Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment

Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment

Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment

Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment

Synopsis

Traditional accounts of the scientific revolution focus on such thinkers as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and usually portray it as a process of steady, rational progress. There is another side to this story, and its protagonists are more likely to be women than men, dilettante aristocrats than highly educated natural philosophers. The setting is not the laboratory, but rather the literary salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and the action takes place sometime between Europe's last great witch hunts and the emergence of the modern world. Science for a Polite Society is an intriguing reexamination of the social, cultural, and intellectual context of the origins of modern science. The elite of French society accepted science largely because of their personal involvement and fascination with the emerging philosophy of nature. Members of salon society, especially women, were avid readers of works of natural philosophy and active participants in experiments for the edification of their peers. Some of these women went on to champion the new science and played a significant role in securing its acceptance by polite society. As Geoffrey Sutton points out, the sheer entertainment value of startling displays of electricity and chemical explosions would have played an important role in persuading the skeptical. We can only imagine the effects of such drawing-room experiments on an audience that lived in a world illuminated by tallow candles. For many, leaping electrical arcs and window-rattling detonations must have been as convincing as Newton's mathematically elegant description of the motions of the planets. With the acceptance and triumph of the new science came a prestige that made it a model of what rationality should be. The Enlightenment adopted the methods of scientific thought as the model for human progress. To be an "enlightened" thinker meant believing that the application of scientific methods could reform political and economic life, to the lasting benefit of humanity. We live with the ambiguous results of that legacy even today, although in our own century we are perhaps more impressed by the ability of science to frighten, rather than to awe and entertain.

Excerpt

This project has taken longer than most first books by academic authors, since I have never been subjected to a tenure review. I certainly hope that the length of time it has required, and the circumstances surrounding its composition, have made it a more mature work than it would otherwise have been; I know that I owe thanks to a more diverse group of readers, critics, and sources of encouragement than would have been the case had my career demonstrated conventional academic success.

The early chapters are drawn from dissertation research. I was fortunate to spend my graduate years in the Program in History and Philosophy of Science and the Department of History at Princeton University. My fellow students provided an intellectual cohort and social circle that demonstrates that youth is not always wasted on the young. JoAnn Morse remains my closest intellectual companion and my most helpful critic. Ted Porter, Larry Owens, Peter Dear, Renato Pasta, Monica Green, and Jim Secord were contemporaries there, and we shared what seems still to have been a superb education. John Servos was a young enough member of the faculty to join our circle. Senior professors permanent and visiting whose names will lend dignity to this preface include Thomas Kuhn, Charles Gillispie, Anthony Grafton, Michael Mahoney, Robert Fox, Michael Mulkay, Robert Darnton, and Lawrence Stone. None of them should be held responsible for anything that follows--indeed many may disagree with much that I say--but all contributed in important ways to my development as a historian.

The vicissitudes of the academic market provided me with a postdoctoral fellowship at the Bakken Library and the University of Minnesota. Roger Stuewer engineered the position--a feat much more difficult and unusual in history of science departments a dozen years ago than now. Leonard Wilson and John Eyler were kind enough to . . .

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