The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod

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:
The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod

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This chapter looks at the influence of moral authority of sentimental empiricism in the context of legal decision-making. The chapter tells the story of M. de Vissery de Bois-Valé of Saint-Omer, who, in the spring of 1780, put a lightning rod on his roof. His neighbors feared the rod, sued him to remove it, and won. The case was inherited on appeal by an unknown and junior member of the Arras bar, Maximilien Robespierre. To defend Vissery, Robespierre corresponded with jurisconsults and electricians. He then exploited the empiricist dogma shared by law and physics in 1780s France. According to this dogma, knowledge was founded in particular facts not because of their places in general theories, but, on the contrary, because of their irreducible particularity. A particular fact derived its importance precisely by resisting theory and tradition. Robespierre stated the facts of electrical behavior while denying that the theoretical explanations of those facts, demanded by Vissery's opponents, had any place in empirical science or in courts of law. If the courts would only set aside the theories of both physics and jurisprudence, Robespierre argued, the two sciences would meet in the truth.

Keywords: legal decision-making; sentimental empiricism; electrical behavior; courts of law; physics; jurisprudence

Chapter.  22228 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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