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Michael Bycroft and Adrian Wilson (eds.), The Eighteenth-Century Problem, Forty Years On. Special Issue of Journal of Early Modern Studies, volume 13 (2), 2024

It is now four decades since Geoffrey Cantor, reviewing the Porter and Rousseau collection of 1981 entitled The Ferment of Knowledge, observed that the eighteenth century is for historians of science a “problem”, and indeed a multiple problem: the period had long been a “grey area on the historical chart”, with no Newton or Faraday to supply any landmarks; it was largely overlooked in general histories of science; and more recently historians had tended to “set up simplistic, monolithic interpretations” of it. The purpose of this special issue is to draw renewed attention to that cluster of problems and to offer some tentative solutions. Because the problem is multiple, the solutions are multiple as well. Some of the contributions in this special issue will give general accounts of eighteenth-century science that could be seen as new “master narratives” of the period (John Schuster and Adrian Wilson). Others reconsider traditional, yet surprisingly persistent, interpretations of the eighteenth century (Emma Spary on re-enchantment, and Domenico Bertoloni Meli on Hankins’ textbook). Richard Sorrenson’s article identifies improvement as a major theme that cuts across many scientific disciplines but that has often been overlooked by historians of science, while Anita Guerrini considers what is perhaps the main recent growth area of eighteenth-century historiography, namely collecting, and synthesises much recent literature in that domain. Finally, Brendan Dooley uses the particular case of natural history in early eighteenth-century Padua to shed new light on wider narratives of eighteenth-century science, such as deism and social reform. These contributions draw on the wider lessons of The Ferment of Knowledge and of Cantor’s review essay. Those lessons include the value of thinking about scientific change in terms of the evolution of the map of knowledge; the value of taking historiography seriously; and above all, the value of being explicit about the master narratives that we are working with, whether our aim is to question the old ones, create new ones, or synthesise those we already have.

Categories: Journal of Early Modern StudiesJournals

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