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  • Enlightenment Science and the State in Revolutionary France:The Legacy of Charles Coulston Gillispie
  • Jeff Horn (bio)

A quarter century ago, Charles Coulston Gillispie published Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime (1980). A landmark in the history of science, in Science and Polity, Gillispie authoritatively illustrated how historians could integrate the local knowledge embodied in biography, a mastery of institutional detail and a close attention to the day-to-day realities of the lived experience with the more universalistic concerns that drive the history of science. Happily, Gillispie has finally produced the long-awaited sequel, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years (2004). To understand the scholarly stimulus provided by the first volume and to place that masterwork into the context both of Gillispie's lifetime of historical inquiry and the changing contours of the contemporary field, this essay will survey the evolution of recent studies of science and technology in Revolutionary France (1789– 1815) through an exploration of the new and culminating volume of Science and Polity in France.

With the appearance of volume one of Science and Polity, Gillispie unveiled his first sweeping synthetic work since 1960's The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas. Divided into three parts: Institutions; Professions; and Applications, the former work put into practice the implied criticism of his system-building colleague Thomas S. Kuhn (1962) embodied in the latter study. In Science and Polity, those interested in science and technology do not just sit at home reviewing the texts already found in their libraries. Instead, they get their hands dirty in laboratories, workshops and factories, they join groups of like-minded people who take action in the public sphere, and they work for the state. In short, they are not cut off from the rest of society; the close interaction of "science" [End Page 112] and "polity" cannot be doubted in Gillispie's account of the twilight of France's ancien régime.

Throughout his career, Gillispie has revealed an impressive affinity for biography, both individual and collective (1970, 1971, 1997). In Science and Polity, this proclivity is particularly effective in demonstrating the main themes of the work. Gillispie, who depicts the hands-on knowledge of how the related processes of innovation, invention and production actually worked, gives the "experts" who were read and relied upon for their scientific preeminence by their contemporaries life. To take just a few examples, the portraits of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Jean-Paul Marat, and Henri-Louis Duhamel de Monceau drawn by Gillispie are unforgettable and changed how historians conceived of the practice of physiocracy, medical experimentation and scientific writing in the late eighteenth- century (Dhombres 1989, pp. 35–7). At no time does this important book stray far from a delineation of the increasingly close linkage among science, state and society that was such an important feature—culturally, politically, and socially—of the late eighteenth century. Gillispie revealed his impressive learning on every page: the wealth of institutional detail, biographical data and scientific knowledge that made this seemingly overwhelming project viable revealed the magnitude of the difference that archival mastery makes in writing an enduring synthetic account.

Both implicitly and explicitly, Gillispie resisted those who, like David S. Landes in The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969), championed an Anglocentric approach to the flowering of technology and especially science during the first decades of industrialization. By focusing sustained attention on the impressive weight of French contributions, Gillispie sought to force his English-speaking contemporaries to reckon with developments in France while, at the very least, justifying further research on French institutions and their achievements in fostering technological advance. This continuing Anglo-centric focus has been continued by those who follow in Landes' wake such as Margaret C. Jacob (1997, 2004). Ironically, Gillispie's implicit depiction of a French state that was determined to go beyond the relatively free play of laissez-faire economic development éà la Adam Smith has been made both explicit and well-known for the English case by John Brewer (1988). But Gillispie, in both volumes of Science and...


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pp. 112-132
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