Sous L'ancien Régime: Étude Historique Du Conflit Des Droits Sur L'oeuvre Littéraire. Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1970.

26 Georges May’s full sentence reads: “[i]l est une autre sorte de liberté née du XVIIIe siècle qui n’est pas étrangère, elle non plus, à la fortune de la littérature épistolaire du temps. Aspect particulier de la liberté de pensée, c’est celle qu’on pourrait appeler la liberté de se penser soi-même. Antérieure à celle de s’exprimer soi-même, elle en est comme la condition.” (841)

27 See Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982. This is, of course, in the context of her study of epistolary novels. However, the essentially creative process at the origin of the writing and publishing of epistolary novels might as well be considered to be differing only in degree from the essentially communicative process at the origin of letter writing and the non–publishing of authentic letters.

28 Attesting the enormous rise in the number of publications in the eighteenth century, H. Falk notes that book trade censorship officers went from 4 when they were first appointed in 1624 to 82 in 1751 at the dawn of the Encyclopédie when Diderot’s open letters had started appearing in print or were being published, to reach 121 in 1763, just a few years after Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d’Alembert and the Nouvelle Héloïse appeared in print. See Les Privilèges de la librairie.

29 See R. Niklaus’s introduction to his critical edition of the Lettre, lv.

30 See “La Genèse des formes épistolaires en français et leurs sources latines et européennes. Essai de chronologie distinctive (XVIe-XVIIe s.)” in Revue de littérature comparée, vol. 55, no.2 (avril-juin 1981): 168–183.

31 The fact that Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s do not appear in the authors’ correspondences attests to that.

32 Scholarly work on the letter form focuses largely on the novel as the literary form of the European Enlightenment while correspondences remains the other major form of letter writing falling under scholarly scrutiny. Inbetween, there spreads every other form of epistolary communication possible, the disciplinary or professional bias and qualification of which takes over the letter form, owing, in part, to the interdisciplinary trend in scholarship. Essay collections published over the past twenty years or so attest to that: Mireille Bossis and Charles A. Porter, L'Epistolarité à travers les siècles: geste de communication et/ou d'écriture: colloque, Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1990; Mireille Bossis, La lettre à la croisée de l’individuel et du social, Actes du colloque de l’INRP. Paris, Kimé, mars 1994; Georges Bérubé et Marie-France Silver, La Lettre au XVIIIe siècle et ses avatars, Toronto: Gref, 1996; Roger Chartier, Alain Boureau, and Cécile Dauphin, Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997; Benoît Melançon, Penser par lettre: actes du colloque d'Azay-Le-Ferron, mai 1997, Saint-Laurent, Québec: Fides, 1998.

33 See D. Dawson, Voltaire’s correspondence: An Epistolary Novel New York: P. Lang, 1994. See also C. Warman's essay “Isabelle de Charrière: from real to fictional correspondences” in this Letterbook.

34 On the development of the literary market, see Roger Chartier, “ ‘Les voies de l'impression’: régime de la librairie et champ littéraire,” dans Les Origines culturelles de la Révolution française (Paris, 1990); and Geoffrey Turnovsky, “Conceptualising the literary market: Diderot and the Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie,” SVEC (2003:01), 135–67.

35 In these “Réflexions sur les Lettres persanes,” Montesquieu recognizes the popular appeal of the harem plot as one common in novels, but explicitly links the digressions and philosophical observations in his to the letter form. See Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, vol. I, Roger Caillois ed., Paris: Gallimard, 1949, 130.

36 See page 311 in Pierre Rétat’s introduction, 311–317.

37 Françoise de Graffigny, Lettres D'une Péruvienne, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993, 3.

38 D. Goodman, 137.

39 For details on the features mentioned hereafter, see relevant chapters in J. Altman on Epistolarity — “Epistolary Mediation”, “Of Confidence and Confidants”, “The weight of the reader”, “Epistolary Discourse”.

