George A. Klaeren reports on ACHA-funded graduate research

Graduate Student Summer Research Grant Report
George A. Klaeren, University of Kansas (History)

Encountering the Enlightenment: New Science, Religion, and Catholic Epistemologies across the Iberian Atlantic, 1680-1815

George A. Klaeren
George A. Klaeren

The generous funding of a Graduate Student Summer Research Grant from the American Catholic Historical Association enabled me to conduct research for my dissertation, “Encountering the Enlightenment: New Science, Religion, and Catholic Epistemologies of the Iberian Atlantic, 1680-1815,” at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City, Mexico.  My doctoral research investigates the epistemological dialogue between theology and the new philosophy of science in the Spanish Catholic Church during the eighteenth century.  Throughout the eighteenth century, drastic changes were occurring in the intellectual climate of the Spanish empire.  Commonly referred to collectively as the “new philosophy” or the “new science,” these new methods of thought impacted the sphere of the religious and intellectual thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.  To many, these changes were not only direct challenges to established certainties but also represented calls for radical methodologies that would lead to materialism, atheism, and the ultimate ruin of Catholic society.  My dissertation studies the dissemination of enlightenment thought, particularly in debates between science and faith, and follows the exchange of medical, scientific, and theological treatises across the Spanish Atlantic.

My research particularly focuses on analyzing the reactionary position of many Mexican intellectuals to an “enlightenment epistemology,” particularly in response to ilustrado publications during the mid-eighteenth century.  Often labeled anti-ilustrados (anti-enlightened) or traditionalista (traditionalist), the historiographical record has portrayed reactionary thinkers as dogmatic, irrational, and one-dimensional figures.  My dissertation especially seeks to define the counter-Enlightenment movement in Spain and Mexico, what the specific objections of the counter-Enlightenment were, and how conservative Catholic intellectuals rationalized these objections as legitimate arguments at the time.  In doing so, my work reveals a contested epistemological hegemony in the mid-eighteenth century in which religious thinkers advocated alternative, and at times, mutually exclusive, systems for understanding and the pursuit of truth.

In order to complete this project, I have conducted research at numerous archives within Spain, including the Archivo Histórico Nacional, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, and the Real Academia Nacional de Medicina.  Although these institutions include documents from throughout the Spanish Empire in their collections, I needed to access the holdings of the AGN in Mexico in order to complete the colonial perspective of my research.  Many of these documents are only available in manuscript or print form and cannot be found elsewhere.   Thus, with the support of the ACHA summer research grant, I traveled to Mexico City.

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City (photo by author)

During my research at the AGN, I was able to consult numerous manuscripts, including edicts and case transcriptions from the records of the Mexican Inquisition, as well as personal letters and documents from the Jesuit collection of the archive.  I examined from these collections nearly thousand pages of original and otherwise inaccessible documents which I am now utilizing towards the completion of my doctoral research.  Some particular sources worth mentioning include the personal letters of Francisco Ignacio Cigala, S.J. an important Mexican philosopher and amateur scientist whose entire personal history and correspondence after the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire remains unknown.  The letters in the AGN constitute the only known letters of his in existence and are invaluable in reconstructing the intellectual network in which he lived and worked in mid-eighteenth century Mexico.

Also of great importance were documents obtained from the archive’s holdings of the colleges and religious educational institutions of eighteenth-century Mexico.  This included, for example, the Colegio de Sales, founded by the San Felipe Neri order, as well as the Colegio de San Ildefonso, which, from 1588 until 1767, served as a Jesuit residence and school.  In this collection, I found letters between various religious thinkers discussing the adoption of a new course on modern philosophy by Juan Bautista Díaz de Gamarra y Dávalos (1745-1783), whose 1774 publication, Elementa recentioris philosophiae, disturbed the intellectual sphere of Mexico by advocating an anti-peripatetic approach to philosophy.  These documents provide an otherwise unobtainable perspective to the way that Gamarra’s work was received.

The interior courtyard of the now “Antiguo” Colegio de San Ildefonso, which currently functions as a cultural center (photo by the author)
The interior courtyard of the now “Antiguo” Colegio de San Ildefonso, which currently functions as a cultural center (photo by the author)

The ACHA summer research grant was therefore indispensable to my research.  With it, I was able to examine several hundred pages of documents and manuscripts from the eighteenth-century in Mexico.  Many of these documents are so evidently useful to me that I have already begun work on writing scholarly articles for publication, conference presentations, and augmenting and completing my dissertation. Moreover, during my time in the archives, I was able to meet several colleagues from institutions in both Mexico and the United States.  I extend my gratitude to the ACHA for their generous support of my research.