Robert Fox is Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford. His main research interests are in the history of the physical sciences and the relations between science, technology, and industry in Europe, especially France, since the eighteenth century. He has edited Notes and Records of the Royal Society since 2008.
Robert has chosen J. B. Morrell’s paper “Professors Robison and Playfair, and the Theophobia Gallica: natural philosophy, religion and politics in Edinburgh, 1789-1815, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 26 (1971), 43-63."
"When he published this paper more than forty years ago, Jack Morrell was pushing at a door that at the time was barely ajar. In insisting that the science of the past should be interpreted as a “socially organized and countenanced” activity, he stood in the vanguard of historians of science who were working to broaden the perspectives then normal in their field. In the many articles and books by him that have appeared since this pioneering study, Morrell has demonstrated the importance of treating the content and context of science as facets of a single historical enquiry.
The setting for the paper is Edinburgh in the quarter of a century following the French Revolution, an event that variously exhilarated and horrified British society. As Morrell shows, attitudes in the scientific and medical community of Edinburgh were profoundly divided on political lines, between Tories and Whigs. Prominent among the Tories was the professor of natural philosophy and fervent anti-Jacobin John Robison. His political adversary was John Playfair, professor of mathematics and from 1805 Robison’s successor in the chair of natural philosophy. It is central to Morrell’s argument that the political and religious positions of the two men cannot be separated from their science.
Robison, for example, displayed his disdain for the French when he edited the lecture notes of Joseph Black in ways that played down the success of Lavoisier and his school in challenging Black for the leadership of European chemistry; it mattered to Robison that Black should not be seen as playing second fiddle to a foreign coterie bent on disparaging non-French contributions. Playfair, by contrast, displayed a persistent openness to French innovations, later illustrated in his 35-page eulogy of Laplace’s Traité de mécanique celeste. Politically and theologically conditioned fault-lines also showed in the controversy surrounding the appointment of John Leslie, a Whig and atheist, to succeed Playfair as professor of mathematics, in preference to a clerical candidate favoured by the “Moderate” faction in the Church of Scotland.
Written with grace, clarity, and insight, Morrell’s Theophobia Gallica paper is a fine example of his early work and an illustration of the capacity of a finely focussed case-study to throw new light on issues extending far beyond the realm of science strictly defined."
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Professors Robison and Playfair, and the Theophobia Gallica: natural philosophy, religion and politics in Edinburgh, 1789-1815, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 26 (1971), 43-63