The Encyclopédie and the Jacobin Philosophy of Science: A Study in Ideas and Consequences

By Gillispie, Charles Coulston | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Encyclopédie and the Jacobin Philosophy of Science: A Study in Ideas and Consequences


Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


THIS PAPER WAS DELIVERED at an Institute for the History of Science held under the auspices of the Department of History of Science at the University of Wisconsin in the first ten days of September 1957. The initiative had come from the Joint Committee of the Social Science Research Council and the National Research Council under the chairmanship of Richard H. Shryock. Its intent was to devise ways and means to stimulate study of the history of science. One of the means suggested was to sponsor a selective gathering that would be longer and more intensive than the annual two or three days meeting of the History of Science Society, itself a very loose and heterogeneous organization, one might almost say disorganization. The venue was the Department at Madison, the oldest in our field, founded with the appointment of Henry Guerlac in 1941, suspended in 1943 when he accepted the post of in-house historian of Lincoln Laboratory, and resumed in 1947 when the University appointed Bob Stauffer and, as chairman, Marshall Clagett. It thus fell to Clagett to organize the 1957 Institute in consultation with many colleagues. With equal skill, he thereupon edited the proceedings.

The occasion was a delightful one, and also an important one for the nascent discipline, or subdiscipline, of history of science. It succeeded as well as, or perhaps better than, the sponsors could have hoped and had what one may call a crystallizing effect. It brought together in a common undertaking those of us who in a scattered way at our various institutions were attempting to find a footing for the subject. Not all of the participants, some twenty-six in all, even knew each other until then. Besides us fledging historians of science were such senior people as Ernest Nagel in philosophy, Robert K. Merton in sociology, E. J. Dijksterhuis in mechanics and its history, Richard H. Shryock in History of Medicine, J. Walter Wilson, and Conway Zirkle in Biology and its history. The pace was leisurely and the weather beautiful. There was time to develop topics of considerable substance. For ten days we took meals together and came to know one another, to absorb the criticism our papers incurred, and to exchange our experiences in our different institutions.

As for this paper, the central events it concerns are suppression of the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1793 and the almost simultaneous foundation of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. I also treat those topics in my recent Science and Polity in France: the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years (2004). There I put less emphasis on the ideological background and go into more detail on the institutional and political circumstances than in what follows. Not that I think the former is wrong. The sections here on Diderot and the Encyclopédie do hold up. Were I to write this paper today I would not reach back to Stoic antiquity, otherwise than to suggest parallels rather than to imply lineage. A better title would have been "Jacobin Attitudes to Science" rather than "Philosophy of Science." Nor am I happy about some of the unnecessary asides or the ruminations in the last paragraph. It turns out, moreover, that the statement in the penultimate paragraph, to wit "It is hardly conceivable that anything of the sort could happen today" has proven to be incorrect.

Similar things have happened, and perhaps the most interesting thing about the paper is the change over time in its reputation. It has been frequently cited and also assigned as reading in undergraduate courses at Princeton and elsewhere. Despite what seemed to me the clearest evidence, I failed conspicuously at Madison and afterward in the later 19505 and 19605 to convince more progressively minded colleagues that there could have been any conflict between science and political radicalism. Such a proposition was unthinkable to those whose minds had been touched, however lightly, by Marx. They attributed the undeniable suppression of the Academy early in the Terror rather to its elitist form. …

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