How to get from Modern Science to Modern Politics: Science, Enlightenment Culture and Politics in 18th Century France and Germany

History 280B.005

Fall 2007
2505 Tolman
Day & Time: 
Wed 4-6

The idea that the progress of the new sciences which emerged from the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century would eventually lead to the substitution of premodern, confession-based politics by modern, science-based political systems was a central element of Enlightenment philosophy and, thanks to permanent revisions, remained at the core of political and historiographical modernism throughout the 19th and 20th century. The history of politics from the early Enlightenment up to 19th century Neoconfessionalism demonstrates, however, that the collapse of the Christian monarchy in France and the rapid succession of political systems which claimed to put Enlightenment thought into practice was an exception. In the great majority of European states, modern science and Enlightenment culture had been successfully integrated into institutional frameworks, which had their origins in early modern confessionalism.

The course will introduce the most influential theoretical approaches to the analysis of the interrelation between 18th century science and politics. Its main objective is to give an outline of the development of the natural and social sciences in 18th century France and Germany and to compare the different forms of institutionalization and popularization of science in France and the leading German states. The course will address topics such as the implementation of economic theory in France, Prussia and Austria and Voltaire's attempt to introduce king Frederic II. of Prussia to Newtonian physics. The main emphasis will be on the role of science in French and German literary and philosophical discourse and their respective contribution to the formation of a science-based political culture. Participants will be required to give two seminar presentations and to write two short (3-5 page) and one longer (15-20 page) paper.


Veit Elm is interested in the role of religion in early modern and modern European culture. His principal area of research is the European Enlightenment which he has studied from the perspective of its heroes and of their enemies in the Christian Churches. He received his doctorate from the Free University Berlin, was a member of the Historical School of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and has held teaching positions at the Free University, the University of Bielefeld and Princeton University. He is currently affiliated with the Research Center on the European Enlightenment at Potsdam (Germany), where he is working on a book on Voltaireâ€_Äôs approach to history.