We should now be able to come to some general conclusions about the main lines of Cuvier's development as a naturalist after his departure from Normandy. We have seen that Cuvier arrived in Paris aware of the importance of physiology in classification, yet without a fully worked out idea of how such an approach could organize a whole natural order. He was freshly receptive to the ideas of the new physiology developed by Xavier Bichat.Cuvier arrived in a Paris also torn (...) by many overlapping debates on the nature of classification, and in particular that between the natural and artificial systems. The very validity of the enterprise of classification was questioned in many quarters. Cuvier's achievement on his entry into the Parisian world of science was not simply to establish himself as a highly competent anatomist: far more important, he also began to use ideas from many different specialties to change completely the notion of what was involved in natural history.124 At the same time that he himself swung away from the guiding image of the field naturalist as the ideal of the specialty, he took ideas from the new physiology to answer questions about the order of the animal world, and from comparative anatomy to resurrect extinct creation — and to come to conclusions from that creation about the history of the forms of life and the manner of their succession. He showed himself able to alter the relationships between natural history and many other fields of study in a way that implied, rightly or wrongly, his own complete mastery over such a movement. Partly he was able to do this because the ideas he borrowed were not themselves logically articulated and thus could be easily adapted and refocused for many different specific purposes. The value of the heuristic possibilities inherent in the idea of life, for example, far outweighed its inability to generate full systems of classification. Cuvier also consistently refused to consider in science matters relating to the first causes of events. Freed from the consideration of first-order phenomena, he was able to use second-order explanations across a far wider field of applicability. Personal doubts about the validity of a theology that had used science in order to bolster its own claims were combined here with the strong influence of the Kantian critique of the limits of human reason.125Cuvier's characteristic mode of procedure was that of intellectual appropriation and a bold capacity for altering the relationships between different fields of knowledge, rather than, with the exception of taxonomy, the technique of expanding their subject matter. His claims to originality came, first, from this reappropriation and reorientation and, second, from the sheer scope of his work, which aimed at nothing less than the cataloging and classification of all animate objects.126 They rested also on his acute use of his assertion of a certain relationship with the past of his subject. Very often he would present this history in such a way as to obscure his own intellectual genealogy, and often too he would give differing accounts of the priority of use of an idea in order to distract attention from the questionable exactitude of his own claims to originality. Cuvier came to Paris at precisely the time when society and institutions were most profitably malleable for a newcomer; it was also a time when many scientific disciplines had reached a stage advanced in terms of their factual content, yet relatively inadequate in conceptual organization. They were ripe for takeover by large-scale organizing ideas such as the animal economy and the subordination of characteristics. Paleontology is a particularly good example of a specialty in this particular form of underdevelopment in 1795.Cuvier paid a high price for his initial success. His electic applications of large-scale organizing ideas tended to mean that little of his own work had complete coherence at all levels. Ideas, as we have seen, that proved capable of providing a complete reform of the larger groups of the animal kingdom were incapable of producing its detailed working-out in the taxonomy of smaller groups, which had to be supplied from observed analogical correlations. Further, his physiological approach to classification involved the breakdown of strict correspondence between organs and functions, which left the way open for workers such as Geoffroy St. Hilaire gradually to tilt the balance away from the study of the correlations of hierarchies of functions, and toward morphology as the basis of the order of nature. Cuvier's brilliant appropriations from physiology from the beginning, therefore, contained the seeds of conflict with Geoffroy.Cuvier's eclectic approach made it very nearly impossible for him to present a clear idea of the ways in which the life sciences could be said to be lawful. In spite of his efforts to assimilate them to the position of the physical sciences in this respect, he was forced in the end to accord only an ambiguous status as “laws” to observational correlations. From this area of failure came much of the attempt to give his own two laws — the correlation of parts and the subordination of characteristics — predictive qualities, particularly in relation to paleontological research.It is not surprising that Cuvier's title as the “legislator” of natural history should represent more a claim than a reality. How, then, was he able to emerge as the leading French naturalist of his day? First of all must be adduced the sheer scale of his undertakings. Then comes his expertise as a practical anatomist, and the range of different topics toward which he turned his interest. His collaborators cannot be given credit for his output nor, as we have seen, for slavish adherence to his ideas. Cuvier was able to successfully claim to have dominated the underdeveloped specialties, such as paleontology, and turned them into a major heuristic input into both geology and comparative anatomy; but in other fields, such as physiology, he appropriated concepts and encouraged research but made little impact on the field himself. His attempts in 1812 to head off, or neutralize and absorb the growth of morphological studies landed him in a dangerously rigid position, which despite his encouragement of the new physiological research under the Restoration made further elaboration of his own conceptual underpinnings almost impossible.Cuvier's authority in the scientific world would in any case have been great because of his substantive achievement in taxonomy, but the rest of his work had enough ambiguities and dislocations for it to need the support of his political and social power. Cuvier's detractors seized on a vital fragment of the truth when they accused him of finding the political dimension all-important: it obscured the disjunctions in his theories and at the same time gave him the authority to make new claims for the status of the observational sciences - and for their relations of power with their surrounding specialties. Cuvier's science both thrived on and was halted by the power games of intellectual appropriation, manipulation of the past to confirm the present, and continual claims for hegemony. (shrink)
Comment Sortir de la Terreur. by Bronislaw Baczko The Kiss of Lamourette. by Robert Darnton Les Origines Culturelles de la Revolution Francaise. by Roger Chartier Naissance du Journal Revolutionnaire. by Claude Labrosse; Pierre Retat "Mere Words," The Journal of Modern History, June 1991. by Dorinda Outram Revolutionary News: The Press in France 1789-1799. by Jeremy D. Popkin.
What is the Enlightenment? A period rich with debates on the nature of man, truth and the place of God, with the international circulation of ideas, people and gold. But did the Enlightenment mean the same for men and women, for rich and poor, for Europeans and non-Europeans? In this fourth edition of her acclaimed book, Dorinda Outram addresses these and other questions about the Enlightenment and its place at the foundation of modernity. Studied as a global phenomenon, Outram sets (...) the period against broader social changes, touching on how historical interpretations of the Enlightenment continue to transform in response to contemporary socio-economic trends. Supported by a wide-ranging selection of documents online, this new edition provides an up-to-date overview of the main themes of the period and benefits from an expanded treatment of political economy and imperialism, making it essential reading for students of eighteenth-century history and philosophy. (shrink)
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