Poor Richard's Leyden Jar

in Science in the Age of Sensibility

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print December 2002 | ISBN: 9780226720784
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226720852 | DOI:
Poor Richard's Leyden Jar

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This chapter focuses on the morals of sentimental empiricism. It analyzes the conflict between proponents of two competing theories of electricity, those of Benjamin Franklin and of Jean-Antoine Nollet. Their conflict arose in 1752 when Buffon sponsored the translation into French of Franklin's letters on electricity. Buffon saw in Franklin's electrical theory a model of the sort of natural science he liked, which was the antithesis of Nollet's variety. Nollet followed Descartes in constraining his physics to a discussion of mechanical causation, matter in motion. But this mechanical model of natural philosophy had been acquiring a bad name as dogmatic and arrogant, disdainfully abstract from sensory experience. In contrast, Franklin's electrical science was teleological, in that it rested upon final causes rather than efficient causes. Franklinist physics portrayed a natural world guided by purposes rather than driven by mechanisms. The chapter's thesis is that the opposition between Nollet's mechanical theory and Franklin's teleological one enabled Franklinism to represent sensibility in science, lending Franklinism both epistemological and moral authority.

Keywords: sentimental empiricism; theories of electricity; Benjamin Franklin; Jean-Antoine Nollet; natural philosophy; mechanical model; sensory experience

Chapter.  16821 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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