"The great protector of wits"

D’Holbach 1789-2019

Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Göttingen, 9th-11th May 2019

230 years after his death, Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as “the Bible of atheists”, an idéologue, a popularizer of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor of the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as an organizer of culture. All over Europe, d’Holbach was known as the “maître d’hôtel” of philosophy (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as “the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits” (in those of Laurence Sterne).
Throughout his life, d’Holbach made constant efforts to create intellectual networks, to support cultural transfers, and to promote the dissemination of radical religious and political ideas. The most famous aspect of this effort is the Salon of Rue Royale, well known especially thanks to Alan Charles Kors’ groundbreaking studies. For almost thirty years, from the early 1750s until about 1780, d’Holbach’s house in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan circles of the time – “a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity” according to David Hume – where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society. Yet, d’Holbach’s salon is not the only interesting aspect of his cultural agenda. His correspondence reveals not only an extensive cosmopolitan network of friends, but also his commitment as a social mediator as well as a facilitator of the circulation of texts and ideas. D’Holbach was also a translator, and a very special one. As a German native speaker (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), he translated into French and popularized a variety of German works on chemistry and geology. Moreover, his acquaintance with the English language and British culture allowed him to translate a number of philosophical and irreligious English writings. As recent scholarship has shown (especially Alain Sandrier and Mladen Kozul), most of these translations are rife with interpolation, manipulation and fictions of authority. The figures of translator, author and editor overlap in d’Holbach. Indeed, he was also an editor of a number of clandestine books, promoting their circulations and while creating new strategies of anonymity and pseudonymity. Finally, d’Holbach contributed financially to the diffusion of the philosophes’ ideas, supporting not only Diderot and the Encyclopédie but also other authors and works.
If we look therefore to intellectual networks, to cultural transfer, cosmopolitism, collective authorship, the making of public opinion and philosophical propaganda as key concepts in the understanding of the Enlightenment, d’Holbach emerges as a figure emblematic of the age. Although radical, his philosophical thought can hardly be considered original. It was in his role as organizer, supporter, mediator and promoter of the ideas of the Enlightenment that we can find the most unique and powerful aspect of his figure. Re-reading his work and life from this perspective is the inspiration of the d’Holbach International Conference which will take place at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, the Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study, in May 2019.

Conference themes
We invite papers in all aspects of Holbach’s thought, intellectual biography and cultural activity. Topics of interest include (but are not restricted to):

  • D’Holbach’s philosophical, religious, moral and political thought

  • D’Holbach as a scientist and a popularizer of the natural sciences

  • D’Holbach as a translator and as an editor: practices of (re)writing (plagiarism, omission, addition, interpolation, juxtaposition); strategies of authoriality (anonymity, pseudonymity, allonimity)

  • The Salon of Rue Royale, the coterie

  • D’Holbach and the Encyclopédie

  • The transfer of knowledge in d’Holbach’s circle: networks, correspondences, journals

  • D’Holbach as a mediator of (transnational) culture

  • D’Holbach and clandestinity: production and circulation of clandestine manuscripts, clandestine circulation of books, connections with editors

  • D’Holbach as a financial supporter of the Enlightenment

  • D’Holbach’s ancient and modern sources

  • Critics, fortune and reception

The official languages of the conference will be both English and French.
Invited speakers

  • Nicholas Cronk (University of Oxford)

  • Alan Charles Kors (University of Pennsylvania)

  • Mladen Kozul (University of Montana)

  • Tony La Vopa (North Carolina State University)

  • Brunello Lotti (Università di Udine)

  • Emilio Mazza (IULM, Milano)

  • Alain Sandrier (Université de Caen Normandie)

  • Maria Susana Seguin (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier - ENS Lyon)

  • Ann Thomson (European University Institute, Florence)

  • Submissions
    We invite proposals for 20-minute presentations in either French or English. To apply please submit an abstract (no more than 300 words) along with a one-page CV to the conference organizers (E-Mail) no later than 30 October 2018. Please make submissions in either MS Word or in PDF format. Accepted proposals will be notified no later than 15 December 2018. Graduate students and unwaged early career scholars are particularly encouraged to apply and funds towards defraying the costs of travel and attendance may be available upon application. Please contact the conference organizers with any questions.

    Franziska Meier (Professor, Romance Philology Department, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
    Laura Nicolì (Early Career Fellow, Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)