Measuring the scientific greatness : the recognition of Paris in European Enlightenment
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Notes de la rédaction
Paper given at the Enlightenment seminar, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, 9 February 2004. I would like to thank the convenors of this seminar Laurence Brockliss, John Robertson and Janis Spurlock for their invitation and their comments.
Draft paper – not quote whitout author’s permission
1This paper will explore the interpretation of european capital cities as centre of knowledge from the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment, to seize the connection between the world of learning and scholars and the emergence of urban identities in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. As we will see, the field of research makes a shift from the history of Republic of letters like Hans Bot, Francoise Waquet, Ann Goldgar or Dena Goodman have developed it in previous works. To speak in broader terms, what I would like to grasp is how the circulation of knowledge shaped the making of the great cultural metropolises in the period between the 17th and the 18th century, mainly in a few sites : Paris, Lyon, London, Edinburgh, Rome and Naples. Here, this being a work-in-progress, I chose to focus on the case of London and Paris. This paper examines several aspects of this question: first, I would like to present the guidelines of my review of the historiography and of my intellectual framework. Secondly, I would like to reappraise the effects of the circulation of knowledge on the constitution of the “ symbolic capital ” of the 18th century city.
2Actually, several recent works in history of science and urban studies paid more attention to the role played by such centers in the diffusion of knowledge and information in Europe1. They criticised the functionalist metaphor of capital “ which served only as surrogate for the rational instrumentalism of the capital market and the bureaucratization of the lifeworld ” and which was still present in the recent conference in Paris in 1998 about cultural capitals organised by the social historian Christophe Charle2.
3For Charle, capitals’ superior global command over cultural resources reorganize time and space. In the wake of Pierre Bourdieu, the process of accumulation is the basis of the cultural dynamics of capital circulation. In this grand narrative, from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, capitalist economic dynamics continue to dominate localities and to dictate the agenda of innovation. The inventory of equipments (libraries, laboratories, etc.) of intellectual and educational institutions and other forms of sociability which serve as structures to welcome foreigners also provide a prosopography of scholars by signalling clearly the new distribution of knowledge and of scientists that emerges during the Enlightenment. But this alone cannot suffice, because it supposes that the criteria of a “ capital ” were stable between the 17th and the 20th centuries. To break with this teleological approach which encloses the construction of European capitals in a frozen and finalist perspective, it is useful to extend the methodology by a study of the invention of an intellectual functionality of the modern city. The conversion of knowledge into “ symbolic capital ”, following Bourdieu, does not result in a simple accumulation of data and of facilities. If, the global networks of wealth and power accumulate and exchange information instantaneously as a central source of institutional power, the economies of knowledge in Paris, Rome or London are different and do not contribute in the same way to the creation of these “ places. ” We must therefore reinterpret the notion of symbolic capital in this context by giving it a dymanic and conflictual dimension.
4In seeking to displace the reliance of social history of science on grand narratives of macro-social development, such as the analysis of the ‘colonial machine’3, some historians of science have posited a grand theory of local knowledge which privileges the ethnographic conversation, the local interaction, and the tacit knowledge built by indigenous people (we can mention several works on the history of cartography). But they contributed also to dissolving the problematic of ‘capitals’ as a center of knowledge by privileging short circles of diffusion against long-distance networks.
5Understanding the social construction of knowledge in the city should not simply shift our attention from macropolitics to micropolitics dicernible through ethnographic inquiry, nor are deducible from purely macro-structural logics or mechanisms as in Charle’s interpretation. According to the sociologist Bruno Latour4,
[...] we could of course talk of ‘capital’ that is something (money, knowledge, credit, power) that has no other function but to be instantly reinvested into another cycle of accumulation. [...] However, using this expression would be begging the question : what is capitalised is necessarily turned into capital, it does not tell us what it is- besides, the word ‘capitalism’ has had too confusing a career….
