Was Hobbes a Theologian?

During lunch a friend reminded me about an article on Hobbes I sent him a few weeks back. I had only quickly scanned it at the time, sent it to him, and apparently forgotten all about it. The article is written by Jonathan Sheehan, and published in The Journal of Modern History (June, 2016). It asks the provocative (and perhaps “perverse”) question: Was Thomas Hobbes a theologian?

Sheehan begins by calling attention to the so-called “return of religion” or “religious turn” in modern scholarship, a term used by various scholars in recent decades, including Thomas Albert Howard, Thomas Ahnert, S.J. Barnett, James E. Bradley, Jonathan D. Clark, Dale K. Van Kley, Louis Dupré, Knud Haakonssen, Ian Hunter, Thomas Munck, Dorinda Outram, J.G.A. Pocock, Roy Porter, Mikuláš Teich, David Sorkin, Robert Sullivan, and Bruce Ward, among others, and mostly in the context of Enlightenment studies. Sheehan himself has participated in such work, particularly in his The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (2005), which argued that the Bible’s place in eighteenth-century German and English Protestantism was transformed rather than eclipsed. Earlier still was his important review essay, “Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization,” published in American Historical Review (Oct, 2003).

According to Sheehan, asking if Hobbes was a theologian might seem perverse. Although he never claimed to be an atheist, countless commentators have called Hobbes’s philosophy atheistic. As he notes, “between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries…there is complete consensus on the anti-Christian disposition of Hobbes’s thought.” Contemporaries were horrified by his impiety. Nineteenth-century thinkers also recognised Hobbes’s mechanistic metaphysics as atheistic. But by the early twentieth century, according to Sheehan, a number scholars were beginning to view Hobbes as “perfectly orthodox.” But how could this be? One scholar, e.g., A.P. Martinich, answered that most Hobbes scholars were secularists, and thus “bowdlerized his philosophy to match their prejudices.”

But according to Sheehan, the situation is more complex. Conventional critiques that Hobbes was an atheist or, more recently, assertions that he was entirely orthodox, miss a particularly important point about Hobbes’s religious context. Sheehan is worth quoting at length:

Hobbes teaches that, absent controlling authority, the Christian archive is heterodox, that it is not one tradition or one theology or one orthodoxy. Its pluralism goes back to the very dawn of its formation, built on layers of texts, authorities, traditions, and claims. There is, as Hobbes wrote about his own book, “nothing contrary to the Faith of our Church, though there ares several [doctrines] which go beyond (superantia) the teachings of private theologians.” As Hobbes understands it, however, the “Faith of our Church” was one hardly circumscribed—at least at the moment when the Leviathan was published—by orthodoxy. Rather, it was ill-formed, internally argumentative, variable, and agonistic.

So is Hobbes a theologian? We might be in a better position now to think about our opening question. Let us imagine with Hobbes that, absent institutions that guarantee certain statements as authoritative and orthodox, anyone can be a theologian. In fact, in a certain sense, everyone is a theologian—heterodox, perhaps, or even “ heretical, ” once external and political guarantees of right teaching disappear. In that case, what I called in the opening of this essay the “perversities” of Thomas Hobbes, D.D.—an atheist theologian, a mechanist theologian, an anti-ecclesiastical theologian — are suddenly no longer perverse at all. Instead, they are possibilities of thought unregulated by authority. They are only perverse in a world where a normative standard of orthodoxy can successfully be applied.

Leviathan was not written in such a world, and this invited Hobbes to practice a theology that was simultaneously mechanist and pious, anti-ecclesiastical and pro-establishment, atheist and Christian. We do not live in such a world either. In our world, the state takes little interest in regulating the unruly and messy Christian archive.

But Sheehan might be overstating his case. To be sure, the religious and political world of England was in much turmoil when Hobbes wrote his Leviathan. Indeed, it was penned while he was in self-exile, living in Paris, fearing for his life. When the Civil War ended, Hobbes returned to England in 1652 and settled down in the household of the earl of Devonshire. These circumstances no doubt are reflected in his writings. The fact that so many writers, as Sheehan himself points out, found Hobbes’s writings atheistic also questions his notion that the “Christian archive is heterodox.” That there was an almost “complete consensus” against Hobbes’s position is telling indeed.

Philosophical Myths of the Fall

Mulhal - Philosophical Myths of the FallI came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall  (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”

A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.

Religion and the Enlightenment

This blog has been on hiatus the last few months as I have been busy writing two papers for two conferences in July. I made the mistake of wanting to say something unique for each conference, and that has led me into the depths of archival research and the ever expanding secondary literature. The first paper will look more closely at the “origins” of the conflict narrative in the nineteenth century. The second will examine ideas of progress, from Comte to Draper. I am particularly excited about the second paper as I have to deliver it at Oxford, at St Anne’s College. I will also have the opportunity to do some archival research at the British Library afterwards. I have never been to England, and I can already feel the tension between wanting to do research and wanting to explore historical sites.

So I am returnSheehan - The Enlightenment Bibleing to blogging, albeit part time. I do have PhD candidature confirmations in October, so at most I might post a book review here and there. With that said, here are a few books I have been reading that are worth checking out. The first is Jonathan Sheehan’s The Enlightenment Bible (2005). Sheehan traces how the Bible fared in eighteenth-century Protestant Europe. I first heard of Sheehan in his survey article in the American Historical Review, which examined the relation between religion and the enlightenment. There he argued that “secularization” actually mars our understanding of the eighteenth century, for it rests on an impoverished conception of religion. Rather than vanishing over the horizon, Sheehan argues, religion “has been continually remade and given new forms and meanings over time.” In his The Enlightenment Bible, Sheehan makes a strong case for seeing the enlightenment as reshaping rather than attacking religion. When the philosophes attacked the church, they attacked it for its dogma, its theology, and its uncritical reading of the Bible. It was an effort, Sheehan writes, “not to discard, but to remake religion.”

Howard - Religion and the Rise of HistoricismSheehan’s thesis relies on the work the revisionist work of Thomas Albert Howard’s Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), the second book I have been closely reading. It is a remarkable book. In this book Howard brings to light the much neglected figure of W.M.L. de Wette (1780-1849), a German theologian and biblical scholar who had a tremendous influenced the work of much better known Swiss-German historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), most known for his provocative The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Howard cogently and forcefully argues that Burckhardt, despite renouncing religion as superstitious and background, retained a profoundly deep religious pathos from his early training under de Wette. In particular, Burckhardt remained a strong adherent to a “secularized” version of the doctrine of Original Sin.

