The Scientific Community
The early modern scientific community was stratified both socio-economically and intellectually. Although biographical data are insufficient
to assess its socioeconomic structure in detail, the intellectual hierarchy of the scientific community is somewhat more accessible. During this period most scientific savants did not make a living from research, teaching, or publication, but supported themselves instead as clergy, magistrates, physicians, or the clients of nobles and princes. Indeed, the word scientist had not yet been coined, and thus modern criteria of profession are often inapplicable. There was, nevertheless, a clear recognition within the learned community that some of its members were more worthy than others. Some individuals gained reputations as savants, geometers, natural philosophers, anatomists, or botanists, for example, because of their accomplishments; others were known as amateurs or intelligencers, because their interests were more general and their contributions more modest. There were "athletes," "talkers," and "listeners," as Le Gallois put it in the 1670s, and the athletes (that is, the vigorous experimentalists) learned little from the others, who predominated in the private learned societies of Paris. Beyond the scientific community was the larger public, which variously absorbed, ignored, rejected, or was unaware of what was published by others.
The hierarchy of the scientific community depended, therefore, on the value of each member's actual contributions, and different worths were assigned to theory and raw data, with explanation more highly prized than uninterpreted information. Martin Rudwick has recently analyzed the scientific community as composed of two principal components: the elite, who determine which theories are plausible, usually preferring hypotheses put forward from their own ranks, and the amateurs, whose theories are normally rejected by the elite who may nevertheless examine the data amateurs provide. In addition, there is the interested public, whose data and theories are both suspect in the eyes of the elite, and which is regarded by both elite and amateurs primarily as having the function of audience. Individuals can move up and down the ladder, and a polymath may fit all three categories at once, but theory mostly trickles down, while some data filters up.
This analysis, developed for nineteenth-century London, is suggestive for seventeenth-century Paris. But it does not convey the enthusiasm for experiment or the faint mistrust of hypothesizing characteristic of seventeenth-century savants. Thus it does not correspond wholly to the distinctions that academicians and their contemporaries made about their community. Le Gallois's athletes were experimentalists but not necessarily theorists. What mattered was that the elite be innovative, because the next rank in esteem — whose members were called amateurs, virtuosi, intelligencers, talkers or listeners — was imitative. The scientific community also
included mathematical and medical practitioners who earned a living from surveying, making instruments, performing surgery, or composing medicaments, for example, and contributed in complex ways to early modern science. Finally, although the Academy had its own internal hierarchy, it constituted an elite institution vis à vis the rest of the scientific community.
The seventeenth-century Academy and Royal Society were composed of these various groups in different proportions. Unlike the Academy, the Royal Society depended on its members' annual subscriptions for funds and admitted larger numbers of amateurs, so long as they could pay the price. In the Academy, there were few amateurs and intelligencers — men like Thévenot, Du Hamel, and Fontenelle — but many students and practitioners, such as Niquet, Pivert, Bourdelin, and others, who did not as a rule theorize at meetings. The elite at the Academy were Cassini, Huygens, Dodart, Perrault, Duclos, Mariotte, La Hire, and others, who dominated planning and publishing and gave most of the papers at meetings. Most academicians were "athletes" in the broadest sense of the word; that is, most were serious researchers and writers, working at the edge of their respective fields.