Stanford University

Locke's Letters Project

  • Lead: Claude Willan
    Advisor: Dan Edelstein
  • Start Date: September 2012

The goal of this project is to answer a simple question about John Locke: how did Locke think of his letters? Locke wrote over 3000 letters, one of the highest totals of anyone in the period loosely called ‘The Republic of Letters.’ And he wrote them to more or less everyone who was anyone in England at the time – as well as luminaries in France, the Netherlands, and further afield. He wrote about medicine, about education, about accounts, about what he was having for lunch – about anything and everything in his life. And he wrote to anyone who could be related to the debates he was involved in.

So what did the letter represent, to Locke? Was Locke simply a prolific letter writer, who found it simply the most convenient way to communicate with other people? Doubtless that’s true. But there’s more to it: for Locke the letter, the network of letters and letter-writers, was a goal worth pursuing in and of itself. In this project, I will show that Locke deliberately set himself up as a nexus between the many, many disparate communities in seventeenth century northern Europe, and brought them together to foster the creation of the public sphere.

This project will visualise the communities that Locke communicated with, and show the connections within those communities. Whether writing to puritans, theologians, astronomers, arabists, alchemists, tutors, or other doctors, Locke was often a unique connector between otherwise isolated bodies of scholarly and professional expertise, religious feeling, and scientific enquiry. Through Locke’s connections to some of the most famous and influential men and women in the country – like John and Sarah Churchill, the future Duke and Dutchess of Marlborough, or Thomas Tension, the Archbishop of Canterbury – Locke helped to unite the private intellectual foments of the early British Enlightenment and worked to build from them a single public.


Voltaire's Correspondence

View an instance of Ink loaded with Voltaire's correspondence. In combines mapped letters with a timeline stacked bar chart and a relationship viewer.

Graph of Locke's Correspondents

See Claude Willan's Github page for interactive graphs of Locke's correspondents.


Visit the laboratory web site to learn more about the visualizations.