Howard’sLowith - Meaning in History thesis, in turn, relies on the earlier and prescient work of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (1949), which is the last book I will mention here. Löwith argues, in brief, that the philosophy of history, and particular the idea of progress inherent in early modern period histories of philosophy, emerged out Christian eschatological thought patterns. Western historical consciousness, in other words, was—and is—determined by an eschatological motivation.

All three are excellent for a better understanding of the recent “religious turn” in Enlightenment studies.

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 7Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Cambridge History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences (2003) is the last of the current seven volume series. There is, however, a forthcoming eight volume, entitled The Cambridge History of Science Volume VIII: Modern Science in National and International Contexts, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and David Livingstone.

The volume under consideration examines “the history of the social sciences over some three centuries and many countries, attending to their knowledge and methods, the contexts of their origin and development, and the practices through which they have acted on the world.” Part 1 discusses the origins of the social sciences; Part 2 on modern disciplines in “western Europe and North America since about 1880”; Part 3 on the “internationalization of the social sciences”; and Part 4 consists of “a collection of case studies illustrating the larger importance of social science” in public and private life. My interests chiefly concern the contents of Part 1, and thus the following will concentrate there alone.

In his chapter on “Genres and Objects of Social Inquiry: From Enlightenment to 1890,” Theodore Porter offers a “loose periodization of the early history of social science.” He begins during the “period of the Enlightenment, when discourses of nature and reason began to be applied more systematically to ‘man’ and society.” Before the nineteenth century, there were recognizable “European traditions of thought and practice concerned with politics, wealth, the senses, distant peoples, and so on.” There were treatises on human epistemology; travel narratives; medical works; and important discourses on populations, economies, states, bodies, minds, and customs that resemble what we call today “anthropology.” Porter argues that the “birth of social science has much to do with the liberalizing political moves and the growth of a public sphere.” And here the Enlightenment played an important role in its advance, for “as an intellectual and social movement, [it] depended on increasingly free public discussion, on the mechanisms for the circulation of ideas.” Indeed, philosophes like Condorcet (1743-1794) saw the printing press “as a signal event in the history of progress, since it allowed knowledge to advance without ever being lost.” The growth of newspapers, coffeehouses, salons, and lodges in the eighteenth century “provided opportunities for relatively free discussion of issues and events.”

Eighteenth-century thinkers were concerned with the subject of “human nature,” or what we now call “psychology.” And this subject, Porter writes, “was closely linked to natural philosophy, especially because one of its central ambitions was to understand the human ability to acquire and use empirical knowledge.” The philosophes were so impressed with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which sought a naturalistic account of human nature, that they used it as a weapon in “struggles against the moral and institutional power of the Church, as well as a rationale for systematic schooling.”

The French Revolution of 1789, Porter asserts, “marked an important shift, in which social progress came to seem both more powerful and more threatening.” Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac, Turgot, d’Alembert, and Diderot all died between 1778 and 1784. “In the politically polarized climate after 1789, a career like that of Voltaire or Diderot, based on appeals to universal reason, was scarcely possible.” “Unruly passions,” Porter notes, “inspired a pervasive sense of danger,” which in turn gave way to a more urgent social science, “often more ideological, looking to the past, or to science, in order to comprehend what seemed the precarious circumstances of modernity.” In this sense, the social sciences moved beyond understanding to administration, particularly under the monarch. “The state, henceforth acting on the basis of full information and rational methods, would naturally advance the public good.” This was a social science in utopian form.

But this view was quickly rebuked by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that the Revolution was the “consequence of irresponsible men, shallow ideologues, provoking abrupt changes in a social organism—the state—whose natural development is slow and gradual.” Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “attributed the excess of the Revolution to the influence of detached intellectuals, men without actual experience in government.”

Utopianism, nevertheless, continued unabated. Condorcet’s Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794) shifted utopian ideals “from somewhere in space (far away) into time, the near or distant future.” Condercet’s mentor, Turgot, had also written on the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750), a “systematic, secular, and naturalistic statement of the ‘modern’ idea of progress,” a genre that flourished in the nineteenth century. Key figures here, according to Porter, are Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his “most famous and rebellious disciple,” Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In their introduction, Porter and Ross summarize:

Comte initiated a massive effort to define the methods and historical progression of the sciences. His main purpose was to announce the discovery, and define the standing, of sociology. He rejected decisively the idea that social science should adopt the same methods as astronomy, physics, or physiology. Yet at the same time he defined a hierarchy of knowledge, with social science dependent for its formulation on all the sciences that had gone before. And despite his claims for the inclusion of social knowledge, he made of “science” something special and exclusive. There had been, he argued, no science of physics before the seventeenth century, no true chemistry before Lavoisier. The origins of physiology were still more recent, and the founder of scientific sociology was, to cast aside false modesty, himself. Theology and  metaphysics were not part of positive science, but its predecessors and its antithesis. Law, literature, and rhetoric could never occupy this hallowed ground. Thus, while Comte formulated his philosophy in order to vindicate sociology and to define its place within science, he insisted also on a highly restrictive sense of “science,” a standard the social sciences could not easily meet.

Another transition occurred “roughly during the decade of the 1830s, as the economic and social changes of industralization became visible to everyone.” This pushed social science to becoming a “tool for managing as well as for understanding the problems” of the era. “Economic change brought economic dislocation,” Porter tells us. The “massive flow of people from farms to cities” altered family arrangements, increased epidemics of diseases, urban squalor, crime and thus threatened the “good order of society.” “Social science, then, developed during the middle third of the nineteenth century above all as a liberal, reformist answer to the upheavals of the era.”

Statistics became the characteristic social science of the mid nineteenth century, and was carried out largely by officials of the state. “During the 1830s, many of the leading nations of Europe…created permanent census offices.” According to Porter, this effort by the states were “very much a part of the history of social science, not only because they provided indispensable sources of data, but also because their leaders often took an active role in interpreting the figures—which often mean propagandizing for public education, for example, or for improved sanitation.” This movement was not without its critics, particularly when statistical data become closely associated with laissez-faire political economy.

