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Science in the public sphere

The powerpoint slides for this week's lecture can be downloaded here

The new science of the seventeenth century was produced and consumed by a small group of intellectual elites. The rise of science as a public activity took place in the eighteenth century and coincided with the rise of the 'public sphere', a set of venues that were open to a broad spectrum of society and where critical debate took place on all matters, political and cultural as well as scientific. Natural history and the experimental philosophy flourished in coffee houses, pubs, and museums, and in the pages of popular periodicals such as the Journal des Savants (in France) and the Gentleman's Magazine (in England). The boundary between "professional" and "amateur" scientists was fluid, and important contributions were made by men and women working outside the established scientific societies in Paris and London. Those societies worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the wider public, and had considerable success in doing so. The new science could also be turned against its creators, however -- women and artisans, and others excluded from the scientific establishment, sometimes used the public sphere to criticise the theories, methods and politics of that establishment. The public sphere fostered dissent towards science even as it helped to disseminate new approaches to natural knowledge.


Read the Porter chapter for an overview of science in the eighteenth century. Then read one other essential reading of your choice. Consider these questions:

How far did the new science travel through eighteenth-century society? What were the social and geographical limits of the new science?

Why was the new science so popular in this period?

Essential readings

Porter, Roy. 'Introduction' to CHS4.

Bertucci, Paola, ‘Sparks in the Dark: The Attraction of Electricity in the Eighteenth Century’, Endeavour, 31 (2007), 88–93

Lynn, Michael, ‘Divining the Enlightenment: Public Opinion and Popular Science in Old Regime France’, Isis, 92 (2001), 34–54 - Warwick ejournal

Terrall, Mary. ‘Gendered Spaces, Gendered Audiences: Inside and Outside the Paris Academy of Sciences’. Configurations 3, no. 2 (1 May 1995): 207–32 - Warwick ejournal

Zhidervaart, Huib J., Cabinets for Experimental Philosophy in the Netherlands, in Cabinets of Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Jim Bennett and Sofia Talas (Brill, 2014) - Warwick ebook

Further reading

Brockliss, L W, ‘Science, the Universities, and Other Public Spaces: Teaching Science in Europe and the Americas’, in CHS4

Daston, Lorraine, ‘The Ideal and Reality of the Republic of Letters in the Enlightenment’, Science in Context, 4 (2008)

Golinski, Jan, Science As Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Johns, Adrian, ‘Print and Public Culture’, in CHS4

Priestley, Joseph, The History and Present State of Electricity (London, 1767), 'Preface to the First Edition', pp. i-xxvi

Schaffer, Simon, ‘Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century’, History of Science, 21 (1983), 1–43

Stewart, Larry, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)