The forces of reproduction. Meta/physics and insect sex in eighteenth-century entomology

In the early modern era, popular opinion on insect reproduction was largely based on the Aristotelian concept of ‘spontaneous generation’. Yet, in the seventeenth century, natural historians began to challenge this longstanding concept, which held that insects came into being out of mud, manure and other decaying matter. This theory was eventually discarded fully in the eighteenth century when a growing number of naturalists argued that copulation and functioning reproductive organs were indeed necessary for the creation of new insect life.

Insecto-theologia title page

Insecto-theologia (1738), title page.

Through microscopic observation and ‘experimental’ methods, scholars studied insect behaviour and reproductive cycles, and thereby altered understandings of sexual activity beyond the insect world. As many users of these techniques discovered reproductive organs and observed female and male insects actually engaging ‘in the act’, ‘spontaneous generation’ slowly vanished as an explanation for how ‘creepy crawlies’ came into the world. The recent work of Mary Terrall, Matthew Cobb, Erik Jorink, Brian Ogilvie, Marc Ratcliff and Thomas Ruhland among others has shown how the discussion on spontaneous generation is part and parcel of a more general history of observation in the emergent sciences.

Title page of the French edition

Title page of the French edition (1752).

Not surprisingly for scholars of the early modern world, theologians were an important group of actors in these processes (see Blair and von Greyerz). As is widely acknowledged, insects played an important role in physico-theology – or natural theology – and other religious texts around 1700. This has been studied comprehensively in the German context most recently by Anne-Charlott Trepp and Brian Ogilvie (both in Blair and von Greyerz, above). One central text in both authors’ work is Friedrich Christian Lesser’s Insecto-theologia from 1738. The text received widespread attention in the German-speaking lands, prompting a second edition in 1742. In the same year a French edition appeared with remarks by Pierre Lyonnet. This was then translated into Italian in 1751. Building on Trepp’s and Ogilvie’s œuvre, I will add a further perspective on natural theology, insects and science in the Enlightenment by focusing on how mating practices were described and reproductive organs depicted. The additional analysis of notions of force/power (Kraft) within these texts will further explain how the physical (in all senses of the word) was so important for the metaphysics of Enlightenment natural theology.

Lesser based his book to a great extent on Dutch scholars, like Jan Swammerdam, and used Baconian ‘new science’ for his argument for design – to use a slightly anachronistic term. As Anne-Charlott Trepp has shown, physico-theology replaced some of the dominant eschatological arguments of the seventeenth century with a new concern to prove God’s omnipotence and benevolence by looking at natural objects and finding order in nature. Jorink asserts that Swammerdam ‘was primarily guided by a prioris of a philosophical and theological kind’. One of these was that everything in nature, including the generation of insects, obeys God’s laws.

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece.

As with many of his fellow theologians in the eighteenth century, the study of the natural world became central to Lesser’s everyday life. The frontispiece clearly shows a naturalist at work in the familiar setting of the home.

It also already contains the important ‘maxima in minimis’ argument. He was of course certain that God’s power can be seen in the smallest worms as in the largest elephants. However, Lesser was convinced that this notion had not yet been sufficiently recognised among his fellow scholars in the republic of letters. Here he referred to the contemporary emphasis on physical experimentation in the creation of new knowledge, but made an interesting point regarding the social life of knowledge. According to him the above-mentioned attention deficit was not so contemptible in ‘people with untrained senses’ (‘Leute von ungeübten Sinnen’) but certainly scholars should not shy away from learned attention to the minuscule.

Friedrich Christian Lesser

Engraving of Friedrich Christian Lesser with an inscription by Johann Eustachius Goldhagen. (National Library of Denmark)

Lesser explicitly spoke of the creator’s ‘artistry’ in generating insects, such that even the smallest worm is made with such unattainable art that even the finest artist could not imitate it (Lesser, p.2), thereby echoing his Dutch predecessors and explicitly referring to William Derham in the corresponding footnote. Not surprisingly for a German author, the erudition is in the footnotes. He of course acknowledged previous work in his footnotes, and indeed most of the pages of the introduction are bibliographical references. Lesser’s description of Swammerdam’s scholarly practices are of special importance here because Lesser saw these as instrumental in the processes of knowledge formation. He went out himself to catch insects, collecting and nourishing them carefully. He constantly observed them, investigated their anatomy and had all their parts illustrated by an artist (p.27).

As in other realms of natural history, book learning and practical experience went hand in hand. Interestingly Lesser also specifically mentioned instruments and collections as the main tools of research in his introduction to Insecto-theologia. All these aspects are of course no surprise to historians of early modern science, but why did Lesser focus on generation to connect religion and natural history?

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee. (Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International, CC BY 4.0)

Lesser took his inspiration from scripture and literally the beginning of the creation myth. Referring to Genesis, Lesser claimed: ‘The almighty being that created insects through his almighty word, has given them the power through ordinary procreation to multiply and reproduce the species’ (p.37). In the following paragraph, he also recounted the ‘generationem aequivocam’ theory but refuted it clearly by confirming that the notion of insects generating from decaying matter was only formed because the ancient philosophers had not observed nature with enough attention to detail and so had not realised that insects did lay small eggs in such things as manure, flesh, etc. Modern philosophers (‘Neue Welt-Weise’) however had observed things with sharper eyes. He then described his predecessors’ observations in great detail, starting with Francesco Redi who conducted experiments in the 1660s. Revisiting Redi’s work, Emily C. Parke has recently shown that seventeenth-century ‘spontaneous generation’ was ‘not a single theory but rather a landscape of possible views’. This is also clearly visible in Lesser’s text. Accordingly, it exhibits the range of arguments and refutations in a variety of ways. Next to observation was reason of course spiced with long-standing conventions like the important ‘chain of being’ assumption. For Lesser it would be ‘against all reason’ if plants, which are on a lower scale than animals, could bring forth insects.