6For example, during the eighteenth century, London and Paris had become the commercial entrepôt for the world’s commodities where the means of exchange and payment were made. Mapping, classifying and making visible a new terrain was central to Britain’s foreign and domestic policy. The work of leading men of science played an important role. States mobilized citizens, missionnaries, military officers, doctors and loyal indigenous peoples. As Larry Stewart or William Ashworth showed concerning London5.: “To be useful these observations had to be reduced to standardized techniques, classified and carefully stored. This was the raw material necessary for calculated decisions and making possible action at a distance. Information from around Britain and the world was relayed back, classified, and stored in accessible filing cabinets housed in government departemental offices. Items were put on display in cabinets in institutions such as the British Museum, and entombed in the memoirs of various scientific societies. Thence developped the imperial and metropolitan storehouses ”. For the urban theorist Michael Peter Smith,
[...] this way of envisioning the process of localization thus locates “ globalization ” in the realm of social practice and situates the global-local interplay in historically specific milieus. It extends the meaning of the global-local nexus to encompass not just the social actions of “ global capitalists ” interacting with “ local communities ” but of the far more complex interplay of cultural, economic, political, and religious networks that operate at local, translocal and transnational scales but which intersect in particular places at particular times.
7By studying the circulation of knowledge in specific urban sites, it is possible to develop a differential, cultural cartography and to measure the unequal distribution of knowledge and of sites of knowledge in the construction of urban Europe in the 18th century. During the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, many works on the social construction of science, especially on experiments (Dear, Licoppe, Schaffer) outlined the local conditions of production and validation of innovation. By working not merely on one capital but on the dynamic between capitals, we can emphasize the role played by knowledge and intellectual networks in the production of these local differences, and address the traditional problem of center and periphery. Beyond national spaces, there are collectivities characterized by local regimes of knowledge, notably the circulation of men, the multiplication of equipment and instruments, the standardization of practices and attitudes, all of which can be studied. For example, London and Rome correspond to two different experiences in the universalization of knowledge in Europe, because one is oriented towards the recognition of experimental knowledge and the valorization of public spaces for science, and the other is in the orbit of cardinals and foreign princes, in which universalization proceeds through religious vectors such as religious orders and Church censorship, or converzazioni publicche. Around the court of Queen Christina, then under the Pontificate of Clement XI, we find aristocratic and clerical forms of sociability, like the circle of Tamburo led by the scholar Domenico Passionei. By paying more attention to the distribution of networks and local interactions through these cities, geographical enlargement can lead to a European typography of localisms and of the various forms of universalization.
8Taking into account the politics of large cities (urban corporations and communities, guilds, religious congregations, universities, etc.) in this history will ultimately situate the interactions of savants and political authorities, not simply in an instrumentalist vision of technical knowledge, but also by showing how educated elites think about the city and of their own sites; by the same token, it will underline the necessary implication of power in the establishment of scientific research projects. It is this interpenetration, this “ translation ” of interests from one group to another, which is the object of this study. In this way, we can hope to establish a description of a common world between these different spheres.
9The study of the circulation of knowledge in cities does not reduce philosophy or science “ to an enterprise of the production of ideal theoretical objects6 ”m but leads us also to consider the gestures, practices, and objects, by emphasizing the pragmatic dimension of intellectual activity. Knowledge little by little becomes territorialized, not only through the constitution of sites of knowledge or wide-reaching publication within the urban space, but also through the multiple actions of social groups animated by often diverging interests and practices who appropriate knowledge and invest them with novel social recognition. If we must first consider the criteria habitually put forward to characterize an intellectual capital (publishing centres, university institutions, and sites of exchange in the Republic of Letters), we must also interrogate the capacities of an urban milieu to exploit and diversify the localization of knowledge.
10The inventory of facilities (libraries, laboratories, etc.), the institutions of knowledge, teaching sites, spaces of sociability, the structures to welcome foreign scholars, and the prosopography of scholars all demonstrate clearly the redistribution of scholars and knowledge that takes place during the Enlightenment, but these approaches are insufficient. This study seeks to expand research in three directions.
