Marcelo Dascal


Marcelo Dascal and Cristina Marras

Tel Aviv University

1. Introduction

From the Renaissance onwards, and especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, the learned from Europe considered themselves to be the citizens of a supra-national community whose main concern was the advancement of learning. Most of them conceived of this community as a “republic” whose sovereign was Reason, under whose sole rule cooperation and freedom of thought would usher mankind into what Comenius described as the seventh and last terrenial degree of “light” – that of universal panharmonia. This “virtual” republic was materially supported by an extremely effective network for the exchange of information and for cooperation, including correspondences, scientific and literary academies, visits to fellow scholars, quick printing and circulation of books, journals and transactions published with a high frequency, prompt publication of reactions (reviews, replies to criticism, etc.) to published work, and so on.

Both the ideology and the infra-structure of the “République des Lettres”, as well as its socio-political environment, have been extensively described and analyzed. Yet, little attention has been paid to the fact that not everything was harmonic and idyllic in the republic of the learned. In particular, as far as we know, no description and explanation has been given of the scope and significance of the phenomenon of polemics, disputes, debates, contests, quarrels and controversies among the learned in the period in question.

Our aim in this paper is to describe, analyze, and suggest an explanation of the occurrence of this phenomenon in the Enlightenment’s République des Lettres. For this purpose, we will rely upon some preliminary findings of a broad empirical and theoretical study, which is currently being performed by a German-Israeli inter-disciplinary research team to which we belong. We will begin with an overview of the scope of the phenomenon, pointing out its widespread occurrence, its depth and its thematically encompassing nature. We will then consider the ways in which the scholars of the time reacted to and conceptualized the phenomenon in question. Finally, we will propose an explanatory hypothesis that suggests how quarrels acquired a constitutive role in the very concept of a “République des Lettres”.

2. Polemics all over the place

That the era is crisscrossed by polemics in all areas of learning can be established both quantitatively and qualitatively. Our database contains so far about eight hundred items, referring to hundreds of different polemics. Everybody – whether she had already have an established reputation to defend or endeavored to rise to fame – seems to have been engaged in some public or private debate on some topic with somebody.

To mention but a few prominent thinkers of the 17th century: Descartes seeks objections to his metaphysics and views them, along with his replies, as part and parcel of his work; but he also polemizes with others regarding his mathematical work (e.g., with Roberval, Fermat, Hobbes). Newton polemizes with Hooke, Huygens, and Leibniz (with the latter, not only on the question of the priority in the invention of the calculus). The renowned classical scholar Richard Bentley’s demonstration of the non-authenticity of the “Letters of Phalaris” is attacked on this point by Boyle. Hobbes and Bramhall hold a sustained discussion on liberty and necessity, in a series of books that originate in an oral debate organized by the Duke of Newcastle. Kepler sustains various polemics on astronomic as well as on mystical matters. Leibniz and Bayle hold several rounds of debate with each other (involving also other participants), both before and after the publication of Bayle’s critique of Leibniz’s metaphysics in the article “Rorarius” of the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique – a debate that culminates in Leibniz’s Théodicée, which is in fact an attempt to refute Bayle’s views on the relationship between reason and faith. Leibniz’s other major philosophical work, the Nouveaux Essais sur l’Entendement Humain is a debate with Locke, written in dialogical form, covering the totality of topics treated by Locke in his Essay on Human Understanding.

Even those who declare themselves opposed to disputes as useless for the advancement of knowledge, in practice did not resist the temptation. Thus, Locke, who in the Essay adamantly condemns disputations as useless and pernicious to the advancement of learning, does not refrain from publishing two Vindications against the critics of his The Reasonableness of Christianity. And Malebranche, whose theory of knowledge is rather solipsistic, explicitly denying that discussion with others is of any help in acquiring knowledge, engages in a bitter polemics with Arnauld precisely on the nature of ideas and of knowledge – an exchange that lasts for about twenty years and comprises many books.