Clearly, not only observation but also tradition, especially classical authors and scripture itself, was proof that the sexual act was indeed necessary. Returning to Genesis, Lesser maintained that God had given every living organism the power (Kraft) to procreate and this was true for insects too: ‘that this almighty word was extended to the insects’ procreation through insemination, as in all other animals’ (Lesser, p.41). The power/force (Kraft) metaphor recurs persistently in Lesser’s work and certainly has some connection to the important concept of force in Newtonian physics, connecting early modern natural history to natural philosophy or physics.

Combining this with observation again, Lesser stressed that one can see the ‘proper body-parts for siring and giving birth’ in insects as well as the eggs from which they spring. He described the basics of animal mating in a distinct chapter on proliferation and started this with a definition on how procreation works. Lesser clearly favoured the sperm over the egg. He also compared insects to human beings and other animals and described the two practices of mating he knew about: either insects mated belly to belly or from behind. But as the observation of insect copulation was one of the main problems in eighteenth-century entomology, as Mary Terrall has recently shown, it is not surprising that Lesser did speak at lengths about eggs when writing about what was actually observed: the generation of insects from ova.

He provides lots of details, and describes male and female organs thus: ‘The male member can be found mostly at the rump but sometimes also on the abdomen. They also have their rod and testicles. The size of those vary according to the size of the insects themselves. The vulva on the female insect is rough in order to prevent chafing of this tender element during intercourse. Ordinarily it is placed at the rump but sometimes also at the upper parts of the abdomen’ (p.268-69). Lesser’s detailed description of genitalia is astounding not only because of the religious nature of his text, but also because 65 years later one of the most important entomologists of the later eighteenth century rejected any attention to genitalia in natural history. In 1803 Johann Christian Fabricius – often called the Linnaeus of insects – wrote an important article in one of the earliest specialised entomology journals (‘Vertheidigung des fabricischen Systems’, Magazin für Insektenkunde 2 (1803), p.1-13).

Addressing his critics, he explained why his taxonomic system that was based on the mouthparts of insects was the best despite its flaws. First, genitalia are often too small to observe properly and second, echoing Linnaeus, he argued that inquiry into genitals was abominable and displeasing (‘Genitalium disquisitio abominabilis displicet’, Fabricius, p.5). This may come as a surprise to historians of eighteenth-century botany who are fully aware that Linnaeus based his plant taxonomy on the reproductive organs of plants. It is very difficult to ascertain why both Linnaeus and Fabricius made this statement, but one explanation might be a differentiation between flora and fauna where the morphology of the former was different enough from human reproductive organs. And although anthropomorphism was popular in botany and Linnaeus’s sexual system was severely criticised precisely for its attention to reproduction, non-human animals seem to have been more closely connected to a discussion of human sexuality.

Again, insects are used for understanding human behaviour. Apparently Linnaeus’s ‘nosce te ipsum’ had put humans firmly in the animal kingdom. Of course this was further developed in the nineteenth century. We know that the Victorians were obsessed with sex – as was the Enlightenment. In 1820 Johannes Jacob Hegetschweiler could publish a dissertation in Zurich that was concerned with insect genitalia (‘Dissertatio inauguralis zootomica de insectorum genitalibus’). Hence Fabricius’s dictum about genitals being abominable did not hold for long. Genitals are indeed one of the important characteristics of differentiating between insect species today.

Dominik Hünniger, Universität Hamburg

Dominik is author of the chapter ‘Inveterate travellers and travelling invertebrates’, in the edited volume Interspecies Interactions: Animals and Humans between the Middle Ages and Modernity’, ed. Sarah Cockram and Andrew Wells (Routledge, 2017).

Artifex quidam nomine Newton

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium, t.1, page de titre. (Google Books)

Dans la première réédition des Lettres philosophiques parue en 1739, Voltaire a remplacé la dernière phrase de la XVIe Lettre ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ par les lignes suivantes: ‘Il était encore peu connu en Europe quand il fit cette découverte. J’ai vu un petit livre composé environ ce temps-là dans lequel, en parlant du télescope de Newton, on le prend pour un lunetier: Artifex quidam Anglus nomine Newton. La renommée l’a bien vengé depuis.’[1]

Gustave Lanson avait cherché en vain la source du syntagme latin que Voltaire répétera à chaque nouvelle édition jusqu’en 1756. Nous savons désormais qu’il l’a déniché dans l’ouvrage très technique d’un savant prémontré (et non jésuite, comme il l’écrira en 1756[2]), le bavarois Johann Zahn (1641-1707), publié à Würzburg en trois tomes en 1685-1686 sous le titre Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium. Dans cette nouvelle fin de la XVIe Lettre, Voltaire observe avec étonnement que la renommée de Newton, déjà bien établie en Angleterre grâce à son télescope et ses recherches sur la lumière publiées en 1672 et 1675, était encore inexistante sur le continent au moment où Zahn publia son ‘petit livre’ – un in-quarto de 181 pages tout de même. Alors que Voltaire a consacré, dans la première version de 1734, pas moins de trois lettres aux grandes découvertes de Newton, mentionnant comme en passant son invention du télescope à réflexion, cette invention acquiert de plus en plus d’importance dans les versions ultérieures grâce à l’immortelle formule du prémontré bavarois: Anglus quidam artifex Newtonus (Oculus artificialis, t.3, p.151).

