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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 1-13

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Introduction to Oeconomies in the Age of Newton

Margaret Schabas and Neil De Marchi

While the history of early modern science is well-charted terrain, far less has been recorded on economic thinking of the same period and considerably less that addresses the intersection of these two fields. Our volume is a modest stab at mapping this new land, and we can only hope that it will inspire more efforts to explore this rich set of topics. Our essays cover the ideas of a number of Europeans—from France, Italy, Sweden, Prussia, Ireland, Scotland, and England—as well as specimens from the far reaches of the world. Oeconomies will prove to encompass a cabinet of curiosities: peaches and peacocks, alchemical retorts and seltzer water, unorthodox medical cures such as the tarantella (an Italian dance) or quassia (a Surinamese plant). In short, oeconomics was as colorful a subject as one could imagine, far removed from kinked oligopoly curves or fixed-point theorems. But then, economic reflections harked back to the Greek concept of household management, and households have gardens, require medicines, and attend to the sympathies of their members. How oe conomics came to be more narrowly construed and defined as e conomics is a story that falls outside our purview, but we hope that by providing a more vivid and detailed account of the oeconomic concepts and constructs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we can at least serve those who might attempt to make sense of the transition.

The title of this volume reflects a decision to concentrate on the period that scholars of Newton would address, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While we are not inclined to reinforce the great-men-of-science perspective, there is no denying Newton's preeminence. Isaac [End Page 1] Newton (1642–1727) first came to prominence at the age of twenty-five, with his appointment as the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University (1669). His breakthroughs on the calculus, the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, and the heterogeneity of white light came even earlier, in his anni mirabiles of 1664–66 (see Westfall 1980, chap. 5). These methods and ideas crystallized into his two major tomes, Principia Mathematica (1687) and the Opticks (1704). External recognition came with his election as a member of Parliament (1689), his knighthood (1701), and his appointment first as warden (1696) and then as master of the Mint (1699), and as president of the Royal Society (1703). But perhaps the greatest honor was being the first nonroyal to be buried in Westminster Abbey, with much of the pomp and circumstance befitting a king. Inspired by the occasion, Voltaire carried the torch of Newtonianism over to France. His Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738) and the translation into French of Newton's Principia (1747) by his partner Emilie du Chatelet, coupled with a number of empirical discoveries, did much to insure that Newtonian philosophy became the reigning doctrine by the mid-1750s, putting the Cartesian and Leibnizian alternatives a distant second.

Newton's Principia has traditionally marked the close of the so-called Scientific Revolution, a rubric that is remarkably enduring and robust among historians. Commencing with the work of Herbert Butterfield ([1949] 1975) and A. Rupert Hall ([1954] 1962), the Scientific Revolution has been revived recently, legitimized by several book titles (see Cohen 1994a, 1994b, Jardine 1999, Lindberg and Westman 1990, Porter and Teich 1992, and Shapin 1996). Of course, there are some skeptics, those who emphasize the continuity with the past or the lack of coherence among the leading instigators. Some of the scholars who have championed this view are John Schuster (1990), Catherine Wilson (1995), and one of the most radical historians active today, Steven Shapin (1996), notwithstanding his use of the term in the book's title. And in our own volume, there are those who downplay the influence of the Scientific Revolution on economic thinking, and others who deem it of...


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pp. 1-13
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