Émilie du Châtelet was a philosopher and scientist during the early 18th century. She is perhaps best known for her translation of Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, her translation of and extensive commentary on Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and her original work in metaphysics and physics published in her Institutions de Physique. Unfortunately, her impressive contributions to Enlightenment philosophy and science were largely ignored by later scholarship. Only recently has she become a figure that is receiving scholarly attention devoted entirely to her thought. In my research project, I sought to contribute to an extremely young, small, but rapidly growing body of literature on Émilie du Châtelet. In particular, I investigated du Châtelet’s notion of ‘systematicity’, or the idea that the structure of reality is inherently systematic, as found in her Institutions. This topic has not yet received a scholarly paper dedicated wholly to it. In the absence of a discussion or chapter dedicated entirely to systematicity, I had to mine the Institutions for claims pertaining to systematicity and interpret them with respect the context in which they were found. After mining, I put the puzzle pieces together and constructed a complete picture of du Châtelet’s notion of systematicity. During this process, how systematicity emerges from and plays a role in du Châtelet’s larger project became clearer.
Conducting this investigation deepened my understanding of what it means to do research in the history of philosophy. In previous research experiences, my investigations had little to do with secondary literature. Instead, I focused solely on what the philosopher had to say with no consideration for the scholarly understanding of that thinker. In essence, I was writing in a vacuum, sealed off from the work of scholars on the topic. With this project, I sought to acquire not only an understanding of the philosopher, but also a knowledge of what has been written about the philosopher. Engaging with secondary literature in this way allowed me to conceptualize the evolution of the scholarly understanding of the Institutions and identify what work remained to be done.
This project transformed my understanding of academia. Previously, it was limited to its pedagogical component, or the sharing of knowledge. Now, I have had a taste of its research component, or the production of knowledge. In particular, I experienced the thrills and frustrations of grasping a scholarly landscape, being part of a dialogue with past scholars, and working at the cutting edge of what is known. This has allowed me to develop a more complete understanding of academia as an institution and has made clearer the ways in which being a student is different from being a professor.