Newtonian telescope

Réplique du télescope que Newton présenta à la Royal Society en 1672. (Wikimedia Commons, © Andrew Dunn)

De 1739 à 1756, ce syntagme latin revient avec insistance, mais la signification symbolique dont il est chargé change selon le contexte. En 1739, Voltaire peut se flatter d’avoir contribué à la renommée dont Newton commence à jouir sur le continent, mais un patriotisme étroit et borné continue de rejeter les découvertes du savant anglais pour des raisons mesquines de fierté nationale. Attaqué par le cartésien Banières d’être mauvais Français, Voltaire répond dans l’édition de 1742 que la renommée du ‘lunetier’ n’est plus à faire.

En 1751, Newton a définitivement gagné la partie mais l’affrontement entre les philosophes et leurs adversaires a commencé. Ceux-ci sont loin de confondre Newton avec un lunetier, mais lui intentent un procès en athéisme. Au moment où paraît le Discours préliminaire de D’Alembert, il ne s’agit plus de défendre Descartes contre Newton ni la France contre l’Angleterre, mais la nouvelle philosophie, dont les hérauts s’appellent Newton, Locke, Clarke et Leibniz.

En 1756, Voltaire modifie les lettres sur Newton une dernière fois, et de façon radicale: toute la partie scientifique est supprimée. Face au triomphe de Newton en France, il estime probablement que ses explications ne font plus le poids. Qui plus est, Voltaire a commencé à prendre ses distances avec la ‘métaphysique’ de Newton, attitude qui s’accentuera dans les années qui vont suivre.[3] Dans un court morceau intitulé sobrement ‘De Newton’, les trois découvertes du savant anglais sont ramassées dans un court paragraphe, puis Voltaire passe à l’invention du télescope à réflexion, à laquelle il accorde deux fois plus de place qu’au calcul infinitésimal, à l’attraction et à la lumière.

Ce qui reste, c’est l’ouvrier Newton, le faiseur de lunettes, artifex quidam. Voltaire avait le don de repérer et d’exploiter le détail qui fait mouche: après la pomme et le prisme, l’artifex quidam du prémontré bavarois Zahn s’est taillé une place de choix dans l’imaginaire scientifique voltairien.[4]

– Gerhardt Stenger

[1] Lettres philosophiques, suivies des Derniers écrits sur Dieu, éd. Gerhardt Stenger (Paris, 2006), p.170, var. b.

[2] Ibid., p.293.

[3] Voir l’introduction à notre édition des Lettres philosophiques, p.50-57.

[4] Voir notre article ‘Artifex quidam nomine Newton: à propos de la XVIe Lettre philosophique de Voltaire’ à paraître dans la Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France en novembre 2020.


When volcanoes erupted with meaning

When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010 it threw up a huge, glass-rich ash plume nine kilometres into the sky, penetrating the jet stream which then swept the volcanic debris south-eastwards over most of Europe. European air space was closed down, stranding approximately ten million passengers over six days at a cost of £130 million per day to the aviation industry. It disrupted the funeral of the Polish president and general election campaigning in Scotland, and brought blissful quiet to residents around Heathrow and other major European hubs. Ironically, the noxious gas-spewing volcano actually reduced air pollution by grounding planes for nearly a week. Among both witnesses to the eruption and those marooned by its billowing ash-clouds, it also produced a lot of stories (as well as a plotline for a 2013 French comedy).

Image of Eyjafjallajökull during its eruptions in 2010. (“14.05.10 | Eyjafjallajökull” by @dyntr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yet these twenty-first-century anecdotes pale in comparison to the production of eighteenth-century ‘eruption narratives’ related by voluble, scribbling travellers of both sexes on the Grand Tour, socializing in Naples and picnicking on the burning flanks of Vesuvius or, more rarely, Etna. These breathless travelogues outnumber the more measured texts written by scientists on the same slopes, although both frequently draw on the reports diligently sent to the Royal Society by the most famous volcanologist of the age, Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In fact, scrambling up volcanoes became a form of secular ‘pilgrimage’ for natural historians such as Lazzaro Spallanzani who scoured the volcanoes of southern Italy from 1788 to 1790. Eruptions, then, produced not just tephra but texts. But they also drew artists to their brilliant blaze, establishing a lucrative industry in Naples for painters like Pierre Jacques Volaire, who would trim Vesuvius’s natural sublimity to populate its foreground with his patrons in tiny silhouette against the yellow fountains and scarlet streams of lava.

