Intellectual History and Modernity - 'Science, Religion and the 18th Century Alantic Republic of letters' Dr Sarah Irving (UWS)
Thursday September 13, 4.00 – 5.30pm
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.