Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightenment / Edition 2

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Empiricism today implies the dispassionate scrutiny of facts. But Jessica Riskin finds that in the French Enlightenment, empiricism was intimately bound up with sensibility. In what she calls a "sentimental empiricism," natural knowledge was taken to rest on a blend of experience and emotion.

Riskin argues that sentimental empiricism brought together ideas and institutions, practices and politics. She shows, for instance, how the study of blindness, led by ideas about the mental and moral role of vision and by cataract surgeries, shaped the first school for the blind; how Benjamin Franklin's electrical physics, ascribing desires to nature, engaged French economic reformers; and how the question of the role of language in science and social life linked disputes over Antoine Lavoisier's new chemical names to the founding of France's modern system of civic education.

Recasting the Age of Reason by stressing its conjunction with the Age of Sensibility, Riskin offers an entirely new perspective on the development of modern science and the history of the Enlightenment.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226720784
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 345
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jessica Riskin is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

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Science in the Age of Sensibility: the Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightment

By Jessica Riskin

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Jessica Riskin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226720799


This book is about the sentimental youth of scientific empiricism, and about a time and place in which its dramas of self-definition were center stage: eighteenth-century France. Later, and for much of its four-century tenure at the heart of European culture, empiricism--the doctrine that natural knowledge originates in observation and experiment--came to have a hardnosed, unemotional reputation. Charles Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind--implacably demanding "nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!"--was recognizable to readers of the popular weekly in which he appeared in 1854 as a caricature of the dispassionate empiricist. Behold Gradgrind: a "square wall of a forehead"; a mouth that was "wide, thin, and hard"; a voice "inflexible, dry, and dictatorial"; and an "obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders--nay, his very neckcloth [was] trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact." But scientific empiricism would not always have evoked Gradgrindian features. It appeared very different a century earlier to the philosophes who received the young doctrine from itsseventeenth-century progenitors and were the guardians of its coming of age. To them, empirical knowledge was not a matter of impassive adherence to the hard facts of sensory experience, but rather one of sensibility.

"What is sensibility?" the playwright and philosophe Denis Diderot wrote to his friend Sophie Volland in 1760. "The vivid effect on our soul of an infinity of delicate observations." Sensibility is defined in Diderot's Encyclopedie as the capacity "to perceive impressions of external objects"; its first consequence, an answering "movement" of the sensible creature, is "sentiment." Throughout this book I will use "sentiment" in this sense, to describe an emotional "movement" in response to a physical sensation. Sensibility was the "first germ of thought" and "the most beautiful, the most singular phenomenon of nature." It attuned the animal to the world outside and governed its inner processes--not only thought and emotion, but digestion, the secretions and excretions of the organs, the menstrual flux, and the functioning of the heart and lungs. In the more intimate setting of Diderot's letter to Mme. Volland, sensibility featured in some advice about the rearing of her young niece. He recommended that one be especially tolerant of small children. They were naturally "hard, even cruel" because experience had not yet developed their moral faculties. Moral sentiments arose from sensibility, the openness of the soul to vivid impressions of a delicate world.

In contrast with the Encyclopedie, the Dictionnaire de l'Academie francaise (1694) had been matter-of-fact. It states plainly that sensibility was "that which has feeling. Stones are not sensible. The eye is a very sensible part." The Dictionnaire explains that "sensibility" can also be used "with regard to morals. This man is very delicate and sensible. He is sensible to the misfortunes of others." "Sensibility," therefore, had already signified both physical sensation and moral sensitivity. But this dual signification did not become significant until the middle of the eighteenth century. Diderot was among the first to recast the old definition into a new meaning. He used an axiom that John Locke had proposed in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). The wellspring of Locke's sensationist epistemology, this axiom posited that the mind at birth was a blank slate, and that all its thoughts were inscribed upon it by the outside world, with the instruments of inscription being the body's five senses. Diderot and his contemporaries joyously embraced this axiom, extended it in all directions, and erected their cities of philosophical light upon it. Indeed, they expanded Locke's notion of the sensory origins of ideas by applying it to the emotions and moral sentiments as well. Ideas, emotions, and moral sentiments alike were expressions of sensibility, movements of the body's parts in response to sensory impressions of the outside world.

