Cartesian Networks

1646 was a difficult year for the French philosopher René Descartes. The disputes with Protestant theologians had taken their toll on him and were not yet over. The political instability of France, which was on the verge of civil war, made the possibility of a return to his home country—after 18 years of self-imposed exile—very unlikely. Moreover, with Elizabeth of Bohemia’s permanent departure from the Dutch Republic in August 1646, Descartes lost both a friend and a potential patron. Confronted with this situation, Descartes sought comfort in his friend Claude Picot, penning a letter to him in which he expressed his feelings as follows:

I complain that the world is too big for the small number of honest people that live in it; I wish they were all gathered in the same town, and then I would be very happy to leave my retreat and go live with them, if they wanted to accept me in their company. Indeed, although I shy away from the multitude for the quantity of impertinents and importunates that are found therein, I still believe that the greatest joy in life is have a conversation with the people one esteems.

These words well capture the tension between isolation and openness to the world that Descartes experienced throughout his life. By his own admission, he left France for the Dutch Republic in search of peace and solitude. On the other hand, his ground-breaking views earned him a reputation as an innovator, leading to the creation of a network of Cartesians that was essential in promoting Descartes’ philosophy in the Dutch Republic and beyond. In recent years, historians have paid increasing attention to the role played by social and intellectual networks in the processes of knowledge creation and dissemination. At the same time, in the last two decades or so, quantitative network analysis has grown to become a full-blown scientific discipline with its own research centers and university courses. Taking advantage of these parallel developments, this project show how the use of techniques and methods developed by network scientists can yield new insights into the structure and dynamics of the networks that guaranteed the success of Cartesian philosophy and science in early modern Europe.

NB: Cartesian Networks is still in the research phase. Any update will be posted on this website. Stay tuned!

The project Cartesian Networks has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 891747.