The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment

University of Chicago Press
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Nothing is considered more natural than the connection between Isaac Newton’s science and the modernity that came into being during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Terms like “Newtonianism” are routinely taken as synonyms for “Enlightenment” and “modern” thought, yet the particular conjunction of these terms has a history full of accidents and contingencies. Modern physics, for example, was not the determined result of the rational unfolding of Newton’s scientific work in the eighteenth century, nor was the Enlightenment the natural and inevitable consequence of Newton’s eighteenth-century reception. Each of these outcomes, in fact, was a contingent event produced by the particular historical developments of the early eighteenth century.

A comprehensive study of public culture, The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment digsbelow the surface of the commonplace narratives that link Newton with Enlightenment thought to examine the actual historical changes that brought them together in eighteenth-century time and space. Drawing on the full range of early modern scientific sources, from studied scientific treatises and academic papers to book reviews, commentaries, and private correspondence, J. B. Shank challenges the widely accepted claim that Isaac Newton’s solitary genius is the reason for his iconic status as the father of modern physics and the philosophemovement.
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About the author

J. B. Shank is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Sep 15, 2008
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Pages
464
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ISBN
9780226749471
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Europe / France
Science / General
Science / History
Science / Physics / General
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This content is DRM protected.
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From the 1770s through the 1820s the French scientific community predominated in the world to a degree that no other scientific establishment did in any period prior to the Second World War. In his classic Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime, Charles Gillispie analyzed the cultural, political, and technical factors that encouraged scientific productivity on the eve of the Revolution. In the present monumental and elegantly written sequel to that work, which Princeton is reissuing concurrently, he examines how the revolutionary and Napoleonic context contributed to modernization both of politics and science.

In politics, argues Gillispie, the central feature of this modernization was conversion of subjects of a monarchy into citizens of a republic in direct contact with a state enormously augmented in power. To the scientific community, attainment of professional status was what citizenship was to all Frenchmen in the republic proper, namely the license to self-governance and dignity within the respective contexts. Revolutionary circumstances set up a resonance between politics and science since practitioners of both were future oriented in their outlook and scornful of the past.


Among the creations of the First French Republic were institutions providing the earliest higher education in science. From them emerged rigorously trained people who constituted the founding generation in the disciplines of mathematical physics, positivistic biology, and clinical medicine. That scientists were able to achieve their ends was owing to the expertise they provided the revolutionary and imperial authorities in education, medicine, warfare, empire building, and industrial technology.

The development of science, according to respected scholars Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, expands our knowledge and control of the world in ways that affect-but are also affected by-society and culture. In Making Modern Science, a text designed for introductory college courses in the history of science and as a single-volume introduction for the general reader, Bowler and Morus explore both the history of science itself and its influence on modern thought.

Opening with an introduction that explains developments in the history of science over the last three decades and the controversies these initiatives have engendered, the book then proceeds in two parts. The first section considers key episodes in the development of modern science, including the Scientific Revolution and individual accomplishments in geology, physics, and biology. The second section is an analysis of the most important themes stemming from the social relations of science-the discoveries that force society to rethink its religious, moral, or philosophical values. Making Modern Science thus chronicles all major developments in scientific thinking, from the revolutionary ideas of the seventeenth century to the contemporary issues of evolutionism, genetics, nuclear physics, and modern cosmology.

Written by seasoned historians, this book will encourage students to see the history of science not as a series of names and dates but as an interconnected and complex web of relationships between science and modern society. The first survey of its kind, Making Modern Science is a much-needed and accessible introduction to the history of science, engagingly written for undergraduates and curious readers alike.
When it was first published in 1992, The Beginnings of Western Science was lauded as the first successful attempt ever to present a unified account of both ancient and medieval science in a single volume. Chronicling the development of scientific ideas, practices, and institutions from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy to late-Medieval scholasticism, David C. Lindberg surveyed all the most important themes in the history of science, including developments in cosmology, astronomy, mechanics, optics, alchemy, natural history, and medicine. In addition, he offered an illuminating account of the transmission of Greek science to medieval Islam and subsequently to medieval Europe. The Beginnings of Western Science was, and remains, a landmark in the history of science, shaping the way students and scholars understand these critically formative periods of scientific development. It reemerges here in a second edition that includes revisions on nearly every page, as well as several sections that have been completely rewritten. For example, the section on Islamic science has been thoroughly retooled to reveal the magnitude and sophistication of medieval Muslim scientific achievement. And the book now reflects a sharper awareness of the importance of Mesopotamian science for the development of Greek astronomy. In all, the second edition of The Beginnings of Western Science captures the current state of our understanding of more than two millennia of science and promises to continue to inspire both students and general readers.
Throughout the history of the Western world, science has possessed an extraordinary amount of authority and prestige. And while its pedestal has been jostled by numerous evolutions and revolutions, science has always managed to maintain its stronghold as the knowing enterprise that explains how the natural world works: we treat such legendary scientists as Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein with admiration and reverence because they offer profound and sustaining insight into the meaning of the universe.

In The Intelligibility of Nature, Peter Dear considers how science as such has evolved and how it has marshaled itself to make sense of the world. His intellectual journey begins with a crucial observation: that the enterprise of science is, and has been, directed toward two distinct but frequently conflated ends—doing and knowing. The ancient Greeks developed this distinction of value between craft on the one hand and understanding on the other, and according to Dear, that distinction has survived to shape attitudes toward science ever since.

Teasing out this tension between doing and knowing during key episodes in the history of science—mechanical philosophy and Newtonian gravitation, elective affinities and the chemical revolution, enlightened natural history and taxonomy, evolutionary biology, the dynamical theory of electromagnetism, and quantum theory—Dear reveals how the two principles became formalized into a single enterprise, science, that would be carried out by a new kind of person, the scientist.

Finely nuanced and elegantly conceived, The Intelligibility of Nature will be essential reading for aficionados and historians of science alike.
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