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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Botany: The Salutary Science

Biography / Memoir

Series: SVEC (formerly Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century)

By: Alexandra Cook (Author)

Voltaire Foundation

Paperback | Dec 2012 | #212550 | ISBN-13: 9780729410557
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £105.00 $129/€118 approx

About this book

Universally studied for his writings on politics, philosophy, morality and education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's interest in botany has been deemed a mere curiosity. In this radical reinterpretation Alexandra Cook demonstrates how this seemingly marginal activity shaped and was shaped by his philosophy.

Rousseau's botanical project was informed by his belief in the superiority of nature over artifice – a principle illustrated in his famous Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique, in which he used the 'natural method' of plant classification, a ground-breaking system which would eventually triumph over rival systems. Based on a wide range of original sources, Cook traces and re-assesses Rousseau's botanical education, the complex history of his plant collections, and his participation in scientific correspondence networks. She also reveals how his botanical writings were manipulated and misinterpreted following his death.

In this richly illustrated study, supported by inventories of his botanical library, correspondents and herbaria, Cook provides an unprecedented insight into Rousseau's study and practice of botany. Not simply an intellectual pursuit, it became part of his physical and psychological self-discipline, a precursor to today's 'environmental therapy'.


1. The ‘remède dans le mal’
2. The chemical background
3. Helvetia mediatrix: the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Swiss science
4. Patriotism in a new key: Rousseau encounters Neuchâtel botany
5. Sex, plants and classification
6. ‘Se tracer un plan à sa guise’: Rousseau and the natural method
7. Modes of mediation: botanical books and binomial names
8. The herbarium as boundary object
9. A forged legacy: the strange fates of Rousseau’s botanical works
10. Reading Rousseau on botany at the end of nature

Appendix 1: Rousseau’s botanical sources
Appendix 2: Rousseau’s botanical correspondents and contacts
Appendix 3: Rousseau’s herbaria: summary table


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Alexandra Cook is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong. She has translated and edited Rousseau’s botanical writings in the Collected Writings of Rousseau, Volume 8, and is contributing to a French edition of the Œuvres Complètes. Cook is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, London.

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