In conclusion, Porter makes the interesting observation that “biology, not physics, was the crucial point of reference for the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.” “Throughout the nineteenth century, from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Ernst Haeckel and beyond, theories of biological evolution were less mechanical than purposeful, involving a teleological progression of species toward greater perfection.” Herbert Spencer, for example, “regarded biological and social progress as parallel instances of a more general law, a tendency for homogeneous matter to become increasingly complex and differentiated.” Indeed, biological evolution provided the “framework that many found satisfying for interpreting the diversity of human peoples.” It also manifested itself, Porter notes in conclusion, in “hybrids of biological and social theories and practices, such as Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary sociology, Francis Galton’s eugenic campaign to improve mankind by selective breeding, the racialism against which Franz Boas fought for anthropology, and the Lamarckian elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.”

Johan Heilbron’s “Social Thought and Natural Science” continues the discussion by focusing on how the “natural sciences have provided an enduring set of models for modern social science, models that go well beyond suggestive analogies and illustrative metaphors.” Heilbron claims that “natural philosophy” searched for “natural principles and laws, in place of supernatural agencies.” When natural philosophy was applied to the domains of moral philosophy and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “it allowed for a shift away from Christian doctrines toward secular models.”

The “naturalistic quest for knowledge of human nature and human society,” Heilbron tells us, was initiated by natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), who “developed elaborate systems of moral duty and political obligation based upon what they took to be permanent features of human nature, such as the concern for self-preservation.” Invoking natural science involved use of mechanical metaphors, the primacy of observation and experience, measurement and quantification, and rational deduction. But such a process was neither uniform nor uncontested.

During the Enlightenment period, the “secular intelligentsia,” Heilbron writes, “explicitly claimed, and effectively exercised, the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independent of established authorities and official doctrines.” Discourses on political, moral, and economic issues relied on “factual evidence and detail” provided by the natural sciences. This is the first of three distinct trends that Heilbron wants to point out.

The second trend was the differentiation of natural science, the demise of a unitary conception of natural philosophy, and a fundamental split between “animate and inanimate bodies.” Comte, for example, distinguished social science from biology, biology from chemistry, chemistry from physics. “Social science, for Comte, was a relatively autonomous endeavor, with a subject matter of its own and a specific method of study.”

The third trend was the opposition of prevailing forms of naturalism in the human sciences. Heilbron claims that the elaboration of “humanistic or cultural alternative made natural science, with its insistence on mechanical laws and causal models, an object of criticism.” Heilbron never expands on this third trend, so what he means here is not entirely clear.

The scientific conception of moral philosophy was strongest in England, Scotland, and France, reaching it apogee in the latter from about 1770 to 1830. In France, for example, we find the “most scientistic designation for the social sciences…’social mathematics,’ ‘social mechanics,’ ‘social physics,’ and ‘social physiology.'” Those espousing a scientific model of moral and political philosophy include Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and John Millar (1735-1801). Montesquieu was particularly admired by the latter four for having demonstrated that “laws have, or ought to have, a constant references to the constitution of governments, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society.”

Salient in France were thinkers conceptualizing the social world in language derived from the physical and life sciences, such as Turgot (1727-1781), Condorcert  (1743-1794), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all to some extant stressing “the urgency of adapting scientific method to the analysis of state matters.”

Utilitarian philosophers would also reason “in a style that was equally modeled on the physical sciences.” From Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), proponents of the utilitarian view promoted a “calculus of pleasures and pains,” deductive reasoning, and physical analogies for understanding human nature. Drawing from the life sciences, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) argued that “human consciousness and conduct had to be explained by bodily arrangements and physical needs, and no longer in terms of immaterial substances.” Others, such as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806) rejected mechanical conceptions and advocated a type of vitalism as the basis of the science of man. This position was taken up systematically by Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabnis (1757-1808) in his psychophysiological research programs, which also became the basis of the work of the idéologues, “a group of moderate revolutionary intellectuals.” Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), for example, wanted “the old metaphysics…to be replaced by a rigorously scientific program for which Cabanis’s biomedical theories provided the basis.” This was all appropriated by Saint-Simon within a physiological framework, “who proclaimed that human societies were also organized bodies.”

Heilbron next turns to evolutionary thought. He argues that “evolutionary thinking in the life sciences owed as much to the human sciences as it did to biology.” Notions of progressive change over extended periods of time first emerged, according to Heilbron, in “the late-seventeenth-century battle between what were called the Ancients and the Moderns.” In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his anti-utopian Essay on the Principle of Population. There is attacked Condorcet’s optimistic vision of indefinite perfectibility, arguing that “the operation of natural laws could well produce misery and starvation, not progress.” Malthus’ argument, as many have pointed out, “provided Darwin with the clue for his theory of natural selection.” In general, natural history reinforced the historicization of the social sciences. “Developmental or evolutionary theories in the broad sense became the prevailing form of the science of society in the nineteenth century.” But the best-known representative of evolutionism, of course, was Herbert Spencer, “an evolutionist before Darwin’s Origin.” Spencer would popularize the idea that “from the maturation of an embryo to the development of human society and the evolution of the solar system, all things evolve from the simple to the complex through successive differentiation.” Much broader than Comte’s sociology or Darwin’s biological theory, Spencer’s view of evolution “had the status of a cosmic law and formed the core of his all-embracing system of synthetic philosophy.”

But the “promise and prestige of the natural sciences,” Heilbron tells us, “did not remain uncontested. Countermovements to the naturalistic understanding of human society became an intellectual force in the course of the nineteenth century,” particularly in and through the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder argued that “each society, each people, is marked by a peculiar cultural spirit, a Volksgesit, expressed in its customs, myths, and folktales [and] the task of the human sciences is to uncover the peculiarities of this spirit.” According to Heilbron, Herder’s work “contributed to an emerging culturalist understanding of human socieites,” reinforced by the Romantic reactions of Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Bonald, among others.

