University of Cambridge > > HPS History Workshop > Did wonders ever cease? The singular, shining and spectacular in Charles Dufay's 'Mémoires sur l'électricité' (1733–7)

Did wonders ever cease? The singular, shining and spectacular in Charles Dufay's 'Mémoires sur l'électricité' (1733–7)

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau.

One thesis about eighteenth-century science is that it killed off wonders from serious empirical inquiry. The second is that it placed great weight on experimental spectacles. How can these theses be reconciled, given that they offer very different timetables (different by about 75 years) for the disappearance of bizarre, anomalous and striking phenomena from elite experimental practice in Europe? I will try to answer this question in an important case: Charles Dufay’s memoirs on electricity. These eight memoirs are crucial to the wonder thesis because historians have taken Dufay’s work on phosphorescence as emblematic of the Enlightenment disdain for wonders. They are also relevant to the spectacle thesis since other historians take Dufay’s topic—electricity—as emblematic of the eighteenth century love of experimental spectacle. I argue, against the wonder thesis, that far from disdaining wonders Dufay found them valuable for epistemic reasons. And I argue, against the spectacle thesis, that Dufay found spectacles only epistemically valuable—he was not primarily interested in them for theatrical, political or theological reasons. On a more positive note, Dufay’s electrical memoirs extend the spectacle thesis insofar as they show the value of spectacular experiments among professional researchers such as Dufay (and not just among public lecturers). And they support the wonder thesis insofar as Dufay valued wonders only as a means and not as an end of inquiry. Hence the Dufay case shows one way in which our two theses might be partially reconciled.

This talk is part of the HPS History Workshop series.

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