Intellectual genealogies – first draft of a model

Coming back from Vienna and a conference on poet and Shakespeare-translator Ludwig Tieck, I also sent my sole German paper on visualization of correspondences to the editor and am preparing to crash-write a paper on network visualization for the study of Henriette Herz (a follow-up to last summer’s conference, where Selma Jahnke gave the main paper under both our names). In the three cases, I emphasized the role of intellectual genealogies in the study of intellectual networks.

Genealogies have the advantage of being a precisely definable category, one with which one can operate, be it in terms of visualization or for interpretation in general. In that, they are much handier than the category “network”, even if they are by far less powerful. But sometimes it is a good idea to start with what is easier to handle and get to the more complex in a second step.

Working with networks supposes to define relationships and defining relationships is a difficult task if there ever was one. Also, there is a basic problem regarding visualizations based on correspondences: the fact that we are able to spot and encode a correspondence does not tell us much about its relative importance in the context of its time. Some minor correspondences were preserved for political reasons or otherwise, while some major correspondences were destroyed or lost. Some correspondences are mostly formal, while some very important exchanges took place during meetings which we will never have material to reconstruct. Even if you draw a graph displaying the position of an actor in the network of its handwritten correspondence as it is being done in kalliope for instance, it does mostly inform you on preservation strategies regarding the handwritten documents available.

So, how do you make a network talk? One way or another, you have to specify the type of relationships you want to display. You have to characterize the types of correspondences (friendly, professional, intimate) or their direction (reciprocal or not: but some correspondents are more prolific than others even if the quality of the relationship is identical in both directions). Genealogies have the advantage of giving a general structure (granted: a basically hierarchical and vertical one) from which one can derive different branches. And genealogies have the advantage of being potentially non-discriminatory: they can apply to teacher-pupil-relationships as well as to mentor-mentee-relationships and parents-children-relationships independently from the sex of the concerned actors. This is specially interesting when it comes to letters from women like Henriette Herz who, in spite of having written a lot of letters and played a key role in intellectual sociability, never really produced a published work. Since the self-position in the public sphere is a generic characteristic of intellectual attitude (e.g. via publication of autonomous works), it is extremely difficult to include actors who have solely had a “networking” action in the whole structure. This is made possible by intellectual genealogies.

Also, you could extend this conception of genealogy to the study of the reception of major books (which actors regard themselves as disciples of Kant or of Rousseau?, for instance) and draw lines of circulation of the works “derived” from these primary references (where do they cross? where do they stop?). You can draw a comparison between the genealogy derived from the women (daughters) and the one that is derived from the men (disciples) – a configuration that would be extremely interesting in the case of Tieck and his influence on women novelists from the 1820s on.

It all begins with encoding teacher-pupil and family relationships. Nothing more.


Cite this article as: Anne Baillot, "Intellectual genealogies – first draft of a model," in Digital Intellectuals, 21/02/2016,

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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