Natural philosophy fit awkwardly with many seventeenth-century values. Inconsistencies at the court, for example, highlight the ambiguous position of the sciences. The king preferred pious and hierarchical books but supported the new, experimental science practiced at the Jardin royal and the Academy. Some courtiers disliked science on the grounds that its practitioners were coarse and pedantic, its language technical and ignoble. Others maintained private laboratories or observatories and sponsored scientific meetings.
Being natural philosophers made some academicians social and cultural misfits. Some pursued their careers against the wishes of their families. If their research was dirty, smelly, or dangerous, it opened them to scorn as "sooty empirics," while a fascination with geometry or Cartesianism might seem arcane or subversive. Scientific ideas could be at odds with the classicist intellectual values espoused within the social milieus of many academicians. When the new natural philosophy challenged tradition, savants had to weigh conservative or elitist social tendencies against innovative scholarly impulses. In contrast, the Academy's ministerial protectors were fairly typical of their circles, where amateur interest in science was prominent. In general academicians challenged, ministerial protectors enacted, the values of their different social orders.
The Academy was therefore a creature of varied cultural spheres. Its members and protectors inhabited a world of conflicting ideals, at once pious and critical, unconventional and hierarchical. These partners brought very different expectations to the founding of the institution.
Language is a clue to attitudes about the Academy and to its antecedents. Two words described the institution: "l'Académie" and "la Compagnie." The official name was "l'Académie royale des sciences," and it was affirmed by the règlement , or regulations, of 1699. But academicians usually spoke of "la Compagnie." The Journal des sçavans referred to "the Company that meets in the King's Library," and the Academy recorded its decisions in the minutes as rulings of "the Company."
In late seventeenth-century France, an academy might be a craft organization; a place where aristocratic youths learned how to ride; or, in an ironic or abusive sense, a public place where illegal games were played. But in learned circles, an academy was a group of scholars who met regularly, and it stemmed from a heritage that included Plato and Bacon.
The word "compagnie" had a broader usage. Thus, in seventeenth-century France, there were trading companies, companies for administering justice and for directing hospitals, military companies, and the Company of Jesus. Above all, the word "compagnie" suggests the corporate bodies characteristic of French towns. These companies — of notaries, lawyers, professors at the Collège royal, Parisian secular clergy with doctorates, or the king's legal officers, for example — had their "own statutes, accumulated privileges, leaders, rules of assembly, financial structure and corporate mentality" and were foci of urban professional prestige.
The Academy of Sciences combined features of the professional corporations with those of such scholarly antecedents as the sixteenth-century French academies, the Baconian House of Solomon, contemporary private
Parisian academies, and the Florentine and London scientific societies. By imitating the urban corporations, the Academy professionalized the scholarly institution.
Ideals of behavior and scholarship espoused by the scholarly world — universities, libraries, publishers, and circles of like-minded savants — also shaped the Academy. Some ideals came from the classics. Modesty, for example, was a recurrent theme in the eulogies of academicians, as a personal trait becoming to scholars. Academicians were animated by other expectations — that they publish and serve the public, that they obtain patronage and conduct research collectively — articulated by Descartes, Bacon, and others. Both precept and practice recommended collective research. Research teams, especially where a master-disciple relationship existed, could boast impressive accomplishments, such as the Maurist editions of religious texts.
Seventeenth-century savants valued intellectual discourse. They also anticipated useful applications of scientific knowledge, encouraged scholars to educate the public, and hoped for state support. The Academy incorporated these values. Academicians described their earliest projects in Baconian language, and they planned and researched collectively. Their correspondence was far-flung and they sponsored worldwide expeditions. They emulated the experimentalism of the Accademia del Cimento and the Royal Society, and they enjoyed substantial financial support from the French crown. Finally, they emphasized the Baconian and Cartesian favorites, natural history and geometry, respectively. The Academy embodied prevailing scholarly and professional ideals.