By fusing sensation with sentiment, the inventors of the notion of sensibility transformed the meaning of scientific empiricism, for if knowledge arose from physical sensation, it must now originate equally in emotion. French natural philosophers began around 1750 to talk, write, and argue about the sentimental origins of knowledge. Georges Buffon's Histoire naturelle (1749), the first volumes of the Encyclopedie (1750 -51), Diderot's De l'interpretation de la nature (1753), and Etienne Bonnot de Condillac's Traite des sensations (1754) are all filled with counsel that is sentimental, not methodological. Rather than techniques of observation or systems of experimentation, these epistemological texts recommend emotional responses. One must not be "vain" or "frivolous" in building grand, rational systems and clinging to favorite hypotheses, but must follow one's "instincts" and "let the thoughts flow." (In the flowery, allegorical frontispiece to the Encyclopedie [fig. 1.1], arrogant Reason tries unsuccessfully to snatch away demure Truth's veil.) The texts depict the sensory and emotional discovery of a world outside the self: the "intimate blossoming" of hope and fear, horror and humility, love and hate, "vivid desire." Julien Offray de La Mettrie gave his L'Homme-machine (1748) a title that can mislead the modern ear: the human machinery he described was not cold but capable of all the passions. Sensibility marked the style as well as the content of these midcentury texts of natural philosophy. Diderot began his Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) with a poignant image of a blind man teaching his son to read.

Over the following half-century, sensibility became crucial to ever more areas of scientific inquiry, beginning with physiology and psychology. During the 1760s the Swiss physiologist Charles Bonnet made sensibility the "great and the unique mobile" of animal life. Others made it the central feature of human nature. The polemical materialist Claude-Adrien Helvetius announced in two notorious tracts, De l'esprit (1758) and De l'homme (1773), that all operations of mind, all ideas, interests, and passions reduced to the "only quality essential to the nature of man," that is, "physical sensibility." The baron d'Holbach, a frequent contributor to the Encyclopedie, similarly wrote that "mind is a product of... physical sensibility" and that from "sensibility flow all the faculties that we call intellectual." The moral sciences too became projects in sensibility, beginning with the baron de Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois (1748). Here he explained that laws must suit the "degrees of sensibility" of the people governed. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the doyen of sentimental moralists, advised in Emile (1762) that as long as a child's "sensibility remains limited to his person there will be no morality in his actions." Only after his sensibility extended beyond himself would Emile acquire "sentiments . . . of good and evil that constitute him a true man." Moral learning, like natural philosophy, was a matter of fostering sensibilities.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Destutt de Tracy founded a new philosophical movement called Ideologie, the science of ideas. This new science studied the origins of ideas in sensibility and their combinations in the sentiments. Destutt de Tracy claimed that Ideologie underlay all the moral sciences: "grammar, logic, teaching, private morality, public morality (or the social art), education and legislation." A fellow Ideologue, the philosopher and physiologist Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, wrote that it was no longer possible to doubt that "physical sensibility is the source of all the ideas and all the habits that constitute the moral existence of man: Locke, Bonnet, Condillac, Helvetius, have carried this truth to the last degree of demonstration." At the same time, the inventor of "biology," Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, devoted much of his Philosophie zoologique (1809) to "physical and moral sensibility," discussing their relations to "interior emotions" and the "interior sentiment" of one's own existence. During the first years of the nineteenth century, a narrowing philosophical focus sharpened the contours of sensibility, reducing it to a phenomenon of the nervous system and the basis of psychology.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, then, sensibility had itself become a fully established object of scientific inquiry. This book, however, concludes around the time that development took place. I am interested in the preceding five decades, during which sensibility was only gradually becoming a scientific subject but was already fully in place as a scientific tradition. By "scientific tradition," I mean a vocabulary and set of themes, and a repertoire of problems, methods, and principles, both tacit and explicit. As construed within the scientific tradition of sensibility, empiricism implied that knowledge grew not from sensory experience alone, but from a combination of sensation and sentiment. Therefore I propose to call this distinctive eighteenth-century mode of natural science "sentimental empiricism."

It is important to identify the sentimental component of Enlightenment empiricism for several reasons. First, doing so can enable us to understand the eighteenth-century interaction between the natural sciences, on the one hand, and moral and political thought and practice, on the other. A central effect of sentimental empiricism was a corresponding intimacy between the natural sciences and the emerging moral sciences. These precursors of the modern social sciences were defined by one of their leading inventors, the marquis de Condorcet, as sciences that studied "either the human mind in itself, or the relations of men to one another," thereby joining epistemology and psychology with questions of proper behavior and good government. The moral sciences included political economy, civic education, and law. A scientific, naturalizing approach to such moral subjects arose during the Age of Sensibility in unison with newly moralized natural sciences.

