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There is little consensus on the precise beginning of the Age of Enlightenment; the beginning of the 18th century (1701) or the middle of the 17th century (1650) are often used as epochs. French historians usually place the period, called the Sicle des Lumires (Century of Enlightenments), between 1715 and 1789, from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the French Revolution. If taken back to the mid-17th century, the Enlightenment would trace its origins to Descartes' Discourse on Method, published in 1637. In France, many cited the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687. It is argued by several historians and philosophers that the beginning of the Enlightenment is when Descartes shifted the epistemological basis from external authority to internal certainty by his cogito ergo sum published in 1637. As to its end, most scholars use the last years of the century, often choosing the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (180415) as a convenient point in time with which to date the end of the Enlightenment.

A genre that greatly rose in importance was that of scientific literature. Natural history in particular became increasingly popular among the upper classes. Works of natural history include Ren-Antoine Ferchault de Raumur's Histoire naturelle des insectes and Jacques Gautier d'Agoty's La Myologie complte, ou description de tous les muscles du corps humain (1746). Outside ancien rgime France, natural history was an important part of medicine and industry, encompassing the fields of botany, zoology, meteorology, hydrology and mineralogy. Students in Enlightenment universities and academies were taught these subjects to prepare them for careers as diverse as medicine and theology. As shown by M D Eddy, natural history in this context was a very middle class pursuit and operated as a fertile trading zone for the interdisciplinary exchange of diverse scientific ideas. The target audience of natural history was French polite society, evidenced more by the specific discourse of the genre than by the generally high prices of its works. Naturalists catered to polite society's desire for erudition many texts had an explicit instructive purpose. However, natural history was often a political affair. As E. C. Spary writes, the classifications used by naturalists "slipped between the natural world and the social ... to establish not only the expertise of the naturalists over the natural, but also the dominance of the natural over the social". The idea of taste (le got) was a social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific developments of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class. From this basis, naturalists could then develop their own social ideals based on their scientific works.