CfP: Sociable Encounters: British Sociability in Enlightenment Europe Back

Sociable Encounters: British Sociability in Enlightenment Europe

Greifswald, 31 May to 2 June 2018

“Society is held together by communication and information” (Samuel Johnson)

In The Spectator, Joseph Addison famously claimed: “I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables, and in Coffee houses” (March 12, 1711). From those clubs and coffee houses, arguably not only philosophy but also a British culture of sociability spread throughout Europe via travel and treatises, consumption and commerce, debate and dissent. Such diverse groups as tourists, health seekers, commercial travelers, artists and professionals brought British ideas, forms and concepts of sociability to the Continent. Thus, for instance, the Bluestockings Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter and Lord Bath travelled to Spa in Belgium in 1763, where they were just as keen to mix with the social circles of the famous watering place as they were to try its waters, and they brought some of the their salon culture with them to be taken up by their Continental acquaintances.

Whether in private, semi-public or public spheres and spaces (or the “social sphere,” following Dallet Hemphill and Amanda Vickery), through reading clubs or private circles to discuss books, through correspondences or consumption and commerce: throughout the long eighteenth century sociable encounters took place at an increasing rate all over Europe. This conference seeks to highlight the impact of sociable encounters between Britons and other Europeans on the sociable practices of Enlightenment culture(s), the basic claim being that encounters between private and professional groups of various nations spread the sociable ideals of the British Enlightenment, here taken in the sense advanced by Roy Porter, who outlined a distinctive British Enlightenment based on instructive conviviality as well as practical results:

In Britain, at least, the Enlightenment was thus not just a matter of pure epistemological breakthroughs; it was primarily the expression of new mental and moral values, new canons of taste, styles of sociability and views of human nature. And these typically assumed practical embodiment: urban renewal; the establishment of hospitals, schools, factories and prisons; the acceleration of communications; the spread of newspapers, commercial outlets and consumer behaviours; the marketing of new merchandise and cultural services (Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World [London: Penguin Books, 2001], 14).

This acceleration not only of the speed of travelling but also of the exchange of ideas and narratives, letters and books throughout Europe propelled cultural contacts and advanced sociability. While the polite society of salons and debating rooms has received quite some consideration by now, other places and other forms or styles of sociability are still in the process of being investigated. “Sociable encounters” is thus a topic meant to address a broader range of private and public, urban or provincial, professional, political or plebeian, formal and also informal meetings that led to a meaningful exchange of opinions and practices of sociability in Europe and ultimately ushered in modernity. Yet how much, where, and in which ways, did British sociability actually influence sociable practices in the rest of Europe? How did it affect cultural practices throughout Europe, sociable rituals or even local customs? How did sociable meetings between individual travelers or groups of travelers with their sociable hosts actually proceed, and which encounters proved to be meaningful or influential in the long run?

While politeness must be considered an important ingredient of British sociability, the term “encounter” need not imply harmony, agreement, or even a fruitful outcome, since an encounter may also be defined as “a meeting (of adversaries or opposing forces) in conflict” (OED, s.v. “encounter”, 1a). “Sociable encounters” thus contains a paradox if we take “sociable” to mean first and foremost convivial or agreeable, and “encounter” to indicate conflicts. What if sociable encounters failed to generate mutual understanding, or turned out to be downright unsociable despite the best intentions? Quarrels and controversies, too, must be considered hallmarks of enlightened debates, especially when those happened to take place across national borders. While British liberty and literature were admired and rejected, emulated or contested throughout Europe, sociable encounters also had to cope with patriotism and national feelings of superiority on all sides. Not all sociable encounters ended in mutual understanding and the advancement of civilization: failures in the expectation of sociability and explorations of unsociable outcomes need to be further explored.

  1. G. A. Pocock provocatively claimed that “England was too modern to need an Enlightenment and was already engaged on the quarrel with modernity itself” (Barbarism and Religion [1999], 467). This quarrel, too, spread to the Continent, and some of the links between sociability and modernity, as well as those between sociability and democracy, are currently being explored. Understanding the influence(s) of British sociability on Europe by addressing the impact of sociable encounters throughout Europe is also to take into account the larger impact of notions and practices of sociability on the advancement of modernity itself. As Roy Porter pointed out, “Continental influences upon Britain, and the reciprocal uptake of British thinking overseas” (Enlightenment, xx) must be addressed if we wish to understand the breadth and depth of the Enlightenment. It is the aim of this conference to rise to the challenge and attempt to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of the impact of British Sociability on Europe (and vice versa), and to assemble international scholars to explore sociable encounters in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Papers may address any of the issues involved. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Facilitating sociable encounters through correspondence, cultural exchange, consumption and commerce  
  • Establishing (new) rituals and symbolism in sociable encounters
  • Personal encounters especially through groups travelling for health, tourism, instruction, work
  • Sociable encounters through professional exchanges
  • Sociable controversies and unsociable encounters
  • Narratives of sociable encounters (literature and letters)
  • Gendered aspects of sociability
  • Spaces and places of sociable encounters
  • Sociable encounters as facilitators of Enlightenment(s) and modernity

A proposal of about 250 words with a short bio tag should be sent to Mascha Hansen (

Deadline for proposals: 15 September 2017.

Prof. Dr. Sebastian Domsch and Dr. Mascha Hansen,

Anglistik/Amerikanistik, Steinbecker Str. 15, D-17489 Greifswald

This conference is part of an international project exploring aspects of Sociability during the long Eighteenth-Century. The conveyors and some of the speakers are members of the DIGITENS group (Digital Encyclopaedia of Enlightenment Sociability). For further information on that group or the Sociability project, feel free to contact us!