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Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years

Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The New York Academy of Sciences

Presented By

Presented by the History & Philosophy of Science Section


Speaker: Charles Gillispie, Princeton University (emeritus)

During the half century from the 1770s to the 1820s French science predominated in the world to an extent that the work of no other national establishment had done or would do prior to that of American science in the half century following 1945. In the slightly briefer interval from the onset of the French Revolution until the fall of Napoleon in 1815, French political developments were of greater importance in the world at large than ever before or since. It was in that period that science and governance assumed their modern relationship, one of partnership rather than partisanship. What statesmen have in general sought from science is not participation in politics or governance, but instrumentalities, powers but not power, weapons, techniques, information, communications, technical judgment, and so on. What scientists have wanted from governments is, not politicization, but support, in the obvious form of funds, but also in institutionalization and the provision of authority for the legitimation of their community in its existence and activities, in a word for its professional status. It was through its involvement in affairs that French science achieved professional status in the context from which the modern disciplines of a mathematical phusics and a rigorous science of biology emerged early in the 19th century.

Charles C Gillispie is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History od Science in Princeton University. He was the founder of Princeton's Program in History and Philosiphy of Science. Among his many books, the most widely read is The Edge of Objectivity, an Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960), and his most recent is Essays and Reviews in History and History of Science (2007). Professor Gillispie was Editor of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (16 vols., 1970-1980). He is a former President of the History of Science Society and in 1997 was named a Balzan Laureate in History and Philosophy of Science.