Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Neesima Lectures II: The Flourishing of French Science, 1770-1830

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Neesima Lectures II: The Flourishing of French Science, 1770-1830

Article excerpt

In my lecture on American science, I ventured to characterize a dynamic structure of relations between science and the state, between knowledge and power, as one of the features defining modern political systems. I also suggested that it first took on identifiable form during the period of French scientific eminence at the end of the eighteenth century. The appropriate place to begin developing that proposition is with the ministry of Turgot, the statesman and encyclopedist who drew upon science and systematic knowledge in formulating policies intended to rehabilitate the French monarchy on the accession of Louis XVI in 1774. During the next half-century, say between the last years of d'Alembert and the death of Laplace in 1827, the French scientific establishment predominated in the world to a degree that no other national complex has since done or had ever done.

Its eminence persisted through the lifetime of two generations rather well marked off one from the other. The earlier was that of Lavoisier, Laplace, and Monge in their most creative years, of Lagrange in his maturity, of Coulomb, Buffon and the young Lamarck, to name a few of the more famous-in a word, of the final generation of the old Royal Academy of Science, founded in the seventeenth century along with the Royal Society of London. Their successors were the first generation of the Institut de France and the École Polytechnique, still the two senior technical bodies in France; I mention here a few names that appear in all our current textbooks-Ampère, Dulong, Petit, Fresnel, Fourier, Poisson, Cuvier, Bichat, Sadi Carnot, Cauchy.

There was a contrast in spirit between those two generations. The outlook of the former was encyclopedist and pertained to the eighteenth century and to the Enlightenment. The outlook of the latter was positivist and pertained to engineering and to the nineteenth century. The succession in generations corresponds to large-scale political phases. The earlier extended from 1774, the beginning of attempts at reform, through the opening of the Revolution in 1789, down to the overthrow of the monarchy late in 1792. The Reign of Terror that ensued in 1793 and 1794 was something of a hiatus in science, though certainly not in politics. The second phase, like the careers of our second group, extended from the reorganization following the overthrow of Robespierre in mid-1794 through the Napoleonic period and the Restoration down to the July Revolution of 1830.

In the work of this half-century of science, I believe that French cultural leadership in Europe reached its zenith. I mean that statement very broadly. The critical movement of classicism that distinguished the French intellectual spirit first made itself fully felt in the reign of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century, and in the realm of letters, architecture and manners. Thereafter it took the form of the system of rational ideas about nature, humanity, and society called the Enlightenment. Passing over from thought to action, that movement issued in the incorporation of science into polity amid the circumstances that are the subject of this lecture. Throughout, the sectors in which science came to be of moment to the state were broadly those in which its relation with society have transpired generally in modern history. They were three, as we observed in the case of the maturing of American science over a century later first, administration and public works, civil as well as military; second, education, as to both training and recruitment of élites; third, technology, in respect to industry and agriculture, to engineering and invention.

I shall consider first the sense in which science figured in the measures introduced into administration by Turgot and by his entourage. Like their predecessors, the writers and philosophes of the type of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, the enlightened reformers of the last decades of the Old Regime were critical of authority. …

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