Coffeehouses & The Enlightenment
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term Enlightenment as, “the imparting or receiving mental or spiritual light… sometimes used to designate the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c., or of others whom it is intended to associate with them in the implied charge of shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority, etc.” Enlightenment thinkers were particularly focused on the rationality and self-improvement of man in conjunction with man’s relationship with nature. To conduct such conversations, men required an environment that was both academically stimulating, whilst still comfortable. For this purpose, coffeehouses proved a vital venue for intelligent debate and knowledge transmission during the Enlightenment.
Historians have described Enlightenment era coffeehouses as “public social houses during the 17th and 18th centuries, in which patrons would assemble for conversation and social interaction, while taking part in newly emerging coffee consumption habits for the time” (The Social Life of Coffee, 81). For the price of a cup of coffee, Enlightenment coffeehouses provided customers access to newspapers, books, and journals. Coffeehouses were seen as the “nerve center” of intellectual stimulation, where male citizens of the community could congregate and discuss politics and news.
Whilst coffeehouses are often associated with the transmission of knowledge, at a more fundamental level, coffeehouses were public institutions of sociability, much like an ale house. The coffeehouse was seen almost as the equivalent to a gentleman's club in that the institution was designed for and allowed men to congregate and discuss the day's topic, without the presence of women. Coffeehouses were so popular that they spread across Europe like wild fire. For example, by 1760, Vienna already had at least 60 coffee houses!
Coffeehouses became a central component of everyday life in the Enlightenment and onwards, eventually becoming a manifestation of what German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas refers to as “the public sphere.”