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Newton for ladies: gentility, gender and radical culture


Francesco Algarotti's Newtonianism for Ladies (1737), a series of lively dialogues on optics, was a landmark in the popularization of Newtonian philosophy. In this essay I shall explore Algarotti's sociocultural world, his aims and ambitions, and the meaning he attached to his own work. In particular I shall focus on Algarotti's self-promotional strategies, his deployment of gendered images and his use of popular philosophy within the broader cultural and experimental campaign for the success of Newtonianism. Finally, I shall suggest a radical reading of the dialogues, reconstructing the process that brought them to their religious condemnation. What did Newtonianism mean to Algarotti? In opposition to mainstream apologetic interpretations, he seems to have framed the new experimental methodology in a sensationalistic epistemology derived mainly from Locke, pointing at a series of subversive religious and political implications. Due to the intervention of religious authorities Algarotti's radical Newtonianism became gradually less visible in subsequent editions and translations. It is only through the study of the first – clandestine – edition of the dialogues that one can begin reconstructing the meaning of Algarotti's experiments (real and fictional) and his cultural battle for a regenerated Europe.

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I would like to thank for their support Giuliano Pancaldi, director of the International Centre for the History of Universities and Science at the University of Bologna, and the Italian Ministry for Universities and Research. I am also grateful to Mario Biagioli, Marta Cavazza, Moti Feingold, John Henry and Sven Widmalm for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to personnel at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology and the Burndy Library who, as usual, have provided me with the most efficient assistance. All translations from Italian sources are my own, unless otherwise stated.
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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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