11The first concerns the a priori refusal to limit the field of observation to the great eighteenth century academies alone, or to an examination of the long networks of the Republic of Letters7. By adopting intermediate scales of analysis within the framework of these two capitals, it becomes possible to better map the sites and spaces for the production of scientific knowledge, and thus to specify this distribution of scientific work that associates scholars with other social groups and professions (manufacturers, merchants of curios, collectors, etc.). Side by side with academic institutions, we observe between 1680 and 1730 a vast expansion of scientific activity across London’s urban space. We likewise observe a transition towards the progressive institutionalization of cultural life through the creation of learned groups around common projects increasingly identified with the defense of a local identity. It is necessary to investigate the social networks that sustain them and make it possible, within the urban space, to move from isolated initiatives to aggregated practices localized by the constitution of short networks within the capital. Larry Stewart’s work has demonstrated how in London during the first decades of the eighteenth century, the diffusion of mathematical treatises intended for seamen gave rise to circles of reception anchored in the coffee houses situated near Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Certain figures like Hans Sloane, Martin Folkes, and John Hill8 personally supervised the constitution of powerful local networks by turning to a variety of institutions (the Chelsea Physic Garden, Society of Apothicaries, Egyptian Society, Society of Antiquaries, London Society, etc.) where specific knowledge are encouraged. In a way, this new understanding of the ways in which elites were mobilised locally are compatible with interpretations of the novel political and cultural representations of the London centre. The work of Philippe Minard on the world of corporations, as well as that of Liliane Hilaire-Perez on inventors9 provide specific examples of these complex relationships between professional communities and the circles of technical innovation. In opposition to the long networks of the Republic of Letters, this study reveals short networks within cities which bind together several actors and institutions, and which help to invest scientific practices with newfound legitimacy.
12Thus, territorialization can have its uses when a local public is confronted with the formalization of knowledge. In Paris, the publication of merchant accounting manuals at the end of the seventeenth century proclaiming the existence of a “ science of accounting ” enjoyed the active support of networks of Parisian merchants within the chamber of commerce. By using examples drawn from the practical accounting of living, active merchants, economic writers sought to create a certain representation of professional milieus and to promote a hierarchy of operators. Behind the exemplification of Parisian knowledge and local practice, the accounting book stages social groups as well as a large-scale political economy. Thus, the Parisian Claude Irson’s manual represents the culmination of a French publishing genealogy. This work marks the definitive integration of the text within a series of legislative texts relating to commerce, and represents the complement and illustration of the merchants’ accounting point of view in Jacques Savary’s work, the Perfect Merchant. Dedicated to Colbert, this work suggests a shift in accounting manuals. Its technical character is no longer the only goal of the publication of the arcana of accounting science. It represents, along with other texts, part of a larger global project to develop commerce and the economy. The emergence of accounting science here is thus inseparable from the network of actors who constitute it. The production of fictions well-suited to pedagogical explanations skillfully exploits the realism of examples and situations. The list of characters mentioned in these texts is not a mere fiction, but helps reveal a network of economic actors10.
13Finally, it is necessary to analyse the importance of the localisation of scientific activity within the urban space, particularly in territorial and legal terms. The examination of all the territorial conflicts between different institutions of knowledge (schools, universities, academies, corporations) that has been conducted withing the framework of our seminar on local knowledge in Paris underlines the importance of these debates concerning the limits and frontiers of knowledge, which are often understood as frontiers between different institutional spaces. Here, we can evoke all the eighteenth century debates concerning teaching in the medical faculty (the case of Théophraste Renaudot, for example), as well as the very lively debates between the University of Paris and the Jesuit college, or with philosophy teachers during the seventeenth century.
14In this way, the knowledge of places (cartography, travel guides, etc.)11 for the London and Paris cases sometimes serve as starting-points for local actors in order to rethink the urban space in its globality. Between the sixteenth and the eighteen centuries, 228 maps of Paris have been drawn, both ordered by the royal power and by the city of Paris. In march 1735, l’abbe de l’isle became the first ingénieur cartographe of the city and led an office of cartography in order to establish a new cadastre for the fiscal reform. Beside this attempt to control the representation of the city, other mapping technologies have been used. The example of the publication of the Almanac of the Palais-Royal by the duke of Chartres in 1785 in Paris helps illustrate the new territorial logics now at work. This real estate project, integrating buildings, sites of leisure and pleasure, as well as social spaces devoted to science (Museum, cabinet, the masonic temples of the Nine Sisters) illustrates the displacement of scientific activity from academic institutions (housed in the Louvre) to new neighborhoods within the capital.
