In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emilie du Châtelet

  • Introduction

Philosophy Emilie du Châtelet
by
Karen Detlefsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0407

Introduction

Emilie Du Châtelet (b. 1706–d. 1749) was a French philosopher, author, and translator who worked primarily in natural philosophy, but also wrote on language, produced Biblical criticism, tackled questions surrounding virtue and happiness, and grappled with the nature of liberty given her understanding of the physical world and of God. She wrote and published, in her lifetime, on fire (having conducted a range of experiments on the topic at her family’s estate at Cirey), on natural philosophy more generally, and on the vis viva controversy. Much of her work was published posthumously, including work on optics, happiness, the Bible, language, and Newtonian philosophy. She was an avid translator, often developing her own original positions in her liberal changes made to texts in translation. This is especially true of her translation of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees. Her translation of Newton’s Principia was the first translation into French of that work and remains the standard translation to this day. Having received training from many top mathematicians of her day, Du Châtelet’s own mathematical skills were notable, contributing to her facility in translating and discussing Newton’s work. She had a notable impact on European intellectual life during her lifetime, and in the form of several articles in the Encyclopédie, drawn often verbatim from her oeuvres. After falling largely into obscurity for the better part of two centuries, her thought has been revived across the globe, and 21st-century attention paid to this remarkable thinker has been especially robust. Her masterwork, The Foundations of Physics, addressed questions of method; metaphysics (for example, the nature of substance and body, and God’s existence and nature); and physics. She engaged especially with the works of Descartes, Leibniz, Wolff, and Newton, carving out original philosophical positions on a range of topics in natural philosophy. Her arguments for the nature and existence of God are also attuned to the contributions of Locke. In this text, as well as others, she engaged with Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan—then Secretary of the Académie Royale des Sciences—in a heated debate about vis viva, with Mairan taking the Cartesian position, and Du Châtelet arguing for the Leibnizian side. This extended exchange allowed Du Châtelet to engage with one of the most powerful men in science in mid-18th-century France, a significant feat given her exclusion from the Académie due to her gender. She collaborated or conversed with Voltaire, Francesco Algarotti, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, and Alexis-Claude Clairaut, among others, and her correspondents included Maupertuis, Algarotti, and Johann Bernoulli.

Primary Sources

Although they are less well-known than her natural philosophy, there are a number of other topics Du Châtelet also tackled, including Philosophy of Language, Biblical criticism, the nature of virtue and vice, and happiness. An avid translator, she reflected on the nature and role of translation, and her liberal changes (for example, of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees) suggest that Du Châtelet offers original philosophical positions through her translations. Some of her work, for example, her essay on liberty, has been erroneously attributed to others, often due to the fact that her manuscripts have been found in the archives of other thinkers. Recent work has focused on proper attribution and even more so on publishing modern and complete editions of her work, both in the original language and in translation.

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