The History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) is happy to announce the publication of Michael C. Carhart’s new work Leibniz Discovers Asia: Social Networking in the Republic of Letters. Part of the Johns Hopkins University Press series “Information Cultures,” which illuminates the material and cultural circumstances that have shaped the production, reading, and public consumption of texts, Carhart’s work traces the history of linguistics through following the work of philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who developed a vast network of scholars and missionaries throughout Europe to acquire the linguistic data he needed.

Dr. Carhart has written a short description of his book, which can be found below:

Ever since A. L. Schlözer 250 years ago, Leibniz has been viewed as a founding figure of the linguistic method in ethnology.  Leibniz was pointed to at the beginning of comparative grammar in the nineteenth century, and he continues to be invoked in historical and comparative linguistics in the twenty-first century.

We are now finally able to see exactly what is meant by Leibniz as a founder of the linguistic method.  We can see what Leibniz was looking for, how he obtained his data, from whom he received it, and what he did with it once it was in hand.

Leibniz Discovers Asia: Social Networking in the Republic of Letters (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) reconstructs Leibniz’s method of work and, most significantly, how he built and managed an extensive network of literary correspondents in order to obtain the information he needed about the peoples, languages, and geography of Central Asia and the Siberian North.

Leibniz’s purpose was to explain the origins and prehistoric migrations of the Germanic peoples of Europe, whom he believed had emigrated from “Scythia” or Grand Tartary.  Through the comparison of languages around the Black and Caspian Seas, Leibniz intended to puzzle out the relationships between the languages and thereby also the relationships between the nations.  These would be compared with European languages ancient and modern, and the hope was that a well-documented account of European ethnogenesis would appear.

Linguistic samples turned out to be more difficult to obtain than Leibniz anticipated.  A key ally in the project emerged when Leibniz made contact with the Jesuit order, which was trying to open an overland route across Asia to China, and it was through their collaboration that Leibniz took a keen interest in China.

The book includes two primary source documents translated into English for the first time for the use of scholars and students.  “Desiderata circa linguas quorundam populorum” is a formalized request for historical languages in which Leibniz articulated his two part methodology, Lord’s Prayers and vocabulary lists.  Often cited by historians of linguistics as a foundational text, until recently Leibniz’s “Desiderata” was accessible only in Dutens’s 1768 edition and only in Latin.

Also translated is a proposal to a still young Czar Peter the Great for a project of enlightening the nomadic nations of Siberia and Central Asia.  Leibniz envisioned a complete program of westernization for the distant regions of the expanding Russian empire, the importing of European knowledge and technology, the transformation of the wilderness into productive land, and the transformation of the indigenous peoples as well.

Leibniz Discovers Asia: Social Networking in the Republic of Letters is a kind of prequel to Han Vermeulen’s Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Nebraska, 2015).  Vermeulen showed how the systematic study indigenous peoples began in the Russian Far East during the two Kamchatka expeditions that were initiated (though carried out posthumously) by Peter the Great.  Although we lack a precise chain of documents linking Leibniz’s vision to the mandate of the future Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, certainly Leibniz was part of a milieu that formed the basis of investigation – both theoretical and methodological – even if the procedures were substantially revised a generation later once investigators got into the field.

Returning from St. Petersburg in the 1760s, A. L. Schlözer was insistent that Leibniz’s method of linguistic comparison – arduous and unflashy though it was – blazed the trail for a rigorous science of ethnology (Völkerkunde, as Schlözer termed it in German).

Leibniz Discovers Asia shows what a well-connected scholar in Europe could learn about Asiatic peoples when he put his mind to it in a concerted program of empirical research.  It reveals the limits of what was knowable in the 1690s.  It also shows what knowledge was held by others yet remained beyond Leibniz’s reach, sometimes because his friends did not fully understand what he was after, in other cases because those who held the knowledge weren’t sharing.

Despite these obstacles in his own lifetime, ethnologists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century recognized in Leibniz that the ethnolinguistic method was the best way to understand not only the cultural geography of the world’s peoples but also the historical relationships between the European peoples themselves.  


Michael C. Carhart is associate professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia (U.S.A.).  He is the author of The Science of Culture in Enlightenment Germany (Harvard, 2007).