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Emulation, Fame, and Knowledge Transfer: Prize Contests in the European Republic of Letters (1670–1800)

International conference organised by the project “Erotema. The Question as an Epistemic Genre” in cooperation with Avi Lifschitz (University of Oxford), 13.–15.07.2022


Emulation, Fame, and Knowledge Transfer

Emulation, Fame, and Knowledge Transfer
Bildquelle: Gestaltung: Melanie Wiener

Report by Martin Urmann

Prize competitions were a shared practice across countries and institutions, playing a central role in the 18th-century public sphere, but they have received little scholarly attention. The conference set out to fill these gaps while examining the contests through new analytical and theoretical lenses, with an emphasis on comparative and transnational perspectives. In doing so, the conference pursued a double goal examining, on the one hand, the long-term history of the genre and its rhetorical traditions, while at the same time engaging with individual competitions especially from the ‘peripheries’ of the Republic of Letters and beyond Europe. The aim of the conference was thus to make a contribution to an entangled history of this particular medium of the early modern Republic of Letters.


In his overview at the outset of the conference, MARTIN URMANN (“Panegyric, confirmation of the canon, and knowledge production: prize contests as a hybrid medium of public debate“) underlined how versatile the competitions proved to be as a genre of public debate. This versatility was evident in the different epistemic and social functions that the contests fulfilled, the different sectors of the public which they reached, the different media (aural and written) they used, and the different argumentative strategies, methods of knowledge production and styles employed. These diverse manners of communication created a remarkable amalgamation of traditional and more innovative discursive patterns. 

The paper also looked at the long-term rhetorical traditions of the genre, arguing that they bear witness to a different sort of learned culture and sociability than those of impartiality, factual knowledge and cooperation officially propagated by the academies in the ‘enlightened’ Republic of Letters. Instead, the rhetorical tradition of agonistic knowledge debate persisted in the prize contests throughout the 18th century. 


MARIA FLORUTAU (“The role of the jury in shaping the prize essay genre in the Netherlands in the second half of the eighteenth century”) analysed the adjudication procedures in the prize contests of two Dutch societies, the Haarlem-based Holland Society for Sciences and Humanities (founded in 1752) and the Vlissingen-based Zeeland Scientific Society (founded in 1769). The paper argued that self-imposed criteria for the selection of laureates helped to shape the prize essay genre by transmitting the intentions of the juries, promoting a focus on the set questions and an eclectic methodology of philosophical argumentation. The persistent criterion for the selection of a winner was how well the prize question was addressed rather than specific viewpoints. Other considerations included how accessible a paper would be to the reading public and what message the jury’s decisions would convey about fairness and standards, especially in comparison to prize contests elsewhere. Balancing these criteria in their final consultations, jury members often found themselves selecting a winner who was no one’s first choice – but rather the author of an essay they could all agree on.

Information on the jury’s criteria and expectations reached the public through a variety of channels, such as introductions to published collections of essays or feedback given to authors prior to publication. Ultimately, this helped to reinforce the authorial practice of focusing the essay on the brief rather than on specific points of view, in turn fostering the eclectic adaptation of ideas as a major feature of the prize essay genre.


In his paper “Organizing science: prize contests in Göttingen and the case of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg”, MARTIN GIERL examined the strategic use of prize questions by the famous physicist Lichtenberg as a means to promote his career and to foster and claim certain areas of competence, especially in confrontation with his colleagues at the Academy and the University of Göttingen, Johann Christoph Gatterer, August Ludwig von Schlözer, Johann Beckmann and Christoph Meiners. In fact, the location of the Academy in Göttingen was highly specific as its foundation and activities can only be understood in the light of its close connections with the reform university of Göttingen and the medial infrastructure, especially the Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen. The most important members of the academy were university professors pursuing their own scholarly agenda also through prize competitions, which in Göttingen dealt especially with physical and mathematical problems (alongside historical questions). 

The paper argued that prize questions were a typical hybrid of old scholarship and new ‘Wissenschaften’ within the context of the Ancien Régime. They are ideal objects for the study of the structural change of learned culture in the later 18th century, especially when contextualized within the social, political, economic, institutional and medial systems of which they were part.


RITA KRUEGER (“Constructing useful knowledge: essay contests in Habsburg Bohemia and Moravia”) showed that essay contests were highly visible attempts on the part of learned societies in the Habsburg lands to nurture connections between practitioners and a wider public. By posing the questions for essay contests, the Bohemian and Moravian learned societies also rigged the deck of public debate about the past and present capacities of a nationalizing and industrializing public. The paper explored several features of these contests in the Habsburg lands: first, the degree to which the competitions worked to expand the realm of experts and expertise or, conversely, to winnow and control knowledge, practices, and professionalization. The contests can be considered as participatory attempts to edify the learned public, but they also served as exclusionary mechanisms that sought to validate knowledge and impose practices.

At the same time, the competitions reflected both a capacious understanding of what comprised “useful knowledge” domestically and a realization of and desire for connection to broader European debates. In conclusion, the paper asked about the possibility of seeing these contests and corollary reportage as constitutive of group identities inside and outside the learned society in the Habsburg lands in the second half of the 18th century.


