The Normativity of Formal Knowledge: The Exact Sciences, Equality and Situated Universalism in the 18th Century

The project aims to deepen our understanding of the interaction between formal knowledge and the formulation of normative positions in the European Enlightenment. It provides a new translation of and commentary on the major philosophical text of one of its main representatives, Jean D’Alembert, namely, his Essay on the Elements of Philosophy, first published in 1759. Besides the translation and commentary of the text itself, the project includes three analytical essays which explore the context and focus the “scientific,” the “moral” and the “epistemological” position(s) of D’Alembert. Since it is characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers to combine science and morals, philosophy and politics, our goal is to highlight the specific form of interaction between D’Alembert’s reflections on the mathematical and physical sciences and his epistemological views and moral considerations. For example, when he discusses which kinds of knowledge are capable of certainty, he not only defines knowledge and certainty but also denies that religious and metaphysical arguments on matters of scientific or moral relevance have any claim to validity. For D’Alembert, in fact, morals is a science with a high epistemological status in need of further exploration and expansion. Thus he combines certain knowledge with reflections about the socio-political order, arguing, for example, that the anthropological law of self-preservation of a being dependent on others entails a radical policy of redistribution of wealth as long as luxury and poverty coexist within a single socio-political order.  

Since the research project focuses on the interaction between epistemological and moral (or political) positions, it fits well with the Cluster’s research on the historical development of varieties of normativity. The project thus provides historical input into the discussion of central concepts of the Cluster, such as equality and justice. Furthermore, it provides a prime example of the discursive strategies of (radical) Enlightenment explored during the Ancien Régime to provoke a change – a change in the way of thinking both about nature and society and, ultimately, about how to govern. It exemplifies how changes of normative orders are prepared in contexts which at first sight may appear to be non-political, such as the epistemological discussion of the order(s) of knowledge.

Our translation and commentary of the Essay was produced in collaboration with the French research network “Groupe D’Alembert” (CNRS/ Académie des sciences). On a number of occasions we exchanged working knowledge through meetings in Paris, Lyon, Montpellier, Göttingen and Marseille. In the course of these meetings we were able to recruit a member of the French team, Christophe Schmit, for a month’s stay in Frankfurt as a fellow of the Cluster. Schmit will contribute commentaries on several chapters and an introductory essay on the epistemology of the physical sciences. Alexandre Guilbaud, who provides the commentary on one chapter of the essay, was also recruited during these meetings. The core work on the project was performed by Dagmar Comtesse who completed her PhD in political philosophy in 2014. In addition, our bi-lingual student assistant Céline Volders provided extremely competent and reliable help in revising the translations of D’Alembert and of the contributions of the French colleagues.

The translation and commentary were completed during the second period of the research project. The principal thesis was confirmed that there is a strong interaction between D’Alembert’s epistemological positions on formal sciences and his conception of a moral science. At present this is being extended into a new research project aiming at a study of the political philosophy (or philosophies) of the Encyclopédie. The correspondences between formal sciences and moral science in D’Alembert’s thought were put to the test by Moritz Epple in several talks and publications focusing on the notion of “equality.”

The results of the project were presented by Dagmar Comtesse at the Congress of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Philosophie (DGPhil), September 2014 in Münster. The title of her presentation was: „Die Politische Philosophie der Encyclopédie“ (“The Political Philosophy of the Encyclopédie”). In October 2017 Dagmar Comtesse will present further results at the international conference on occassion of the 300-years anniversary of D’Alembert at the Université Montpellier. The title of her presentation is: „D’Alembert dans les débats de son temps“.

The most important publications of this project:

Comtesse, Dagmar and Moritz Epple: Jean D’Alembert: Versuch über die Elemente der Philosophie, forthcoming.

Comtesse, Dagmar and Moritz Epple: "Between Appropriation and Rejection: Translating D’Alembert into German”, and “D’Alembert on Translation", in: A. Guilbaud/C. Schmit (eds.): Tercentenary of Jean Le Rond D’Alembert’s Birth (1717–1783). A Review of the Latest Research, Special Issue of the Journal Centaurus, forthcoming.

Comtesse, Dagmar: “Religion, Religionskritik, Zivilreligion und Revolution”, in: Franziska Flügel-Martinsen (ed.): Staatsverständnisse in Frankreich, Baden-Baden: Nomos, forthcoming.

*Epple, Moritz: “Ulikhet, grenser og alliansen mellom de lærde og de store: Utidssvarende betraktninger fra en encyclopedist“, in: ARR – Idéhistorisk Tidsskrift 4, 2015, (= Liv, Arr, idéhistorie: Festtidskrift til Espen Schaanning), 2015, pp. 27–49.

Epple, Moritz and Dagmar Comtesse: “Auf dem Weg zu einer Revolution des Geistes? Jean d’Alembert als Testfall", in: A. Fahrmeir and A. Imhausen (eds.): Die Vielfalt normativer Ordnungen: Konflikte und Dynamik in historischer und ethnologischer Perspektive, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2013, pp. 21–47.


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