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Physicians, Vitalism, and Gender in the Salon ELIZABETH A. WILLIAMS A much discussed issue in the recent historiography of eighteenthcentury France is the neglect of the salon, a neglect that has been attributed by feminist historians to the fact that salons were dominated by women and, hence, not taken seriously by historians investigating the Enlightenment . Dena Goodman has been the most forceful in arguing that the salons have been denigrated or trivialized because they were the work chiefly of women, but other historians have joined her in seeking to rehabilitate the salon after decades, indeed centuries, of condescension and neglect.1 Goodman and others have argued, against the traditional view, that salons were serious places where important public work proceeded. They have placed the salon in the much-discussed "public sphere" theorized by Jürgen Habermas and have concluded that the salon made a critical contribution to the activist and reformist activities of the age by creating both a changed arena of sociability—one in which bourgeois and aristocrat mixed freely—and a new atmosphere of regularity, seriousness, and ambitious public purpose.2 In the formerly hermetic world of the history of science, this shift in the historiography of the salon coincided with intensified interest among historians in the social contexts in which science has developed and in the broader social and cultural significance of scientific inquiry. Moreover, 2 / WILLIAMS after a period in which historians of science focused chiefly on official institutions—learned societies, academies, teaching and research centers— they have begun to evince greater interest in broader social and cultural linkages, investigating informal networks and settings, such as the salon, that were equally influential in forming the public face of science in the eighteenth century.3 This paper is offered within the dual historiographical frame of the dispute over the salon and the striving toward broad contextualization within the history of science. It puts one central question—did the salon function as an important forum for the promotion of scientific ideas?—and it attempts to answer that question by examining one illuminating case—that of the promotion of medical vitalism against the orthodoxies of iatromechanism . The paper focuses, although not exclusively, on physicians linked in various ways to the Medical University of Montpellier, the principal architects of medical vitalism in eighteenth-century France. I seek to show that while this instance of science in the salon reinforces arguments made about the seriousness of that forum, it also suggests the importance of restoring a sense of historical specificity to discussion of the salon. In particular, I argue that the salon did not, as recent studies have implied, have a uniformly progressivist impact but, rather, served diverse social and cultural ends throughout the eighteenth century depending on the character of the participants and the focus of their activities. Salons clearly differed in character and purpose. Some were chiefly social gatherings where the highborn pursued cultural, culinary, and erotic pleasures. Others, those Benedetta Craveri calls the "bourgeoisintellectual " salons, encouraged discussion and activity with defined intellectual, ideological, and political aims.4 The salons to be examined here all fall in the latter category but even so they were far from monolithic in ideological hue or public impact. The essay begins with the salon of Claudine-Alexandrine de Tencin, which was crucial in the career of the Montpellier-trained physician Jean Astruc, a conservative figure and leading representative of the mechanist style of medicine that vitalist physicians sought to undermine. Astruc was also closely linked, chiefly through his attendance at Tencin's salon, to a social world focused on the court and traditional institutions. Astruc's case is included both to indicate the opportunities the salon offered to ambitious provincial physicians in the era before the vitalist doctors arrived in Paris in the late 1740s and to demonstrate that, at least early in the century, the salon could be linked to conservative circles rather than the critical and reformist elements to which historians have recently drawn attention and to which the vitalist physicians , in contrast to Astruc, contributed. Physicians, Vitalism, and Gender in the Salon / 3 The vitalist physicians themselves were active in two salons, that of Paul Thiry d'Holbach in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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