40 Our focus on actual and fictional letters rests on the argumentative need to provide a suitable framework in reading Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters. From hereon, the door remains ajar for any other kind of text written in the epistolary form to be studied from that point of view. Encyclopedic articles such as “Epistolaire” (V: 820–21), “Epître” (V: 816) or “Lettres” (IX: 405–441) help in seeing that, whether personal or public, anecdotal or historical, novelistic or scientific, each kind displayed its own rhetorical variation of sincerity, authenticity, truthfulness, or factuality. Consequently, ambiguity lay at the heart of sincerity, authenticity, truthfulness, or factuality, also viewed as qualities by default, defined as they were by a lack of form, of formality, in short, of rhetoricity.

41 This last section constitutes only a preliminary foray into the epistolary reading of Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s open letters. The current essay develops previous work in which we interpret Diderot’s Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie and its controversial reception through the lens of epistolarity. See “Détournements d’auteur: Les surprises de l’épistolarité dans la Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie de Denis Diderot”, SVEC (2008: 06) 127–166; and “Échange à trois: les dessous romanesques de la Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie de Denis Diderot” in Recherches sur Diderot et L’Encyclopédie, 43 (2008): 71–90.

42 Pierre Rétat acknowledges in his critical edition of Voltaire’s Lettre that its publication as part of Voltaire’s correspondence is a mistake, especially since it was originally published in Mélanges de littérature et de philosophie in Oeuvres diverses de M. de Voltaire and thereafter in various editions of Voltaire’s complete works or collected works. This leads him to state that “[t]out prouve en effet qu’il s’agit d’un factum en forme épistolaire adressé à un correspondant fictif supposé être un haut fonctionnaire au service ministériel de la Librairie (c’est le sens de ‘premier commis’)” (312).

43 See The Letter Form and the French Enlightenment: The Epistolary Paradox, New York, Peter Lang: 1991.

44 This adds an interesting twist to Voltaire’s epistolary relationship with Frederick II of Prussia, or to Diderot’s own epistolary relationship with Catherine II of Russia, and, in a less direct manner, to the dynamics at work in Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire.

45 Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis exposes concisely issues on which Diderot’s 1763 Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie, would expand considerably. Like Voltaire’s text, Diderot’s is mostly considered a factum or memorandum because it was originally internal to the administration of the Librairie, and remained unpublished during Diderot’s lifetime. It did not, therefore, circulate as such in the Republic of Letters — though Diderot did express his intention to publish a piece on freedom of thought in a letter to Madame de Meaux. (See Diderot, Œuvres complètes, Jean Assézat et Maurice Tourneux, vol.5, Paris, 1875–1877, 991). Diderot’s Lettre displays the features ascribed here to Voltaire’s, Diderot’s, and Rousseau’s published letters. Most significantly, its epistolary situation recalls that in Voltaire’s text. It stages Diderot addressing somewhat informally Sartine, former Librairie police chief newly appointed at the head of the Librairie, at the magistrate’s request, to inform him about the state of the book trade. The highly symbolic status of its sender, addressee, and subject, makes it a mise en abyme of the forces at play in the Enlightenment and already portrayed in Voltaire’s Lettre à un premier commis. See our “Détournements d’auteur: Les surprises de l’épistolarité dans la Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie de Denis Diderot” cited above.

46 See Pierre Rétat’s introduction, 314–315.

47 John Milton’s 1750 translation of Diderot’s Lettre as an “essay” turns its epistolarity into a vehicle for channelling Diderot’s thought. See An Essay on Blindness, in a Letter to a Person of Distinction ... with Copper-Plates ... the Third Edition, pl. 6, for J. Barker: London, [c. 1750]. R. Niklaus calls Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles “un modèle brillant de pamphlet idéologique.” (liv) The summary titles in the 2000 special issue of Recherches sur Diderot et l’Encyclopédie on Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles give a good example of this. Contributions focus on “Le Problème Molyneux de Locke à Diderot” (Marc Charpentier), “La Lettre sur les aveugles et le bâton de la raison” (Véronique Le Ru), “Géométrie et métaphysique dans la Lettre sur les aveugles de Diderot” (André Charrak), “Qu’appelle-t-on sentir?” (Michèle Crampe-Casnabet), “La Lettre sur les aveugles et l’éducation des sens” (Sophie Audidière), “Le matérialisme dans la Lettre sur les aveugles” (Jean-Claude Bourdin), “Une philosophie d’aveugle: la matière fait de l’esprit” (Annie Ibrahim), “La fin du finalisme. Les deux natures : Holmes et Saunderson” (Colas Duflo). To be fair, one must acknowledge that the volume came out of scholarly presentations on philosophy in Diderot’s Lettre (see Pierre Chartier’s Présentation of the volume). At the same time, regardless of what we must also acknowledge as our own bias in reading open letters as letters, philosophy and literature did go hand in hand in the eighteenth century.

