World History 2 101 - 7.2.3 Academies, Universities, and Intellectuals

The salons, print shops, and coffeehouses of the public sphere existed alongside more formal educational institutions and academies that also contributed to the intellectual culture of the era. Universities and scientific societies played significant roles in advancing experimental science and philosophy, but they were far less accessible to the reading public than coffeehouses and even salons. Women, for example, attended salons, but they did not attend universities and generally did not belong to scientific societies. Likewise, working-class men, who could sometimes be found frequenting coffeehouses, had no access to universities or scientific societies. These institutions also tended to be somewhat conservative in outlook, given their religious foundations and traditional emphasis on a theologically based curriculum. Even as the curriculum of universities became less based on religion in the eighteenth century, they still largely fell under the wing of state and royal authorities rather than being autonomous.

Unlike modern research universities, those in the early modern era existed to train students—exclusively male and economically privileged—for careers in the civil service or to practice one of three professions: medicine, law, or theology. The curriculum was generally designed to uphold tradition rather than innovate. Nevertheless, being affiliated with prestigious universities like Oxford, Bologna, and Paris carried power and prestige that enabled academics to make connections with wealthy patrons in court and aristocratic circles. These connections, in turn, could be exploited to finance more innovative research and scholarship in settings outside the universities.

Scientific research thus generally took place in private laboratories with the assistance of a variety of academies and scientific societies. Their dependence on the economic support and protection of monarchs and princes meant that these institutions maintained ties to the state and lacked the full autonomy of the public sphere. One of the first was the Royal Society of London, which first met on November 28, 1660, and was formally chartered and recognized by King Charles II shortly thereafter (Figure 7.9). Francis Bacon’s development of the scientific method was considered the inspiration for the society’s founding. His emphasis on perfecting experimental techniques became a central focus of its principles and continued to influence scientists like Isaac Newton for many years after its founding. Newton was one of the group’s most celebrated members. The machine-like view of the universe he developed, and the laws of planetary motion and gravity upholding it, were in turn a source of inspiration to French philosophers like Voltaire, who saw Newton’s work as evidence of a rational universe.

This image shows a bust on top of a platform. Two men sit on each side. An angel is behind the bust and holds a trumpet and places a wreath on the bust.
Figure 7.9 John Evelyn’s 1667 frontispiece for Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, showing a bust of Charles II. On the right is Francis Bacon, and on the left is mathematician William Brouncker, Second Viscount and the first president of the Royal Society. (credit: “A History of the Royal Society, by Thomas Sprat (frontispiece)” by “Airunp”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Like the Royal Society of London, the Academy of Sciences in France operated with the support and protection of royalty, in this case Louis XIV, who founded it in 1666. Unlike its English counterpart, however, the French academy was well funded and tightly controlled by its royal patron, who sponsored scientists and their work with monetary allowances and pensions.

Because of their connections to the court, members of scientific societies and academies were a small elite, but they also participated in public forums and salons of the Enlightenment and represented the beginning of scientific professionalization in the eighteenth century. Due to their connections with the salons, some scientific societies provided opportunities for women to engage in the practice of science. Although they were barred from university admission and formal membership in royal academies in England and France, some noble and aristocratic women, such as Maria Winkelmann of Germany and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in England, not only served as patrons of science but also actively participated in scientific research.

Link to Learning

An overview of Margaret Cavendish’s life and intellectual contributions is presented in “Women in Science: Margaret Cavendish” by English Heritage.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax