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Science & Technology => History of Science => Topic started by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:35:59 pm

Title: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:35:59 pm

                                        Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe

Robert Goulding
University of Notre Dame

In 1713, Pierre Rémond de Montmort wrote to the mathematician Nicolas Bernoulli:

"It would be desirable if someone wanted to take the trouble to instruct how and in what order the discoveries in

mathematics have come about. . . . The histories of painting, of music, of medicine have been written. A good

history of mathematics, especially of geometry, would be a much more interesting and useful work. . . . Such a

work, if done well, could be regarded to some extent as a history of the human mind, since it is in this science,

more than in anything else, that man makes known that gift of intelligence that God has given him to rise above

all other creatures."1

Such a history of mathematics was attempted by Jean-Etienne Montucla in his Histoire des mathématiques (first printed in 1758, and reissued in a [End Page 33] greatly expanded form in 1799).2 Montucla's great work is generally acknowledged as the first genuine history of mathematics. According to some modern historians, previous attempts at such a history had amounted to little more than collections of anecdotes, biographies or exhaustive bibliographies: "jumbles of names, dates and titles," as one writer in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography characterized them.3 Montucla, on the other hand, was thoroughly animated by the Enlightenment project expressed in Rémond's letter, and his Histoire was a philosophical history of the "development of the human mind," as he himself described it.4

It was precisely Montucla's vision of what mathematics meant and his conviction that mathematics itself must change in order to reflect the historical elevation of the human intellect, that allowed him to transform the scattered dates and anecdotes of his predecessors into a genuine history. All subsequent histories of mathematics—until the most recent social histories5 —have been in a sense "footnotes to Montucla."

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:41:14 pm

The papers here argue that there were indeed histories of mathematics before Montucla which are worthy of scholarly attention, and that the dismissal of Renaissance histories of science as nothing more than a "cloud of fine adjectives and metaphors" is unfair (although it contains a germ of truth). Anthony Grafton has argued in an article on the historical writings of Cardano, Rheticus, and Kepler, that the purpose of such texts was not so much to trace what actually happened, as to justify the study of a subject often derided—by both humanist and scholastic writers—as obscure, useless and undignified.6 The following four papers go further in arguing that writings in this genre (or, at least, some writings in this genre) were not limited to this characteristically humanist objective. Authors did not just use their histories to persuade others. They themselves relied on historical narratives in order to think about their discipline, define its parts, distinguish among its acceptable and unacceptable forms and prescribe its content [End Page 34] and method of teaching. By placing their discipline into a historical context shared by other, more mainstream humanistic arts, moreover, they could draw upon the large, narrative structures which Renaissance humanists had adapted to understand human intellectual and cultural development, origins, progress and decline.

James Byrne's article highlights a disparity of vision between those humanists who treated the origin of the arts as just another subject for humanistic display; and those (like Regiomontanus) who were invested in the arts and wrote their histories from an insider's perspective. Alongside Regiomontanus, one could include several other authors treated in this collection, such as Thomas Vaughan, Peter Ramus, and Henry Savile. In each case, history provided a means for working through problems of the legitimacy and nature of their disciplines. While their writings are not "histories of the human mind," their interests went beyond mere rehearsal of anecdotes. Ramus's histories, for instance, written 200 years before Montucla's Histoire, had the kind of unifying vision which de Montmort demanded, and shared Montucla's concern to find a meaning in the development of mathematics. Ramus, and the supporters and detractors he spawned, were convinced that constructing the history of this science was crucial to understanding how and why human beings have knowledge, and how that knowledge should be taught in the academies of Europe.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:42:03 pm

Three of the papers in this collection address histories of mathematics which were written from the late fifteenth century to the early seventeenth century. The fourth examines seventeenth-century histories of another despised subject—magic—and reveals a surprising degree of common ground, in both techniques and sources, with the less controversial historians of mathematics. These papers show how Renaissance scholars used history to underpin larger claims about the usefulness and potential of the sciences for their society. In the case of mathematics, their writings also helped to overcome the indifference of university authorities and students—and even the lay public—towards the teaching of the sciences, and to frame the forms in which the sciences were eventually established in the academy.

The writing of history is the most humanist of activities, and to that extent the following four papers contribute to the debate about the role of humanism in the Scientific Revolution. As Owen Hannaway wrote in this journal, "humanism and science, like science and religion, form one of those subjects that invite periodic reassessment."7 It is a subject which has, perhaps, [End Page 35] become less urgent in recent years. The so-called antagonism between humanism and science was most evident when historians identified Renaissance science with astronomy and mathematics—subjects which, it is true, many humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus dismissed as petty-minded and reeking of the scholastic classroom. Even so, scholars who worked in these fields found much that humanism contributed even to the "hard" sciences—most importantly in the editing and translation of Greek scientific texts.8