The erupting volcano became such a ubiquitous image in eighteenth-century Europe that, even for those who hadn’t seen one in person, it gave material form to their various philosophies of ‘enlightenment’. For physico-theologists, it provided a fizzling foretaste of the fiery Second Coming; for providentialists, it stood as a safety-valve defusing the globe’s dangerous internal fires – the work of a beneficent God; and for deists and materialists, its immemorially ancient layers of lava challenged Biblical chronologies of the Earth. Yet for all its ‘enlightenment(s)’, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested, the volcano atavistically divided its devotees into two camps: the Promethean and the Empedoclean – those who were afraid of it but looked to master its fire, and those who adored it, seeking a form of mystical union in its flames. On a political level, we can see this mythical conflict between Prometheus and Empedocles play out in the French Revolution, between those keen to curb the explosive forces of the ‘volcano of Revolution’, as Edmund Burke put it, and those who embraced its red-hot heat, stoking it to ever more violent conflagration. So when Vesuvius erupted terrifyingly in June 1794 at the height of the Terror, it seemed to many contemporaries that the physical and the political volcanoes were in league. Yet Vesuvius’s tremendous blast of that year was not the greatest of the century: for that we have to return to Iceland eleven years earlier for the cataclysmic eruption of Laki. We now have a clear scientific vision of Icelandic volcanism, the product of the island straddling the great Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates diverge. But in 1783, the eight-month outpouring of lava, ash and gas from the 27-kilometre-long Laki fissure dismayed contemporaries as it too (like Eyjafjallajökull’s ash plume in 2010) injected megatons of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide into the lower stratosphere, cloaking western Europe in a deadly pall. A stifling summer was followed by a Siberian winter, killing hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock. Laki too produced stories – both intimate personal testimony from Icelandic survivors such as the so-called Fire Priest Jón Steingrímsson, and speculative climate theories involving comets, electricity, subterranean gases and the Calabrian earthquake of February that year.

My study ranges over all of these fields of volcanic meaning-making in order to show how the volcano articulated the fantasies and fears of eighteenth-century Europe. But in weaving these diverse narratives together, it also looks to contextualize and counter the dominance of a largely scientific conception of volcanism. At precisely the point where some situate the birth of the Anthropocene and others the emergence of the hierarchical dualisms of culture/nature and sciences/humanities, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe seeks to revise these notions in light of the volcano as it is also constructed in local lore, travellers’ tales and as iconic object, figure of religious or humanistic transcendence or political master-metaphor.

– David McCallam, Sheffield University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. David McCallam is the author of Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe: An Essay in Environmental Humanities which is the first book to examine European volcanoes in the period in the full range of their physical and figurative manifestations and is the July volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series.

‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution’

Must they? Ian Hamilton Finlay is the author of this startling command. It is one of his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998): Finlay was a concrete poet and artist who developed a now-renowned garden by the name of Little Sparta, just to the south of Edinburgh, from the late 1960s onwards. His work, we read, is characterised by an ‘unwavering engagement with the relationship between civilisation and violence’, which his curious ‘detached sentence’ presumably illustrates in the way it connects the garden centre to the Jacobin Club and thence to ‘the new Revolution’. Yet it still seems rather hard to perceive the route from political engagement to garden centre.

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock (1760).

Finlay was, it appears, directly influenced in the form and subject of his ‘detached sentences’ by William Shenstone’s Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764). Shenstone was a poet, landowner and landscape gardener. Consultation of his Unconnected Thoughts does not reveal a revolutionary, but it does reveal a dogmatist who opposes the straight line. Not for him the admiration Montaigne expresses in his essay ‘Des Coches’ (On Coaches) for the straight, wide, paved, walled, tree-lined, stream-washed and generally highly usable road linking Quito to Cusco. Shenstone, on the contrary, slams ‘strait-lined avenues’ as giving ‘actual pain to a person of taste’. He singles out two ‘famous vistas’, one in Russia and the other in India, for his particular ire, and this is the comparison he makes: ‘For [a person of taste] to be condemned to pass along the famous vista from Moscow to Petersburg, or that other from Agra to Lahore in India, must be as disagreeable a sentence, as to be condemned to labour at the gallies.’ What, really? Here we find taste and politics brought together with a vengeance. This nasty brew of British imperial superciliousness is so potent, so intoxicating, that it enables Shenstone to use his reference to a vicious penal system as part of a pithy put-down of other tastes, other cultures, other countries. On he goes, empathising with the experience of the galley convict: ‘I conceived some idea of the sensation he must feel’, he says, ‘from walking but a few minutes, immured, betwixt lord D’s high-shorn yew hedges.’

And here, in amongst Lord D’s hedges, is where I ended up, not along a straight line, but after several diversions and detours as pleasingly various as anything the disagreeable Shenstone might have endorsed, and understanding rather better than before how civilization and violence might come together in a garden prospect.

Where I started off was, however, somewhere else entirely: I gave a paper last May at the Voltaire Foundation’s Enlightenment Workshop, run by Nicholas Cronk and Avi Lifschitz. I was talking about eighteenth-century French materialist thought upstream and downstream of Diderot. I was wondering about style and voice and recognisability, and I was trying to understand whether materialist thought – that beast so loathed and reviled by the censoring authorities that it had to go about in disguise, or at least its authors did – had other ways of making itself visible and ensuring its perpetuation. I was wondering whether the repetition of arguments or examples might be part of that, and whether, if what you’re looking at is the ongoing flow of collective voices, it is legitimate or even possible to identify particular ones within the flow.

