Modelling of Debates and Publication Strategies in Théophraste Renaudot’s Conférences

Subproject by Isabelle Fellner

From 1633–1642, Théophraste Renaudot organised the conférences, weekly discussion meetings with up to 100 participants, in Paris. The attendees discussed questions such as “Whether Man or Woman be the more noble”, “Whence the saltness of the Sea proceeds?”, but also “Whether it be good to use Chymical Remedies?”, and therefore succeeded to combine classical moral-philosophical topics, problems of the early natural sciences, and medical questions. In sharp contrast to other, more secretive academies, the conferees’ aim was not to keep their knowledge to themselves, but to make it available to the public: the conférences were immediately published as cheap brochures every week, but were also sold as more expensive annual anthologies. What is even more remarkable about the conférences is the neutral mode in which the most divergent opinions were placed next to each other in those publications. In contrast to the prize questions of the academies or the disputations taking place at universities, the conférences, ultimately, were not about nominating an argument’s winner. Their explicit aim was to propose a multiplicity of conflicting opinions. The truth, Renaudot proclaims in his introduction to the first volume of the conférences, must be found by each reader him- or herself in the polyphony of proposed statements.

The project focuses in particular on the modalities of the conférences in their written form. Hitherto, research has mostly treated them as mere records of what had been said in the oral discussions (Mazauric 1997, Wellman 2003). Moreover, the format in which questions are negotiated in the conférences only appears to be thoroughly novel at first glance. A more detailed analysis reveals long-term epistemic continuities between the conférences and scholastic disputations. On the surface, the format of Renaudots conférences furthermore converges with Renaissance dialogue’s multy-perspectivity, as well as with the (neo-)sceptical idea of the indistinguishability between alternatives. Mapping the specific differences between these models will be at the heart of the project.