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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.4 (2005) 686-689

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Policing the Boundaries of "Nature"

Smith College
R. G. W. Anderson, M. L. Caygill, A. G. MacGregor, and L. Syson, eds. Enlightening the British: Knowledge, Discovery, and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century (London: British Museum Press, 2003). Pp. 195. $65.00.
Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, eds. The Moral Authority of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Pp. 519. $26.00.
Andrea A. Rusnock, Vital Accounts: Quantifying Health and Population in Eighteenth-Century England and France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Pp. 249. $70.00.

Robert Boyle's Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1685-86) may have been the first effort to catalogue the many senses of the term "nature"; Johnson's Dictionary distinguished thirteen definitions, while two hundred years later, Arthur Lovejoy expanded the catalogue to sixty-six. No wonder, as Daston and Vidal suggest, not all the world's languages contain any clear equivalent. In the nineteenth century, both Chinese and Japanese had to invent new words to translate Western notions not only of "human nature" but even of nature in the sense of "all that is." Nor, of course, have Western notions remained stable. "Nature" changes according to what it is supposed to exclude, the territories that bound it—society, art, the divine, that which ought to be rather than that which is. (We still speak of the "supernatural," but not since the days of Scholasticism has the notion of the subnatural had meaning.) And the excluded can re-enter. As Hegel liked to say, that which is "outside" or "contrary to" nature once again becomes natural as soon as it becomes the object of human study, so that the histories of knowledge and of nature are finally one. The three works under review here explore that identity especially for the eighteenth century.

The "political arithmetic" of John Graunt and William Petty gave us society as nature (no longer a regime of management, but a self-regulating system), thereby laying the foundations for modern economics and sociology. Andrea Rusnock treats in engaging detail one strand within this larger process of naturalization: the emergence of statistical argument in studies of medicine and population, and in particular the emergence of a new technology of both persuasion [End Page 686] and discovery, the numerical table. Loosely Baconian in inspiration, tabular bills of mortality illustrated and inspired the "first use of numerical evidence to evaluate a medical practice." They elicited the arguments of the 1720s by John Arbuthnot and especially James Jurin for inoculation against smallpox, arguments in which the tabular display of numerical information came to maturity. In two further sections Rusnock pursues the development of the numerical table in debates over population and census-taking and in "medical meteorology," that is, studies of health in relation to climate, in which life tables markedly improved, with consequences as important for actuaries as for the guardians of public health. The pre-Malthusian eighteenth century feared not over- but under-population, thought variously to be the result of luxury, life spent in manufacture, and the insalubrity of cities; some believed that the world had been more populous in antiquity than it was in modern times. By the end of the eighteenth century, elaborate new methods of sampling and estimation, and new tables, made recent growth in population clear. This occurred in time for the urban violence of the French Revolution to ignite new fears, now of over-populousness.

Rusnock explores as well why arguments such as Jurin's succeeded so much earlier in Britain than in France, where the debate on inoculation didn't really gain traction until the 1760s. She suggests that differences in medical education and licensing in the two countries meant that until the end of the eighteenth century French physicians retained a characteristic ignorance and distrust of numerical argument. French support for inoculation grew first of all among civil servants and non-medical natural philosophers, the latter of whom, including some important pioneers in statistical argument, often used mathematics beyond what most physicians...


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