Basically, I was trying to understand whether Diderot’s late medico-philosophical text the Eléments de physiologie was or was not being cited in Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s; I was also trying to understand what sort of arguments or tools I could use to find this out, given the wall-to-wall silence regarding it; and finally, I was trying to understand whether there’s something somehow against-the-grain in my approach, given that materialist thought tends to privilege connections and the ebb-and-flow of the whole, and does not see any one part as meaningful when separated from any of the rest (thereby interestingly meeting a historicist approach to texts and contexts). Diderot’s work shows this over and over, whether we’re looking at bees in a swarm, an organ in a body, a workman and his loom, a hanger-on in a society of sycophants, or indeed at matter in the universe. And there you have it: the problem in a nutshell. Nobody apart from Diderot writes about this so imaginatively, so interestingly, so self-reflexively. And he’s the one talking about inseparability, the whole being greater than the part, and so on. Back to square one.

Square one, in fact, is that Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie is supposed to be fragmentary and unfinished. You know why? Because he said so, in the preface, in which he describes himself as already dead, and having failed to assemble these promising fragments into a complete text before sadly perishing. Strangely and/or hilariously and/or entirely understandably, this claim has always been taken at face value. Understandably, because it reappears verbatim in his disciple Naigeon’s Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Diderot (1823), which Diderot scholars always seem to take literally, drawing on it as an eye-witness source of factual information. Of course Naigeon was simply quoting Diderot’s own preface, not that anyone has noticed. Fragments, then: why is Diderot focusing on fragments? What is a fragment? Something unfinished, something detached (as in Finlay’s work), or unconnected (as in Shenstone’s)? Something – an element – that’s defined by its relation to the whole of which it is part and without which it has no meaning?

This is what Laura Ouillon, graduate student at the ENS Lyon, disputed. She heard about my paper from Ilya Afanasyev, a medievalist historian specialising in questions of nation and identity who attended the Enlightenment Workshop. Laura is working on Ian Hamilton Finlay, and she sent me her dissertation, ‘Mémoire et Expérience de/à Little Sparta: Le Jardin de pensée selon Ian Hamilton Finlay’, thereby introducing me to his writing, his art and his gardens. Laura is a specialist on British contemporary art, and hopes to pursue her initial work on Finlay in a doctoral thesis. She suggests that we consider the experience of the fragment as an experience in itself, as something that expresses the possibility of sharing and association, of ‘re-membering’, that even invites it. In Finlayan language, the fragment is a crucial brick in the process of bricolage, so beautifully explained by the late lamented Chris Johnson. Or as illustrated in concrete terms here by Finlay himself, with reference to the Jacobin and revolutionary Saint-Just, minus the garden centre. Or did he mean that the garden itself is a centre, a hub of new elements, new fragments?

Little Sparta

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Thinking about connections, juxtaposition and flow, all such crucial aspects of eighteenth-century materialist thought, even if the gorgeous notion of bricolage was not then available, one wonders what sorts of connections there are between the materialism of then and the materialism of now, and what happens if one puts their writing together. Do current theoreticians of materialism, the new materialists, with their intermediary experience of Marxism, think about eighteenth-century materialist writing, Diderot, his upstream and downstream, at all? Of course they have a dense relationship to the tradition via Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault too. Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, important feminist philosopher and articulator of the new materialism, says this about the body. It is:

‘A piece of meat activated by electric waves of desire, a text written by the unfolding of genetic encoding. Neither a sacralised inner sanctum nor a pure socially shaped entity, the enfleshed Deleuzian subject is rather an ”in-between”: it is a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects. A mobile entity, an enfleshed sort of memory that repeats and is capable of lasting through sets of discontinuous variations, while remaining faithful to itself. The Deleuzian body is ultimately an embodied memory.’ [1]

I like what she says, and I like her philosophical verbosity, her urgency. But is what she says new, exactly? It sounds continuous with what we read in the Eléments de physiologie:

‘La douleur, le plaisir, la sensibilité, les passions, le bien ou le malaise, les besoins, les appétits, les sensations intérieures et extérieures, l’habitude, l’imagination, l’instinct, l’action propre des organes, commandent à la machine et lui commandent involontairement’ (Pain, pleasure, sensibility, the passions, well-being or discomfort, needs, appetites, internal and external sensations, habit, imagination, instinct, and the natural functioning of the organs, they all command the machine, and do so involuntarily) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on free will).

And in this context, what the self is, is memory. Thus: ‘la mémoire constitue le soi’ (memory constitutes the self) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on memory). What Braidotti says, therefore, sounds more like an iteration in modern philosophical language, a renewal of the sort of thing we find in Diderot, than something completely new. As Braidotti herself says, ‘I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit.’ She then confesses that her ‘personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot‘ (p.28).

