Expressions of the American Mind


An excerpt from Tom Shachtman's Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries in Scientific American:

During the Revolutionary War, while American laboratory and field research was much reduced, science did not grind to a halt. Scientific thought helped frame America’s initiating rhetoric of the war, and throughout the conflict innovations in medicine and disease control and in arms and armaments were integral to the American effort. This and the next two chapters deal with science-related aspects of the war, the present one with the initiating rhetoric, the next with the medical aspects, and the following chapter with technology in armament.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jürgen Habermas writes, the “light of reason” entered the public sphere in stages, cropping up first among the elite and in a semiprivate way before being adopted by ever wider groups. Broad public participation in debate did not take place until the “problemization of areas that had until then not been questioned,” and when “the issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate.” Those stages had characterized the path of natural philosophy in the American colonies, from the initial debate in the public sphere of 1721–1722 about smallpox prevention in the Boston epidemic, increasing through the middle decades of the century and cresting in the broad participation in the recording of the 1769 transit of Venus and in the growing audience for the efforts of the renewed American Philosophical Society. The same path to acceptance was being hewed in the consideration of non-monarchical and non-church governance: the debate was moving steadily from the elite’s private colloquies to publicly available written materials and thence to open assemblies. Habermas insists that the “communicative” aspects of this path were absolutely vital; in his view, the availability of newspapers able to operate beyond the day-to-day control of governing powers geometrically increased a populace’s ability to engage in public argument. From 1765 on, there were increasingly sophisticated discussions in colonial news- papers of direct and indirect taxes and of an accused person’s right to habeas corpus, as well as of such scientific matters as the parallax to be computed from observations of the transit of Venus. At stake in all these sort of discussions were Enlightenment ideals, particularly those of liberty, justice, and equality, enabling ordinary citizens to openly consider wresting their collective freedom from what Habermas labels the “restrictive particularism” of fealty to kings, lords, and church hierarchies.

More here.