If one considers the level below that of the “big names”, polemics abound too. A quick examination of the table of contents and customary editors’ introductory remarks to the articles published in the journals of the time reveals an amazing number of active participants in such polemics that have been almost completely forgotten. Who remembers a Monsieur Renau, ingénieur general de la Marine en France, whose Traité de la manoeuvre des Vaisseaux has been severely criticized by Huygens in the Bibliothèque Universelle of September 1693 for containing a “capital error”, a critique to which Renau replied in another journal, Histoire des Ouvrages des Savants as soon as January 1694? Who is a certain Dr. Bury, author of The Naked Gospel and defender of the freedom of the Anglican Church against the ineptias et calumnies of the Calvinist theologian Jurieu (HOS May 1697)? What about the discussion between M. Maigrot, M. Charmot, and Father Comte about the religion, the cult, and the moral of the Chinese (HOS May 1701) or the dispute between the historians Burnet, Larroque, d’Hozier and Varillas about the latter’s Histoire d’Angleterre and issues of religious history (HOS 1687; NRL 1697)? Who remembers the astronomer Azout, whose polemics with Cassini, Hevelius, Hook and others, on a variety of topics, were present in almost every issue of the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1665-1666)?

As the brief sample mentioned above indicates, the thematic range of the public debates was quite broad. In the decades (1680-1705) we have examined, there is still a predominance of theological and church-politics issues. Some of these debates clearly correspond to hot political issues of the time (e.g., the debates on Calvinism in the wake of the Huguenot exodus from France). The articles dealing with such issues do not hide their political aspects nor do their authors keep their emotional involvement at bay; yet, in spite of this, one can notice an attempt to hold the debate at the intellectual level, at least on the surface. There is also a significant number of scientific, literary, philosophical, historical, juridical, medical, and political debates, as well as what would be called today “interdisciplinary” debates (see Table 1).

The space occupied by polemical writings in the periodical publications at the time is considerable. For example, more than half of the articles published in some journals of the last quarter of the 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th century have to do with polemical exchanges, in which they take part or to which they refer. Many of these articles bear titles that advertise the fact that they take part in polemical exchanges, displaying words such as dispute, controversy, defense, against, reply, refutation, objection, critique, etc. The vivid impression is that nothing is published in the République des Lettres without being immediately noticed and critically assessed, most of the time by opponents that seem to be only waiting for the opportunity to bite. Quite often the most attentive contenders in these intellectual skirmishes are intransigent and identifiable representatives of positions defended by the intellectual “parties” that crystallized at one time or another (‘Cartesians’, ‘Newtonians’, ‘Leibnizians’, ‘Libertins’, ‘Eclectics’, etc.). It is as if the République is upheld by an army of alert intellectual activists whose main weapon is the sharpness of their critical tools.

3. Reflecting about polemical exchanges

The citizens of the République des Lettres were aware of this widespread phenomenon, and were not indifferent to it and to its consequences. A significant number of the articles related to controversies dealt with what might be called “meta-polemics”, i.e., they consisted in reflections about polemics, their nature, use, and value. In particular, there was quite a lot of criticism towards the excesses often present in many of the debates. Too much rhetorical punch, too much eagerness to win, too much loyalty to one’s party were often deplored, on the grounds that they undermined instead of serving the real purpose for which such intense critical activity should be conducted, namely, the search for truth. Some critics saw in the excessive love of dispute by the savants not only something counter-productive from an epistemic point of view, but also something that dishonored the République des Lettres and led it into a permanent state of “civil war” which, at best, makes the savant activities going on there irrelevant for the cultivated public and, at worst, an example of intolerance and sectarianism that could hardly be viewed as consonant with the allegedly democratic spirit of that “republic”. Other critics condemned the esprit de secte fostered by partisan groupings as an impediment to the development of a cooperative scientific enterprise, which should be conducted by non-sectarian scientific academies. Still others focused on the psychological drive of the controversialists, blaming their desire to win above all for the animosity displayed in their argumentation and for their willingness to employ dubious rhetorical stratagems.

And yet, except for a few who condemned disputes altogether, either as an irrelevant residue of another era or as inherently detached from the process of generating knowledge (although, as we have seen, these critics also took part in polemical exchanges), no one really suggested to forbid, avoid, or in any other way curtail the burgeoning critical activity that manifested itself in this unprecedented flourishing of polemics. This is a fact that any account of the actual role of polemics in the République des Lettres as well as of the way its citizens perceived this role and, accordingly, conceived the proper way of conducting intellectual polemics should not be overlooked.

First of all, it should be noticed that the critical attitude towards polemics above mentioned has as its main object one type of polemical exchange – the one we have been calling, in our research, dispute. What characterizes this particular type of polemics is indeed the fact that the main objective of the contenders is victory over the adversary, regardless of the means employed. The advancement of knowledge, rational argument, clarification of the issues under dispute, reconciliation, and truth are, thus, secondary. Those critics who have these aims, rather than victory, in mind, are therefore justified in their criticism of those polemical exchanges that belong to the dispute category. And they are also right in not making the further step of dismissing polemical exchanges altogether, for there are other types of polemics that are more in tune with the epistemic aims they value.