The following essays examine the same movements and figures, only in more concentrated areas. Stephen Turner, for example, focuses on the “ideas of cause and teleology before and during the period of Mill and Comte, and its aftermath up to the early twentieth century.” Although Enlightenment thinkers agreed that arguments of teleology were problematic, “they were impressed with the idea that organisms are understandable only teleologically, only in terms of some internal principle or nature that cannot be reduced by mechanism; and they relied freely on the idea of human nature, characterized by inherent purposes, in their political reasoning.” Turgot, Comte, and Mill all wanted to eliminate final causes in their social sciences. But teleology survived the onslaught by these writers, in the form of purposive language, organic analogy, and historical directionality. As Turner concludes, “the project of stripping science of its teleological elements was difficult, perhaps impossible to carry through consistently.” Indeed, teleology persists today in many forms, particularly in rational choice theory in the social sciences.

Antoine Picon examines “Utopian Socialism and Social Science” during the nineteenth century. Under the direction of the “founding figures of utopian socialism” Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and their disciples, a scientific understanding of society was a “prerequisite for its reconstruction.” The notion of progress was a key piece of utopian arguments. Whereas Thomas More’s (1478-1535) vision of utopia was the negation of place—literally to be found “nowhere”—eighteenth-century utopias shifted from “singularity to universality, from nowhere to everywhere…[and] relocated into the future, as the final stage of human progress.” The utopian socialists’ vision of history, Picon tells us, “was based on the identification of a series of organic stages…separated by periods of cultural and social uncertainty and unrest.” Ironically, while eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopians rejected Christianity, they had no intention of rejecting religion tout court. In fact, they wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion, a “religion of humanity.” Although the attempt to found new religions was eventually abandoned in the social sciences, late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century “sociological literature was permeated by a dull nostalgia for what had been lost,” as seen in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The cult of progress; the belief in absolutely positive social facts and permanent historical laws that could reveal the future of mankind, were a crucial part of the emerging social sciences.

Starting in the seventeenth century, Eileen Janes Yeo argues in her “Social Surveys in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” “voluntary enthusiasts as well as state bureaucrats were becoming concerned with statistics, in the sense not only of facts useful to the state but also of a tabulated facts that would depict ‘the present state of a country,’ often ‘with a view to its future improvement.'” Population surveys were thus a source of power for the state. Unsurprisingly, many of the surveys were contested. But by the mid-nineteenth century, “the state monopolized large-scale social inquiry.” The nineteenth century “was characterized by the involvement of a wider range of social groups and institutional settings, which made social surveys a more visible part of a contested politics of knowledge.”

Likewise, “Scientific ethnography and travel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Harry Liebersohn tells us, not only “facilitated accurate navigation over the thousands of miles of a world sea voyage”; it also opened a “new round of competition between the two great powers [i.e. British and French], who now played out their rivalry in the vast, hitherto imperfectly charted expanse of the Pacific.” Ethnographers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not simply transcribe their impressions of the things they have witnessed—rather, “they capture a many-sided drama involving actors across the world, all of them contending to dominate the ‘truth’ about encounters among strange people.” These were indeed “narratives of knowledge,” accounts of “independent-minded intellectuals who formed their own views of the things that they saw and…sometimes developed a belief that they were bearing witness to world-historical events for a European public.” The philosophes, for example, “drew on travel writing to validate their criticisms of politics at home and of colonial administration overseas.” The institution of slavery, equality, and liberty were a common topics encouraged by ethnographic works. Darwin, for example, in his 1839 account of the Beagle voyage, “attributed the wildness and poverty of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to their insistence on an equal sharing of property and power, which checked, he though, any formation of a higher culture.” These works also encouraged comparative methods of inquiry, “evaluating the fantastic clutter of skulls, costumes, vocabularies, adventure stories, economic reports, and other souvenirs” of knowledge. This would led, as many other scholars have pointed out, to the development of comparative linguistics, but also the comparative study of religion.

Johnson Kent Wright argues in “History and Historicism” that historicism was not a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, but one with an extensive genealogy connected to the Enlightenment. Moreover, he stresses “the close relations between historicism and conceptions of social science throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The “modernization” of historicism came from its chief architect, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who rendered it “irreducible to any other discipline.” Ranke’s vision of “historical development, concentrated resolutely on the political histories of the great nation-states of western Europe, from their first appearances in the Dark Ages down to the present,” became the model of “scientific” historiography in the second half of the nineteenth century. François Guizot’s (1787-1874) History of Civilization in Europe (1828) is a prime example. But it also influenced, as is well-known, the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose historical materialism was the conceptual centerpiece  of “a historicist device par excellence.” And as Terrell Carver concurs in his “Marx and Marxism,” Marx “absorbed and modified, but never rejected, a German intellectual tradition concerning knowledge and science.”


The Cambridge History of Science series is a massive and comprehensive undertaking. Beginning with Medieval Science and concluding with the Modern Social Sciences, the books serve as invaluable and indispensable references to the historian of science. I have found them valuable for orientating my thoughts and its judicious survey of movements, figures, and ideas. One must however carefully and selectively sift through their contents. Most of the essays are excellent; but many are also meandering, unfocused, and varying in quality. The cost of each book may also deter those looking to add them to their private library. Despite this, the series provides an incontrovertible resource for those interested in the history of science.

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science, Volume IV

Cambridge History of Science 4The next installment of this series comes edited by Roy Porter, The Cambridge History of Science Volume 4: Eighteenth-Century Science (2003). Porter begins the volume by asking “What was Enlightenment Science?” According to historians, eighteenth-century science was subdued, “it lacks the heroic quality of what came before—the martyrdom of Bruno, Galileo’s titantc clash with the Vatican, the ‘new astronomy’ and ‘new philosophy’ of the ‘scientific revolution,’ the sublime genius of a Descartes, Newton, or Leibniz.” Such observations has led scholars to characterizing the natural sciences in the eighteenth century in terms of “consolidation.” Indeed, some scholars have claimed that “if the Scientific Revolution is seen as a broader cultural moment whereby the Galilean/Newtonian mathematical and phenomenological approach to the natural world became part of the mind set of the European and American elite, then that Revolution occurred in the eighteenth century.” In other words, the eighteenth century was the era when scientific knowledge became an integral part of western culture; it became “public knowledge.”

However, this should not lead the reader, Porter warns, to “the false impression that all the great breakthroughs of early modern natural science had already been achieved by 1700 and that what remained was no more than a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s.” Rather, the eighteenth century permeated with the esprit géometrique (or “calculating spirit”) into everyday life. Moreover, “new specialties were taking shape,” such as “geology” and “biology,” and aspects of the physical sciences—namely, magnetism, electricity, optics, fluid mechanics, pneumatics, the study of fire, heat, meteorology, hydrostatics, and others—made striking advances. These advances also included natural history, when the first evolutionary theories were promoted.

