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Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.

Recent works in the history of science have focused on communities of scientific practitioners and their relations to larger societies outside those communities. Golinski's purpose is to show that chemistry in Britain advanced not just by means of refinements in scientific method and instrumentation but also by the public discourse that shaped the discipline of chemistry, a discourse that was itself shaped by British society, and he achieves his purpose in a book that is a model of organization and clarity. The careers of William Cullen, Joseph Black, Joseph Priestley, and Humphrey Davy can now be seen as paradigms of a discipline that could only make its discoveries known and accepted by becoming part of public culture. The history of science is no longer the struggle of heroic individuals to force nature to reveal its secrets. Golinski demonstrates that scientific disciplines are not autonomous enterprises propelled simply by their internal logic, the need to resolve their unsolved problems. Those who practice the physical sciences are complex individuals who express the values, hopes, and fears of the societies in which they live, the immediate historical contexts for their scientific practices. Thanks to historians like Jan Golinski, as well as Simon Schaffer, Larry Stewart, and Steven Shapin, whose work Golinski acknowledges as critical to his own, the history of science is now an analytical tool that adds to our understanding of how societies function and change.

It is Golinski's thesis that chemistry in Britain began to emerge as a distinct discipline around the middle of the eighteenth century as part of the Enlightenment project to improve the human condition and contribute to the progress of civilization through the diffusion of new knowledge to an educated public. The distinct aims, methods, instruments, and language of chemistry developed largely as the result of the work of William Cullen and Joseph Black. That formation occurred within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Black and Cullen were associated with the University of Edinburgh, where the practice of chemistry was influenced by the norms of the larger society. The behavior of public men would be guided by concerns for personal moral responsibility and social progress. At mid-century, the audience for chemistry were the aristocrats and manufacturers who would gain the most from scientific discoveries and technical innovations.

A generation later, Joseph Priestley chose to conduct public experiments in the provinces, away from the centers of power. His lectures were open to anyone curious and intelligent enough to seek enlightenment, a very different practice from that of Cullen, for whom chemistry was "the study of a gentleman," or Black, who chose to train specialists at Edinburgh University rather than publish the results of his research. Priestley's decision to address a more "common" audience was consistent with his notion of the Enlightenment's agenda and his hopes for a more egalitarian society. He abhorred the gentlemen's agreement of the British scientific societies, established during the civil wars of the seventeenth century to avoid sectarian conflict, which dictated that one member's claims would not be publicly disputed by another member.

Just as Priestley's choice of audience was deliberate so is Golinski's decision to focus on chemistry's audiences and scientists' relations to those audiences. He argues, and demonstrates by his judicious use of contemporary documents, that the language of chemistry was critical to its success. Newspaper advertisements, posters displayed at lecture halls, accounts of lectures in popular magazines, even editorial cartoons illustrate Golinski's view that chemists convinced the British public of their discipline's value by the successful use of language to address the aspirations of educated lay people. By the time of the French Revolution, rhetorical devices and oratorical skills were as important to the success of chemistry as the manipulation of laboratory instruments.

Edmund Burke used his formidable rhetorical skills to arouse the British public's fears concerning the aims, methods, and possible consequences of the turmoil in France. Burke identified Priestley's public practice of chemistry with what he believed were the unrealistic, even destructive goals of the Enlightenment. Burke charged that "a hot spirit drawn out of the alembick of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling" threatened to cross the Channel and overturn the social order established by nature. He asserted that the English faced the same threat as the French, who "are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric." One result of Burke's hyperbole was Humphrey Davy's decision to establish a different relation with his audience from the one Priestley had enjoyed.

Priestley had objected to Lavoisier's reliance on the most expensive and elaborate instruments to achieve the most precise measurements possible. He had dismissed the French master's methods as aristocratic, closing an enterprise that ought to be public. Once the British newspapers and magazines took up Burke's arguments, reinforcing them with cartoons of Priestley as a puppet in the hands of French revolutionaries, Davy found it necessary to adopt the posture of an expert. His audiences sat in silence, overwhelmed by the presence of a genius. The replication of Priestley's experiments by amateurs, the audience's discussion of the validity of his methods and the meaning of his results, were not part of Davy's practice. Golinsky maintains that Davy's decision to address his audience as a passive, silent body was made as part of the larger effort of the English aristocracy to reinforce the notion that the existing social order was the work of nature.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, chemistry recovered its status as "the study of a gentleman." Davy lectured at the Royal Institution in London, to a group of aristocrats formed by Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. By 1829, Thomas Carlyle complained in "Signs of the Times" that science was no longer the work of individual geniuses but of scientific institutions. Thus, the practice of chemistry in Britain changed as its audience changed. Regrettably Golinski offers his readers no evidence to support his assertion that chemistry at the Royal Institute served the economic interests of its members. It is the only lapse in a book that is an important contribution to our understanding of how science functions as a part of society.

Hugh L. Guilderson Boston College
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Guilderson, Hugh L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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