How great that the affinity is recognised, even if these earlier texts are somehow downgraded, made inferior, relegated to a ‘minor tradition’? What does it matter that she engages with Diderot via the charming title of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s famous study, rather than directly with his words, he not being very likely to use the vocabulary of enchantment or magic in this context? What does it matter that Braidotti’s description of the body seems like a new version of something pretty old? What does it matter whether she knows she’s doing it or not? What does it matter if the point is simply that the collective voice is managing to make itself heard?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if an individual contribution is overlooked, but that it does matter if this new materialism preaches collective connectivity while conceptualising it in a flat or forward-facing time frame of now and novelty. That would be a weakness, a failure to acknowledge that connections can made backwards in time as well as sideways in space, a failure to explore the richness of retrospective ‘re-membering’ bricolage. Perhaps all we need to do is to encourage new materialists to do more of the revisiting Braidotti proposes, and rather less of the hierarchical arrangement of ‘traditions’ into ‘minor’ and ‘major’. Because who knows what might happen when you combine elements or place fragments in a new way? You might make new connections, new associations. You might even end up in a garden centre, having started off with Diderot. It might be an experience all of its own.

– Caroline Warman

[1] Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook (Edinburgh, 2000), p.156-72 (p.159), quoted in ‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor, 2012), p.19-37 (p.19).

Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’ [1]

Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753), by François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard.

The French natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’ [2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better than, the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption, which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practice, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s in terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018).

The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in Western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one – but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.), vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th-century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Elizabeth Blackwell, ‘The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus’. Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739). (Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the ‘care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.’ Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life. But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the ‘rise’ of large-scale processes – the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies – obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like ‘The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight’.  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the ‘New Science’, which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author, Denys Van Renen, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.

Fausser le climat pour mieux s’exprimer? Stratégies de discours dans la philosophie politique de la Renaissance aux Lumières

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573).

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573). Courtesy of (CC by 4.0).

Pour expliquer l’hypothèse de lecture de mon livre, Les Climats du pouvoir: rhétorique et politique chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, je voudrais me référer à la blague suivante, tirée d’un article du Dictionnaire de Trévoux:

‘Le froid, dans le figuré, est une métaphore établie; mais il ne faut point qu’elle passe les bornes: & l’Italien qui disoit à son retour de Pologne, que les personnes de ce pays-là étoient si froides, que leur conversation l’avoit enrhumé, outrait la métaphore.’ (‘Froid’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux)

Durant l’Ancien Régime, la popularité des discours climatologiques et déterministes tenait non seulement aux effets de science qu’ils apportaient à la conversation mais à leur flexibilité rhétorique. C’est pourquoi il faut noter la sagesse de l’article ‘Froid’ du Dictionnaire de Trévoux qui ironise sur la facilité des corrélations à laquelle la logique déterministe peut trop souvent donner lieu. Entre la température et le tempérament, le potentiel rhétorique des associations fait voir un glissement métaphorique qu’on peut aisément exagérer ou dissimuler à des fins multiples. Dans mon livre, qui porte sur les appropriations politiques du climat, le but n’est pas nécessairement de faire rire. Mais on retrouve le même écart créatif à l’égard de cette théorie prétendument scientifique.

C’est un ludisme qui échappe parfois aux analyses, surtout en raison du passé controversé des théories des climats. Celles-ci ne méritent souvent que des explications historiques et épistémologiques. On considère souvent le discours comme une erreur de l’époque, comme si son ‘primitivisme’ ou manque de rigueur scientifique neutralisait quelque peu sa charge ethnocentrique. D’où la tendance à expliquer les différentes versions de la théorie en bloc, en fonction d’une épistémè qui n’est plus la nôtre, mais qui entrent dans une généalogie de nos origines et de nos progrès scientifiques. Ainsi, Bodin croyait à la théorie des climats à cause des influences de la cosmologie; Montaigne et La Mothe Le Vayer y recouraient grâce à l’ouverture chorographique (géographie axée sur la description) fournie par les récits de voyage et ainsi de suite. Toutefois, de telles lectures désamorcent le déterminisme climatique et le neutralisent par l’explication. Ainsi, en soumettant le discours à des déterminismes épistémologiques, on risque de passer sous silence les logiques internes du discours, c’est-à-dire leur créativité propre.

C’est ici que je voudrais dégager l’ironie des théories des climats. Chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, les théories des climats s’avèrent conscientes d’elles-mêmes ainsi que des erreurs géographiques qu’elles véhiculent. Autrement dit, les discours des climats ne sont pas nécessairement une chasse gardée pour les historiens de la science. Dans le cas des appropriations politiques, ils peuvent jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la structure argumentative de l’ouvrage et inviter à des usages métaphoriques. Mon livre propose une lecture en profondeur de ces arguments, tant sur la forme que sur le fond, les reliant aux grandes théories politiques de la période: la souveraineté, le constitutionnalisme et le républicanisme. J’avance que l’usage créatif du discours climatique révèle différents niveaux de lecture et différents types de lecteurs.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (anonymous portrait, 1728). Public domain.

Pour revenir à la blague du Trévoux, il faut cependant convenir que, contrairement à la voix narrative qui annonce l’humour du ‘rhume’, les corrélations température-tempérament des déterminismes climatiques tendent à estomper leurs marques énonciatives. La tentative est de confiner à une vérité scientifique. La dimension rhétorique se dissimule derrière l’observation empirique. De là, le discours se réclame d’une vérité physique, des observations avérées par la connaissance géographique, pour objectiver une position scientifique, que mon étude explique, de différentes manières, comme un homme de paille. C’est ce voile de la ‘scientificité’ qui abrite une stratégie détournée ou ‘ésotérique’ (Leo Strauss) de représenter le pouvoir. Moins des ‘caractères’ sociologiques ou des indices de la diversité humaine, les climats cachent une philosophie du pouvoir. Une grande partie de mes analyses expliquent le pourquoi de cette dissimulation que les théories de Strauss – mais aussi l’héritage des miroirs des princes – aident à structurer. Pour les modèles gouvernementaux et absolutistes de l’Ancien Régime, le discours climatique sera envisagé en tant qu’un idiome destiné aux législateurs, qui imite le manque de transparence de leur pouvoir, c’est-à-dire les arcana imperii, afin de mieux les influencer.

