, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 573-576
Date: 04 Jan 2011

The self-fashioning of French Newtonianism

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J. B. Shank has written a major cultural history of Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment—or rather a study of how Newtonianism was constructed to serve the purposes of the “self-fashioning” of various key figures in the French Enlightenment. As straight history of ideas, it can be read as providing a French counterpart to works such as John Gascoigne’s masterful (1989) study of science and religion at Cambridge, or as a more detailed, more culturally and rhetorically sophisticated book-length extension of analyses such as Robert Schofield’s “taxonomy of eighteenth-century Newtonianisms” (Schofield 1978). But Shank is also interested in a different approach, a different form of analysis, which in fact challenges “the classic narrative produced by the Enlightenment philosophes” (21). He uses lots of language that harks back to the heyday of theory in the humanities—the book is “a critical genealogy of beginnings,” a “postmodern,” “post-Enlightenment” history of an event—but in fact v ...