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Science and democracy

The slides for this week's lecture are available here

Is science a force for good in the world? Does it make our lives, not just more comfortable and efficient, but more virtuous? A number of eighteenth-century thinkers answered these questions with a resounding 'yes'. Scientific progress, they maintained, went hand-in-hand with moral and political progress. A society with naturalists and experimenters would not just be cleverer than a society without, but also more equal and more just. In this way, the new science of the seventeenth century entered political thought in the writings of Joseph Priestley, Nicolas de Condorcet, and Immanuel Kant. Yet there was no simple correlation between confidence in science and belief in (what we now think of as) progressive politics. The new science was endorsed (and condemned) by thinkers across the political spectrum. A commitment to experimental philosophy could lead to the conservatism of Edmund Burke, the radicalism of Robespierre, or the reformism of Condorcet. Science was political, but there was no consensus about whose politics it favoured.


Read the Pinker extract for one present-day view of the political significance of science. Then read one of the other two pieces, ie. either Condorcet or Rousseau. For all these thinkers, consider: how do these thinkers conceive of scientific progress? How do they conceive of moral or political progress? In their view, what is the connection between these two kinds of progress (scientific versus moral/political)?

Essential reading

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (February 2018) - read the Preface (just the two paragraphs before the acknowledgements), the start of Part 1 (called 'Enlightenment), and Chapters 1 and 3 - these are available by clicking 'look inside' on this page:

Condorcet, 'The future progress of the human mind,' in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794), in Condorcet, eds Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati - to find this section, click on the 'Contents' tab and scroll down about half way, where you will find the section 'The tenth epoch'; then click on 'Show subsections' for this section

Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750) - read pages 1-3 and 12-23 of the pdf

Further reading

Note: the literature on this topics is scattered and uneven, mainly because the topic lies in a no-mans-land between political history and the history of science. For this reason the readings below are annotated.

Daston, Lorraine, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1988) - on Condorcet's 'moral mathematics' ie. his attempts to apply probability theory to moral and political questions such as the optimal voting system.

Gillispie, Charles C. “The Encyclopédie and the Jacobin Philosophy of Science: a Study in Ideas and Consequences.” In Critical Problems in the History of Science: Proceedings, edited by Marshall Clagett. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962 - on the political significance of natural history, as opposed to mathematics, for Denis Diderot, and on the consequences of Diderot's writings in the French Revolution

Olson, Richard, ‘The Human Sciences’, in CHS4 - survey of the human sciences in the eighteenth century - important because the 'science of the mind' was often the intermediate step between the experimental philosophy and political philosophy

Riskin, Jessica, Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, chapter 5 - on the political significance of empiricism for Robespierre

Schaffer, Simon. “Natural Philosophy", in The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science, edited by G. S Rousseau and Roy Porter, 55–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980 - includes a section on the political significance of Newtonianism in the eighteenth century

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton UP, 1985) - classic study of the politics of science, focusing on the Royal Society of London in the Restoration period