15Thus, by avoiding from the start too great a focus on the Academies or the great institutions (public libraries, museum, etc.), it is possible to illustrate a double movement: first, a process of localisation of scientific activity that contributes to territorialising scientific work within the city and to lending it a new visibility; second, this exterior inscription of knowledge within the Parisian landscape is also accompanied by the emergence of local knowledge (customary laws, urban history, local archeology, cartography, etc.).
16Finally, the comparison between London and Paris makes it possible to demonstrate the heterogeneity of learned Europe, as well as the unequal distribution of access to international recognition. Here again, rather than limiting ourselves to an egalitarian vision of access to intellectual resources, we conduct instead a study of the practices that erudites put into place in order to imagine the differences between the two sites. What tools permitted scientists to imagine the shift between the city and the universal ? What were the concrete procedures that made it possible to measure these differences ? Our research is thus oriented towards a more precise examination of the tools of scale, understood to be the instruments of conversion from a city to the universal (recognition of expertise, attraction and centralisation of information, multiplication of sites of processing, construction of systems of publicity, etc.). By instruments, I mean literary practices as well as social interaction. It is in such areas that the political dimension is clearly revealed, not so much as an assumption – as it did in functionalist interpretations of the history of scientific capitals – but rather as one of the consequences of this process of negotiation scales.
17It seems to me that it is necessary to assign greater importance to the practices which underpin the multiplication of inventories of scale in each city, as well as to all intellectual and editorial practices which were at the disposition of scholars in order to understand these differences. Numerous well-known printed and manuscript sources in urban history can be used (newspapers, broadsheets, travel guides, descriptions of cities). In the case of scientific knowledge, we can ask how, over the course of the century, the practices of travel (structures of hospitality, inventories) changed, and how scientific practices were integrated more generally within a culture of curiosity and collection. Moreover, philosophers’ mobility between the two cities in fact produced a number of texts, from travel accounts to philosophical treatises, in which London and Paris become the paradigms for intellectual sociability and philosophical commerce. The London/Paris couple plays a central role in the fixing of a set national character types within the philosophical discourse of the Enlightenment. This literature has in fact left a trace of these procedures of comparison. Part of our project, then, will be devoted to this establishing this taxonomy, a classification established using not only those texts that offer a description of the city, but also of all the documents that propose forms of comparison. In fact, all through the eighteenth century, various symbolic repertories are put into place on the basis of the recording of experiences, practices and judgements that make it possible to stabilise comparison and to allow them to last in time. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in his Parallèle de Paris et de Londres [Parallel between Paris and London], offers a paradigmatic example of the banalisation of this comparison between two capitals in the second half of the eighteenth century12.
18The publication of the indianist Anquetil-Duperron’s account provides us with information concerning the way in which scholars returning from expeditions set out to insure the circulation of their works and stage this European comparison. His work and method are aimed at two areas: metaphysics and history. It is particularly important to consider the ways in which these oriental philosophies were collected and introduced in Paris. Upon his return, he passed through Oxford. We possess here valuable information concerning the enterprise of validation and certification of these manuscripts. Anquetil Duperron first attempted to enter into contact with the principal experts at Oxford, and then tours various libraries, his manuscripts in hand, in order to compare them :
The desire to compare my manuscripts with those of this university, added greatly to the reasons that led me to travel through England on return to Europe13.
19He visits the Boldeian library :
[...] after assuring myself that the most beautiful of my manuscripts was the same as the Zend Avesta manuscript in the Boldeian library, I testified to doctor Swinton my desire to see M. Hyde’s manuscripts as well as those of M. Fraser.
20He represents Oxford as an inwardly drawn, closed world (cold and obscure libraries) :
We drank to the great success of Zoroasters works and I admonished these gentlemen to help revive the contacts that England’s scholars once maintained with those of France. These words gave them pleasure, they told me that I was the first Frenchman that they had recalled having seen at Oxford for reasons relating purely to the advancement of human knowledge […]14.
21But the desire for comparison in order to establish the validity of statements and of compiled manuscripts is accompanied by a desire to move towards generalization. The voyage to England, and principally in Oxford and London, is an opportunity to reaffirm a hierarchy among the the capitals of indianist knowledge, and to confirm Paris’ newfound supremacy.
