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Enlightenment and Science

Winter 2021
Section: 01  
Crosslisting: SISP 261Z
Course Cluster and Certificates: Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory Certificate

This course will be a study of how we, as a society, have obtained our views on science. The class will concentrate on the positive and negative ways that twenty-first-century science and technology have been impacted by the Enlightenment. In general terms, the long-eighteenth-century European Enlightenment is taken to be the marker of the modern age--when modern science emerged. The time has now come for a reconsideration of the complexity of science and the scientific method during the Enlightenment as a means of comprehending its direct impact on the modern age in which we are living today. This class will focus overall on the strengths and weaknesses that modern science, technology, and thus society have inherited from the Enlightenment.

This is not wholly a story of science and technology in the West, but a World History story. This class will highlight test cases and ethical choices--to give two modern examples, decisions about resource allocation, that of fossil fuels and vaccines--that we are facing today. These choices are not made simply on scientific, logical lines but also according to the preferences of society. In order to understand our current situation, we must inform ourselves about how we arrived at this situation. Two centuries ago, without government or private sources of funding for science, the emphasis on immediate outcomes in science became common. Practitioners of science (the term "scientist" was not used until the nineteenth century) often had to be showmen to attract attention in order to get funding. Likewise, by the twenty-first century, it is now almost impossible for scientists to get grants for pure research; winning applications have to stress immediate public outcomes in order to get funded. This effectively puts a stopper into the very source of new scientific ideas--pure science--and of virtually all new scientific break throughs, and this is a world-wide trend in the sciences.

In this class, we will examine crucial examples of the key scientific subjects that emerged during the Enlightenment, and social and political responses to these same scientific discoveries, from both the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, which stressed religion over science. We will read responses from non-practitioners of science at the time--educated people trying to make sense of emerging modern science in the midst of politically and economic troubled times. There was, in the eighteenth century, no safety net--such as unemployment benefits--for those who wanted to practice science in a time that there were no jobs in science. There was certainly no safety net for rest of society either. The parallels to our own time are self-evident: political polarization, closely linked to radically different views toward science, in the midst of epidemics and widespread financial distress.

Emerging modern science in the long eighteenth century was relatively open to new types of people, not just new ideas. During the Enlightenment, science and technology were being advanced by artisans in addition to well-connected 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. Such accomplished women were rare during the Enlightenment but they should not be ignored. Margaret Cavendish, Emilie du Chatelet, and Caroline Herschel are prime examples of women practitioners of mathematics, physics, and astronomy respectively. Women were also the organizers of the intellectual salons in Paris and the political salons in London. In all these cases, even the political salons, science was discussed as a general topic of discussion, not just a subject for specialists. And those knowledgeable in the sciences were expected to make their work accessible to non-specialists. Later, however, the nineteenth-century professionalization of, and specialization in the sciences 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. Alas, it also resulted in the end of the belief that educated people outside of the sciences should know about it in order to be proper citizens. Overall, this class will address areas of commonality and difference between Enlightenment science and technology and modern science and technology, including lingering problems, as well as possible solutions suggested from past writings and experiences.

There will be many distinctive aspects of this class. One will be the intensive textual analysis of primary documents in class. Another will be the active participation of several guest speakers. There will also be a virtual visit to Special Collections, Olin Library, Wesleyan University.
Credit: 1 Gen Ed Area Dept: SBS HIST
Course Format: Lecture / DiscussionGrading Mode: Student Option
Level: UGRD Prerequisites: None
Fulfills a Major Requirement for: (CSCT)(HIST-MN)(HIST)(STS)
Past Enrollment Probability: Not Available

Last Updated on JUL-13-2024
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