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Enlightenment and Science

HIST 261
Spring 2020
Section: 01  
Certificates: Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory
Course Cluster: Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory Certificate, Christianity Studies

This course will examine the positive and negative ways that 21st-century science and technology have been impacted by the Enlightenment. In this earlier time, without government or private sources of funding for science, the emphasis on immediate outcomes became common. Practitioners of science often had to be showmen to attract attention in order to get funding. Through the study of contemporary news articles, this class will also consider such ethical choices, many of them to do with resource allocation, that we are facing in science, medicine, and technology today.

It has been assumed that the modern age was drawn from the scientific method and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment. It was Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire, both strong supporters of Isaac Newton, who, in the mid-18th century, chose the rational, scientific method as the marker of their intellectual age, the Enlightenment. This choice was adopted by their intellectual cohort, and in turn it was slowly accepted as the standard by European society overall. Thus Enlightenment science did not only lead to modern, 21st-century science, it also directly shaped modern attitudes toward the proper running of society and this continues until today. Yet, little work has been done on what it means to organize a society along scientific principles, especially given that this represented a sharp shift away from traditional decision-making on the state level, and a move towards secularization. How did this new, rational approach shift the priorities of European societies, particularly in terms of the distribution of resources?

In the 18th century, there was also a desire by educated readers who were not themselves practicing science to learn more about both the history of science and contemporary scientific discoveries. In this century, emerging modern science was relatively open to new types of people, not just new ideas. During the Enlightenment, science and technology were being advanced by artisans as well as privileged practitioners of science. Talented young men from less privileged backgrounds were, for the first time, slowly able to gain access to the major scientific circles during the Enlightenment. A surprising number of women (in a time when women had virtually no legal rights apart from their male relatives) were also active in scientific circles, perhaps most notably Margaret Cavendish, Émilie du Châtelet, and Caroline Herschel. Women were also the organizers of the intellectual salons in Paris and the political salons in London. In both cases, science was discussed as a normal topic of discussion, not just a subject for specialists. However, the professionalization and specialization of the sciences in the 19th century led to mixed results--it certainly allowed for a substantial increase in the scale of modern scientific work. Nevertheless, it also led to a less open attitude toward those not trained as scientists in the newly established manner. It also resulted in the end of educated people outside of the sciences considering science to be an area that they should know in order to be proper citizens, not just intellectuals.

For centuries it was assumed that the modern age was drawn from the scientific advances of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century. Then, in the last few decades, many scholars started to attack what has been called the Enlightenment Project with its wholesale emphasis on science and rationality. Others have found that there were also valuable nonscientific achievements in Europe during the Enlightenment. However, there is a need to bring the scientific method and the technological advances of the 18th century back into the conversation about the science of that time and then of our own time. Given that we now live in an age both bettered and dominated by science and technology, it is of paramount importance to understand the origins of modern science and technology.
Credit: 1 Gen Ed Area Dept: SBS HIST
Course Format: Lecture / DiscussionGrading Mode: Graded
Level: UGRD Prerequisites: None
Fulfills a Major Requirement for: (CSCT)(HIST-MN)(HIST)
Past Enrollment Probability: 90% or above

Last Updated on JUL-05-2020
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