– Richard Spavin

Globalising knowledge in the eighteenth century: the Linnaean story

Iter Hispanicum

A copy of Linnaeus’s student Pehr Löfling’s posthumously published work Iter Hispanicum that once belonged to the prominent Spanish-Colombian botanist José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) (Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia, F. Mutis 2996).

One of the most familiar chapters in the history of early modern science is the birth, expansion and global deployment of Linnaean natural history from the 1730s onwards. It is a compelling story that begins with a gifted and determined young man of obscure background who became obsessed with botany and, eventually, the classification of all living things. At a time of epistemological crisis caused by the rapidly growing mass of information in Europe about plants and animals across the world, it was Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who succeeded in establishing a universal system of classification. He also prescribed procedures and methods for observing, describing, collecting, transporting and displaying specimens, and for scientific travel, the teaching of future naturalists and ways of organising botanical gardens. In this narrative Linnaeus was the princeps botanicorum, the ‘Prince of Botanists’, whose ideas – initially resisted – soon conquered Europe and the world. To this day the publication of his global flora Species Plantarum in 1753, in which Linnaeus launched his new binary names for plants (and later animals), is considered to be the beginning of the history of modern botanical nomenclature.

While there are some unique elements in this story, it is also very familiar in more ways than one. It conforms to a narrative and explanatory model that, for a long time, shaped much scholarship on the history of science – be it early modern, modern or contemporary – and that is sometimes labelled as the ‘diffusionist model’: one associated with the notion of ‘the great men of science’. It is a view of science, or of intellectual history more generally, marked by a belief in the importance of individual, inventive minds in the creation of new ideas that spread outwards to the four corners of the world. More specifically, in this (Western) historiographical tradition, Europe has tended to be the birthplace of ‘great ideas’ of ‘great men’, illuminating the world’s dark peripheries.

Dutch naturalist Laurens Theodorus Gronovius

Dutch naturalist Laurens Theodorus Gronovius (1730–1777) and his two sons surrounded by natural history objects in a portrait by Isaac Lodewijk la Fargue van Nieuwland from 1775 (Lakenhal Museum, Leiden/Wikimedia Commons).

This view has been radically challenged over the last few decades by a revival in history of science research, where the perspective is instead one of emphasising the circulation of knowledge as a collaborative, multidirectional process in which people, objects, practices and ideas are constantly on the move, or, as James Secord has put it, ‘in transit’.[1] The field of Linnaean natural history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a prime example of this, since it provides an extraordinarily fertile ground for exploring how knowledge is constantly (re)produced and (re)negotiated through travel and interaction in local and national contexts that spanned, and often connected, the globe.

Our edited book Linnaeus, natural history and the circulation of knowledge sets out to globalise our understanding of Linnaean science. ‘Globalising’ should be understood here in a broad sense as a process that encompasses several different dimensions. Firstly, Linnaean natural history was a collective and collaborative enterprise and not the work of one man; in other words we need to de-centre Linnaeus himself from his traditional role as ‘the great man of science’. Secondly, Linnaean science was not merely a set of ideas and abstract principles, since it largely consisted of and was shaped by materiality and practices. And thirdly, ideas as well as practices were continually renegotiated in spatially diverse contexts that were both local and global.

This means that Linnaean science became the vehicle for a wide range of objectives – colonial and national as well as individual – and it was also a means of communication, a reason to make contact with others, a system for organising knowledge and much more. Therefore studying Carl Linnaeus himself as well as his works, his students, his readers and his legacy is ultimately a way of understanding the increasingly global circulation of knowledge that marked the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. For example, this circulation can be traced by investigating the collaborative dimension of ‘doing’ natural history. Notes on loose paper slips, and questions raised and answered in footnotes of new editions of books, tell stories about everyday taxonomic toil and delayed dialogues between naturalists working in different countries. Local and economic histories help cast further light on receptions of, resistance to, and survival of Linnaean taxonomy in north-west Europe. Marked-up prices for collections with a Linnaean provenance rendered them worth conserving – consequently they survived to become reference material in the ongoing exploration of nature. Intellectual histories and biographies offer other means of understanding change and movement. In this book we use Carl Linnaeus as a label and a starting-point from which we have traced the journeys of ideas, objects and individuals across the globe.

– Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg and Stéphane Van Damme

[1] James Secord, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis, 95:4 (2004), p.654-72.

Les Singularités de la nature

Note manuscrite

Note manuscrite de Voltaire dans l’Histoire naturelle de Buffon, 15 vol. (Paris, 1749-1767), BV572, cote 6-295, t.1, face à la page 64 (Bibliothèque nationale de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg).

