Science and Sociability in Mary Terrall’s The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in November 2010

1500 words / 7 min.
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For the enlightened of the mid-eighteenth century, the most fundamental aspect of their enlightenment was “sociability,” according to Mary Terrall in The Man Who Flattened the Earth.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, also a native of Sain...
Image via Wikipedia

For the enlightened of the mid-eighteenth century, the most fundamental aspect of their enlightenment was “sociability,” according to Mary Terrall in The Man Who Flattened the Earth (3). Sociability of the time consisted of public lectures, cafe discussions, salons, and scientific academies; the successful man of science had to link sociability with “private reading and writing” (4). Maupertuis, by Terrall’s account a master manipulator of his own image, utilized these “interlocking practices” of public and private sociability to build his persona and his reputation (4). Today, such self-conscious image building is often disparaged by “real scientists,” who consider such activities to be reserved for writers of so-called “popular science,” but at the time the connections between men of science and men of letters was less disputed and arguably more normal.

Maupertuis positioned himself as both a “man of science” and a “man of letters.” During the Enlightenment, men of science began to serve practical (that is, state) ends, and not just philosophical ones. But what did it mean to be a man of science in the time of Maupertuis? While such a man did seek practical ends with their work, he “was not yet a bureaucrat, nor a professional, as his nineteenth-century descendants would be, nor even an expert in the modern sense of the word” (166). Still, the state—through instututions like the Académie, had increasingly found utility in such men. Still, although men like Maupertuis “made their work useful to the state, and to absolutist rulers, … they also pursued knowledge in the service of the more idealized goals of human progress, rationality, and critical engagement.” (165). These idealized goals connected the men of science to the world of letters or philosophy, as Maupertuis most effectively demonstrates.

Maupertuis was, in Terrall’s account, the quintessential man of science of his period, and his geodetic expedition to Lapland became the mechanism by which he combined his social connections and publications to create and enhance this image. He thus portrayed himself as not just a man of science, but also as a man of letters: “Maupertuis himself was one of a small number of members of the science academy who was also elected to the elite literary academy, the Académie française, which in turn was closely linked to the salons of powerful aristocratic hostesses.”

Académie Française
Image by heedoo via Flickr

Maupertuis was not the only man of science of the time to also venture into the realm of letters, and Terrall points out that the “successful man of science … was also a man of letters (369). It seems that the institutionalized world of the Académie was not so very separate from the social world of talk and discussions. Dialog and other social interactions found their way into the more private world of print, while letters and published books were read and discussed in social situations. Terrall writes:

Traces of dialogue and exchange abound in printed works, in footnotes, prefaces, dialogues, and critical reviews; this literary angle was essential to the connection between science and sociability. Reading might seem a solitary and unsociable activity, but discussion and debate about books dominated many social gatherings and epistolary exchanges. To be sociable meant, among other things, to converse and correspond about books, their authors, their attackers, their supporters, and any attendant scandal. (7)

Maupertuis marshaled this connection between the printed word and the social world, making his way through the salons and cafés while writing numerous works that “range across an encyclopedic variety of topics, belying anachronistic notions of specialization or expertise” (6). “Reputation,” writes Terrall, “was crucially important in this world of gossip, performance, and reading” (7). Maupertuis masterfully developed his reputation as he “systematically crafted his public identify by building relations with a variety of constituencies and patrons, and by writing for several overlapping audiences” (8). According to Anne Vila, Maupertuis wrote frequently, and did so in a manner designed to keep himself in the public eye (118). He sought to balance his appearance in print before the reading public of the time with higher-level connections “with top mathematicians like Johann Bernouilli, powerful French ministers such as Cardinal Fleury, leading intellectuals like Voltaire, Emilie du Châtelet, and Denis Diderot, and eventually, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who invited Maupertuis to head the Berlin Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres in 1746″ (Vila 118). It was through his writings, especially his various accounts of the Lapland expedition, to portray himself as “adventurer, wit, and philosopher, equally comfortable in salon and academy”(Terrall 8-9).

Maupertuis’ personality appeared well-fitted for taking advantage of his voyage to Lapland. He appealed effectively to the reading public with his persona as an “eccentric yet important savant,” according to Andrew Simoson. As Terrall points out, Maupertuis “had a reputation as a libertine man-about-town, equally happy to consort with duchesses and their maids,” and he built on this image for his literary persona. The scientific data brought back from Lapland was important, and the trip helped Maupertuis within the Académie, but his publications for the literary world at large helped to establish him as more than an academic or servant of the crown (367-69).

Maupertuis map
Image via Wikipedia

In fact, it was his literary productions that helped gain Maupertuis the fame he sought, more even perhaps than that available through the state (367). According to Terrall, this is in many ways unsurprising, as the “boundaries separating the official institutions from the less differentiated public were never impermeable; indeed, the learned pursuits of savants gained a measure of legitimacy by appealing to this readership” (368). This ties in nicely with Dorinda Outram’s discussion of the marked increase in literacy rates during the Enlightenment, with a concurrent increase in social integration. Maupertuis took advantage of these dramatic shifts in the production and accessibility of ideas, especially via the new world of printed literature. He tied this into the new social institutions based on the exchange of ideas (the salon and the coffee houses), but did so without ignoring existing institutions that did mark and display social and political rank (like the Académie). The public sphere–to tie into Habermas’s discussions–developed and expanded in Maupertuis lifetime, and he effectively took advantage of this expanding social sphere, including new readers of his literary science.

But who was this new readership? Outside of state and official institutions, who granted Maupertuis his fame and reputation? Who was the reading public he so carefully developed and targeted?

The relation between writer and public developed in the interstices of the many overlapping hierarchies of the old regime; hence, the fluidity of reputation derived from published works, and the many kinds of strategies that might lead to visibility and fame. All sorts of writers—journalists, novelists, playwrights, philosophers, chemists, mathematicians, travelers–referred to “the public” as the consumer and beneficiary of their works.” (367)

Maupertuis was hardly alone in seeking public fame. He joined others–novelists, playwrights, and other scientists–in this effort to appeal to the growing power of a public audience, an effort only made possible by the spread of literacy and the growth of printing technologies.

But if Maupertuis was targeting the public as part of his literary efforts to establish himself, what kind of science was he presenting? According to Terrall, “[i]t was not the entrepreneurial science of the instrument makers and public lecturers, flourishing in the shops and cafés of London and Paris in the same period.” Instead, it seems, Maupertuis avoided a kind of “vulgarizing” his science, instead “retail[ing] an elite science and philosophy to a literary public” (369).

Presented with a scientist today in the model of Maupertuis, we would, I think, be likely to dismiss him as a “mere popularizer”of science, and see his literary and pubic ambitions as tainting his scientific achievements. But if Terrall is right, and Maupertuis sold “elite science” to the public, then it is, I think, unfair to denigrate in any sense the “scientificness” of his achievements on the basis of his literary persona. In fact, perhaps Maupertuis unification of the world of science and of letters is one that modern-day scientists could learn from. Perhaps by sharing and explaining “elite science to a literary public,” we can move beyond the paralysis of doubt that many feel when faced by scientific experts today. If Maupertuis were explaining global climate change, would we skeptics still hold such a sway on the public? Perhaps a bit more of Maupertuis’ sociability would be of benefit to today’s scientists.