In his Essai sur l'étude de la litterature (1761), Gibbon set out to trace the origins of a fundamental shift in intellectual values in the West. During the previous hundred years, he noted, physics and mathematics had gradually come to replace the study of belles lettres as the pre-eminent form of learning. Indeed, this was just the kind of thing that Meric Casaubon had feared and warned against a hundred years earlier. 'I hope it will not be required', Casaubon writes, that learning generally and divin ity in particular 'shall be tried by the Mathematicks, and made subservient to them; which yet the temper of some men of this age doth seem to threaten, which scarce will allow anything else worth a man's study; and then, what need of Universities?' Casaubon, like all students of belles lettres, had regarded the study of ancient literat ure—philosophy, history, poetry, oratory—as an intrinsic part of any form of know ledge of the world and our place in it. Gibbon sensed that, by the 1750s, the era of belles lettres as the dominant form of learning and understanding was coming to an end.
Gibbon himself was one of the first to attempt a sustained analysis of the fundamental transformation of intellectual values of his era. This transformation was to become even more radical and complex over the next hundred years, and it has a strong claim to being the single most fundamental feature of the modern era. The West's sense of itself, its relation to its past, and its sense of its future were all profoundly altered as cognitive values generally came to be shaped around scientific ones. The issue is not just that science brought a new set of such values to the task of understanding the world and our place in it, but rather that it completely transformed the task, redefining the goals of enquiry. The redefinition begins with attempts by seventeenth-century natural philosophers to establish the legitimacy of science, or natural philosophy, as it was then. The means by which this legitimacy was established involved a fundamental appeal to objectivity and non-partisanship,
Lat. bonae litterae: humane learning, by contrast with logic, metaphysics, and theology.
Meric Casaubon, Of Credulity and Incredulity in Things Natural, Civill and Divine (London,
'Natural philosophy' designates a group of disciplines that includes, among other things, what
we would distinguish as physics, chemistry/alchemy, biology, and physiology, and excludes some
disciplines that we might include under 'science', such as mathematics and medicine. Aristotle
defined its domain as covering those things that are independent of us and undergo change.
This field undergoes some changes with the rejection of Aristotelian natural philosophy from
the seventeenth century onwards, but these do not compromise our use of the term (although
some qualifications will have to be made later, e.g. on the question of whether 'experimental
philosophy' can be treated, for terminological purposes, as a type of natural philosophy, rather than
an alternative to it, in the seventeenth century: similarly for 'rational mechanics' in the eighteenth
century). Aristotle's own term derives from phusis—'nature'—and is usually translated as 'physics',
but since it is quite different from what we understand as 'physics' I have generally preferred the
term 'natural philosophy'. Similarly with the seventeenth-century term 'physiology', which refers to . . .