Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Meghan K. Roberts's "Sentimental Savants"

Meghan K. Roberts is assistant professor of history at Bowdoin College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France, and reported the following:
If you open Sentimental Savants to page 99, you land smack in the dispute between Charles-Marie de La Condamine and M. Gaullard. La Condamine had long supported the practice of smallpox inoculation, which entailed taking live smallpox matter — that is, the pus from someone else’s pox — and inserting it into an otherwise healthy body, leading to a mild case of smallpox and lifelong immunity from the disease. La Condamine advocated this practice, which he reasoned would save thousands of lives. His critics, represented on this page by M. Gaullard, felt decidedly less sanguine. Gaullard worried that inoculation constituted a risk with no reward: he did not believe inoculated individuals would be immune from the disease. Eager to prove his case, Gaullard challenged La Condamine to submit to a public inoculation. This was an audacious request. As I write,
If La Condamine had chosen to experiment on his body of his own accord, that decision would speak to his confidence in inoculation and would also orient him within the collective group of thinkers who drew on their embodied experience as scientific evidence. Gaullard’s suggestion, however, had the air of a gauntlet thrown. If La Condamine did not experiment on himself, he would look like a charlatan and a coward.
What does this exchange reveal about the book as a whole? Well, you certainly get a sense of how heated and personal debates could be. These weren’t abstract intellectual issues; lives and reputations were on the line. But page 99 is missing a key element of the book: families. Because my book is shorter than the average academic tome, by the time you get to my page 99, you’re just a few pages away from the end of the third chapter and you’re more than halfway through the book. To really get to the heart of the chapter, and the book, you’ll need to go to pages 85-97, when I discuss philosophes inoculating their own children — sometimes with their own hands — so that they could write about their experience and provide public proof that inoculation was a safe and sound choice for parents to make. These intimate experiments represented a dramatic new way of engaging with the public. I sum up this discussion on page 97:
That thinkers would use their families in this way, rather than staging public demonstrations with unrelated individuals, was a bold expansion of intellectual authority into the realm of the domestic. Savants turned the tools of natural inquiry onto the domestic sphere — their domestic sphere— for the first time. They argued that scientific reasoning could and should influence parents’ decisions (as it did theirs). They turned both themselves and their children into ‘living proof’ that validated their ideas.
And that, I would say, nicely encapsulates what the book is about. But hey, page 97 is a pretty close to page 99!
Learn more about Sentimental Savants at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue