The New Enlightenment

The New Enlightenment

We like to talk about coworking as a relatively new concept, a rethinking of the best ways to get work done and to foster connections that result in growth and innovation.  These concepts are seemingly cutting edge in the workplace: moving away from the individual-centric work environment and offering collaborative spaces which result in more productive exchanges of information; connecting people and creating a greater sense of community; encouraging diversity, in both human and physical resources, to spark creativity; providing places like lounges, cafés and coffee bars for informal interaction.

The truth is that while research and the social culture of the day have inspired a renaissance in collaborative spaces, the ideas behind these collaborative ecosystems are pretty old and established. 

I recently found myself quizzing my daughter on the Enlightenment for an upcoming European History exam.  Several pages of her textbook (A History of Western Society (Since 1300 For Advanced Placement), Tenth Edition) read almost like a blueprint for Catalyst, with a particular focus on the innovative new Enlightenment public sphere centered on the Parisian salons and coffeehouses.

The salon cultivated “the exchange of witty, uncensored observations on literature, science and philosophy” among a diverse group who “intermingled and influenced one another.” More than simply a place to exchange ideas, the social gatherings provided awareness of new works and, for the fortunate, financial patronage. Parisian salons were, according to Dena Goodman, the “civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment” (quoted in The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, by James Van Horn Melton).

Salonnières – the elite women who presided over the salons and who would not have otherwise been given seats at the table among the political and economic elite – provided the social and intellectual structure for the incubation of new ideas among a diverse, curated group that looked to the future.  That culture swept in many of the intellectual elites of the Enlightenment, including one of the most important scientists, philosophers and innovators of his (or any other) time, Ben Franklin.

Along with salons, the coffeehouse became part of the Enlightenment’s public sphere, a focal point for the exchange and spread of ideas, and a gathering space for people with similar interests. First introduced to Europe in the mid-1600’s, by 1789 there were over 900 cafés in Paris, and over 500 – maybe even thousands -  in London at their peak in the 18th Century. Unlike the salons, the coffeehouse wasn’t restricted to social and political elites (but was mostly limited to men).  Interaction, even with strangers, was encouraged. Caffeine and a space to interact fueled discussion, cooperation and business – as merchants gathered and conducted business in the coffeehouses that popped up around markets and exchanges. Coffeehouses and cafés helped create the human networks that spurred innovation. 

Along with salons, the coffeehouse became part of the Enlightenment’s public sphere, a focal point for the exchange and spread of ideas, and a gathering space for people with similar interests. First introduced to Europe in the mid-1600’s, by 1789 there were over 900 cafés in Paris, and over 500 – maybe even thousands -  in London at their peak in the 18th Century. Unlike the salons, the coffeehouse wasn’t restricted to social and political elites (but was mostly limited to men).  Interaction, even with strangers, was encouraged. Caffeine and a space to interact fueled discussion, cooperation and business – as merchants gathered and conducted business in the coffeehouses that popped up around markets and exchanges. Coffeehouses and cafés helped create the human networks that spurred innovation.