The legitimation of science in the early German enlightenment Leipzig, ca. 1687-1750

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The legitimation of science as the most authoritative form of human knowledge is the result of complex literary and socio-political processes. In the course of the eighteenth century, lay people came to see science as an authority beyond criticism, whose norms are value-neutral, self-evident and absolute. The cultural status that science acquired continued for centuries and, even though it has been challenged in our times, it still is one of the main providers of meaning for social life. It is true that contemporary scholarship has taken important steps to deconstruct such views by pointing out the social and political roots of the modem ideal of certainty and decontextualization. However, questions still remain as to how this popular image of science was established to begin with. A common view, suggested by the traditional emphasis on scientific practitioners and intellectuals, is that scientific ideas diffused to lay publics and informed them of the newly discovered truths. People then responded to the challenge by adjusting their lives according to the logical implications of science. However, more careful analysis of the sources indicates that the appropriation of science by these audiences occurred in a much more complex and interesting way.

A very common opinion at that early time was that "It is from Saxony that the light of science has spread through Germany and other countries." Leipzig was described as "the cradle of all arts and sciences," "the biggest journal-factory," "the Mecca of the European book- /overs," "the German Athens" (Diderot). This study explores the various forces that converged in the excitement and satisfaction of a public taste for and curiosity about scientific matters. Although it is bound to the Saxon area with special emphasis on Leipzig as a major center of Enlightenment, the results of this study are of more general significance for Mid- and Northern Germany. It provides an illustration of the ways in which supra-regional and international networks centering in the Saxon area operated. Local developments, even when strictly bound to local conditions, signaled the general directions of the Enlightenment movement in Germany as a whole. The processes that allowed science to transcend the boundaries of academies and universities were not merely "transmission" of ideas to essentially passive and receptive audiences. Complex dynamics contributed to the promotion of broader Enlightenment interests in German culture. In spite of universalist claims, philosophers and popularizers did not grant women, as the emblem of the uneducated, nor the people in general, access to the sanctuary of science. Rather, the popularization of science functioned as an effective means for preaching the Enlightenment gospel to an educated laity. It emerges from this study not as a way of reaching out to other underprivileged social groups, but as an effective means for producing unity between elite groups in German society. Popular science works are fragments in the composition of a new human and social ideal, in which science plays a crucial part. They are key building blocks in the construction of a learned worldview shaped by Enlightenment ideals, tensions, and contradictions.