Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Consuming the Enlightenment (Karen O Brien)

Following on from the session on the consumption of science, this session will explore the variety of ways in which the new ideas, discoveries and disciplines of the European Enlightenment were disseminated and consumed in Britain. It will also consider how this process interrelated with the development of Enlightenment economic and social theories of consumption. The session will give an overview of the Enlightenment fields of knowledge elaborated and culturally assimilated during this period, including Newtonian science, political economy, chemistry and the “science of man”. It will consider the public settings for dissemination (including public lectures, salons and coffee houses), and the role of print culture, including its new generic formats, with particular focus upon the written “conversation”, designed to bridge the gap between male and female audiences, as well as between adults and children. We will also examine one exceptionally popular, not to say notorious, work which thematised the ways in which contemporary British society was being transformed by the consumption of both goods and ideas: Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees. We will read this alongside Hume’s influential essay on the ways in which luxury and consumption might change contemporary society.


Francesco Algarotti, Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies, translated by Elizabeth Carter ( 2 vols; London, 1739) [available on Eighteenth-Century Collections online – please browse the beginning and end of this]

David Hume, `Of Refinement in the Arts’ (1754, revised 1760) in Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, 1985). Also available at the online library of the Liberty (

Jane Marcet, Conversations on Chemistry (London, 1806), Preface and Conversation 1 [photocopy]. Also available in the 1853 edition in Google books.

Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1714, 1723), ed. Phillip Harth (Penguin). Read the opening poem, plus Remarks I, K, L and T (on avarice, prodigality, luxury and opulence)

Further Readings

David Allan, Making British Culture: English Readers and the Scottish Enlightenment, 1740-1830 (Routledge, 2008)

Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger eds., Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke, 2002)

Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge, 2000), chapters 7 and 8

Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius (London, 2002)

Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge, 1992)

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London, 2008), pp.348-9 and chapter 6 (on Davy)

E. G. Hundert, The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge, 1994)

Massimo Mazzotti, `Newton for Ladies: Gentility, Gender and Radical Culture’, British Journal for the History of Science, 37 (2004), 119-46

Mazzotti, `Introduction’ to his digital edition of Newtonianismo per le dame at Bologna Science Classics online:

Richard Sher, Scottish Authors and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland and America (Chicago, 2006)

James Raven, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade, 1450-1850 (Yale, 2008)

Richard Yeo, Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Discoveries and English Culture (Cambridge, 2001)