Jean Le Rond d'Alembert philosopheby Veronique Le Ru

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  • Jean Le Rond d'Alembert philosophe by Veronique Le RuReview by: Thomas L. HankinsIsis, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), p. 494Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/235059 .Accessed: 09/05/2014 15:58

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  • BOOK REVIEWS-ISIS, 86: 3 (1995) BOOK REVIEWS-ISIS, 86: 3 (1995)

    Veronique Le Ru. Jean Le Rond d'Alembert philosophe. Introduction by Maurice Clavelin. 312 pp., bibl., index. Paris: Librairie Philoso- phique J. Vrin, 1994. (Paper.)

    The philosophers of the French Enlightenment confronted a dilemma that they only partially recognized. In their efforts to reduce the world to order they attempted both a deductive, math- ematical ordering of nature and a descriptive, taxonomical one. They believed, by instinct and by an act of faith, that these two kinds of order- ing were aspects of a single fundamental unity, but they could not prove it, and they argued in- cessantly about which kind of order should be predominant.

    Nowhere do we see this dilemma more obvi- ously than in the writings of Jean d'Alembert. Veronique Le Ru argues that all of d'Alembert's philosophy flows from his first mathematical work, the Traite de dynamique of 1743. In that work he claimed to ground the science of me- chanics on a few primitive notions drawn from sense experience and from them to deduce the axioms that would make mechanics a completely mathematical science. While Le Ru concludes that this process of axiomatization from primi- tive sense experience was a failure, she finds that d'Alembert's method was fruitful in its appli- cation. She describes it as a "theory of defini- tion" by which d'Alembert reduced many con- tested principles, such as the conservation of vis viva, the principle of least action, and the law of accelerative force, to the status of definitions. This allowed him to declare these controversies "disputes over words," which would disappear if one defined precisely the terms used in the disputes.

    In editing the Encyclopedie d'Alembert and Denis Diderot sought a system of all knowledge. They used spatial metaphors to describe this task. It was like confronting a network of linked chains, a world map, a picture, a labyrinth, an elaborate palace, or, in more discouraging mo- ments, an ocean of ignorance with only a few rocks of certainty protruding above the surface. Although d'Alembert despaired of ever finding all the links connecting the different parts of knowledge, he believed that his theory of defi- nition would at least expose the real gaps and prevent philosophers from papering them over with worthless metaphysical solutions. To this end he composed his "reasoned" history of hu- man knowledge and joined with Etienne de Con- dillac in the effort to reform language. A precise language, modeled after geometry (or algebra, which was Condillac's choice) would be the best

    Veronique Le Ru. Jean Le Rond d'Alembert philosophe. Introduction by Maurice Clavelin. 312 pp., bibl., index. Paris: Librairie Philoso- phique J. Vrin, 1994. (Paper.)

    The philosophers of the French Enlightenment confronted a dilemma that they only partially recognized. In their efforts to reduce the world to order they attempted both a deductive, math- ematical ordering of nature and a descriptive, taxonomical one. They believed, by instinct and by an act of faith, that these two kinds of order- ing were aspects of a single fundamental unity, but they could not prove it, and they argued in- cessantly about which kind of order should be predominant.

    Nowhere do we see this dilemma more obvi- ously than in the writings of Jean d'Alembert. Veronique Le Ru argues that all of d'Alembert's philosophy flows from his first mathematical work, the Traite de dynamique of 1743. In that work he claimed to ground the science of me- chanics on a few primitive notions drawn from sense experience and from them to deduce the axioms that would make mechanics a completely mathematical science. While Le Ru concludes that this process of axiomatization from primi- tive sense experience was a failure, she finds that d'Alembert's method was fruitful in its appli- cation. She describes it as a "theory of defini- tion" by which d'Alembert reduced many con- tested principles, such as the conservation of vis viva, the principle of least action, and the law of accelerative force, to the status of definitions. This allowed him to declare these controversies "disputes over words," which would disappear if one defined precisely the terms used in the disputes.

    In editing the Encyclopedie d'Alembert and Denis Diderot sought a system of all knowledge. They used spatial metaphors to describe this task. It was like confronting a network of linked chains, a world map, a picture, a labyrinth, an elaborate palace, or, in more discouraging mo- ments, an ocean of ignorance with only a few rocks of certainty protruding above the surface. Although d'Alembert despaired of ever finding all the links connecting the different parts of knowledge, he believed that his theory of defi- nition would at least expose the real gaps and prevent philosophers from papering them over with worthless metaphysical solutions. To this end he composed his "reasoned" history of hu- man knowledge and joined with Etienne de Con- dillac in the effort to reform language. A precise language, modeled after geometry (or algebra, which was Condillac's choice) would be the best

    tool for joining the mathematical order and the taxonomical order into a single unity.

    Le Ru writes as a philosopher rather than as a historian. She finds a consistent method or "style" running through d'Alembert's work and subjects it to critical scrutiny. She is, perhaps, too generous in crediting d'Alembert with solv- ing the vis viva controversy through his theory of definition. The distinction between the "num- ber of obstacles overcome" and the "sum of their resistances" will not be obvious to the modem reader, nor will d'Alembert's conclusion that it was a mere dispute of words. Nevertheless, Le Ru's analysis reveals a logical consistency in d'Alembert's writings that previous authors have not exposed, and because d'Alembert is such a crucial figure it raises new questions about our interpretation of the French Enlightenment.

    THOMAS L. HANKINS

    James L. Larson. Interpreting Nature: The Sci- ence of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant. xii + 227 pp., frontis., illus., index. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. $40.

