The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.


Thursday September 13, 4.00 – 5.30pm

CCCS Seminar Room
Level 4, Forgan Smith Building


The story of the emergence of the modern public sphere is often rendered as a narrative about the privatization of religion in early Enlightenment culture. On this account, matters of potential religious dispute were suspended from public debate in the interests of civil peace, thus creating a secular domain of public discourse. Too often, however, this narrative slips into becoming a clumsy genealogy of secularization in which politics courageously emancipates itself from religion.
This paper arises out of a developing research project on the role played by natural philosophy in shaping the protocols of civility and public discussion in the 18th century Atlantic Republic of Letters. In the first part of the paper, I will sketch a hypothesis that a series of natural philosophical presumptions about the purpose and usefulness of knowledge helped to shape the appropriate subject matter for public debate. In the second part of the paper, I suggest that the persona of the natural philosopher as “Christian virtuoso” helped to mold the protocols of civility and sociability. The natural philosophical tradition I am attempting to map rested upon a number of threads of Protestant theology, and as I will tentatively suggest, it complicates a genealogy of secularization by casting doubt on the image of religion locked in battle with science, and the public sphere.
Sarah Irving, BA (Hons) (Sydney) PhD (Cambridge) is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Western Sydney. Her book, Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire (London: Pickering and Chatto: 2008), investigates the way that England’s colonial empire became tied to the redemptive project of restoring man’s original dominion over nature. The book was awarded The Royal Society of Literature and Jerwood Foundation Prize for Non-fiction. Sarah is currently working on two research projects. The first, entitled “Science, Religion and the Atlantic Republic of Letters”, explores the role of natural philosophy in shaping the protocols of civility and public discussion in the early modern Atlantic world. The second project, entitled “The Bible, Indigenous People and the British Empire”, is an intellectual history of the relationship between Biblical traditions and natural law in justifying British claims to colonial property. Prior to returning home to Australia in 2012, Sarah was Assistant Professor at Florida State University (2008-2011), and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University (2006-2008).
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