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SystemThe Shaping of Modern Knowledge$
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Clifford Siskin

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780262035316

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262035316.001.0001

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The Project of Enlightenment (Master Systems)

The Project of Enlightenment (Master Systems)

(p.81) 3 The Project of Enlightenment (Master Systems)

Clifford Siskin

The MIT Press

This chapter offers a new take on the history of science by detailing how the turn from Scholasticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took the form of a gradual turn to system as the “firmer” form of what the physicist, and Enlightenment scholar, David Deutsch calls “guesswork.” That turn was completed in grand fashion with Newton’s decision to communicate his principles and laws philosophically by adding a “System of the World” to his treatise. I explain how and why Newton came very close—repeatedly—to sending the Principia into the world without any “System” at all. Why was system such a vexed issue in the late seventeenth century? What was at stake for Newton in choosing to write a system over competitors such as “hypothesis”? And why, once it did make it onto the printed page, did system become so successful that a copy of Newton’s system was launched into space as one of humanity’s calling cards three centuries later? How did that particular form of knowledge come to represent—for Condillac, Goldsmith, Hume, Pownall, Granger—our species’ good and bad efforts to advance knowledge? The primary generic marker of what came to be called Enlightenment, I conclude, were the monumental efforts—highlighted by Adam Smith’s project for Scotland—to scale up systems into master SYSTEMs that persisted from roughly the 1730s through the 1780s.

Keywords:   Newtonianism, Principia, History of science, Natural philosophy, Hypothesis, Ramus, Condillac, Scotland, Enlightenment, Adam Smith

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