Both the naturalization of moral subjects and the moralization of natural subjects followed from a sentimental-empiricist understanding of thought and emotion. Sentimental empiricism, by tracing emotions to sensory experience, implied that moral sentiments might be subjected to empirical scrutiny and manipulation, which was the founding assumption of the moral sciences. However, by the same logic applied in reverse, sentimental empiricism also infused empirical experience, and therefore natural science, with sentiment and moral import. One of my principal interests in this study is to know how scientific and moral arguments interacted during a period in which the same people framed both sorts of argument and applied them to projects of political administration and activism. France in the half-century that led to the Revolution was a primary site for the genesis of moral sciences, whose descendants are our social sciences, and therefore also of the modern relations among scientific, moral, and social understanding and political application. I take the mutually transformative intimacy of natural and moral science to have been a defining feature of the Age of Sensibility, and this intimacy is a pivotal theme of the book.

A second reason for scrutinizing the sentimentalism of the empirical sciences during the Enlightenment is to show that these sciences were embedded within the contemporary culture, rather than acting upon it from outside. The "Age of Sensibility" has generally referred to developments in literature and the arts rather than in the sciences, and in particular to a moment in English cultural history defined by sentimental novelists such as Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, who wrote during the period this book examines, from the middle of the eighteenth through the turn of the nineteenth century. In the study of English letters, the "Age of Sensibility" refers to a literary tradition characterized by a set of features that appeared both together and separately, and whose combination can seem incongruous in retrospect. The first was emotionalism, ranging in tone from pathetic to extravagant. The second was a preoccupation with the bodily mechanisms of experience and emotion.

And the third was a skeptical irreverence toward theories and institutions, including the same materialist, physiological theories of human nature that provided the backdrop for the first two features. Insofar as sciences such as physiology, medicine, and natural history, and scientific methods such as sensationist empiricism, have come into histories of sensibility, they have generally played the role of a source of technical information about sensibility-- about the operation of the senses and their epistemological function--which artists and writers then transformed into their own artistic and literary notions of sensibility. Literary scholars and cultural historians have assumed that whereas sensibility was a florid style in literature and the arts, it was a plain object of research in the sciences. They have also taken for granted that the influence flowed from sober science to fanciful culture.

Historians of science have traditionally also studied sensibility as an object of scientific inquiry. Their work has contained only passing hints that sensibility might also have constituted a style of science. Daniel Mornet observed that "science and sentiment supported and explained one another," but, as E. C. Spary has pointed out, Mornet separated his studies of science and sentiment into two separate works. Spary is one of a number of historians of eighteenth-century sciences who have begun to discern sentimentalism in their subjects. She argues that "'science' and 'sentiment' were not distinct" in French natural history and urges historians to recover the "links that existed . . . between taste and reason, connoisseurship and utility, sensibility and scientificity." Michael Hagner makes a parallel argument regarding German physiology. He describes the way in which physiologists who argued for the epigenetic theory of embryology represented that theory as "an aesthetic view of nature" and emphasized the importance of an "inner feeling" and a "sensibility" on the part of the anatomist and physiologist as "the key to [their] . . . understanding of bodily processes."

But the role of sentiment in Enlightenment empiricism seems to me deeper and more pervasive. Sentimentalism was not confined to physiology, which made animal sensibility one of its objects of inquiry, nor to natural history, whose panoramic view and descriptive methodology gave sentiment easy access. Sensibility operated even in fields that studied the inanimate rather than the animate, and that took an experimental rather than a narrative view of nature. Sentimentalism characterized the methods of what are now considered the hardest sciences, physics and chemistry. This book therefore seeks, using these hard cases, to show that sentimentalism was integral to the method of Enlightenment science as a whole. Empirical science then takes its place within the culture of sensibility, not only acting, but acted upon. If scientific theories and results were a crucial ingredient of sensibility, it is reciprocally the case that the ideals of sensibility were constitutive of those very theories and results.


Excerpted from Science in the Age of Sensibility: the Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightment by Jessica Riskin Copyright © 2002 by Jessica Riskin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
1. Introduction: Sensibility and Enlightenment Science
2. The Blind and the Mathematically Inclined
3. Poor Richard's Leyden Jar
4. From Electricity to Economy
5. The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod
6. The Mesmerism Investigation and the Crisis of Sensibilist Science
7. Languages of Science and Revolution
8. Conclusion: The Legacy of the Sentimental Empiricists

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