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Denise Phillips

Associate Professor, Associate Head


I am an historian of science who also has broader interests in the cultural history of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. My first book, which appeared with the University of Chicago Press in 2012, examined how the concept “science” came to take on its modern meaning in German-speaking Europe between 1770 and 1850. Moving on from this first project, I continue to have a serious interest in historical epistemology (a field that explores the historical formation of the key categories involved in making knowledge). I have articles in progress on the comparative history of German and Anglo-American concepts of science, the history of experiment, and the history of positivism.

I am also currently writing a book about Jacob Guyer, the Enlightenment’s most famous peasant. Guyer (often called by his nickname “Kleinjogg”) was a flashpoint for enlightened debates about the relationship between technical innovation and moral virtue. He was also a figure who pushed against the usual social boundaries that defined the Enlightenment project, and did so with some success. My study uses the widely celebrated Guyer to explore the previously underappreciated role that agricultural improvement played in the pan-European Enlightenment; it examines Guyer’s reception in Germany, France, Britain and the United States. In addition, I have a long-standing interest in the history of natural history and the practical life sciences, and I recently co-edited a volume on agriculture and the life sciences with Sharon Kingsland.

In past years, my work has been supported by the Fulbright Commission, the German Academic Exchange Service, the National Science Foundation, and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.


Ph.D. Harvard University, 2004

B.A. Duke University, 1996

Selected Publications

  • “Bacon among the Germans: Stories from when ‘Science’ meant ‘Wissenschaft’.” In “Languages of Science,” edited by Michael Gordin and Konstantinos Tampakis. Special issue, History of Science, forthcoming.
  • “Academies and Societies.” Blackwell Companion for the History of Science, edited by Bernard Lightman. London: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming.
  • “Trading Epistemological Insults: ‘Positive Knowledge’ and Natural Science in Germany, 1800-1850.” In Positivism, Power and Enlightenment: the Politicization of the Scientific Worldview, edited by Franz L. Fillafer and Jan Surman. New York: Palgrave, forthcoming.
  • Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland, eds. New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture. Berlin: Springer, 2015.
  • Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850. Chicago:
    University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • “Plants and Places: Agricultural Knowledge and Plant Geography in Germany, 1750 to 1810.” New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture, edited by Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland, 9-28. Berlin: Springer, 2015.
  • “Reconsidering the Sonderweg of German Science: Biology and Culture in the Nineteenth Century [Essay Review].” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40, no. 1 (2010): 136-147.
  • “Epistemological Distinctions and Cultural Politics: Educational Reform and the
    Naturwissenschaft/ Geisteswissenschaft Distinction in Nineteenth-Century Germany.” In Historical Perspectives on Erklären and Verstehen, edited by Uljana Feest, 15-35. Berlin: Springer, 2010.
  • “Science, Myth and Eastern Souls: J. S. C. Schweigger and the Society for the Spread of Natural Knowledge and Higher Truth.” In “Global Science and Comparative History: Jesuits, Science, and Philology in China and Europe, 1550-1850.” Special issue, East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine 26 (2007): 40-67.
  • “Friends of Nature: Urban Sociability and Regional Natural History in Dresden, 1800-1850.” Osiris 18 (2003): 43-59.
  • “Building Humboldt’s Legacy: the Humboldt Memorials of 1869 in Germany.” In
    “Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural Historical Legacy and its
    Relevance for Today.” Northeastern Naturalist. Suppl. no. 1 (2001): 21-32.

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