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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Jesuits and science in eighteenth-century France : an analysis of scientific writings in the Journal de Trévoux Laponce, Jean


Despite voluminous research concerning French society during the eighteenth century the scientific practices of the Society of Jesus in France during that period remain a relatively neglected subject. That obscurity has been compounded by a historical tradition originating in the impassioned polemics of the Enlightenment which depicts the Jesuits, with varying degrees of emphasis, as a bastion of resistance to intellectual progress of all sorts. Such interpretations - alternating between censure and neglect - are challenged in this thesis. Through an analysis of scientific reviews in the Journal de Trévoux - a monthly periodical published by the Jesuits in France between 1701 and 1762 - it is argued that the latter took a serious and constructive interest in scientific affairs during the period in question. The emphasis placed here on the Journal de Trévoux is justified by the importance of that enterprise to the intellectual life of its time, and by the wealth of evidence it offers concerning Jesuit attitudes to science. The possibilities of such an investigation are vast. Research has therefore been confined initially to the question of how Jesuit writers responded to Newton's system of the world as described in the Principia and in multitudes of subsequent works by Newtonian authors. It is clear that this response evolved more or less in step with developments in French scientific culture generally. However, a persistent resistance on the part of Jesuit writers to the theoretical and methodological complexity of Newtonian science is also apparent. Such thinking, it is argued here, owed much to a culture of rhetoric cherished by the Jesuits which emphasized diversity and accessibility. Given evidence of a resistance on the part of the Jesuits to one of the fundamental characteristics of eighteenth century science, a further effort is made here to discern what the Jesuits considered to be the defining qualities of a vibrant scientific culture. In this case an analysis of diverse scientific and philosophical reviews identifies: a sustained enthusiasm for intellectual curiosity {outside the theological domain); a conviction that scientific progress was an evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary process; and finally, an emphasis on the importance of necessary social conditions for such progress to occur. Though definitive conclusions are elusive at this stage, on the basis of such findings it is argued that the French Jesuits reflected a strong affinity for Baconian ideas in their approach to science. According to such an argument it is therefore possible to contextualize the scientific attitudes in the Journal de Trévoux within a more general intellectual tradition. Such a conclusion supports one of the fundamental premises of this thesis - that Jesuit contributions to French scientific culture during the eighteenth century must not be marginalized in accounts of that period — and it illuminates an avenue for further research.

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