Newton for ladies: gentility, gender and radical culture
University of Exeter
British Journal for the History of Science
Cambridge University Press
Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for Ladies (1737), a series of lively dialogues on optics, was a landmark in the popularization of Newtonian philosophy. In this essay I shall explore Algarotti’s sociocultural world, his aims and ambitions, and the meaning he attached to his own work. In particular I shall focus on Algarotti’s self-promotional strategies, his deployment of gendered images and his use of popular philosophy within the broader cultural and experimental campaign for the success of Newtonianism. Finally, I shall suggest a radical reading of the dialogues, reconstructing the process that brought them to their religious condemnation. What did Newtonianism mean to Algarotti? In opposition to mainstream apologetic interpretations, he seems to have framed the new experimental methodology in a sensationalistic epistemology derived mainly from Locke, pointing at a series of subversive religious and political implications. Due to the intervention of religious authorities Algarotti’s radical Newtonianism became gradually less visible in subsequent editions and translations. It is only through the study of the first – clandestine – edition of the dialogues that one can begin reconstructing the meaning of Algarotti’s experiments (real and fictional) and his cultural battle for a regenerated Europe.
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