The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment

The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment

by J.B. Shank

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Nothing is considered more natural than the connection between Isaac Newton’s science and the modernity that came into being during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Terms like “Newtonianism” are routinely taken as synonyms for “Enlightenment” and “modern” thought, yet the particular conjunction of these terms has a history full of accidents and contingencies. Modern physics, for example, was not the determined result of the rational unfolding of Newton’s scientific work in the eighteenth century, nor was the Enlightenment the natural and inevitable consequence of Newton’s eighteenth-century reception. Each of these outcomes, in fact, was a contingent event produced by the particular historical developments of the early eighteenth century.

A comprehensive study of public culture, The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment digsbelow the surface of the commonplace narratives that link Newton with Enlightenment thought to examine the actual historical changes that brought them together in eighteenth-century time and space. Drawing on the full range of early modern scientific sources, from studied scientific treatises and academic papers to book reviews, commentaries, and private correspondence, J. B. Shank challenges the widely accepted claim that Isaac Newton’s solitary genius is the reason for his iconic status as the father of modern physics and the philosophemovement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226749471
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

J. B. Shank is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

List of Illustrations


Introduction: Provincializing Newton, or Building in the Ruins of a Grand Narrative of Modernity

Part 1: Before the Light: Newton and French Science before 1728

Chapter 1: Newton without Newtonianism: French Mathematical Science in the Early Eighteenth Century

Chapter 2: Sources of Enlightenment Newtonianism: Toward a New Climate of Science in France after 1715

Chapter 3: Preparing the Battlefield: Fighting For and Against Newton after 1715

Part 2: The Newton Wars in France

Chapter 4: The Invention of French Newtonianism: Maupertuis and Voltaire

Chapter 5: Making the “Philosophe”: Voltaire’s Newtonianism and the Scandal of the Lettres philosophiques

Chapter 6: A French Culture War: The Battle over Newtonianism

Chapter 7: Leibnizianism and the Solidification of the French Enlightenment

Coda: Instituting the French Enlightenment: Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie



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