Frédéric Le Play and 19th-century vision machines

Harry Freemantle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An early proponent of the social sciences, Frédéric Le Play, was the occupant of senior positions within the French state in the mid- to late 19th century. He was writing at a time when science was ascending. There was for him no doubt that scientific observation, correctly applied, would allow him unmediated access to the truth. It is significant that Le Play was the organizer of a number of universal expositions because these expositions were used as vehicles to demonstrate the ascendant position of western civilization. The fabrication of linear time is a history of progress requiring a vision of history analogous to the view offered the spectator at a diorama. Le Play employed the design principles and spirit of the diorama in his formulations for the social sciences, and L’Exposition Universelle of 1867 used the technology wherever it could. Both the gaze of the spectators and the objects viewed are part and products of the same particular and unique historical formation. Ideas of perception cannot be separated out from the conditions that make them possible. Vision and its effects are inseparable from the observing subject who is both a product of a particular historical moment and the site of certain practices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-93
Number of pages28
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


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