But perhaps most importantly, “the production of knowledge about Nature and the casting of discourse in natural terms were playing increasingly prominent roles in culture, ideology, and society at large. Natural philosophers and historians were claiming their place in the sun alongside of churchmen and humanists.” The state began “increasingly employing experts as administrators, explorers, civil and military engineers, propagandists, and managers of natural resources.” Eighteenth-century “consolidation” of science was also embodied in permanent institutional form. “Many European rulers, with an eye…to both practicality and prestige, made it their business to create state support programs for savants…Scientific academies, notably those in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, established clutches of permanent, state-funded posts for men of science; they might be seen as early engines of collective scientific research.” Figures such as Fontenelle, Voltaire, and many others, also played an important role in “spreading and seeding the natural sciences” into the “public sphere.” “In societies and salons, in lecture courses and museums,” the natural sciences were “becoming established in the mind, as an ideological force and a prized ingredient in the approved cultural diet.” A marketplace in ideas had emerged.

But this was not a “pure science.” This “empire of science” was advanced through “exploration and colonization,” as Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston pointed out in volume III of this series. What is more, “discourses of philosophy, poetry, religion, and politics appropriated the scientific methods and models associated with Bacon and Descartes, Galileo and Gassendi, and, above all, Newton.” But these seventeenth-century thinkers were often victims of double-dealing and intrigue of eighteenth-century philosophes. For this latter group of thinkers “scientific inquiry was the new broom par excellence that would sweep mystifications and obscurantism aside, removing the mumbo-jumbo of the Church and the “feudal” ways that kept the masses poor, hungry, and oppressed.” Thus the “natural sciences always came gift-wrapped in ideology.” The natural sciences, in other words, were applied to specific “social uses.”

This was the propaganda of the philosophes. But in reality “‘science’ never presented a united front.” Eighteenth-century natural science was fragmented by “secretiveness, jealously, and rivalry were inflamed by priority disputes, ferocious battles over the ownership of discoveries and inventions, and other claims to scientific property.” According to Porter, “much evidence adduced in this volume suggests that the balkanization of specialist disciplines was already undermining any authentic notion of a unifying natural philosophy.”

The aim of the present volume is “to provide critical syntheses of the best modern thinking” on the subject. It is designed to be read as both a narrative and an interpretation, and also to be used as a work of reference. The volume is divided into five engrossing and informative parts. Part I, “Science and society,” contains essays on “the legacy of the ‘Scientific Revolution'” (Peter Hanns Reill), “science, the universities, and other public spaces” (Laurence Brockliss), “scientific institutions and the organization of science” (James III McCellan), “science and government” (Robert Fox), “exploring natural knowledge: science and the popular” (Mary Fissell and Roger Cooter), “the image of the man of science” (Steven Shapin), “women and gender in science” (Londa Schiebinger), and “the pursuit of the prosopography of science” (William Clark).

Part II accounts for “Disciplines” of eighteenth-century science, including “classifying the sciences” (Richard Yeo), “philosophy of science” (Rob Iliffe), “ideas of nature: natural philosophy” (John Gascoigne), mathematics (Craig Fraser), astronomy (Curtis Wilson), mechanics and experimental physics (R.W. Home), chemistry (Jan Golinski) and the life (Shirley A. Roe), earth (Rhoda Rappaport), human (Richard Oslon) and medical sciences (Thomas H. Broman). And a final essay exploring so-called “marginalized practices” (Patricia Fara) of “animal magnetism, physiognomy, astrology, alchemy and Hutchinsonianism” and others, shows that these disciplines were still being practiced on the Continent, and that the “progressive views [i.e. rhetoric] of eighteenth-century rationalists” relegated such ancient and long-standing traditions to “anecdotal status.”

Part III covers “Special themes” such as “scientific instruments and their makers (G. L’E. Turner), “print and public science” (Adrian Johns), “scientific illustration” (Brian J. Ford), “art and the representation of the natural world” (Charlotte Klonk) and “voyages of discovery” (Iliffe, again). Then immediately follows, in Part IV, with some essays on “Non-western traditions”; for example Islam (Emilie Savage-Smith), India (Deepak Kumar), China (Frank Dikötter), Japan (Shigeru Nakayama) and Spanish America (Jorge Cañizares Esguerra)

This volume concludes with Part V, “Ramifications and impacts.” Here we find incredibly insightful essays on “science and religion” (John Hedley Brooke), “science, culture, and the imagination” (George S. Rousseau), and “science, philosophy, and the mind” (Paul Wood). A paper on “global pillage” (Larry Stewart) reveals “that the European search for commodities, the control of and access to new markets, the identification of new medicines and useful plants, the expansion of the state and the promotion of the public interest and glittering, private wealth, all were a piece in the scientific pillage of the empires of the Enlightenment.” And a concluding essay on “technological and industrial change” (Ian Inkster) argues that “the story of industrial modernization is at heart a story of institutions and technologies.”

Social Uses of Science

The intellectual history of the eighteenth century, including the history of eighteenth-century science, used to be summed up in the term “Enlightenment.” However, as we have seen, no one has been able to define the term with any precision; nevertheless, most historians continue to use it to identify a set of opinions that characterized the century. In The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, the term scarcely makes an appearance. This is deliberate. The editors and authors of this collection of essays believe that historiography of science of the eighteenth century has been utterly changed by the advent of “contextual” scholarship in a number of disparate disciplines, from the history of ideas, mythology, new approaches within Marxism and French structuralism, techniques of historians of art, religion, philosophy, and ideology, to the seminal writings of anthropologists and psychologists and others.

In their introduction the editors rightly emphasize that we can “no longer ignore the fact that the eighteenth century ‘geography of knowledge,’ the relations between the sciences, was then markedly different from our own.” The introduction explains:

The last generation has wrought a revolution in the history of science…Certainties have given way to questions. The history of science is no longer a scientist’s hymn to science: it has become part of history itself…The development of science can no longer be served up as the sure tread towards truth. But exactly how it should be viewed is a question on which no consensus is in sight…This revolution is, of course, very familiar. Its relevance here is that this profound change in the orientation—one riddled with methodological anxieties—has as yet done little for the eighteenth century.