    According to James L. Larson, between 1760 and 1790 a generation of northern European nat- uralists and physiologists from the Netherlands, the Reich, Russia, and Scandinavia exposed as- pects of living existence that were difficult to reconcile with the old view of living nature as a created system of immutable organic kinds per- petuated by the universal laws of mechanical processes. In that incongruity, Larson claims, can be found the origins of a major conceptual shift in the sciences of living forms.

    Unlike several whiggishly minded historians, who have the queer notion that the past is un- derstood as a progression toward some particular end, Larson does not explain this shift away from the old view of living nature as a necessary step toward evolutionism, historicism, biological in- terpretations of living things, or any other nine- teenth-century view. Rather, he sees it primarily as a consequence of eighteenth-century scientific secularism and the development of profession- alism in the life sciences between 1760 and 1790.

    The generation of 1760 certainly agreed with their intellectual forefathers-Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), and Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778)-that living nature should be stud- ied and understood on its own terms. But unlike their elders, who, Larson believes, dominated the life sciences at midcentury, the younger men did

    tool for joining the mathematical order and the taxonomical order into a single unity.

    Le Ru writes as a philosopher rather than as a historian. She finds a consistent method or "style" running through d'Alembert's work and subjects it to critical scrutiny. She is, perhaps, too generous in crediting d'Alembert with solv- ing the vis viva controversy through his theory of definition. The distinction between the "num- ber of obstacles overcome" and the "sum of their resistances" will not be obvious to the modem reader, nor will d'Alembert's conclusion that it was a mere dispute of words. Nevertheless, Le Ru's analysis reveals a logical consistency in d'Alembert's writings that previous authors have not exposed, and because d'Alembert is such a crucial figure it raises new questions about our interpretation of the French Enlightenment.

    THOMAS L. HANKINS

    James L. Larson. Interpreting Nature: The Sci- ence of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant. xii + 227 pp., frontis., illus., index. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. $40.

    According to James L. Larson, between 1760 and 1790 a generation of northern European nat- uralists and physiologists from the Netherlands, the Reich, Russia, and Scandinavia exposed as- pects of living existence that were difficult to reconcile with the old view of living nature as a created system of immutable organic kinds per- petuated by the universal laws of mechanical processes. In that incongruity, Larson claims, can be found the origins of a major conceptual shift in the sciences of living forms.

    Unlike several whiggishly minded historians, who have the queer notion that the past is un- derstood as a progression toward some particular end, Larson does not explain this shift away from the old view of living nature as a necessary step toward evolutionism, historicism, biological in- terpretations of living things, or any other nine- teenth-century view. Rather, he sees it primarily as a consequence of eighteenth-century scientific secularism and the development of profession- alism in the life sciences between 1760 and 1790.

    The generation of 1760 certainly agreed with their intellectual forefathers-Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), and Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778)-that living nature should be stud- ied and understood on its own terms. But unlike their elders, who, Larson believes, dominated the life sciences at midcentury, the younger men did

    494 494

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    Article Contentsp.494

    Issue Table of ContentsIsis, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 373-540Front MatterFriction and Lubrication in Medieval Europe: The Emergence of Olive Oil as a Superior Agent [pp.373-393]The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate [pp.394-418]Recluse, Interlocutor, Interrogator: Natural and Social Order in Turn-of-the-Century Psychological Research Schools [pp.419-439]History of Science Society Distinguished LectureScience as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States during and after World War II [pp.440-454]

    News of the ProfessionEloge: Churchill Eisenhart, 11 March 1910-25 June 1994 [pp.455-456]

    Letters to the Editor [p.457]Essay ReviewScience, Technology, and Higher Education under Nazism [pp.458-462]

    Book ReviewsCollections [pp.528-534]

    Generaluntitled [p.463]untitled [pp.463-464]untitled [pp.464-465]untitled [pp.465-466]untitled [pp.466-467]untitled [pp.467-468]

    Antiquityuntitled [pp.468-469]untitled [p.469]untitled [pp.469-470]untitled [pp.470-472]

    Middle Ages & Renaissanceuntitled [pp.472-475]untitled [p.475]untitled [pp.475-476]untitled [pp.476-477]untitled [pp.477-478]untitled [p.478]untitled [pp.478-479]untitled [pp.479-480]untitled [pp.480-481]untitled [pp.481-482]untitled [pp.482-483]

    Seventeenth Centuryuntitled [pp.483-484]untitled [pp.484-485]untitled [pp.485-486]untitled [pp.486-488]untitled [p.488]untitled [pp.488-489]untitled [pp.489-490]untitled [pp.490-491]untitled [p.491]

    Eighteenth Centuryuntitled [pp.491-492]untitled [p.492]untitled [p.493]untitled [p.494]untitled [pp.494-495]untitled [pp.495-496]untitled [pp.496-497]untitled [pp.497-498]untitled [p.498]untitled [pp.498-499]untitled [pp.499-500]

    Nineteenth Centuryuntitled [pp.500-501]untitled [pp.501-502]untitled [pp.502-503]untitled [pp.503-504]untitled [p.504]untitled [pp.504-505]untitled [pp.505-506]untitled [pp.506-507]untitled [pp.507-508]untitled [p.508]untitled [pp.508-509]untitled [pp.509-510]untitled [pp.510-511]untitled [pp.511-512]untitled [pp.512-513]

    Twentieth Centuryuntitled [pp.513-514]untitled [pp.514-515]untitled [p.515]untitled [pp.515-516]untitled [pp.516-517]untitled [pp.517-518]untitled [pp.518-519]untitled [pp.519-520]untitled [p.520]untitled [pp.520-522]untitled [pp.522-523]untitled [pp.523-524]untitled [pp.524-525]untitled [pp.525-526]untitled [p.526]

    Sociology & Philosophy of Scienceuntitled [pp.526-527]

    Reference Toolsuntitled [pp.527-528]

    Back Matter [pp.535-540]

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