48 See “Diderot’s Speech-Acts: Essay, Letter, and Dialogue,” French Literature Series, 9 (1982): 18–29. That particular volume focuses on “The French Essay”.

49 P.H. Meyer’s introduction to the Lettre details its chronology and genealogy. The epistolary dimension of its form, however, remains subsumed under the categories of “pensées” and “dialogue” attributed to it by Roland Mortier in “Diderot et le problème de l’expressivité: de la pensée au dialogue heuristique” (Cahiers de l’Association Internationale des Études Françaises, 13 (1961): 283–297. As is the case for the Lettre sur les aveugles, the form of the Lettre sur les sourds et muets evokes interest only in passing owing to the disciplinary or thematic focus in the studies it generated. See, for instance Herbert Josephs, “The Philosophe as Poet: Metaphor and Discovery in Diderot’s re sur les sourds et muets,” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 20.2 (1973): 143–151; Suzanne Pucci, “The Figures of ‘Inversion’ in Language Theory in Lettre sur les sourds et muets” in her Diderot and a Poetics of Science, New York, Peter Lang, 1986, 95–120; Downing Thomas, “Musicology and Hieroglyphics: Questions of Representations in Diderot,” Eighteenth-Century Theory and Interpretation 35.1 (1994): 64–77; Kate Tunstall, “Hieroglyph and Device in Diderot’s Lettre sur les sourds et muets,” Diderot Studies, 28 (2000): 161–172.

50 For a more detailed analysis of the multiple levels of address in Diderot’s open letters, see C. Sherman and C. Cartmill.

51 See L'Esprit De La Lettre (XVIIIe Siècle), Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999, 77.

52 D. Goodman recounts the various stages of this querelle in The Republic of Letters. (35–40).

53 Marc Buffat succinctly traces the chronology of this break in the first appendix to his edition of Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert. M. Buffat’s account mentions a conversation between Diderot and Rousseau, then best friends and confidants, when Diderot mentioned the Encyclopedic entry on Geneva to Rousseau at that time, leading to the break between friend philosophes and philosophe friends. The next appendix emphasizes this personal origins and public ramifications of the break by quoting Rousseau’s own account of the episode in Book X of the Confessions. See 197–199 and 199–202 respectively in Rousseau, Lettre à d’Alembert, Paris: Flammarion, 2003.

54 Rousseau’s missive and d’Alembert’s open letters can be found in L. Fontaine, respectively in Appendices IV and III (300–333 and 334).

55 D. Goodman refers to the reaction of a reader stunned by the publicity that the break between Diderot and Rousseau generated: “It’s incredible. People don’t talk of anything but of those fellows. Persons without an establishment, who don’t have a house, who are lodged in a garret. One just can’t get used to all that.” (Marquis de Castries, quoted in The Republic of Letters, 40).

56 The title page of the original edition looks something like this:

J.-J. ROUSSEAU
CITOYEN DE GENÈVE,
A M. D’ALEMBERT,
De l’Académie française, de l’Académie Royale des
Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse, de la Société
Royale de Londres, de l’Académie Royale des Bel-
les-Lettres de Suède, et de l’Institut de Bologne:

Sur son Article GENÈVE
Dans le VIIe. Volume de l’ENCYCLOPÉDIE,
ET PARTICULIÈREMENT,
sur le projet d’établir un
THÉÂTRE DE COMÉDIE en cette Ville.
Dii meliora piis, erroremque hostibus illum.

(Amsterdam: Marc Michel Rey, 1758)

57 In another context, one could pursue a fruitful comparison between the novelistic preface and the legal brief as variants of the private-turns-public dynamics of open letters. Elizabeth Zawisza examines the first genre in “Les introductions auctoriales dans les romans des lumières ou du bon usage de la préface” (Romanic Review 83.3 [1992]: 281–296). We quote her here. (285) Nadine Bérenguier studies the public representation of women through novelistic and judicial discourses in printed legal briefs. See her article “Victorious Victims: Women and Publicity in Mémoires judiciaires” in Going Public. Women and Publishing in Early Modern France, Ed. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. The rapprochement between Rousseau’s open letter and the novel fits in with reading open letters between authentic letters and fictional letters.