The aim, and hope, of the present volume is thus to present a “contextual historiography” of the eighteenth century as a corrective:

…we now take it as axiomatic—and correctly—that eighteenth-century science can be properly grasped only if its “external” relations to other intellectual and cultural systems, such as theology and epistemology, are tackled head-on…It seems elementary to us (now!) that eighteenth-century scientific ideas cannot adequately be translated one-to-one into twentieth-century terminology. Indeed, one of the aims of this book is precisely to distil and evaluate this substantial body of empirical research that has been conducted in the last generation.

To achieve its ends, the editors have compiled a series of twelve essays by twelve knowledgeable authors. Of all the contributions in this volume, Steven Shapin’s “Social Uses of Science” is perhaps the most provocative and stimulating contribution.

Shapin discusses the social uses of science by analyzing a number of studies which deal with the social significance of Newtonianism, “it is in the area of Newtonianism and its career in the eighteenth century that such perspectives show their greatest inadequacies and where new notions of science and its uses display greatest promise.” An essay by Arnold Thackray looks at political interpretation of the Leibniz-Clarke debate, “The priority disputes between Newton and Leibniz…cannot be understood without examining the dynastic politics of the period from the 1680s to the 1710s.” According to Thackray, “Newton set in motion a sustained collective effort to discredit the worth, religious significance, and originality of the German’s [i.e. Leibniz] science.” An essay by Frank Manuel supports Thackray’s account that Newton was an “autocrat of science.” And George Grinnell’s argument that Newton’s own motivation was not merely proprietary but party-political interprets Newton as an anti-Catholic Whig. Shapin concludes from these contextualist interpretations that “one cannot  understand scientific judgements without attaining to the context wherein scientific accounts were deployed.”

In several articles Margaret Jacob sets out to develop a connection between Newtonian natural philosophy and Low Church politics. Shapin positively evaluates M. Jacob’s view that “conceptions of nature are tools, instruments which historical actors in contingent settings pick up and deploy in order to further a variety of interests, social as well as technical.” According to James R. Jacob and Christopher Hill, “natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was powerfully shaped by the social uses of natural knowledge during Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration” periods.

From the contextualist interpretations of M. Jacob, J.R. Jacob, and Hill, Shapin offers a number of suggestions to explain how eighteenth century matter theory could be given a social interpretation:

First, it is to be noted that philosophies of nature were routinely seen by the actors as imbued with social meaning. This is not because of “mere” metaphorical glossing, but because in these (and later) cultural contexts nature and society were deemed to be elements in one interacting network of significances…Second, groups with conflicting social interests developed and sustained interestingly different natural philosophies; moreover, these philosophies were often produced explicitly to combat and refute those of rival groups. Third, the distribution of attributes between “matter” and “spirit” was an issue of intense concern in all these philosophies; the relations between the two entities seemed to be something upon which all cosmologies “had to” decide, and the boundaries between “matter” and “spirit” were treated as having particularly strong social significance.

Thus “contextualism” for Shapin is the study of natural philosophy “entirely in terms of its uses in specific historical contexts,” or, as his title suggests, its “social uses.”

In the next section of the essay Shapin wants to juxtapose this new contextualist approach, of which he is a member, against the historiographic theories of post-Koyréan “intellectualist” practice, which includes, he argues, Gerd Buchdahl, Henry Guerlac, P. M. Heimann, Robert Kargon, David Kubrin, J. E. McGuire, Ernan McMullin, P. M. Rattansi, and Richard Westfall. In short, Shapin concludes that while traditional intellectualist histories of science situate scientific thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries firmly within the intellectual context of metaphysics and religion, the context of ideas, both in their formation and in their use, has not been treated adequately. At best, he argues, we have been given “footnote contextualism,” an “apparent stipulation that such context impinged peripherally or in some unspecified, but insignificant, way.” In other words, the intellectualist historiographic approach relegates the effects of social-political context on scientific ideas to footnotes and asides, therefore to an implicitly peripheral and unimportant role. Shapin disagrees and argues that in the contextualist historical research: “what we begin to see in work of this kind is a sensitivity to a variety of conceptions of nature distrubuted among different social groups. We see how divergent bodies of natural knowledge were used to further social interests and were produced in processes of social conflict.”

In the final sections of his essay, Shapin provides a contextualist interpretation of the “new science” of the early and mid-eighteenth century as a strategy reflecting its social-political uses. He maintains, for example, following M. Jacob, “where the Newtonian cosmology of the Boyle Lectures was developed partly as a defense of the Protestant succession and the court which underpinned the moral and social authority of the latitudinarian Low Church,” the hylozoist cosmology—in which outside, immaterial forces are unnecessary to move matter—of “freethinkers” such as John Toland “was the voice of conflicting social tendencies.” The latter were at odds with the Newtonians because they “perceived them to be ‘propagandizers for a science of God that would enhance the authority of ruling oligarchies and established churches.'”

Although M. Jacob’s thesis has received criticism, particularly from Christopher Wilde, who provides similar historiographic techniques to show an important English anti-Newtonianism of High Church divines, both work demonstrate that “‘dialectical’ processes of social conflict in the cultural domain may be needed to account for historical changes in dominant cosmologies.”

But intellectualists and the new contextualist can work together, according to Shapin. For example, there has been some major historiographic bridge-building between the two in accounting for Joseph Priestly’s natural philosophy. The work of J.G. McEvoy and J. E. McGuire have demonstrated that “Priestly was not embarked upon any ‘atheistical’ or ‘secularizing’ enterprise,” but a cosmology of “rational dissent,” one specifically committed to “undermining the authority of the state Church and justifying liberalism and toleration in religious matters.” Thus Priestly’s materialist monism becomes a “hierarchy-collapsing strategy.”

In conclusion Shapins lists three themes that emerge from social studies of uses of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First it shows the important role for social interests in scientific change or in sustaining scientific accounts. Second, science is revealed to us only in some context of use; “science” is never disembodied—it is always put to use in some particular social context. And third, historians of science are revealed to be implicit anthropologists, considering “collective representations of nature…to be institutions inextricably bound up with the social affairs of the communities which generate and sustain them; they are explained by identifying the ‘social work’ the beliefs do in these communities.”

