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Chapter 16 The Academy as an Instrument of the Crown
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Chapter 16
The Academy as an Instrument of the Crown

The Academy of Sciences was a royal foundation with overlapping functions, some of which were scholarly, others political and social. As a learned institution, it was responsible for reforming the sciences and for putting medicine and technology on a sound theoretical footing. Meeting these scholarly obligations enabled the Academy to perform its political and social duties, that is, to honor the king with its accomplishments and to advise the crown about technology and public health.

Colbert founded the Academy as an instrument of reform, and the king was to preside over its successes. Troubled by the uncertainty of scientific knowledge, yet impressed by its promise, Colbert and his advisers hoped that patronage would speed discovery. They expected the Academy to renovate natural philosophy. Its accomplishments would redound to the king's glory and to the benefit of the practical arts. The Academy thus owed its genesis to both the French crown and the scientific revolution.

Its mismatched parentage produced results that were on the whole positive. The beneficiaries included scientific inquiry and knowledge, the institution and its members, the larger scientific community, and the patron himself. But the nature of patronage affects the work supported, and the motives of the French crown in launching and protecting the Academy were mixed. Thus, the program and accomplishments of the Academy reflect not only the cultural and intellectual milieu in which academicians operated but also the motives — both high-minded and intensely self-interested — of its protectors.


The Academy addressed matters of substantive knowledge and issues of reasoning and method. Its program was comprehensive: no aspect of the sciences as then conceived was neglected. Its comparative anatomy of animals, proposed treatise on mechanics, and ill-fated natural history of plants all exemplify the Academy's efforts to reform science, with each project intended to make a clean sweep of existing work.

Academicians planned to reestablish science on the double footing of induction and deduction. They were dedicated to observation and experiment, but that did not exhaust their aims. For Mariotte, La Hire, and others, the idea was to establish inductively the axioms of natural history and natural philosophy. From these they would deduce further consequences. Thus, academicians were haunted by a Euclidean-Cartesian deductive model that promised to systematize their disciplines.[1] Tournefort's Élémens de botanique, intended to establish the foundations of botany by classifying plants, paid implicit homage to Euclid in its title.

Theory was never isolated from practice at the Academy, many of whose projects had a special appeal to the state. Whether at the instruction of a ministerial protector or at the initiative of an academician, utilitarian concerns informed much of the Academy's work. The institution examined medicine, technology (especially military), inventions, hydraulics, and cartography, and it accomplished several tasks. Some of these were hit-or-miss inquiries with a narrow focus. But academicians and their protectors had broader utilitarian goals. They believed that scientific inquiry should establish a theoretical basis for the practical arts. This ideal — when combined with the savant's plan of discovering general principles experimentally and with the bureaucrat's hope of a general reform — offered a powerful incentive for patronage on a generous scale.

The Academy's own corporate status, that of a "moral person" responsible for protecting and nurturing the sciences,[2] burgeoned at the expense of outsiders and of the normal rules of conduct in the scientific community. Despite its claim to be an arbiter of scientific knowledge, however, the Academy was circumspect in adjudicating theoretical disputes, often taking an agnostic position and calling for more data before a theory could be adopted or rejected. As an institution it sometimes ignored the most provocative and influential hypotheses of its time.

Careful observation and experiment, proper reasoning, cautious theorizing, and elite status — these were the methods of the Academy. But for its reforms to take effect they had to be publicized. This the academicians accomplished formally and informally, by publishing, corresponding, and debating. The Academy also taught assistants who used the new skills in


various practical occupations; thus, it assisted Colbert's general reform by training future military engineers and cartographers, many of whom were employed by the crown.

The Academy was an instrument of royal propaganda. Louis's academies were the domestic counterpart of foreign conquest, especially when foreign savants became luminaries in them. They were at once symbols of his beneficence and instruments in the royal program of censorship. Scientific treatises by academicians increased the number of acceptable publications and were identified as the product of the Royal Academy of Sciences. The crown preempted scientific patronage by founding a better academy and funding it generously, by requiring academicians to attend meetings from which outsiders were excluded, and by taking over and improving projects begun under other auspices, such as the botanical illustrations initiated by Gaston d'Orléans. Louis XIV made his Academy the envy of the learned world. It was an institution whose exclusiveness, research program, and accomplishments emphasized its royal connections.

The Academy of Sciences, along with the other royal academies, was an apologist for a specifically French cultural flowering. Its deliberations and nearly all its publications were in the vernacular. Indeed its members forced foreign associates to converse and write in French. Academicians expanded the technical vocabulary of the language, keeping it healthy and bringing science into the mainstream of French written culture. The Academy helped the French language eclipse Latin as the tongue of French savants.[3]

The Academy offered its ministerial protectors a sphere of relative autonomy, because the king knew and cared little about natural philosophy. Colbert, Louvois, and Pontchartrain designed the Academy. It was they who approved its regulations and oversaw its research program, who appointed academicians and determined their pensions. The ministers could authorize or withhold funding. They encouraged or discouraged publishing, and they also arranged privileges and special associations for academicians. They even made it a haven for some Jansenists. Their supervision of the Academy belies the image of a monarch who prided himself on his personal rule over every aspect of his realm.

