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Beyond the "Common Context": The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises

Jonathan R. Topham
Isis
Vol. 89, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 233-262
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/237755
Page Count: 30
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Beyond the "Common Context": The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises
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Abstract

The Bridgewater Treatises were among the most widely circulated books of science in early nineteenth-century Britain, yet little is known of their contemporary readership. Drawing on the new history of the book, this essay examines the "communication circuit" in which the series was produced and read, exploring some of the processes that shaped the meanings the books possessed for their original readers. In so doing, it seeks to go beyond the standard interpretation of the Bridgewater Treatises as contributing to a "common context" for debate among the social and cultural elite. Instead, the essay demonstrates the wide circulation of the series among many classes of readers and shows that consideration of the distinctive meanings with which the books were invested by readers in divergent cultural groups serves to elucidate the contested meaning of science in the period. It is argued that by thus taking seriously the agency of all those involved in the communication circuit, including readers as well as authors and publishers, this approach supersedes the increasingly unworkable analytical category of "popular science."

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