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The secret life of Walter Shandy

Nigel Smith investigates the academic jet-setters of the 18th century
Impolite Learning:

Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750

by Anne Goldgar

Yale, pounds 25

Walter Shandy, father of Tristram in Sterne's novel, was bookish to the point of social autism: his love of the written word was so intense that it impaired his capacity for normal conversation. Impolite Learning is about the Walter Shandys of the 17th and 18th centuries, those gentleman enthusiasts who formed the self-proclaimed "Republic of Letters", hungry for every sort of knowledge from Pope's translation of the Iliad to gardening manuals.

The book is less concerned with what the members of the Republic of Letters thought, than with the system of values and conventions that held them together. The exchange of knowledge between groups of scholars working in different languages was an expression of refined civility, a late form of courtliness in which the swapping of books and the mutual paying of respect enhanced reputations. Virtue was accumulated by being known as a man of learning, and the further afield you were known, the greater your credit at home. Many travelled considerable distances to establish their reputations, to be "in commerce" with foreign scholars simply because it was the done thing. The scholars' behaviour, however, wasn't always comme il faut: academic dispute could degenerate into backstabbing, and cases of plagiarism, impersonation, and other kinds of rip-off were not uncommon.

Impolite Learning presents a world very much in the shadow of the great minds of 17th-century rationalism, Locke and Newton in particular. Pierre Coste (a representative figure in this book) was Locke's admiring if not uncritical groupie, and the first French translator of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This was an age of repackaging. Goldgar's most fascinating chapter discusses the popularity of serial journals, in which hard-headed philosophy was boiled down for easy digestion by a European- wide readership. Learned journalism was regarded in France as a sign of the decay of civilisation: a telling parallel to a similar response in England to the rise of political journalism 70 years earlier. We see here a host of minor figures - scribes, printers, and so on - toiling to satisfy an inordinate public curiosity. In this world, scholarly clout was a form of social mobility. Literary agents such as Charles de la Motte effectively professionalised the business of letters, helping to end the traditional bonds between wealthy patrons and savants.

Yet by focusing so much on the circumstances of scholarly exchange, we almost entirely lose sight of the fact that these people were doing any thinking at all. It would have been better to hear more of that than to have our Walter Shandys compared, as they are here, to the Trobriand Islanders, who also like to give each other presents. By some accounts, the Republic of Letters was the major root by which the intellectual revolution of the 17th century was transmitted to modernity. The reader can be forgiven for feeling that the author has only read the prefaces of some of the books.

Can it really be that these early philosophes were so empty-headed? Goldgar seems over-influenced by today's Small World image of jet-setting academics, meeting up to exchange gossip in conferences and (in whispers) in research libraries. Impolite Learning too often gives the impression (the last chapter is called "Talking about Nothing") that no one opened the books at all, or, if they did, that they hadn't a clue about the words in front of their eyes.