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Phases of physics in J.D. Forbes’ Dissertation Sixth for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1856)

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This paper takes James David Forbes’ Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, Dissertation Sixth, as a lens to examine physics as a cognitive, practical, and social, enterprise. Forbes wrote this survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mathematical and physical sciences, in 1852-6, when British “physics” was at a pivotal point in its history, situated between a discipline identified by its mathematical methods – originating in France - and one identified by its university laboratory institutions. Contemporary encyclopaedias provided a nexus for publishers, the book trade, readers, and men of science, in the formation of physics as a field. Forbes was both a witness, whose account of the progress of physics or natural philosophy can be explored at face value, and an agent, who exploited the opportunity offered by the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the mid nineteenth century to enrol the broadly educated public, and scientific collective, illuminating the connection between the definition of physics and its forms of social practice. Forbes used the terms “physics” and “natural philosophy” interchangeably. He portrayed the field as progressed by the natural genius of great men, who curated the discipline within an associational culture that engendered true intellectual spirit. Although this societal mechanism was becoming ineffective, Forbes did not see university institutions as the way forward. Instead, running counter to his friend William Whewell, he advocated inclusion of the mechanical arts (engineering), and a strictly limited role for mathematics. He revealed tensions when the widely accepted discovery-based historiography conflicted with intellectual and moral worth, reflecting a nineteenth-century concern with spirit that cuts across twentieth-century questions about discipline and field.


Original languageEnglish
Number of pages26
JournalHistory of Science
Early online date3 Dec 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 3 Dec 2018

    Research areas

  • J.D. Forbes, James David Forbes, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Nineteenth-century science, Natural philosophy, Discipline formation, Associational culture, Scientific discovery, Scientific genius, Intellectual spirit

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