Finally, this anthropological perspective, according to Shapin, represents a non-deterministic sociology of scientific knowledge. “By emphasizing that cosmologies are constructed in the contexts of use, they replace the ‘automaton-actor’ of metaphysical-influence studies with an active, calculating actor whose intellectual products are crafted to further the variety of his interests.”

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 1)

Roy Porter’s essay, “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.) Revolution in History (1986) led me to I. Bernard Cohen’s “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution” (1976), and then his expanded Revolution in Science (1985). In the next several posts, I want to address Cohen’s argument and compare it to several other recent work on the historiography of the “scientific revolution.”

I.B. Cohen - Revolution in ScienceAccording to Cohen, “for some three centuries there has been a more or less unbroken tradition of viewing scientific change as a sequence of revolutions.” But the term “revolution” only came into general use during the eighteenth century to denote a “breach of continuity or a secular change of real magnitude.” It was only after 1789 that a new meaning came to surround the term “revolution,” imbibed with “radical change and a departure from traditional or accepted modes of thought, belief, action, social behavior, or political or social organization.”

This new understanding of “revolution” replaced its older sense, as a cyclical phenomenon, a continuous sequence of ebb and flow. Its origins lie in scientific jargon, as applied to works of astronomy and geometry. This definition would then be applied to a range of social, political, economic, and cultural activities. In this context the term would gain a new definition diametrically opposite to the original, strict etymological sense of “revolution.”

During the eighteenth century, writes Cohen, “the point of view emerged that scientific change is characterized by an analog of revolutions that alter the forms of society and the political affairs of the state.” Understanding the transformation of the term “revolution,” then, from the cyclical, revolving view to a radical, discontinuous breach in history, is crucially important for the historian of science, for it construes our perspective on the development of modern science.

Cohan asks whether or not Galileo, seen by many as a revolutionary figure, considered himself to have been a revolutionary? Did Newton? When did the value of progress become linked to the concept of change by revolution? Such questions shed light on the nature of scientific change by making precise the scientists’ image of himself, which is directly related to the public image of the scientist.

Steven Shapin has discussed the “image of the scientist” in several places and his comments  are worth reviewing. But what makes Cohen’s argument unique, if not prescient, is the question of whether the scientists allegedly participating in such supposed revolutions may or may not have considered themselves to be active in a “revolution.” Newton, for instance, did not see himself so much as a revolutionary as a “reformer,” rediscovering the knowledge of nature that had been known among certain ancient sages. We will return to these images of Newton later.

Cohen sketches out how “revolution” was understood during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In both instances “revolution” was understood to be the “rise and fall of civilizations or culture, as a kind of tidal ebb and flow.”

Those who wrote about revolutions in political affairs in the late seventeenth century most often had in mind some kind of “restoration,” or “reform,” a return to a former or original state, or at least the completion of a cycle. Thus it was during this time that some ambiguity arose with the term “revolution.” As Cohan points out, “revolution” could and did mean a dynastic change or a dynastic restoration, or a change in the actual form or system of government rule, as well as a cyclical change in administration, economics, and the social life of a people. English philosophers and political theorists Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704), for example, used the term “revolution” in this double sense.

Early in the eighteenth century, however, “revolution” gained currency as a radical or significant change. A characteristic revision to “revolution” as a “radical change” occurs, unsurprisingly, among French writers. For example, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) credits Newton (1642-1727) and Leibniz (1646-1716) with ushering in a  “total revolution in mathematics,” emphasizing that this “revolution was progressive or beneficial to mathematical science.” Elsewhere, in his éloge of mathematicians, Fontenelle would continue to use the term in the sense of “radical change.”

Another Frenchmen in the eighteenth century, Alexis Claude de Clairaut (1713-1763), also made reference to Newton as ushering a “revolution” in the sciences, arguing that Newton’s Principia marked an “epoch of great revolution in Physics.”

EncyclopedieThe Encyclopédie (1751-1772) of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) contains a number of notable references to “revolution.” According to d’Alembert, in science Newton brought to fulfillment a revolution that Descartes had prepared but had never actually achieved. D’Alembert makes this even more explicit in the article in the article entitled “experimental.” Here he not only expresses a philosophy of historical development in science according to generation, he also centers the great revolution in science on the work of Newton. Diderot’s own article on “Encyclopédie” leaves no doubt as to the significance of “revolution,” conceiving that the progress of science is marked by a succession of revolutions.

In short, “by the time of the publication of the Encyclopédie, ‘revolution’ had gained currency…in its new meaning of a secular, rather than a cyclical, change of great magnitude.”

The writings of Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), published in the decade before the French Revolution, introduced revolutions of several sorts and magnitudes: they range in scope all the way from revolutionary innovations in the design and use of telescopes to the elaborate Copernican system of the world and the Newtonian natural philosophy. In Bailly’s writings there revolution is often a two-staged process, in which there is first a destruction of an accepted system of concepts, followed by the establishment of a new system. According to Bailly, Copernicus fulfilled these two necessary functions of revolution, as well as Newtonian natural philosophy.

By the 1780s, there is no difficulty in finding French authors who refer explicitly to one or another revolution in the sciences.

Condorcet (1743-1794) uses the concept of revolution in science in his éloges of deceased academicians. The major work of Condorcet in which the term and the concept of revolution figure most prominently is his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, first published in 1795. It is in this work where Condercet spells out the “pre-conditions” of a revolution.

According to Cohen, we also find this concept in the writings of the Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who once compared his “own philosophical revolution with initiated by Copernicus,” and Joseph Priestley, who was among those who transferred the concept of revolution from the political realm to science.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of revolutions in science had become firmly established. The first overall review of the intellectual accomplishments of the eighteenth century, Samuel Miller’s (1769-1850) Brief Retrospect, published in 1803, stated this plainly in its subtitle: a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature. Miller’s use of “revolution” to denote progressive steps is notable, according to Cohen, for he was an American clergyman.

Within a decade of Miller’s book there was a further recognition of the existence of revolutions in science, in the fifth edition of the Dictionaire de l’Academie Francoise, revu, corrigé et augmenté par l’Academie ell-méme, published in 1811. “Thus formally entered into the lexicographic record,” writes Cohen,  “the expression ‘revolution’ in science obtained official recognition as the name of an accepted concept to characterize scientific change.”