Some thinkers of the period under consideration indeed conceived of models of debate other than that of dispute. One such model, inspired by the successes of mathematics within the newly created experimental science, consisted in viewing a conflict of opinions about, say, a given explanatory hypothesis or theory, as a kind of logico-mathematical problem, so that by performing the appropriate “calculations” and taking into account all the relevant information, it would be possible to determine which of the conflicting positions was right, thereby putting an end to the debate between the contenders holding these positions. According to this model, which we have been calling discussion, there is a rigorous decision procedure whose application should therefore compel any rational being to accept the true position and reject the false one, which should be seen simply as the result of a “mistake”. When Newton believes that his famous prism experiment definitively establishes that white is a mixture of the other colors, he was implicitly using this discussion model. He doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand) how respectable scientists such as Hooke and Huygens can even oppose his explanation of the phenomenon, and asks them to perform cautiously the experiment upon which he had based his account, as a way of solving the problem and finding the truth: “For this is to be decided not by discourse, but by new tryal of the Experiment” (Cohen, 1978, 153); “But this, I conceive, is enough to enforce it, and so to decide the controversy” (ibid., p. 131).

The Royal Society seems to have operated under the assumption that the discussion model was the proper way to solve scientific debates, at least when these debates were factual rather than speculative. In such cases, the community of scientists acknowledged as specialized in the subject matter would become a sort of tribunal having the “natural” capacity to decide who of the contenders was right. For example, when Azout contests Hevelius’s claim that he spotted the comet (that was the big astronomical news of the time) at a certain date in a certain location, on the grounds that such an observation was inconsistent with the trajectory of the comet plotted on the basis of many other observations, Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Society and editor of the Transactions proclaimed that

This important Difference between two very Learned and very deserving Persons, being come to the knowledge of some of the ablest Philosophers and Astronomers of England, hath been by them thought worthy their Examination: and they being at this very present employed in the discussion thereof, by comparing what hath been done and published by the Dissenters, and by confronting with them their own Domestick Observations, are very likely to discern where the mistake lies and having discern’d it, will certainly be found highly impartial and ingenious in giving their sense of the same (PTRS, November 1665, p. 108).

It is worth noticing the extremely careful legalese used by Oldenburg, which is mild if compared to the much more legalistic formulations employed in “Of the judgement of some of the English Astronomers touching the difference between two learned men, about an Observation made of the First of the two late comets” a few months later (PTRS, February 1666, pp. 150-151), where, although the conclusion is that the comet could not be where Hevelius said he has seen it, the latter is never actually blamed for having made a mistake, but only of somehow misinterpreting an “appearance” he no doubt had spotted as reported by him. Accordingly, the self-appointed “scientific tribunal” enjoins him to join the verdict, for its members

… do not at all doubt, but that, there being such an unanimous consent in what has been just now declared, and the Controversie being about Matter of Fact, wherein Authority, Number, and Reputation must cast the Balance, M. Hevelius, who is as well known for his Ingenuity, as Learning, will joyn and acquiesce in that sentiment (PTRS, February 1666, pp. 150-151).

Needless to say that, in spite of all the weight put on one of the panes of the balance, in this typical and symbolic use of the discussion model, Hevelius did not go along and attempted – hopelessly – to vindicate his position.

The discussion model is also implicitly assumed by those who insist that the use of precise definitions (Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, among others) corresponding to clear and distinct ideas should prevent idle disputes and permit the solution of all worthwhile debates. It is tassumption that underlies the attempt to develop “philosophical” or “scientific” languages, which proliferated at the time. It was Leibniz who saw the potential of such languages, if properly conceived, to become a rational tool for the solution of debates. He explicitly formulated the idea of a characteristica universalis by means of which the contenders, instead of disputing endlessly would be able to resolve their differences by expressing them in a formal notation and then “calculating” the solution.

