The Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

The Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters (Königlich-Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften)

In 1700 Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz founded the Berlin Academy. Leibniz was a polymath; historian, author, philosopher, mathematician and diplomat. Leibniz sought a revitalisation of German education and imperial standing through the establishment of an institution for the furtherance of science and communication. Leibniz viewed science as a two-fold tool; as a unifying factors in the various German states and when combined with economic policies as a key instrument of the State. With these aims in mind Leibniz sought a patron and found one in the house of Hohenzollern. Frederick, Elector of the Palatinate and later king of Brandenburg-Prussia.
in the 1690s Frederick was engaged in persuading Leopold I, Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, to allow Prussia to be elevated to a kingdom; and for himself to thus become a king. As part of his argument for this change in status he was engaged in increasing the cultural standing of Brandenburg-Prussia. As part of this cultural renaissance Frederick wanted to reform the Prussian calendar. Recognising the work involved in such a reform Leibniz suggested the establishment of a society to undertake the scientific and technical work involved in producing accurate almanacs and calendars. Frederick agreed. He further agreed that the society would receive all the monies generated by the new almanacs. The academy would be self-financing and Frederick would receive the prestige of the institution but be saved the cost of its maintenance.
Originally called the Societas Regia Scientiarum (Royal Society of Sciences) the society was originally based on the Académie Royale des Science in Paris but with a ruling council similar to that of the Royal Society in London. Membership fell into four categories; physical sciences; mathematical sciences; literature and German language and history. Membership to the society was by royal appointment and received special privileges in return for its services. Unfortunately, the almanacs and calendars produced were extremely profitable and Frederick decided to appropriate the funds for himself. In addition, Frederick’s initial enthusiasm waned and the society lost focus. Frederick’s son King Frederick William I was even more indifferent and little scientific discovery was actually undertaken in the society.
In 1740, Frederick II ascended the throne and the fortunes of the society started to turn. Frederick had been exiled in France in his youth and was determined to open up the Prussian academy to wider international influences. The society was reconstituted in 1746 as the Berlin Academy; formally the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters. A curriculum was introduced including classes were started in experimental philosophy, speculative philosophy, mathematics and literature. A new administration was established and the funds from the almanacs restored.
Frederick II remained true to his earlier enthusiasm and his court actively sought out international scientists for the new academy. The mathematician Euler was lured from St Petersburg to teach at the academy; Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, the Newtonian came from Paris to become the academy’s president. Francesco Algarotti, arrived from Venice and the physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie can from France. International prizes were introduced and the court guaranteed salaries in excess of that offered in Paris and London. Frederick made French the official language and paper were published in French, and German, allowing the academy to compete with Paris and London. The membership grew particularly strong in mathematics and philosophy and included Jean d’Alembert, and Etienne de Condillac. Immanuel Kant published several religious writings when at the academy that would have been censored elsewhere in Europe.
However the Academy fell into crisis for two decades in the mid-century due to internal rivalries between between Newtonianism and Leibnizian views, and the personality conflict between Maupertuis and Jean d’Alembert. Maupertuis, a monarchist, argued that the action of individuals was shaped by the character of the institution that contained them, and they worked for the glory of the state. By contrast d’Alembert took a republican rather than monarchical approach and emphasised the international Republic of Letters as the vehicle for scientific advance. This disagreement was not helped by the Seven Years War which saw France and Prussian in conflict. By 1789, however, the academy had gained an international repute while making major contributions to German culture and thought.


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