an intellectual biography

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 299


January 1st, 1992

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This intellectual biography stands as the definitive account of Maupertuis’s career. His much-publicised quarrel with Voltaire – which ultimately destroyed him – has cast a long shadow over his reputation. Maupertuis’s true contribution to eighteenth-century scientific debate re-emerges clearly in this important reassessment.

'An extremely welcome study which attempts, not a rehabilitation, but an objective analysis of Maupertuis’s work and its importance in the science of his time.'
Ann Thomson, French Studies 48 (1994)

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
Copyright Page5
Introduction: Why Maupertuis?10
Chronology of Maupertuis’s life16
1. The scientific background24
The triumph and decline of Cartesianism24
Natural history and the attack on dualism26
Developments in physics: point-mass mechanics27
Theories of gravitation33
Natural history: ovism and spermatism - ontological and teleological reasoning42
Ontology and teleology in physics: the case of optics48
Empiricism and rationalism: the shape of the Earth57
2. The years of apprenticeship: 1698–173271
Saint-Malo and Paris71
Vis viva: the debate reopens75
Basle and Paris78
Hesitations over Leibnizianism81
Montpellier: an interlude for natural history82
On the shapes of celestial bodies85
De figuris88
Genesis of the Figures des astres91
3. The shape of the Earth: 1732–174097
France’s first Newtonian97
Reactions to the Figures des astres104
The shape of the Earth: the debate reopens109
Factions in the Academy: the generation gap111
Counter-attack: the search for a decisive test119
After Lapland125
A new offensive: the Examen désintéressé131
Twisting the knife138
Elémens de géographie140
Lettre d'un horloger anglois141
4. From Paris to Berlin: 1740–1745144
Prussia and the Berlin Academy of Sciences144
Maupertuis and Frederick147
Maupertuis in Paris149
Launching the Berlin Academy152
Closing a chapter154
Speculative philosophy162
Thoughts on science: address to the Académie française171
Towards least-action principle: work on statics172
From statics to optics176
Natural history180
A thinker in transition191
5. The years of triumph: 1746–1751193
Berlin before the Koenig affair193
La Mettrie: moral philosophy199
La Mettrie: natural history215
Leonhard Euler224
The peaks of achievement250
6. Decline and death: 1751–1759252
Maupertuis and Koenig252
Revisions to existing texts254
Replies to critics258
New work262
Maupertuis’s last journey270
Conclusion: an attempt at an assessment275
Appendix: Maupertuis’s mathematical analysis of point-mass collisions282