Descartes-Huygens Lezing by John Bennett Shank about “Newtonian” mechanics in France around 1700 (16 June 2016)

On 16 June Prof. John Bennett Shank (University of Minnesota) will be giving the 9th annual Descartes-Huygens lecture, titled: ‘There was no such thing as the ‘Newtonian Revolution’ and the French initiated It. Making ‘Newtonian?’ mechanics in France around 1700.’ The lecture is a joint initiative of the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities (Utrecht University) and Huygens ING.


Shank: “When we call the foundational science of mechanics that we teach to all introductory Physics students ‘classical Newtonian mechanics’, we implicitly invoke a historical narrative that makes Newton’s Principia the decisive source for this particular scientific achievement. Yet the actual historical creation of calculus-based mathematical mechanics in the decades around 1700 was anything but an outcome singularly determined by Newton’s titanic genius or the science found in his monumental Principia mathematica of 1687.

My forthcoming book, Before Voltaire: Making “Newtonian?” Mechanics in France around 1700, offers a more historically nuanced account of the emergence of analytical mechanics between 1685 and 1715, and in this talk I will summarize the highlights of my argument. In particular, I will describe the contingent historical developments that produced this scientific outcome primarily in France, especially the distinctive institutional culture of the Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences and the broader culture that supported the practice of mathematics there.

Analytical mechanics in my telling is something other than the inspired offspring of Newton’s divine genius, and in my talk I will survey the contingent historical particularities that actually produced this science in France in the decades around 1700.”John Bennett Shank is Associate Professor and Distinguished University Teaching Professor in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota and Director of the Center for Early Modern History ( and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World (

Time and venue

The lecture takes place at the Lutherse Kerk, Hamburgerstraat 9, Utrecht. Coffee and tea are served from 15:00 on, the lecture starts at 15:30. Drinks afterwards. Entrance is free of charge; no registration is required.