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Origins and Development of the Prize Contests as Media of Knowledge at the French Academies since 1670

Subproject by Dr. Martin Urmann

The project focuses on the origins and the development of the academic prize contests, analysing the epistemic status of the genre amidst the changing institutional and medial contexts of the république des lettres. The project’s central interests are the early decades of the prize competitions at the Académie française since 1670 as well as the prix d’éloquence and the prix de morale at the provincial academies between 1720 and 1760.

In a first step, the early history of the concours académique is reconstructed in order to reveal the essential characteristics of this special genre of scholarly debate in the république des lettres. It is particularly striking to see how deeply the prize contests are rooted in the traditional rhetorical and dialectical modes of dealing with the question. This is demonstrated, on a formal level, by the persistence of the polar question as the determinant way of discussing knowledge in the concours académique and the (very) common theological and ethical subjects chosen by the academies. The prize contests thus indicate the continuity of traditional, and especially of scholastic, forms of debating knowledge at the academies that these institutions, eager to present themselves as the agents of change, explicitly dismissed. The modern history of science has followed along this path for a long time.

While research on the prize contests has mainly focused on the scientific and technological competitions of the 18th century – considering them as proof of the academies’ agenda of innovation – the project deals with the transfer of knowledge in the rhetorical prize contests. Despite the changing functions and topics of the concours académique, the tradition of the prix d’éloquence, and the prix de morale, remained one of the vital pillars of this institution during the 18th century. The competitions at the provincial academies between 1720 and 1760, especially in Toulouse (Jeux Floraux), Pau, Marseille, Montauban and Dijon, are at the heart of the project. Increasingly influenced by Enlightenment discourse, these prize contests deal with the burning philosophical issues of the epoch, above all the changing role of the arts and sciences, the development of morals and the status of the rhetorical knowledge production as compared to the new knowledge of the natural sciences. What becomes evident is a process of transformation taking place within the rhetorical prize contests towards topics and modes of reflection that go beyond the traditional patterns of the genre. The famous concours of the Académie de Dijon won by Rousseau in 1750: „Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs?“ is only the most prominent example of this development.

The major focus in analysing the changing epistemic status of the concours académique is the question to what extent the rhetorical competitions of the provincial academies, starting in the 1720s, turned into a textual medium reflecting the crucial epistemic transformations within the république des lettres since the 17th century. To what extent do they mirror the changes that accompany the shift towards written communication and towards the serial production and accumulation of factual knowledge?