Royal foundation of the Academy affected the sciences in several ways. The very establishment of a scientific institution — whose corporate identity was symbolized by the Observatory (a building designed and constructed for the Academy's sole use) and expressed in regulations about secrecy, publication, and attendance — dignified and protected the sciences. By pensioning academicians and encouraging their work, the crown helped transform scientific research into a profession in its own right. More


specifically, the Academy offered status, material reward, and incentive to the intelligentsia of the third estate, giving prestige to a scholarly life that was all too often practiced in a nether world of dependency, favoritism, and poverty. By connecting pensions with scientific research in general and by making membership in the Academy a lifetime appointment (although no sinecure), the crown changed its patronage of science from a reward for piecework into a permanent annual stipend for serious scholarship. The Academy also provided a standard of success by which other savants could measure their careers: its pensions and subventions were powerful incentives, and many aspired to a place in the Academy of Sciences.

The crown made it possible for academicians to undertake research that would otherwise have been impossible. A program on the scale of the Academy's was, as Bacon had put it, "a Thing of very great size," which could not "be executed without great labour and expense; requiring as it does many people to help, and being … a kind of royal work."[4] By funding the Academy, the crown encouraged projects beyond the capacity of individuals or private scientific societies. The well-funded official projects also provided a protective shadow in which academicians carried out their smaller-scale individual studies. Moreover, institutional inertia protected inconclusive inquiries, and against ministerial intervention academicians could sometimes continue recalcitrant research on the grounds that it might have utilitarian consequences.

The Academy and its protectors, however, also endangered scientific inquiry. Some highly qualified savants were excluded from membership. Corporate esprit sometimes inhibited individual initiatives. The interests of a few powerful figures controlled planning, funding, publication, or the interpretation of research findings, sometimes to the detriment of talented colleagues. Another danger lay in the precarious balance of theoretical and utilitarian interests in the Academy's research program. Here academicians and their protectors sometimes clashed. Through funding and persuasion, ministers pressured academicians to stress the practical side of their theoretical research. When utilitarian pressures tipped the balance, the consequences could be disastrous, as the case of botany shows.

Botany was being transformed in the late seventeenth century, and it proved fragile under utilitarian prodding. From ancient times plant study had been mainly a branch of medicine, although some savants had also searched for family resemblances that would lead to a system of classification, and others had studied plant reproduction and related topics.[5] In the late seventeenth century, scholars began to examine plants afresh because of analogical and experimental influences. Botany was henceforth not principally


ancillary to medicine but became an independent branch of natural history and natural philosophy. Three main features of the scientific revolution brought this about: the premium placed on experiment and observation, the development of new apparatus such as the air pump and the microscope, and the interdisciplinary relations of the sciences that led savants to apply techniques and concepts from one field to another. Savants who thought of plants as resembling animals applied novel theories and experimental procedures to plants. Academicians redefined even the traditional natural history of plants by searching for the basic chemical constituents of plants.

Botany as practiced at the Academy looked to other biological sciences for a model. It vacillated between chemical and mechanical modes of explanation and relied extensively on analogy. It was an exciting but susceptible discipline, threatened by personal rivalry between competing editors, by the tensions inherent in collaborative research, by the sporadic character of individual research, by the loss of manuscripts, and by the appearance of rival publications. But ministerial intervention on the side of utilitarian interests decisively injured it.

Louvois's interference in 1686 is important because it reveals just how delicate was the balance of royal patronage and scholarly initiative at the Academy. When Louis was dangerously ill Louvois sought a scapegoat, and as a result he scolded the Academy for wasting its time on curious research instead of improving medicine. Louvois was impatient with the Academy's still incomplete natural history of plants which, in trying to unite traditional and innovative elements, failed. Yet academicians persisted with the research because their goals were so important. In an ironic twist the minister probably never understood, the very aspect of botanical research that was singled out for blame — the chemical analysis of plants — was the sole survivor of the harangue of January 1686, because it promised medical results. For the six years from 1686 until the end of 1691, scarcely any theoretical botanical research was done at the Academy. Only when a new minister appointed Tournefort and Homberg to the Academy and refrained from telling academicians how to conduct their studies, could theoretical botanical research recommence.

In fields such as animal anatomy and physiology, astronomy, or mathematics, the Academy enjoyed greater success and ministerial interference was not so deleterious. But for botany, which was only beginning to emerge as a discipline in its own right, interventionist patronage that demanded immediate and practical results could be disastrous.

As an institution with political and scholarly functions, with practical


responsibilities and theoretical interests, the Academy of Sciences was both privileged and vulnerable. The very favor it received from the crown was double-edged. Louis and his ministers were no disinterested protectors, nor did they expect merely to bask in any reflected intellectual glory. Above all, they wanted immediate and tangible benefits from the institution they supported. The return on their investment took many forms, ranging from scientific and technical to cultural and propagandistic.

When they heeded good advice, protectors could work harmoniously with academicians. But when practical and political interests prompted protectors to interfere with theoretical research — when the crown tried to direct not only research goals but even research methods — the Academy was threatened. Inconsistent and narrowly conceived patronage damaged the Academy more than it did the royal image. Patronage at its best, however, provided opportunity, protection, and encouragement to scientific savants. Ultimately it integrated scientific endeavor into the larger political, cultural, intellectual, and social structures of the time.


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