Stanford University

An Analytical and Material Inventory of Condorcet's Correspondence

  • Lead: Nicolas Rieucau
  • Start Date: 2010

Condorcet studies have considerably developed over the past two decades, following the bicentenaries of the French Revolution and of the death of Condorcet in 1794. This impetus for research has brought to light unknown letters and unpublished essays, notably on such subjects as political arithmetic and the philosophy of history. However, the most frequently quoted primary source remains the nineteenth-century edition of the Oeuvres de Condorcet (1847-1849), which is widely recognized as imprecise and incomplete.

Condorcet’s correspondence is particularly neglected in Oeuvres de Condorcet. It contains less than 200 letters, sometimes erroneously dated, while transcripts are often incomplete or incorrect. Our preliminary investigations have revealed over 2000 letters, most of which are unpublished. This correspondence constitutes a major source to broaden our understanding of the life and thought of Condorcet and, beyond, to cast light on the relation between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is crucial to make these letters accessible to scholars. Before a complete edition can be envisaged, it is necessary to compile a precise inventory of these letters. It is a complex task due to the number of correspondents, the frequent omission of dates and to the dispersion of letters in numerous archives throughout the world. This project puts together the means required to produce such an inventory while building on the preparatory work that has been conducted by an international and interdisciplinary team. Two features of this inventory of Condorcet’s correspondence are especially original: it will be analytical and material.

First, it is analytical in the sense, well known to archivists, that it “presents under an organised, short and precise form the information contained in the documents” (Archives de France, 2002, p. 11). We will produce a synoptic table mapping out Condorcet’s epistolary network in detail. The inventory will contain a summary of each letter and several indexes (addressors, addressees, places of sending, names quoted, …). Such a document will show the significance and the variety of this correspondence at a glance.

The second characteristic of this inventory is that it includes an analysis of material elements: for each letter a description is provided including hands, wax seals, post marks and type of paper. By taking into account these new elements and studying them together with the contents of the letters, we will gather new clues for identifying and dating the correspondence. Beyond Condorcet, these codicological descriptions will be useful to other scholars working in the field of eighteenth-century studies. Codicological studies remain rare in France despite the fact that the technological innovations of the last ten years allow significant breakthroughs.

To produce such an inventory, our team brings together researchers with a variety of technical skills alongside specialist knowledge of the life and work of Condorcet – including the latest developments in research. Once complete, the inventory will in turn give a new impetus to Condorcet studies. We will organise several academic conferences focusing on the content of some aspects of the correspondence and publish a number of newly discovered letters. This project is the first step towards a broader academic enterprise that will eventually include an analytical and material inventory of all of Condorcet’s manuscripts, by using the methodology developed for the correspondence. A general presentation of the programme can be found at