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Before Voltaire

The French Origins of “Newtonian” Mechanics, 1680-1715

We have grown accustomed to the idea that scientific theories are embedded in their place and time. But in the case of the development of mathematical physics in eighteenth-century France, the relationship was extremely close. In Before Voltaire, J.B. Shank shows that although the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687 exerted strong influence, the development of calculus-based physics is better understood as an outcome that grew from French culture in general.
Before Voltaire explores how Newton’s ideas made their way not just through the realm of French science, but into the larger world of society and culture of which Principia was an intertwined part. Shank also details a history of the beginnings of calculus-based mathematical physics that integrates it into the larger intellectual currents in France at the time, including the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns, the emergence of wider audiences for science, and the role of the newly reorganized Royal Academy of Sciences. The resulting book offers an unprecedented cultural history of one the most important and influential elements of Enlightenment science.

464 pages | 9 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Mathematics and Statistics


"Most importantly, [this] is a book that can be relied on. The style of presentation is a judicious mix of diachronic and synchronic modes—how ideas evolve across time—as he tracks the movements of his actors through time. The author handles such a challenge in presenting his ideas well. . . . All in all, the present compilation, together with The Newton Wars, is an impressive body of work and a signal contribution to the history of mathematics and of science generally."

The Mathematical Intelligencer

"An interesting and complex story. . . . The author has written a beautiful book and a very valuable contribution to the history of mechanics. . . . The almost exclusive emphasis on the context invites a new discussion about the relation between the internal history of mechanics and the contextual history."


"The book is exhaustively researched, highly informative, and a valuable contribution to the history of early modern exact science. It is a worthy successor to the author’s earlier book on Voltaire and the dissemination of Newtonianism in France."

Journal of Modern History

“In Before Voltaire, Shank offers a complete reinterpretation of the early history of analytical mechanics. The book displays an impressive mastery of a wide range of sources that are rarely brought together in a single work. These include not only technical accounts of mathematical and scientific work but also broad histories of science and institutional and cultural histories of the era of Louis XIV. The emergence of the insular and mathematically complex field of analytical mechanics becomes in his telling an inseparable part of the intellectual and cultural life of France at the turn of the 18th century. Before Voltaire recasts the debate over the origins of analytical mechanics, and thereby of modern science itself, and is one of the most significant works on the scientific revolution to appear in recent years.”

Amir Alexander, University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Introduction: Translating Newton

Part I. The Institutional Sources of Analytical Mechanics: Mathematics at the Académie Royale des Sciences in the Late Seventeenth Century
Chapter 2. Academic Mathematics in France before 1699: The Initial Founding of the Academy and Its Legacies
Chapter 3. Academic Mathematics in France before 1699: The Administrative Turn at the Académie Royale des Sciences

Part II. Beyond the Continental Translation of “Newtonian Mechanics”: The Intellectual Roots of Analytical Mechanics
Chapter 4. The Newtonian Sources of Analytical Mechanics
Chapter 5. The New Infinitesimal Calculus and the Leibnizian Origins of Analytical Mechanics
Chapter 6. The Malebranchian Moment in France and the Cultural Origins of Analytical Mechanics

Part III. Making Analytical Mechanics in the New Académie Royale des Sciences, 1692–1715
Chapter 7. The Beginnings of Analytical Mechanics, 1692–98
Chapter 8. Analytical Mechanics within the New Public Academy: First Steps, 1698–1700
Chapter 9. Analytical Mechanics Goes Public: “La Querelle des infiniment petits”
Chapter 10. Managing toward Consensus: Bignon, Fontenelle, and the Creation of the Pax Analytica in France
Chapter 11. Coda: Newton and Mathematical Physics in France in the Twilight of the Sun King


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