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Reviewed by:
  • Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years
  • Lorraine Daston (bio)
Charles Coulston Gillispie , Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 751 pp.

This tome completes Gillispie's magisterial survey of French science and politics, begun with Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime (1980). Gillispie sees the changes that took place in the organization of French science at the turn of the nineteenth century as the equivalent of the modernization of French [End Page 144] society through the Revolution and then the First Empire. Both transformations were in his view consequential models for science and for polities well beyond the borders of the hexagon. He argues that French science during this period achieved a degree of professionalization and self-governance that have been models for the scientific community ever since. Yet the bulk of this very bulky book is devoted to the enmeshment of science and scientists to an unprecedented (and perhaps also unparalleled) degree in every aspect of politics, from revolutionary clubs and assemblies to the making of armaments, from the heroic surveying that formed the base of the metric system to visionary projects for constitutions and universal public education. Despite the lucid and engaging prose style, detail tends to swamp the accounts of the fate of the Academy of Sciences, the founding of the École Polytechnique, the looting of Italy's cultural treasures (pictures mostly returned after 1815, but not books and scientific instruments), the remarkable Napoleonic expedition to Egypt (a military flop but a scientific and artistic triumph), and much else. But this is not a book to be read straight through. It should be dipped into as a definitive work of reference, grounded on decades of research, but also as a repository of stories, beautifully told, of the courage and folly, brilliance and obstinacy, ambition and tragedy, of French savants in their best and worst of times.

Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and honorary professor at Humboldt University, received the Pfizer Prize for her book Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. She is also coauthor of Talking with Animals and Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 and has edited or coedited Biographies of Scientific Objects, Things that Talk, The Moral Authority of Nature, and the early modern volume in the Cambridge History of Science.



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pp. 144-145
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