Languages of Science and Revolution

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:
Languages of Science and Revolution

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This chapter is concerned with the relations among sensibility, system-building, and revolution. The chapter studies two related disputes about language: the controversy surrounding Antoine Lavoisier and his collaborators' new system of chemical names, published in 1789; and the debate within the Revolutionary Committee of Public Instruction over the role of language in civic education. The scientific and political disputes about language overlapped, involving many of the same people and same arguments. The chapter identifies two conceptions of language at work in each dispute, a cultural conception, that of the sensibilists, and a competing social understanding of language in which the idealism and instrumental empiricism of social engineers replaced the romanticism and sentimental empiricism of the sensibilists. In keeping with the root meaning of the word “culture,” advocates of the cultural conception of scientific language strove to keep their words natural, cultivating them from chemists' distinctive sensibilities of nature. In contrast, promoters of the social conception of language sought deliberate linguistic conventions that would provide the basis for a socially collaborative science. These instrumental empiricists had no interest in spontaneous expressions of sensibility. Formal rules, not feelings, they argued, were the origin of language, knowledge, and civic union.

Keywords: sensibility; system-building; revolution; Antoine Lavoisier; language; civic education

Chapter.  24197 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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