Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe

Review of Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe , by Margaret Jacobs (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

Eighteenth century philosopher Denis Diderot defined cosmopolitans as "strangers nowhere in the world."In Margaret Jacob's new book she takes Diderot's explanation and explores and expands on the limitations of the early modern cosmopolite. Drawing on a long career of work on the Enlightenment and the history of science, Jacob offers a series of case studies looking at Avignon, Alchemy, early stock markets, Masonic lodges, and the radicalization of the 1790s, designed for the interested, though not scholarly reader. According to Jacob, exploring the early years of cosmopolitanism offers an important perspective on one of the crucial issues facing society in the post-9/11 world, indicating a virtue of open-mindedness that she urges her readers to cultivate in order to prevent against militant nationalism and fundamentalist sentiment. 

Opening the book is a detailed study of Avignon, a French city controlled by the Papacy until the French Revolutionary army invaded in 1791. Using the records of the famous inquisition there, Jacobs explores the limits of cosmopolite sentiment in the busy international city. During the eighteenth century Avignon was a popular spot for tourists to stop on their way through Europe, which Jacob indicates may have contributed to the emergence of civil society in the salons of the Papal city. Where this emerging sociality came into tension with the inquisition was where it began to transgress religious expectations about keeping Lent and relationships with the Jewish population. Interestingly, Jacob chooses to focus primarily on the practical aspects of the interaction of society and religion and not on the literary world associated with it that historians recently have focused on so extensively.1 This absence is particularly striking in her description of Jewish/Gentile relations in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the increase of interest in the Hebrew language and of participation in scientific endeavors was more important in leading to this sociality then the emergence of civil society.2

Jacob's next chapter draws from her previous works such as Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West and The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans. This allows her to easily skim over the often complicated inter-relations between politics, science, and magic to illustrate how early science and alchemy led to cosmopolitan sentiment. She runs the danger of over-simplifying for the non-expert, skipping important aspects of the development that need to be explained. For instance, her assertion that it is surprising that alchemy played an important role in the development of science seems intuitive to the non-specialist, and rather then explaining this she slips into complicated discussions of the comparative political situation of France and England. In focusing on this political element of the development of cosmopolitanism Jacob neglects to cover the developing print culture that was so crucial in the English Civil war and in forming international social circles of scientific and even alchemic investigation. She discusses the development of languages of investigation, but not the printing or distribution of them, which is a crucial part of the development she traces. While it is true that a number of scholars prior to Jacob have written on this subject, such as Adrian Johns and Elizabeth Eisenstein, it certainly warrants mention even in a survey such as this.3

  From science to business, Jacob illustrates how the development of networks of civility emerged within the new vocabulary and circumstances of the changing world. The development of capitalism and credit networks throughout Europe is a fruitful location for uncovering the emergence of civility, as previous scholars have pointed out. Jacob treads many of the same paths without much reference to the previous studies that have mapped out the connection between religion, business, and the emergence of polite society. Recent work on the "public sphere" by scholars following the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas's construction has thoroughly explored the civil society that Jacob associates with cosmopolitanism. One wonders if she does not mention this concept so as to avoid associating her work with what has been seen recently as an overdone model, but the similarity between her arguments and those of the scholars using the model of a "public/private sphere" begs some comment.

The highlight of the book is the last two chapters focusing on the radicalization of the eighteenth century.  Jacob is clearly in her element as she discusses Freemasonry and the contradictions between the love of secrecy and the desire for open civility that characterized the eighteenth century. This led directly to the radicalization that occurred in the end of the eighteenth century. It was this desire to open politics up to the masses that warred with fears about the danger of conspiracies that gave the century its particular limited sort of cosmopolitanism.

While Jacob offers a compelling contention that the emergence of cosmopolitanism in the early modern era speaks to the troubles of the modern world, her difficulty determining her audience leads to a spotty coverage of the actual narrative. To the non-specialist, this short work rests on assumptions and narrative skipped over rapidly, while the expert will be disappointed at Jacob's failure to address the controversial issues within the historiography. Those interested in an introduction to the civil society and networks of communication would do better to look at James Van Horn Melton's The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe.


1 Harold Love, The Culture and Commerce of Texts: Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England. (Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1998), Steven Pincus, '"Coffee Politicians Does Create": Coffeehouses And Restoration Political Culture', Journal of Modern History, 67, 1995, pp. 807–34,  Alexandra Halasz, The Marketplace of Print : Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, (Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1997.) 

2 David Ruderman, Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe, (Wayne State Press: Detroit, 2001)

3 Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1979), Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1998.)