Cohen wants to point out the fact that “these earliest references to a revolution in science occur in relation to Newton.” It is also important to note that most of these earliest references come from French authors. This is not mere coincidence. Long ago Butterfield claimed in his The Origins of Modern Science (1949) that the construction of so-called “Newtonianism” was not primarily the work of scientists; rather, the translation of Newton’s scientific achievements into a comprehensive materialistic worldview was wrought primarily by literary men, who wrote for a rapidly expanding educated reading public. The works of popularizers, such as the French Fontenelle, Clairaut, Diderot, d’Alembert and others, more than scientists, constructed a revolutionary image in Newton.

The focus on Newton and Newtonianism is indeed important, but we ought to take into account the claims of Dan Edelstein, particularly in his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010), and J.B. Shank’s The Newton Wars (2008). For example, although it was in the 1720s that Newtonianism emerged as a coherent physical and metaphysical philosophy, and only in the 1730s that one began to find self-identifying French “Newtonians,” none of them were to be found among the académiciens. According to Edelstein, Fontanelle remained throughout his life “the most famous defender of Cartesian physics.”

I have elsewhere commented on Edelstein’s The Enlightenment, so here my comments will be brief. The Enlightenment, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a “story” that eighteenth-century men told about themselves. Yes, the Enlightenment was a story, a grand “master narrative” and “myth.” Edelstein traces its telling to a specific time and a contingent place. The narrative of the Enlightenment, he contends, was forged in France between roughly 1675 and 1730 in the context of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which “opened up a period of intense self-reflection in which the present was thoroughly studied and contrasted with the past.” Put another way, the quarrel invoked a new régime de historicité that bid contemporaries to reflect on what it was that distinguished their own time from those that had come before. The present age was “enlightened,” they came to believe, distinguished by a “philosophical spirit” that derived from new methods of critical inquiry elaborated since the “Scientific Revolution.” Crucially, that spirit had taken hold among important segments of the educated elites and was slowly infiltrating civil society at large. The narrative of Enlightenment gave society a starring role, subtly supplanting older accounts that afforded prominence to kings, heroes, Providence, or God in shaping human history.

Given a succinct and early articulation in Jean-Baptiste Dubos’ (1670-1742) Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719), this narrative, in Edelstein’s estimation, was no simple tale of the new vanquishing the old. The Ancients and the Moderns shared a good deal in common, he insists, with defenders of the Ancients like Dubos frequently embracing modern science even as they praised the virtues of ancient art. Conversely, defenders of the Moderns took pains to claim their own reverence for the Classical age. The result of this convergence was a unique form of “modern paganism” that allowed eighteenth-century intellectuals to situate themselves in reference to those previous ages in which the philosophical spirit reigned (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance), while at the same time permitting them to mark their distance from times of barbarism and superstition (Middle Ages).

Enlightenment thinkers’ hero worship of Descartes, Newton, and others is well known. The key French contribution to the genealogy of the Enlightenment, writes Edelstein, “was not epistemological but rather narratological: it simply happened that it was in France that the ramifications of the Scientific Revolution were interpreted as having introduced a philosophical age, defined by a particular esprit, and having a particular impact on society.” “This espirt philosophique,” he goes on, “allowed scholars both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific work and technological breakthroughs of the seventeenth century (a unity that we would come to call the Scientific Revolution) and to describe the transformation caused by the reception and effects of these breakthroughs in contemporary society—a transformation that led them to characterize their own age as enlightened.”

Indeed, what the Enlightenment narrative highlights is how the first theories of the Enlightenment started out as celebratory histories of “the Scientific Revolution.” In other words, these French thinkers needed the narrative, the story, of the “Scientific Revolution” to bolster their own self-fashioning as an “enlightened age.” So they set out to construct one, culminating in the figure of Isaac Newton.

Shank - The Newton WarsThe case of Newton is paradigmatic: often hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment. In Shank’s The Newton Wars, he argues that the philosophes spun a mythology in promoting Isaac Newton’s theories. The philosophes, notably Voltaire (1694-1778), took far too much credit for having established Newtonianism as a new scientific orthodoxy, and even today some historians are all too ready to accept the philosophes‘ self-congratulations at face value. Shank contends, however, that Newton’s ideas had acquired a strong following within the French academy well before Voltaire and the “party of humanity” undertook to explain and champion them during the 1730s.

Shank teases apart the multiple strands of Newtonian thought to demonstrate how various factions within the French academy came to weave one or more of them into their pre-existing philosophical, scientific, religious, and methodological outlooks. He finds no single Newtonian party in France, but many, each with its own stake in Newton’s victory. Similarly, he shows that far from representing a clear and present danger to established religion, Newtonianism, at least in some of its versions, was perceived as a bulwark against the dangerous, allegedly Spinozist tendencies of the competing philosophy of Leibniz. In that light, Newton’s eventual victory now appears, if anything, overdetermined.

Voltaire was not the only French anglophile of this period, and Shank singles out as his major comrade-in-arms the mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759). None was a match for the ideological vigor brought to the dispute in the 1730s by Maupertuis and Voltaire. Maupertuis used a genteel skepticism to avoid the issue of pantheism and mathematics to validate the Principia, while Voltaire became satirical and openly anti-church, a deist. According to Shank, Voltaire turned Newtonianism into “a creed or an intellectual identity…more than a scientific or philosophical position.” And the philosophe, “a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual” was born in the French version of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques.

Newtonianism, in other words, is conceived of by Shank as a “discourse”; what mattered was the manner in which such ideas were deployed by Voltaire and “the particular self-fashioning he accomplished with them, a self-fashioning that led to the definition of a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual in France.”

In short, the engrained notion that Newton’s genius can account for the advent of scientific modernity and the subsequent French Enlightenment is seriously misguided. Shank rejects the narrative of self-serving philosophes, whose version of events was accepted de facto and then perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Cohen, Edelstein, and Shank reveal that the transformation of the scientific movement of the eighteenth century into a comprehensive materialistic philosophy was largely achieved by literary men, who “invented and exploited a whole technique of popularisation.”  As Butterfield concluded, “the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one—it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that decided the next turn in the story and determined the course Western civilisation was to take.”