A French Culture War

in The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780226749457
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226749471 | DOI:
A French Culture War

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By 1738, all the key theaters of the Newton wars had opened and were hot with conflict. Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis' Discourse on the Different Figures of the Planets and the discussions of Newtonianism that it triggered inside and outside the Paris Academy; the emergence of a coherent and publicly discussed Cartesianism that asserted itself against the Newtonian position; Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques and its scandalous adoption of this liberty in the name of English philosophy, science, and culture; the rise of the figure of the earth question as a central focus of the Paris Academy; Maupertuis' activities in this debate, and his perceived connection to the wider academic public that included Voltaire: these are some of the factors that led to the beginning of the public battles over Isaac Newton that erupted in full force after 1738, yet no one of them overdetermined the rest. Instead, they all converged to launch France into a bitter and consequential culture war over the nature and limits of true natural philosophy, one with transformative consequences.

Keywords: Isaac Newton; Newton wars; France; Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis; Voltaire; Lettres philosophiques; Paris Academy; Cartesianism; natural philosophy

Chapter.  26290 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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