22Our approach must finally take seriously the tests of scale that the actors and institutions elaborated in order to test and compare cities among themselves. Within this framework, we will also be particularly attentive to scientific controversies, to the knotty polemics that arose from knowledge, as well as affaires (which could lead to trials) in which knowledge, as well as the links between the world of learning and urban authorities, were evaluated15. For instance, the geodesic competition which French and English cartographers at the Greenwich and Paris observatories engaged in during the eighteenth century illustrates this process of recognizing the scientific importance of the two capitals.
23We could compile here an inventory of these polemics, disputes, and controversies between Parisians and Londoners on the battlefield of knowledge in order to identify moments of tension and calm. It is important here to study the definition of scientifical expertise practices. At the close of the Old Regime, it seems clear that Paris had affirmed itself as the tribunal of the sciences through its capacity to declare whether something was scientific or not. Hugues Chabot’s work on the scientific knowledge rejected between 1750 and 1835 underlines the increasingly important role played by the Academy of Sciences16. An analysis of the Academy of Science’s transcripts makes it possible to examine the work of commissions named to examine a paper or to review a printed work. The number of commissions named annually to report in writing varied between 80 and 200. After a rapid increase in the Institute’s first years, up to 170 commissions being named between 1800 and 1802, this total declined rapidly to pass under 100. Up until 1820, the average oscillated between 90 and 130. The number of academicians named each year oscillated between 20 and 90. Reports were produced by commissions that brought together 2.5 academicians. The length of reports is 1,500 words. The participation of different sections is unequal. We observe that different sections form alliances. For example, the agriculture section often joins with anatomy, botany and, to a lesser extent, medecine and chemistry. The medical section demonstrates a strong identity. Mineralogy, on the other hand, appears to be clearly dominated by physics and, above all, chemistry. The physics section appears to be one of the least specialized sections, since it is found most of the time associated with mechanics and mathematics, as well as with chemistry and astronomy.
24Based on a sample of 70 negative reports, Hugues Chabot demonstrates that this total is low compared with the number of reports produced – around 2,000 between 1795 and 1835. The distribution of these negative reports according to the origins of the commisions’ members underlines the preponderance of mathematics (40%), astronomy (30%), mechanics (15%), physics (10%), and chemistry (5%). The recurrence of motives for refusal make it possible to identify nine types of disqualifying judgments, according to H. Chabot : the author’s propositions lead to absurd results; the author has committed and error of reasoning; the author’s propositions are insufficiently supported; experiment contradicts the author’s claims; the author’s findings are out of date; the author’s results are not new, fruitless, or at best singular; the author’s work is unintelligible; the author does not know anything about the question he is addressing; the author propose only speculations, and has recourse to neither calculation nor experiment. The openness to new ideas introduced from the outside into learned circles in Paris made it necessary that the defense of disciplinary boundaries be made particularly vigorous when it came to evaluating declarations.
25Within the framework of this comparative history of the practices of scale, it will also be necessary to account for the specific actions of certain networks, like freemasonry, which both participate in the territorialisation of philosophical activity in capitals through the creation of specialised lodges, study libraries, as well as proclaim their membership within the universal Republic. This rise of cosmopolitism, however, is strongly counterbalanced, in Paris as in London, by the nationalisation of the heroes of the Scientific Revolution. Thus, many of the numerous philosophical debates that took place within the lodges focused on the characterisation of Descartes as a French hero against the English Newton. This reference contributes to the criticism of the thesis of free-masonry’s English origins. In the foreigners’ lodge in Paris, the academician Edmé Béguillet delivered in 1784 a Discours sur l'origine, les progrès, et les révolutions de la Franc-maçonnerie philosophique, contenant un Plan d'Association & un Projet Maçonnique de bienfaisance, pour l'Erection d'un double Monument en l'honneur de Descartes [Speech on the origin, progress, the transformations in philosophical Freemasonry, containing the Plan of Association and a Masonic welfare project, for the Erection of a double Monument in honor of Descartes] which sought to materialise in an explicit fashion the nation’s attachment to its heroes. Here, the dossier interrogates more generally the process of construction and of recognition of scientific collectives at different scales and by large-scale institutions. The expression according to which Paris represented the “ Metropole of the Masonic globe ” operates here as well within this effort to nationalise the European philosophical space17. The union with foreigners is thus inended to make Paris into a masonic center that would capitalise on the experiences of masons throughout Europe :
Our civilian employment does not leave us sufficient resources to undertake voyages, it would nonetheless be possible for us, at lease we believe so, to concentrate in one and the same place, through a sustained correspondence, all the widespread Enlightenment in the foreign O(rients) by making Paris’ [lodge] a workshop carrying the distinctive title of Assembly of foreign b[rothers] 18.