But Leibniz, who was also, among other things, a jurist, a political advisor, and a participant in the endless negotiations for the reunification of the Christian Churches – in short, a practical man – knew very well that the discussion or calculative problem-solving model could not solve all conflicts. He realized that in most cases the solution could not consist in deciding demonstratively who was right and who was mistaken, for the simple reason that both parties were partially right and partially wrong, under some interpretation of their positions. He believed that quite often the opposition between the parties could be overcome if each could be brought to recognize the “right” and “wrong” parts of his own, as well as of the adversary’s position, to weigh carefully their relative importance, and to be persuaded to give up what was wrong (or unacceptable to the adversary) in his position and to accept what was right (or acceptable to him) in the adversary’s position. None of this could be done in a purely mechanical or formal way, nor could it be expected that it would lead to absolute certainty. Instead, it required the active intervention of a “judge of controversies”, capable of reformulating the positions in conflict and to use non-deductive types of arguments (based, for example, on probabilities, presumptions, defensibility, etc.) – in short, using arguments or reasons that, in his words, were not to be computed, but rather weighed. An alternative model of polemical exchanges and their resolution, akin to what we have been calling controversy, was thus elaborated by Leibniz, side by side with the strict logico-mathematical model and presumably complementary to it. This is a model that seeks rational persuasion and conciliation of the opponents rather than victory no matter what, and that admits that in many – perhaps most – important issues we cannot reach absolute certainty and must therefore conform ourselves to the use of a “softer reason” – an expression Leibniz himself employed. When Abbot Villiers characterized the aim of intellectual debates as “s’éclairer mutuellement” and as “trouver la vérité par les établissements qui résultent des contestations de la dispute” (see note 10 above), he may have expressed the need for the same kind of model, “softer” than both the dispute and the discussion models, that Leibniz was elaborating. In spite of its need, however, such an alternative remained eclipsed, throughout the whole Enlightenment, by the dichotomic conceptualization of debates as either irrational disputes or as strictly rational discussions.

4. Polemics as a constitutive element of the République des Lettres

Since it is clear that the occurrence of polemical exchanges in the République des Lettres is, thus, neither a minor nor a marginal phenomenon, a phenomenon about which the participants themselves were concerned, one must ask whether it should not be viewed as inherent to the very notion of the République des Lettres and/or to the circumstances in which it materialized. We wish to propose a two-pronged argument, historical and conceptual, to support a positive answer to this question.

Françoise Waquet (1989) highlighted, among the “semantic” components of the concept “République des Lettres”, the rejection of any authority other than Reason. We will take her suggestion as the basis for the elaboration of our two-pronged argument.

Historically, although usually viewed as a 17th-18th centuries phenomenon, the République des Lettres has its origins in the late Renaissance. In particular, one should single out the Reformation (and subsequent Counter-Reformation) as a source of endless polemics that go on, as we have seen, until the 18th century. As far as the notion of authority is concerned, the Reformation severely undermined (to say the least) the basis for the belief in an infallible authority on both sacred and profane matters exercised by any particular body or group within Christianity. The scientific revolution followed suit, questioning the authority of traditional Aristotelian science, as well as the right of the Church to intervene in the determination of scientific truth. At the same time, it set up the basis for the “ideology” of the République des Lettres, namely absolute obedience to another source of authority, “Reason”. But, just as the Reformation had questioned absolute authority within an intra-religious context, the rise of Skepticism called into question not only the power of Reason, but also its alleged unity in so-to-speak intra-rational affairs. As Hobbes (who was far from being a Skeptic) observed, appealing to Reason to resolve any given question is not by itself a guarantee of success, for there are “as many several reasons as there are several men”.

As a result, Reason – in spite of the success of the new science – was not able to wear the cloak of authority that religion had left vacant and thus all sources of unquestionable authority became in fact questionable. The emergence of the ideas of tolerance and freedom of opinion is perhaps a sort of acknowledgment of the fact that there is no possibility to compel anyone to hold certain beliefs, nor ultimate authoritative grounds to do so. In the absence of absolute intellectual authority, plurality becomes a fact of life in learned Europe. A common commitment to “the authority of Reason” permits this common life, and is certainly preferable to the violence and destruction of the religious wars. It also forces intellectuals of all parties to tolerate each other, at least in the minimalist Lockean sense of letting the other hold his “bizarre” and “obviously false” beliefs. But inevitably it fosters polemics, for, in the absence of universally accepted criteria of rationality and even of reasonableness, the contenders are bound to disagree about what are the dictates of “Reason”. What is evident or dubious, bizarre or intuitive, proven or in need of proof for one is far from being so for the opponent. Polemics thus seem to be not only permitted by the liberty reigning in the République, but also inevitable due to the lack of agreement about the only unquestionable authority the citizens of that republic are prepared to swear by and obey without reticence: “… car la République des Lettres n’a point de tribunal souverain pour prononcer sur les jugemens de partage” (HOS, November 1692, p. 118; quoted in Broekman et al. 1976, p. 129).

