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Primer: The Royal Academy of Sciences May 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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An imagined visit by King Louis XIV to the Royal Academy of Sciences, 1671.

OK, Hump-Day History got a bit lost the last couple weeks, but to restore some momentum, we present a special Friday edition.  I hope American readers have a fine long Memorial Day weekend.

The organization of scientific work and its communication necessarily involves the reconciliation of tensions between the inherent elitism of advanced inquiry and the aspirations of inquirers to produce universally valid knowledge, as well as between the individualism of personal initiative and the collectivism of rational agreement.  Cultures of inquiry and invention have a wide variety of choices of how to enact such reconciliations, and their choices often create a conceptual resonance between scientific practice and the culture and politics beyond the community.  This was clearly and influentially the case with the Royal Academy of Sciences, established in Paris in 1666 under the authority of absolutist monarch Louis XIV.

When the Academy was established, it represented a culmination of a decades-long proliferation of circles dedicated to the discussion of philosophical and cultural issues.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, the interests of these circles crossed freely between art and rhetoric, general scholarship, the philosophical reformism of people like René Descartes (Jacques Rohault’s, 1618-1672, “Cartesian Wednesdays” in particular), and, of course, the then-recent vogue for experimental natural philosophy often associated with Francis Bacon (and exemplified by the “Academy” run by Melchisédech Thévenot, c.1620-1692).

The short-lived Accademia del Cimento in Florence (est. 1657), and the Royal Society in London (est. 1660), suggested the possibility that centralizing inquiry might be possible and useful.  Experimentation, notably, was often financially constrained, and informal circles were especially vulnerable to dissolution or descent into amateurism.  Likewise, Louis XIV’s head governmental administrator Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was eager to reap the material benefits and prestige that supporting a successful academy might yield.  The Paris Academy was linked to the new Royal Observatory (commissioned in 1667 and seen under construction in the illustration above).  It was also granted use of the Jardin du Roi (king’s garden) as a laboratory space.  Further, it was just one of several Academies receiving state sponsorship in that era, including the Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Academy of Architecture.

As with the Royal Society, the Academy took on a variety of roles spanning mathematics, natural history, natural philosophy, and invention, but not extending into culture, civil philosophy, or theology.  Its imprimatur established standards for quality work, and its royal patronage gave the Academy prestige, making it beyond question the foremost Continental authority on natural and technological matters.  In addition to undertaking experiments, gathering specimens and accounts from a worldwide natural history network, it also undertook to settle questions posed to it and to mediate claims for royal “privileges” (i.e. patents) on inventions.

The authority of the Academy was intended to be grounded in the consent of its members, and initially Academy publications were issued anonymously.  However, as many problems proved incapable of fostering a consensus, by the end of the 1600s, members began publishing under their own names once the Academy had assented to the contents.  Through the 18th century, the Academy thus became an institution that could legitimize topics of debate rather than one that could necessarily provide definitive answers to problems.  It effectively controlled the important Journal des Savants, and, beginning in 1720, issued prize competitions.  It exercised enormous influence over more specialized societies and academies, and had the power to scupper ones that did not meet with its approval.  Many of its members had rights to hold certain state offices, and they were increasingly called on to advise on government projects, such as waterworks, or to serve on special commissions, such as the one that denied the reality of Franz Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” in 1784.

The key characteristic of the Royal Academy of Sciences was its exclusivity.  Its membership was permanently capped at a little over 50 men, and, increasingly, those aspiring to membership were forced to await the death of older members.  This exclusivity assured that the Academy would remain the central source of elite opinion and quality debate.  It also ensured that outside its boundaries, the relationship between the natural sciences and general philosophy, and the relationship between advanced technical inquiry and the activities of salons and public demonstrations of natural philosophy would remain ambiguous.

The Academy had a mixed relationship with Enlightenment thought.  Some of its members actively participated in efforts such as the Encyclopédie, the signature Enlightenment combination of erudition, free inquiry, and political and social thinking (and subversion).  Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), who edited the Encyclopédie with the philosophe Diderot, was himself an Academy mathematician.  Nevertheless, the Academy remained a fixture of the Ancien Regime.  It continued not to sanction political or moral argumentation despite their ongoing close relationship with natural science, and many thinkers (including some of its members) came to regard its position of privilege as subject to similar political ills as those that afflicted the absolutist state.  Dissatisfied members tended to sanction piecemeal reforms, such as revising the hierarchical organization of its membership.

Others came to regard the Academy as an outright enemy to progressive thought.  Forced to rule repeatedly against intrepid inventors of “perpetual motion” machines (labelled as such whether perpetual motion was actually claimed or not), and geometers aspiring to square the circle, the Academy began to bar certain topics from serious consideration, inspiring parodies and criticisms of its elitism from the disgruntled.  Thinkers such as Rousseau questioned whether the elite erudition of the Academy was an appropriate source of civic virtue, which had been a common Enlightenment-era claim.

As the French Revolution progressed during the 1790s, the Academy, regarded with the other academies as a symbol of aristocratic privilege, was abolished, in spite of the participation of its members in enacting Revolutionary reforms, such as the standardization of weights and measures, a key demand of the cahiers de doléances.  The Academy was soon restored (with the “Royal” removed from its name), and sponsorship of the sciences continued as a hallmark of the turbulent 19th-century French state.

Roger Hahn’s The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666-1803, published in 1971, remains a generally fine analysis of the function of the Academy in French scientific, cultural, and political life, and a good general introduction to the Academy’s institutional history, though, of course, much work has been done since.

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1. Thank You and So Long, Roger Hahn | Whewell's Ghost - June 1, 2011

[…] A Determined Scientist (2005), whom he had studied extensively.  A couple of years ago, I posted a short primer on the history of the Paris Academy of Sciences to the French Revolution based on his book on the […]


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