26Finally, it is interesting to consider the forms of literary or textual inscription of philosophical statements in this context. Representations of knowledge in theatre, novels, poetry, even in historiographical works, can also be powerful mediators in the establishment of this economy of scales. What does fiction do to knowledge? To what extent does being translated into fiction modify the relationship between philosophy and place? We can thus identify three social effects: a destabilisation of the practices of philosophical writing; an escape from the war of sciences; and a fixing of a reportory of figures. Novels, for example, naturalize Paris as a philosophical capital by repeatedly offering representations of a Parisian space structured around the sites of knowledge including the great libraries and cabinets of curiosities. Closed spaces are the privileged figures of the eighteenth century novel. In Sébastien Mercier’s L’an 2440, the royal library, which had previously been represented as a place encompassing all of knowledge, has become nothing more than a “small cabinet” in which all is contained within five cabinets, one per nation. The reduction of the world is at once the subject of reflection during the Enlightenment and a distinctive characteristic of scientific capitalisation which is now perceived negatively. The pleasure experienced by collectors and the curious, the passion of philosophical reading are pathologies, or at the very least obsessive. But novels make Paris and London into spaces of learning and of the confrontation of knowledge for its characters. Their heroes come to Paris in order to learn something, and above all to have their certainties called into question. In the same way, the novel constructs an exemplarity. Up until 1761, novels oscillate between a fascination for the capital of the Enlightenment and of pleasure on the one hand, and a repulsion for everything in the city that is tumultuous, chaotic, dirty, and miserable. But with regard to these learned spaces, novels seek also to provide a cartographic representation of Paris’s important philosophical sites. The celebration of the Palais-Royal and of cafés in Neveu de Rameau are commonplaces. In his Lorgnette philosophique [Philosophical Spyglass] (1785), Grimod de la Reynière presents himself through the character of Damis, and in designating Paris by the name Sirap, evokes his famous 1783 dinner . He describes here the Wednesday “philosophical lunches.” As the title indicates – “Philosophical Spyglass, found under the arcades in the Palais Royal by a Reverend Capuchin Father, and presented to the Public by a bachelor” --, the work represents the Palais Royal as one of the fictional centers for philosophical activity. It thus elaborates a dramatic quality to these places.
27The possibility to bring together philosophical, historical and literary approaches can help to renew our approaches to the study of the various ways the city has been imagined, like in Karlheinz Stierle’s analysis in Capitale des signes, and to better situate the place of knowledge within these universes.
28Actually, it also requires me to consider the capacity of an urban milieu to exploit and diversify its forms of knowledge. During the eighteenth century, communities of scholars formed new alliances. The localization of intellectual practices has some particular effects on a new definition of the modern city. Conversely, the emergence of an internationalization of knowledge involves differentiating the effects on the urban hierarchy and reconfigures the recognition of urban greatness. Our research thus must be oriented towards a more precise examination of the “ tools of scale ” [outils de la grandeur], understood as the instruments of the conversion of a city into a universal; this involves the recognition of an expertise, the attraction and centralization of information, the multiplication of locations for analyzing information, the establishment of frameworks for publicity, etc. This idea must also take seriously the “ tests of scale ” [épreuves de la grandeur] that the actors and institutions elaborate, from city to city. An entire written corpus, in print and manuscript, broadly diffused (such as travel guides) has left us the traces of these procedures of comparison. In this framework, I am particularly interested in scientific controversies, in the polemical gears that turn around scientific knowledge, and above all the controversies (including lawsuits) in which knowledge is evaluated and which establish links between the scientific world and the urban community.
James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science : Saint-Domingue in the Old Regime, Baltimore-Londres, The John Hopkins University Pres, 1992.
James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science : Saint-Domingue in the Old Regime, Baltimore-Londres, The John Hopkins University Pres, 1992.
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