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The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude: Life, Literature and the Physical Sciences in Post-Enlightenment Paris (1780-1840)

  • Author(s): Wilds, Travis Benjamin
  • Advisor(s): Lucey, Michael
  • et al.


The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude: Life, Literature and the Physical Sciences in

Post-Enlightenment Paris (1780-1840)


Travis Wilds

Doctor of Philosophy in French

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Michael Lucey, Chair

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude investigates the conditions of intellectual production about life, living things and Nature in general prior to the emergence of literature as an autonomous cultural form. Through readings of texts by late Enlightenment and Romantic-era writers and savants, the dissertation tells the story of how literature and science became distinct entities, with distinct objects and distinct ends, by the latter half of the nineteenth century. Literary writers with natural philosophic ambitions react, I show, to the rise of Newtonian mathematical physics as an epistemic ideal among the élite mathematical physicists of the Académie des sciences, answering the growing prestige of precise quantification in the sciences with anti-mathematical rhetoric and alternative modes of quantification. The rhetoric of “exactitude” generated by the Parisian mathematical physicists and the savants who depended on their patronage corresponded, I show, to a push for cultural autonomy in scientific production, and ultimately to the emergence of a distinct scientific “field.”

Countering this trend toward specialization on the one hand, and classicist notions of letters on the other, texts by writers like Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Balzac strive to adapt the Enlightenment ideal of a cohesive republic of “letters” to the social and epistemic conditions of post-Revolutionary France. In reaction to the pro-Newtonian developments in the sciences, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre articulates an anti-Newtonian position assembled from early modern natural theology, the rhetoric of “spectacular” representation and a sentimental appreciation of Nature. In contrast, Balzac and other writers and thinkers in the eighteen-thirties and -forties opt for a kind of hyper-Newtonianism oriented toward the mathematization of phenomena like volition or vitality, disavowed by the institutional sciences. In opting to investigate living things in terms of their “physico-chemical” elements rather than as subjects of vitality, the emerging life sciences of nineteenth-century Paris incited a notion of life per se as scientific representation’s constitutive other. Literary thinkers of Balzac’s time opposed this move in favor of prophesying the direct representation of life itself, critiquing the sciences of their day for their narrow specialization while seeking to conjure the conditions for a “total” science. By the mid-nineteenth century, the notion of life itself thus becomes one of the prime justifications for the dissolution of scientific autonomy.

In Chapter One, “Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and the Virtues of Admiration: Sentiment, Spectacle and the “Science to Come” in the Études de la nature (1784),” I show how Bernardin forged Rousseauvian sentimentality, early eighteenth-century natural theology, Buffonian natural history and his own expertise as a naval engineer into a new form of natural philosophy. The emphasis on the value of marveling that we find in Bernardin’s “science à venir” occurs as an attempt to update, I contend, notions about the study of Nature formerly prevalent among early eighteenth-century savants and generalists. The imperative to admire Nature, I show, becomes an “epistemic virtue” (Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison) which maximizes knowledge about some aspects of Nature while minimizing others. Espousing the virtues of “admiration,” Bernardin’s work helps gauge the discursive grounds on which it was possible to dispute scientific values at the turn of the nineteenth century in France, while also compelling us to reintegrate wonder into the repertoire of Enlightenment-era scientific affects.

In Chapter Two, “The Virtues of Exactitude: Alessandro Volta and the Emergence of Scientific Autonomy in Napoleonic Paris,” I examine the construction of a rhetoric of “exactitude” among the élite mathematical physicists of the Paris Académie des sciences. Like the imperative to admire espoused by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, “exactitude,” I show, can be construed as an epistemic virtue that maximizes knowledge about some aspects of Nature while minimizing others. The chapter examines the construction of “exactitude” as an epistemic ideal through an account of the strategies pursued by the Italian natural philosopher Alessandro Volta as he introduced his work on animal electricity to his Parisian counterparts in1801. Volta’s eventual integration into the Parisian scientific élite was attributable, I argue, to his efforts to adapt his experimental idiom to the rhetoric of exactitude, as well as to the intervention of the First Consul himself, and to his success in showing that electricity in animals could be described by purely physical laws. By demonstrating the physical nature of animal electricity, he gave rise to new ways of making animal bodies amenable to quantification, while sidelining opponents who argued that vitality itself should constitute an object of the sciences. Situating Volta’s experimental work in a European context, I show that the changes advocated by the Académie élite provoked disagreement not only among home-grown writers of fiction and natural philosophy, but also among savants at home and abroad.

In Chapter Three, “Balzac, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the Virtues of Synthesis,” I show how Balzac’s innovations in novel form were shaped by the impulse to reverse the increasing autonomy of the sciences in the interest of creating a total intellectual space. Along with other writers, philosophers and savants of the mid-nineteenth century, I maintain, Balzac articulated a rhetoric of “synthesis” predicated on the poetic and scientific possibilities of vital materialism. Though critics from the mid-nineteenth century onward have dismissed Balzac’s own scientific ideas and his criticisms of the sciences of his day, we cannot read Balzac fully, I argue, without understanding his novel-writing practice as an attempt to intervene seriously in the study of “life.” Through a sustained reading of the novel La peau du chagrin (1831), along with analysis of the “Avant-propos” to the Comédie humaine, Louis Lambert (1833) and other novels, I show how Balzac’s innovations in novel form wed popular entertainment to ideas about life and volition. Surprisingly, Balzac’s notion of synthesis does not deny science but envisages outdoing it on its own terms: along with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Saint-Simon, Comte and other contemporaries, he criticizes his savant contemporaries for applying exact methods to material bodies alone, while prophesying the mathematization of vital phenomena like will and thought.

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