Under these conditions, however, it is by no means sure that the most typical kind of debate would turn out to be tolerant, conciliatory, and rational; nor that its basic aim would be to establish the truth and to advance knowledge, rather than promoting the victory of one’s own party. In fact, as the critics referred to above (section 3) observed, disputes tended to predominate or at least to be particularly conspicuous. Thus, it seems that the absence of a sort of “absolutistic” rule of the authority of “reason” did not lead to a democratic republic. At times, it should be rather likened to a feudal state, where each possessor of power used it in order to foster his own interests above everything else. This is particularly clear in the way the personal scientific or philosophical “ideologies” and affinities of the advisors and editors of the journals of the time were used as criteria in the determination of their contents. In fact, the citizens of the République themselves were quite aware of the “civil war” that was going on in their Republic, a situation that did not correspond to their ideal of how its affairs should be conducted.

Conceptually, the phenomenon of quarrels in the Enlightenment seemto be related also to the slow ascension of the notion of “critical reason”. In order to exercise fully and seriously its role in ensuring the progress of knowledge, Reason must avoid by all means the temptation to become dogmatic – which it can only do by being critical, especially vis-à-vis its own assumptions and results. Criticism, however, is a human activity of an essentially agonistic or polemical character, where different opinions and arguments confront each other. Intense polemical activity is, therefore, the necessary correlate and condition for Critical Reason to establish itself as the paradigm of rationality. To be sure, the Enlightenment’s dominant trend believed in the universal and unquestionable authority of reason and its representative on earth – (Newtonian) science. Accordingly, it sought certainties and sought to resolve controversial issues through regulated contests where the inputs of the participants would be evaluated by competent and impartial judges. Voltaire, in the entry “critique” of his Dictionnaire Philosophique depicts the ideal critic as “un artiste qui aurait beaucoup de science et de goût, sans préjugés et sans envie”, although he is realistic enough to add that “cela est difficile à trouver”. Marmontel, in the article “critique dans les sciences” in the Encyclopédie is less cautious and assumes the possibility of a perfectly objective critic. Similarly the thinker who made the idea of criticism the flagship of his account of reason and of his whole philosophy in fact held in contempt the polemics that had characterized metaphysics for centuries. Kant indeed considered such polemics to be unsolvable, and therefore moved the critical attitude one stage up. For him, a serious philosopher should not hold a position in any of the traditional metaphysical issues, nor criticize either of the sides, nor seek to determine the truth in them. He should rather position himself as an observer of these quarrels, and inquire why they arose and how it would be possible to avoid – rather than solving – them.

Nevertheless, it seems that the intensity and uncontrollability of the polemical exchanges in the 17th and 18th centuries, while provoking such reactions as Voltaire’s and Kant’s, also paved the way for the posterior versions of Critical Reason that would give up the very idea of certainty and accept fallibilism as a good enough epistemological basis for the scientific enterprise. On this view, criticism cannot spare any view, by friend or foe, which conflicts with reason and truth. Yet critic and criticized usually do not coincide in their appreciation of what conforms or conflicts with truth and reason. The result is sustained, violent, but also often quite enlightening debate, where virtually every assumption, method, data, and standard of rationality is up for grabs and a plurality of irreducibly different possibilities emerges. Such a state of affairs, although viewed as undesirable by many of its citizens, was not far from what actually occurred in the République des Lettres. Therefore, when Bayle, one of the most important champions – and perhaps also victims – of the République, describes its normal state of affairs as a war of all against all, rather than as a harmonious paradise, he is not only descriptively, but also conceptually accurate as far as the prospects and risks inherent to trusting no authority except Critical Reason are concerned.


* *

There are, then, descriptive, historical, and conceptual reasons for acknowledging the importance of polemics in intellectual history and to devote special efforts to their investigation. In so doing, it is necessary to carefully distinguish between the different models of polemical exchanges conceived of and actually used by the participants in them as well as by observers, to study comparatively these exchanges across time, geographical areas and disciplines, and not to accept uncritically the way the participants themselves tend to idealize – positively or negatively – the phenomenon. In so far as the République des Lettres of the first two centuries of modernity set the pattern of intellectual life we still follow today, post-modernism notwithstanding, this task is urgent not only for historical reasons.



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