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Person: De Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier
Bernard de Fontenelle was a French mathematician who wrote on the history of mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics and science.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- He was educated in the Jesuit College in Rouen, which he entered in 1664, and there became friends with Pierre Varignon and the Marquis de l'Hôpital.
- He showed great versatility but his preferences were certainly directed towards the literary side of scholarship.
- From 1677 Fontenelle began to live partly in Paris and partly in Rouen, only taking up permanent residence in Paris ten years later.
- Thomas Corneille was an editor of the Le Mercure galant and Fontenelle became an occasional contributor to this journal.
- He is from Rouen; he makes his home there, and several of our finest noblemen who have seen him here admit that it is tantamount to murder to leave him in the provinces ...
- He has a quick, elegant, and delicate wit.
- He spent many hours at the home of his friends the abbé de Saint-Pierre and Varignon, also from Rouen; he may have met Malebranche there.
- Fontenelle became a well-known figure not only in such groups, but also in the fashionable salons held by Ninon de Lenclos, Mme de la Mésangère, the duchesse Du Maine, and Mme Tencin.
- It has often been suggested that Fontenelle served as an intermediary between the savants and the worldly salons, and that he regarded the latter as his essential audience.
- Fontenelle's early attempts to break into the literary world were not too successful.
- This play proved a total failure when performed in 1680 and Fontenelle's next attempt at a play La Comète, which he published anonymously in January 1681, fared no better.
- It might be reasonable to ask at this point why a somewhat unsuccessful writer of poetry, plays, and operas, deserves to be in an archive consisting of those who have made contributions to the mathematical sciences.
- The answer is, that at this point in his career, Fontenelle changed direction and began to write works on the history of mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics and science.
- He evaluated the works of others extremely well and his writings contain a wonderful source of information about the scientists of his era.
- The first work by Fontenelle which began to create a reputation for him was Lettres galantes (1683) but his first real major success was Dialogues des Morts (1683).
- In this work he presented new philosophical ideas to the reader in the form of conversations, modelled on the dialogues of Lucian, between philosophers such as Socrates and Montaigne, Seneca and Scarron.
- The biography was first printed in the Nouvelles de la republique des lettres in January 1685.
- Fontenelle's most famous work, however, was Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686).
- The book gives a popular exposition of Descartes' physics and Galileo's view of the sun, earth and planets.
- Despite Fontenelle's fears that his middle road might not appeal to anyone, quite the reverse was true and the book became arguably the first classic of popular science.
- Partly, of course, the success of the work is due to Fontenelle's use of language.
- Although this language often borders on that of love, it never quite becomes that.
- Before leaving Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, it is heavily based on Descartes' physics.
- However, we should not deduce from this that Fontenelle was a Cartesian at heart.
- the work is an attack on Cartesian metaphysics as it affected science and a plea for a general law of nature that would free science from dependence upon God as explanation.
- His two essays published in 1687 under the title Histoire des oracles caused some theological controversy.
- He did, however, go some way to avoiding a conflict with the church by suggesting that, had God allowed it, the Devil could have operated oracles supernaturally.
- In 1688 he published Digression sur les anciens et les modernes in which he argued that moderns were superior to ancients because of the greater maturity of the human mind.
- His next work Doutes sur le système physique des causes occasionnelles was an attack on the ideas of Nicolas Malebranche.
- Despite arguing against the views of important people, Fontenelle was elected to the Académie Française in 1691 on his fifth attempt, and became permanent secretary of the Académie des Sciences from 1697.
- Fontenelle presented many obituary notices to the Académie, those of Newton and Leibniz being particularly notable.
- In 1699 Fontenelle wrote Of the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning.
- People very readily call Useless what they do not understand.
- Astronomy cannot be without Optics by reason of Perspective Glasses: and both, as all parts of the Mathematicks are grounded upon Geometry ...
- In his role as permanent secretary of the Académie des Sciences, Fontenelle wrote Histoire du renouvellement de l'Académie des Sciences which appeared in three volumes in 1708, 1717 and 1722.
- These contain Fontenelle's sharp discussions of the proceedings of the Academy as well as the sixty-nine Éloges (obituaries) of members which he wrote.
- Also, however, the Academy published its Mémoires each year beginning in 1699 and, in addition to scientific papers, this also contained the obituaries written by Fontenelle.
- Simple, exact, unaffected, and as varied in their scientific content as the sixty-nine astronomers, chemists, physicists, anatomists and others whom they commemorated, the Éloges exemplify a new literary form, moulded and created by Fontenelle, peculiarly French and still neither easily nor very successfully imitated in other languages ...
- Those susceptible to the latter process, Fontenelle sensed, were creating a new way of life for themselves that was indeed revolutionary in its implications.
- Endowed with different merits and unequal reputations, almost all of them were elevated to the same degree of celebrity by the eloquence and insight of the eulogist, an orator who knew somewhat better how to praise them than to emulate or judge them.
- Of course his role with the Académie des Sciences did not prevent Fontenelle continuing to produce other important works.
- For example in De l'origine des fables (1724) he compared Greek and American Indian myths and suggested that there was a universal human predisposition toward mythology.
Born 11 February 1657, Rouen, France. Died 9 January 1757, Paris, France.
View full biography at MacTutor
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Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive