In an era when universal knowledge seems to be only a few clicks away, scientific consensus, evidence and facts may erroneously appear, in the name of 'critical thinking', as matters of opinion and personal judgement.

This paradox prompted us to start a research project on how evidence-based knowledge and radical philosophy affected identities, representations and practices at an individual and local level in Eastern Scandinavia and the Baltic area between 1740 and 1810. By emphasising the individuals and practices behind intellectual change, our ambition is to show that concepts and issues commonly associated with the Enlightenment were more than discursive constructions and had con­crete ef­fects in life. In this respect, we wish to reconnect the in­tel­lectual discussions of the eighteenth century to their broader historical context of urgent societal issues. Following a Kantian definition of the Enlightenment as a positive and in­de­pen­dent attitude that encourages responsible and progressive action in the civil com­mu­ni­ty, the project focuses on historical agents who used and applied critical know­ledge in their everyday activities and can be seen as emblematic of sup­po­sed­ly rational and in­formed working methods: the physician, the educated ad­mi­ni­strator and the dip­lomat.


Three types of questions guide our research. A first step is to map the intellectual networks and connections, sources of in­spi­ra­tion and role models of the studied individuals. A second issue is how the contact with radical phi­lo­so­phy and scientific knowledge oriented the actions of the studied persons, whe­ther they trans­mitted their knowledge further or put it into practice in their everyday ac­tivities and work. For example, a dip­lo­mat deep­ly engaged in the Re­pu­b­lic of Letters may have used his intellectual networks and the infra­struc­tures of clan­des­tine li­tera­ture also for other purposes, including political and pro­pa­gandistic ones, which has consequences for how we should approach his diplomatic work. A third question concerns the effects of these trans­for­ma­­­tions at a local level.

The results are expected to give a more accurate picture of ‘the Enlightenment’ in Northern Europe by demonstrating that ideas, concepts and methods based on radical philosophy or scientific evidence did not need a broad popular adherence or ‘movement’ to thrive and have effects at a local level. An important achievement would be to break up boundaries and to point at connections: connections between the global and the local levels, between the political and intellectual spheres, the histories of which have too often been written separately, and between disciplines.


The research is carried out in the form of three large case studies, which correspond to different agents of Enlightenment. Wolff's research within the project focuses on the Swedish diplomat, minister and university chancellor Count Creutz (1731–1785) and the theatre director, courtier and diplomat Baron Ehrensvärd (1746–1783) and their attitude towards French materialist philosophy. Holm’s research examines Russian diplomat Baron von Korff’s (1697–1766) activities as a bibliophile, freemason and pamphleteer. Maaniitty’s research deals with Swedish physicians, particularly Schulzenheim (1732–1823), as disseminators of new knowledge, their intellectual networks and practical work for the prevention of epidemics, along with the prevalence of four epidemic diseases. We are also able to test the impact of new knowledge paragims in a fourth case, where Vainio-Korhonen examines midwives as practical end-users of new medical knowledge. All the case studies examine networks, sociability, readings and writings and combine methods of book history, discourse analysis and statistics.

Our team

PI of the team is Dr Charlotta Wolff. Researchers in the team are Sophie Holm, Elina Maaniitty and Kirsi Vainio-Korhonen. Read more about us here.