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Beyond the Scientific Revolution February 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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In “Intro to the History of Science” (Jenny asked the name of my class–it’s highly original!) I just did the Experimental Program (i.e. Leviathan and the Air Pump) lecture/Newton vs. Leibniz lecture, to show that the Royal Society’s ideas about what constituted knowledge and how one goes about getting it were heavily contested. I’ve been feeding them the notion that although Newton, Boyle, and so forth had their philosophical defenders, increasingly, this program became so well accepted among a certain group of “natural philosophers”, and among patrons (for whom the production of spectacle, and better technologies and techniques was a sufficient indication of knowledge) that philosophical defense was not necessary. From this point I want to steer this course toward trends in practice, rather than trends in philosophical ideas. (No Kant on my watch!–well, maybe a little, for old time’s sake…)

So, where do we go next? Tuesday’s lecture is on History of Mathematics in the 1700s into the early 1800s. Bernoulli! Euler! Lagrange! Laplace! Fourier! Poisson! This is sort of a masochistic move, since to the best of my knowledge there is no real precedent for fitting the history of mathematics into the history of science. (In my education, at least, the 1700s as a whole tended to get skipped over, except for maybe the Enlightenment, which is two weeks from now). Plus, the material is so technical, that I have to figure out some digestible things to say about it.

Those historians of mathematics are sort of a breed apart, aren’t they? So, question of the day: how should the history of mathematics fit into the history of science as anything other than a series of discoveries. I’ll be damned if I’m going to project an image of Brook Taylor, and say, “This is Brook Taylor. He invented the Taylor series” and then, God forbid, define the Taylor series mathematically. I have two strategies in mind. First, emphasize mathematics as a theory-generating tool (I’m thinking Dave Kaiser and Andy Warwick here), and, second, do something about the shifting occupations of mathematicians. So, looks like I need to know more about the pre-Revolutionary Ecole Militaire.

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1. Anonymous - March 3, 2008

Suggest you consider the following opinion: Descartes’ emphasis on clear and distinct ideas was a result of his study of and contributions to mathematics; that emphasis was continued, while being transformed by new systems of philosophy, in the thought of Spinoza and Leibniz. The attempt to extend the demonstrative power of mathematics to the broader area of metaphysics is “problematical,” to use a current buzz word.

I say “opinion,” because I am presently consolidating my study of Spinoza, and will soon take up Leibniz.


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