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.”