Publishing and the classics: Paley's Natural theology and the nineteenth-century scientific canon

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This article seeks a new way to conceptualise, the 'classic' work in the history of science, and suggests that the use of publishing history might help avoid the antagonism which surrounded the literary canon wars. It concentrates on the widely acknowledged concept that the key to the classic work is the fact of its being read over a prolonged period of time. Continued reading implies that a work is able to remain relevant to later generations of readers, and, although some of this depends upon the openness of the original text, much more depends on the actions of subsequent publishers and editors in repackaging the work for later audiences.

This is illustrated through an examination of the long publishing history of William Paley's Natural theology (1802). Over the course of the century, Natural theology was read as a work of gentlemanly natural theology, as a work which could be used in a formal or informal education in science, and as a work of Christian apologetic. These transformations occurred because of the actions of the later publishers and editors who had to make the work suit the current interests of the literary marketplace. Comparisons are made to Constitution of man, Vestiges of the natural history of creation and Origin of species. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)729-751
Number of pages23
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2002


  • Classic
  • Canon
  • Publishing history
  • Natural theology
  • William Paley
  • Science
  • Britain


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