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Sentimental Savants

Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France

Though the public may retain a hoary image of the lone scientific or philosophical genius generating insights in isolation, scholars discarded it long ago. In reality, the families of scientists and philosophers in the Enlightenment played a substantial role, not only making space for inquiry within the home but also assisting in observing, translating, calculating, and illustrating.

Sentimental Savants is the first book to explore the place of the family among the savants of the French Enlightenment, a group that openly embraced their families and domestic lives, even going so far as to test out their ideas—from education to inoculation—on their own children. Meghan K. Roberts delves into the lives and work of such major figures as Denis Diderot, Émilie Du Châtelet, the Marquis de Condorcet, Antoine Lavoisier, and Jérôme Lalande to paint a striking portrait of how sentiment and reason interacted in the eighteenth century to produce not only new kinds of knowledge but new kinds of families as well.

240 pages | 4 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biography and Letters

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science



“In this well-crafted study, historian Roberts takes a seemingly simple subject (the marriages and family lives of several prominent Enlightenment figures, including Lavoisier, Diderot, Condorcet, and Helvetius) and uses it to illuminate a broad range of topics about the changing role of scholarship and learning in 18th-century France. While the traditional model of the scholar was an isolated, almost monastic figure cut off from the world and devoted only to study and contemplation, the 18th century embraced the new paradigm of the ‘engaged intellectual’ who rejected the contemplative life in favor of active patriotic participation in society and devoted his learning to serving the general welfare. Roberts shows how Enlightenment families publicized their harmonious domestic lives as demonstrations of their civic virtue, rejected stern patriarchy in favor of more egalitarian and affectionate family ties, and lived out their values through collaborative study, support for enlightened practices such as smallpox inoculation, progressive methods of child-rearing, and benevolent and scientific estate management. By connecting the family lives of prominent philosophes to broader intellectual debates of their time, Roberts makes an important contribution to what Robert Darnton has called ‘the social history of ideas.’ Essential.”


“An elegantly written, ambitious, and pioneering book. Roberts persuasively—indeed brilliantly—situates family as central to the Enlightenment in terms of lived experience, self-fashioning, potent discursive metaphor, and production of knowledge. By paying close attention to the lives of philosophes as well as their writings, Sentimental Savants utterly transforms our understanding of pivotal dynamics that produced the Enlightenment.”

Julie Hardwick, University of Texas at Austin

Sentimental Savants is an intriguing and original interpretation of the Enlightenment. By probing the private lives of Enlightenment authors, Roberts explores how they transformed their own families into sites of inspiration and experimentation as they redefined social ideals and crafted their own personae. She vividly demonstrates the pivotal role of emotion and intimacy in generating the Enlightenment as a powerful collective movement.”

Suzanne Desan, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Sentimental Savants is a gracefully written, ambitious, deeply researched book that makes excellent contributions to the study of the Enlightenment, the social experience of the philosophes, the culture of intellectual life in the eighteenth century, the history of the family, and the early modern process of self-fashioning. Roberts constructively engages secondary literature on all of these topics and offers many new, brilliant insights. Her argument is subtle, the evidence contextualized and intellectually situated, and her thesis undeniably persuasive. The book is thorough, written with a lively and engaging style, and broken into digestible bits that go down easily. Anyone interested in the history of the Enlightenment, French studies, and the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the eighteenth century will be intrigued by Sentimental Savants.”

Jay M. Smith, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Table of Contents


1.         Men of Letters, Men of Feeling
2.         Working Together
3.         Love, Proof, and Smallpox Inoculation
4.         Enlightening Children
5.         Organic Enlightenment


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