Research Category

The English Deists

In addition to reading Cunningham, I have spent the last several days reading works on the Cambridge Platonists and seventeenth-century latitudinarian theologians: Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Peter Sterry (1613-72), George Rust (d.1670), John Wilkins (1614-72), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), John Smith (1618-52), John Worthington (1618-71), Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-51), Simon Patrick (1626-1707), John Tilloston (1630-94), […]

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What’s in a name? Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica

Themes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title. What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like […]

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What is Natural Philosophy?

Over the weekend I came across Andrew Cunningham’s collection of essays in The Identity of the History of Science and Medicine (2012). I had briefly mentioned Cunningham in an older post, but for heuristic purposes I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of his arguments here. Beginning in 1988, Cunningham published an […]

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Visions of Science: Epilogue

James A. Secord closes his Visions of Science (2014) with an Epilogue, concluding that the early decades of the nineteenth century was a “period of projections, projects, and prophesies, of attempts to imagine the future.” This was the promise of the new science. The technological innovations in printing, publication, and distribution diffused the message of […]

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Visions of Science: Thomas Carlyle

Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857), in his The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), proclaimed his era as “distinguished from every preceding age by an universal ardour of enterprise in arts and manufactures.” And of all the nations, “Great Britain may certainly continue to uphold her envied supremacy, sustained by her coal, iron, capital, and […]

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Visions of Science: George Combe

“Skulls do not lie.” That was the common motto among the phrenologists of the nineteenth century. In his sixth chapter to Visions of Science (2014), Secord examines the life and work of George Combe (1788-1858), the most read and well-known phrenologist of the nineteenth century. Most of what Secord writes in this chapter can be […]

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Visions of Science: Charles Lyell

James Secord opens his fifth chapter, which focuses on Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), by stating that geology had become the most contentious of the new sciences. But this requires some qualification. In Britain, where knowledge of the natural world was used to prove the existence, power, and wisdom of God, many leading […]

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Visions of Science: John Herschel

In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage ushered in the authority of astronomer John F.W. Herschel (1792-1871) as testimony that science in England was in decline. In a footnote to his article on “Sound” in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817-45), Herschel lamented about the “crude and undigested scientific matter” found […]

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Visions of Science: Charles Babbage

When he died, Charles Babbage (1791-1871), English polymath, mathematician, philosopher, engineer, and the “father of the computer,” donated one half of his brain to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it still sits in display today in the Hunterian Museum. The other half resides in the computing galleries of the Science Museum in London. Fittingly, […]

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Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

My Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to […]

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