Organized Session

Sovereigns and Savants: State Power and Intellectual Authority in French Scientific-Cultural Networks

Organizer

Abigail Fields

Yale University

Chair

JB Shank

University of Minnesota

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Session Abstract

Historians of science have done much in recent years to elucidate the power dynamics of patronage with regard to scientific and technological knowledge production in the French context. Across scientific institutions, guilds, and patronage circles, we have come to understand that scientific and technological knowledge production has long been supported and manipulated in the interests of contemporary State authority. In this panel, we interrogate not only the power of the State over the scientist but also the influence of the State-supported scholar or institution within scientific and cultural traditions. We examine the autonomy, authority, and prestige procured by scientists and institutions via patronage, and how these privileged positions allowed them to shape rhetoric and ideals in their field and beyond. This session aims to expand our understanding of the scope of scientific influence, considering State-supported scientists as power-players in large networks of knowledge creation and communication, encompassing scientific disciplines, cultural production, and political networks. We argue that these actors are critical to a multi-disciplinary fabric, as their prestigious positions allow them to shape both scientific and non-scientific communities. Spanning the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, we aim to detail conjunctions of scientific agency and power with other forms of cultural and political production in Early Modern France.

Presenter 1

The Empire of Exactitude: Mathematical Physics and the Autonomization of Science under Napoleon

Travis Wilds

University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Abstract

This paper examines the relationship between Napoleonic patronage of the sciences and the dynamics of scientific autonomization. While many scientific histories reference Napoleon's patronage of the sciences, much less work has been devoted to understanding how this patronage shaped definitions of legitimate science. The material and symbolic capital accumulated by academicians like Laplace, Berthollet, or Cuvier enabled them to forge a new identity for science, I argue, one underpinned by an ideal of "exactitude." As Christian Licoppe has shown, this term takes on new meanings in this period, referring variously to precision measurement, rigorous mathematization, and experimental design. But the notion of exactitude further expanded to become something even more productively ambiguous, I contend-a rhetoric of power marking scientific belonging, an implicit ideal, even an epistemic virtue. Napoleon's support for the proponents of exactitude (and sometimes discouragement of their rivals) enables them to establish a break with the publics of spectacular and useful science, instituting a scenario in which only other specialists were recognized as viable judges of specialist work. The sciences' increased subordination to the State thus favored increased autonomy from such competing forms of cultural production as literature or philosophy, setting the stage for scientific modernity. And yet, even as exactitude broke with the epistemic ideals of the past, I show, it also differed in important ways from objectivity, the characteristic epistemic virtue of modernity.

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Presenter 2

The Iconography of Science & Power in Early Modern France

Katherine Reinhart

Consortium for History of Science, Technology & Medicine

Abstract

Recent scholarship by historians of art and science has highlighted that image-making was a central part of scientific practice in the early modern period. This was undeniably true in France where the Royal Academy of Sciences enjoyed substantial funding to create images and illustrations from King Louis XIV and his ministers. Yet, these images were not neutral products of scientific investigation, but rather they were sites of layer meanings. Each image contained various epistemic and political messages negotiated between the desires of the Royal Scientific Academy and those of their royal patron.
This paper will examine how images produced by and for the Academy fit into the larger image production machine of Louis XIV. The King's ministers strategically crafted his public image throughout his reign to promote various messages of his sovereignty, power, and gloire. After the creation of the Academy in 1666, natural philosophy became another source of state power and consistently appeared in various manifestations of royal imagery. I argue that the Academy's images - produced by both the Academy and state ministers - functioned politically by conflating the power of science and state. Through an analysis of prints, paintings, and medals I show that, across all media, the Academy and its achievements were depicted as monumental events in the reign of the Sun King, on par with military and political triumphs. Similarly, the repeated visual depiction of the monarch with the Academy reminded viewers that the King was responsible for these scientific victories and, indeed, harnessed their power.

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Presenter 3

Taste or Method on Display. Debating Scientific Legitimacy through Natural History Collections in the Second Half of the 18th Century

Rossella Baldi

University of Neuchâtel and Swiss Institute for Art Research (Lausanne)

Abstract

The flourishing practice of natural history collecting which characterized the second half of the eighteenth century was supported by a major theoretical effort to define how samples should be collected, preserved and displayed. Texts produced in the French academic world attempted to educate a non-specialized readership and to provide naturalists with the right methods to set up cabinets. As a consequence, they developed two opposite views on collecting, reflecting two different approaches to nature. On the one hand, the scientific collection intended to faithfully reproduce nature and its laws through a rigorous and methodical display of specimens; on the other hand, the amateur cabinet, created a space for visual pleasure where one might contemplate natural beauty and whose aesthetic quality offset the difficult task of making the natural order visible.
This paper will question this theoretical dichotomy. I will argue that the scholarly French élite referred to the "taste vs. method" opposition as a strategy to discredit non-professional collectors in order to legitimize the practice of scientific collecting as the only one reliable to formulate valid scientific contents. Was the opposition between amateurs and scientists, in reality, truly operational? Was it really possible to exhibit nature in a cabinet without using any decorative artificialities which, according to scientists, prevented the visitors of natural history cabinets from experiencing and understanding the natural order? This paper will explore how the authority of certain savants influenced the larger practice of natural history collecting.

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Presenter 4

Modern Science: Situating the Royal Academy of Sciences within the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

Abigail Fields

Yale University

Abstract

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, a literary controversy of late seventeenth-century France has been largely analyzed for its political and cultural repercussions. Despite recent work in the History of Science to situate scientific production in larger societal contexts, this affair and its influence on scientific institutions has remained largely unexamined. Still, the reestablishment of the Royal Academy of Sciences in the midst of the Quarrel provides a compelling example of the multidirectional flow of influence between scientific, literary, and political figures. In 1699, with conflict regularly boiling over in the largely autonomous Académie Française, Louis XIV endowed the Academy of Sciences with official State support, regulations, and a mission to publish, ensuring the identity of the Academy as a site of knowledge production and communication. Through a detailed analysis of the Academy's regulations, I show that this intervention can be read as a means to enact State control over one knowledge-making institution in the midst of chaos in another, in more or less direct response to the Quarrel as a threat to absolute rule. Furthermore, by examining the first publications of the Academy after its reorganization, I argue that the group's members used their privileged positions, publishing mandate, and intellectual authority to intervene directly in the Quarrel, often in the favor of the Monarchy. In this way, the Academy was subject to external political pressure from the Sovereign, all the while fashioning itself as a self-conscious political influencer in its historical moment.

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