58 In addition, the Lettre, as Rousseau describes in his Confessions how he came to use the Lettre to break with Diderot, includes another avatar of the open letter form. A footnote becomes the opportunity for him to break up with Diderot: “Je m’avisai d’insérer, par forme de note, dans mon ouvrage, un passage de l’Ecclésiastique, qui déclarait cette rupture, et même le sujet, assez clairement pour qui était au fait, et ne signifiait rien pour le reste du monde.” (Page 202 in Marc Buffat, opus cited). The use of footnotes in the Lettre, while it links the open letter to its public dimension via the typographical apparatus afforded by publication, reverses it to a private statement in this case. From our perspective on the flow of information from the letter writer to Reader Z via a private persona, what is public becomes, and equates, what is private. Even as this passage from the Confessions discount Z’s ability to understand the personal allusion mediated through a biblical quotation in the Lettre, it acknowledges Z’s ability by default as it implicitly rectifies Rousseau’s concealing gesture.

59 The authentic letter Rousseau wrote to d’Alembert before publishing his open letter takes up again the same language in a version that reads more appropriate to the private epistolary context while doubling up as yet another variant on the dynamic turn from private to public that open letters enact. A sense of obligation strikingly opens the letter, as Rousseau sets it off by inserting an address to d’Alembert while delaying mention of his entry on Geneva: “J’ai dû, Monsieur, répondre à votre article Genève: je l’ai fait, et je vous ai même adressé cet écrit.” In fact, his sense of obligation takes over half of the one-paragraph missive as Rousseau compares it to familial obligations, eventually to invoke his choosing his country as a matter of justice: “Je suis sensible aux témoignages de votre souvenir, et à l’honneur que j’ai reçu de vous en plus d’une occasion ; mais vous nous donnez un conseil pernicieux, et si mon père en avait fait autant, je n’aurais pu ni dû me taire. J’ai tâché d’accorder ce que je vous dois avec ce que je dois à ma patrie ; quand il a fallu choisir, j’aurais fait un crime de balancer.”

60 Diderot’s entry “Encyclopédie” emphatically and enthusiastically states: “Les connoissances les moins communes sous le siecle passé, le deviennent de jour en jour. Il n'y a point de femmes, à qui l'on ait donné quelqu'éducation, qui n'employe avec discernement toutes les expressions consacrées à la Peinture, à la Sculpture, à l'Architecture, & aux Belles - Lettres. Combien y a - t - il d'enfans qui ont du Dessein, qui savent de la Géométrie, qui sont Musiciens, à qui la langue domestique n'est pas plus familiere que celle de ces arts, & qui disent, un accord, une belle forme, un contour agréable, une parallele, une hypothénuse, une quinte, un triton, un arpégement, un microscope, un télescope, un foyer, comme ils diroient une lunette d'opera, une épée, une canne, un carrosse, un plumet? Les esprits sont encore emportés d'un autre mouvement général vers l'Histoire naturelle, l'Anatomie, la Chimie, & la Physique expérimentale. Les expressions propres à ces sciences sont déja très - communes, & le deviendront nécessairement davantage.” See V: 636.

61 Chamayou recalls that the notion of “authenticité” shifts throughout the eighteenth century from one that gradually refers less and less to the truth value of a text deemed authentic, and more and more to the accuracy of the text itself. (L’Esprit de la lettre 75–76) In so recalling, the individual voice of an author — and beyond it, the voice of a private individual — gains more currency.

62 In that sense, our perspective applies the valorization of what Chamayou calls the position of the writer “en situation d’adresse et en position d’absence” to Voltaire’s, Rousseau’s, and Diderot’s open letters, by arguing that these open letters in particular signal “une intention rhétorique et une attitude philosophique qui dessinent les contours d’un nouvel espace intellectuel” (L’Esprit de la lettre 48–49).

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