On ne se trompera pas beaucoup en affirmant que Les Singularités de la nature sont l’œuvre de Voltaire la plus méconnue – que ceux qui l’ont lue en entier ou à peu près lèvent la main! Les critiques les mieux disposés à l’égard du philosophe la couvrent d’un voile pudique et passent leur route, accréditant un peu plus l’image caricaturale faite d’idées reçues et de jugements à l’emporte-pièce et parfaitement résumée dans cette déclaration d’Emile Guyénot: ‘Il est vraiment difficile de dissimuler sous des prétentions à l’esprit autant d’ignorance, de mauvaise foi, de suffisance et de simple bêtise’.[1] On trouvera d’autres citations du même acabit dans l’édition critique qui vient de paraître (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, t.65B) et qui, espérons-le, rendra enfin justice à l’auteur des Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (OCV, t.15), qui ne fut pas moins ‘homme de science’ qu’un Diderot par exemple.

Il est vrai que Voltaire commit le crime de lèse-majesté de se moquer de Buffon – la pertinence de ses critiques s’impose pourtant à tout lecteur impartial au regard de certaines extravagances de sa Théorie de la Terre assénées comme des quasi-vérités – et de s’opposer au clan holbachique – non pas parce qu’il ‘défendait sa foi’ comme le prétendait Jacques Roger,[2] mais parce qu’il mettait en cause l’abus des systèmes au nom de l’esprit critique. Conseillant la plus grande retenue face à des phénomènes qui dépassent l’homme, Voltaire reproche aux philosophes et aux hommes de science de plier la réalité, et surtout la réalité inconnaissable, à des théories hasardeuses: ‘Je m’en rapporte toujours à la nature qui en sait plus que nous et je me défie de tous les systèmes. Je ne vois que des gens qui se mettent sans façon à la place de Dieu, qui veulent créer un monde avec la parole’.[3]

Les Colimaçons

Les Colimaçons du révérend père l’Escarbotier, nouvelle édition (1769), page de titre (détail) (Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire, cote D Colimaçons 1769/1).

Les soi-disant ‘singularités de la nature’ – des phénomènes comme les pierres figurées, les polypes, les fossiles etc. – ne sont que des singularités, des espèces de jeux de la nature; elles ne se laissent pas intégrer dans un système ni ne permettent d’édifier une énième théorie de la nature. Voltaire appartient à ce qu’Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, dans sa controverse avec Georges Cuvier, appelait dédaigneusement l’‘école des faits’: il demande dans tous les sujets une clarté complète, il lui faut des vérités démontrées jusqu’à l’évidence.[4] On a non sans raison reproché à Voltaire son ‘hypercritique’ qui le portait à maintenir obstinément des positions contre toute évidence, comme dans le cas des coquilles fossiles dont l’origine naturelle organique essentiellement marine fut admise par la communauté scientifique dans la première moitié du dix-huitième siècle.

Au jugement de Condorcet son disciple, Voltaire a écrit bien des sottises en matière scientifique, mais il a eu un immense mérite, celui de la méthode: ‘il y règne cette philosophie modeste qui craint d’affirmer quelque chose au-delà de ce qu’apprennent les sens et le calcul’. C’est l’essentiel, ‘car les erreurs particulières sont peu dangereuses, et ce sont seulement les fausses méthodes qui sont funestes’.[5] Si la prudence excessive de Voltaire l’a parfois empêché d’admettre des vues justes et profondes dont la plupart n’étaient alors qu’hypothétiques, s’il a poussé quelquefois la mauvaise foi jusqu’à nier l’évidence, son profond scepticisme lui a épargné aussi maintes erreurs. Mais apparemment valait-il mieux avoir tort avec Buffon que raison avec Voltaire.

Page de titre

Page de titre de Réflexions sur une brochure intitulée Les Singularités de la nature, par M. de Voltaire (s.l., 1775) (Bibliothèque municipale de Lille).

Le volume comprend, outre la première édition critique des Singularités de la nature, Les Colimaçons du révérend père L’Escarbotier, une courte satire écrite la même année 1768 dans laquelle Voltaire fait discuter un capucin auvergnat et un pédant thomiste sur les amours des escargots et sur l’âme des bêtes. En annexe, le lecteur trouvera pour la première fois le texte intégral d’un manuscrit du naturaliste Jean-Etienne Guettard, découvert par Patricia Crépin-Obert en 2005, qui contient l’ébauche d’une réfutation des premiers chapitres des Singularités de la nature, ainsi que deux chapitres d’un ouvrage rarissime et totalement inconnue jusqu’alors, les Réflexions sur une brochure intitulée: Les Singularités de la nature, par M. de Voltaire du chanoine naturaliste Georges Wartel, paru en 1775.

– Gerhardt Stenger

[1] Correspondance inédite entre Réaumur et Abraham Trembley, éd. Maurice Trembley, Introduction par Emile Guyénot (Genève, 1943), p.xxxvii.

[2] Jacques Roger, Les Sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1963), p.748.

[3] Lettre de Voltaire à Félix François Le Royer d’Artezet de La Sauvagère, 25 octobre 1770, D16727.

[4] Voir Jean Piveteau, ‘Le débat entre Cuvier et Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire sur l’unité de plan et de composition’, Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications 3 (1950), p. 343-63.

[5] Avertissement en tête de l’édition Kehl des Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, t.31, 1784, p.16 et 21.

Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

Georges Pilard et Karen Chidwick