Using case studies from Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, NICOLA MILLER (“Competing to define the future: prize contests in independence-era Spanish America”) explored the history of prize competitions in South America in order to analyse the competing claims of various kinds of knowledge production in this regional and also political context. The contests were initiated by the Sociedades Económicas de Amigos del País, which were founded in many regions of Spain and the Americas from the 1760s onwards. They were dedicated to the promotion of new agricultural, commercial and industrial methods and held competitions to stimulate work in these areas. During the wars of independence, some of the many new periodicals which emerged launched prize contests, mainly geared towards scientific knowledge, but there were also examples of prizes in political philosophy. After independence, new government bodies, usually in collaboration with unofficial learned or literary societies, sought to promote new knowledge by offering prizes. The Catholic Church held its own competitions, in open rivalry with the nascent secular state. 

The paper argued that the history of these contests can be considered as a window on to wider social debates about knowledge as they evolved during the lengthy process of colonies becoming independent sovereign states with aspirations to become nation-states.


BÉLA KAPOSSY (“‘The spirit of legislation’: the Bernese prize essay competition of 1764”) presented Berne’s Economic Society, founded in 1759, as one of Europe’s leading reform societies with a network extending from Russia to Italy. Its prize essay competition of 1764, “On the spirit of legislation favourable to agriculture relatively to population, manufactures, and commerce”, became a publishing success. The three winning essays were translated into several languages and repeatedly reprinted until the early nineteenth century. Originally proposed by two visiting Polish noblemen, the contest and its prize essays received widespread attention, partly because during the Seven Years’ War agrarian Berne was admired for its fiscal discipline and social stability.

Furthermore, the essays raised the important question of how to manage the transition from a predominantly agrarian economy to a mixed one. The paper argued that the Bernese prize contest reflected the concerns of European states that sought to catch up with their economically more advanced neighbours without risking the social outcomes of widespread commercialization.


JULIANE ENGELHARDT (“From science to practice: the role of prize contests in academies and patriotic societies in the Danish-German-Norwegian composite monarchy”) showed that prize competitions, in particular on Danish language and history, were a central feature of the early learned societies in Denmark in the middle of the eighteenth century, in particular at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen (founded in 1742). 

From the 1770s on, when the Enlightenment movement took on a practical, less elite-oriented turn, various patriotic societies (57 altogether) emerged almost everywhere across the composite Danish monarchy. A central feature of the patriotic societies was the distribution of prizes with which society members wished to promote the implementation of agrarian and industrial reforms. The paper examined the topics of various prize contests and provided insights on how the target group, primarily the lower orders, responded to them. In the essay submissions, a shift from motivating work by external compulsion to the promotion of self-motivation becomes manifest. Finally, the prize essays also show how German cameralism and British economic liberalism inspired reforms in the Danish composite monarchy.


In her presentation “Prizes and awards at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, 1700–1750” MARIA SUSANA SEGUIN turned to the competitions of the Académie royale des sciences as a significant organ of royal patronage in order to gain insights into the politics of science in eighteenth-century France. The prizes were established at the Academy in 1720 notably as the outcome of a private initiative by Rouillé de Meslay. The scientific prize competitions represented undoubtedly an important source of innovation within the entire genre of the so called concours académique. The questions produced genuine contributions to contemporary scientific research, as by the numerous prizes won by members of the Bernoulli and the Euler families. Moreover, they attracted an international public of participants from the entire European Republic of Letters, predominantly from the scholarly elites. 

The presentation then focused on the paradoxical situation of the prize contests in an institution where competitions were not held in the highest esteem, judging by their marginal presence in the prestigious Histoire et Mémoires edited by Fontenelle. The proceedings usually took into account only what was considered to be a major step ahead in the evolution of the natural sciences.


The conference ended with a presentation by KELSEY RUBIN-DETLEV on “Popularisation and prestige in the staging of prize contests at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1777–1802”. In 1777, the Academy inaugurated a new series of its annual scholarly publication, the Acta Academiae scientiarum imperialis petropolitanae in which prize contests often figured prominently. The Acta clearly reflected a desire to reach a broader audience, and the accounts of the prize contests also included French-language abstracts of winning essays to assist in this effort. At the same time, the descriptions of public prize announcements strongly emphasised the presence of illustrious, often foreign attendees at these ceremonial assemblies, which suggests above all the pursuit of national and international prestige on the part of the Academy.

The presentation examined the Acta as a medium for publicising the Academy’s prize contests within the larger project of promoting Russia’s status as a European power during the reign of Catherine the Great. This central medium of the Academy can only be adequately understood when compared to its models, the Prussian Nouveaux mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences and the French Histoire et Mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences. The Acta offer a window, the paper argued, into the ways in which prize essay contests played into larger rivalries for international prestige in the age of Enlightenment.


The final discussion concerned shared themes and points across the institutions, practices and locations featured in the papers.  Among the issues explored were the links between prize contests and other forms of ‘Enlightened’ debate in the public sphere; contests as means of promoting or pooling ‘useful knowledge’; the role of the state, specific social groups or individual patrons in setting the agenda of the contests; prize contests as nodes in networks of knowledge production across Europe and its colonies; and the role of vernacular languages and local settings in modifying common practices and models.