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:42:55 pm

As historians' interests have extended beyond astronomy and mathematics to natural history in particular, as well as to "pseudo-sciences" such as alchemy and magic,9 the problem of humanism has all but vanished, in part because humanists themselves found such fields natural. Further, a more nuanced view of humanism itself has taken root, whereby humanism cannot be conveniently separated out as just one of the factors influencing a scientist or a scientific text, whether for good or ill.10 It was neither an ideology with a particular stance towards the world and humanity's place in it (as Burckhardt had it), nor did it in practice turn young boys into virtuous orators , "good men speaking well" (as the humanists themselves advertised the goal of their teaching) who would have little use for mathematics and the sciences.11 Rather, humanist education instilled a range of mental habits and (just as importantly) techniques for reading, gathering information and putting it to use, which were the common scholarly foundation of all writers in this period, whether they were reading history itself,12 or investigating natural philosophy13 —or even magic [End Page 36] and alchemy.14 In a survey article in this journal, Ann Blair and Anthony Grafton reminded us of the continuing work in this field, while warning us against taking too literally the claims of practitioners in the new disciplines that they had shaken off the baleful influence of humanism and made themselves over anew.15

The papers in this forum provide a new approach to considering the relationship which humanist culture had with the emerging new sciences. The histories considered here are clearly not stories of opposition; nor, however, are they straightforward examples of humanist research in practice. Peter Ramus's Aristotelian opponent Jacques Charpentier accused him of plagiarizing his influential history from Johannes Stadius's Tabulae Bergenses, a claim which, despite Charpentier's personal animus against Ramus, seems to have some merit.16 Henry Savile, another opponent of Ramus, cribbed much of his history (itself critical of Ramus) from the French philosopher. The histories of magic outlined in Kassell's paper again draw second-hand on well-established narratives of disciplinary history. Such histories do not fit easily into the modern scholarship on Renaissance historiography, with its emphasis on the role of antiquarian research and the development of the notion of the fact (even though some of the same authors, such as Savile and, arguably, Ramus, were important contributors to this kind of historiography as well). The papers presented in this forum suggest, however, that it was in part the very ubiquity of the historical narratives that helped to establish and define the disciplines within a wider intellectual community. The authors' hermeneutic interventions constituted their originality, and were their means for fashioning a distinctive response both to external criticisms and to internal issues of the material and organization of their arts.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:44:03 pm

In general, then, the "facts" themselves were not in question. Most authors from this period agreed on a few fixed points: that, for instance, the earliest Hebrew patriarchs had an excellent knowledge of the arts, and that they preserved their discoveries from the Flood by inscribing them on stone and brick pillars; or that Abraham, "planter of mathematics" (as Gabriel [End Page 37] Harvey marginally honored him) played an important role in transmitting the sciences to other cultures. In hunting down the prisca scientia, their beliefs were underlined by the testimony of Josephus, as well as the mind-boggling detail provided in Annius of Viterbo's forged chronicles of ancient history. They may have molded their narratives to make their larger points, but there can be no doubt that most trusted the broadly-agreed accounts of origins.

Substantial divergences from this standard narrative were made with explicit and usually polemical intent. Rheticus, for instance, insisted quite idiosyncratically that the origins of astronomy were to be found in the construction of obelisks;17 while Popper's article below demonstrates Pico della Mirandola's historical creativity in rejecting claims to the great antiquity of astrology. It is arguable also that Paracelsians such as Richard Bostocke (in his 1585 work The difference betwene the auncient Phisicke . . . and the latter Phisicke) were engaged in the construction of a new historical narrative,18 sharing a common physicians' concern with history and the search for causes for contemporary phenomena.19 Their accounts could diverge widely from the broadly-accepted narrative found in most of the authors considered here.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:44:51 pm

Claims to antiquity—whether for mathematics, astronomy or magic—were an essential element in demonstrating the legitimacy and dignity of a science. But it also placed the historian-practitioner in an awkward situation. While it may be impressive to discover the sciences being practiced in the Garden of Eden, taught to the first human beings by God Himself, what room is then left either for individual accomplishment or (and this is most important) the extraordinary achievements of the Greeks?

Here, arguably, the historian of magic was in a happier position. Magical texts have always delighted in impossibly antique claims, and the practice of magic itself—although continuously improvised and transformed—put enormous emphasis on stasis: the preservation of every step of every ritual, down to the letters themselves of the barbarous magical words. Woven into the very documents used by historians were promises of the original and divine nature of their contents. It is not surprising that Thomas Vaughan could take over the traditional account of the origin of the arts in [End Page 38] Paradise—and even borrow the brick and stone pillars, now as repositories of occult learning—since his art owed not only its legitimacy and dignity, but also its efficacy to the very fact of its continuous preservation. Even Vaughan, however, had to explain the periodic disappearances of magic, invoking human forgetfulness (just as Ramus had done for the history of mathematics), while John Aubrey explained that fairy-folk (or, perhaps, belief in them) had taken flight at the noise of technology.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:45:39 pm

The early-modern historian of mathematics and the sciences, however, generally had to intervene more dramatically in the narrative. For reasons that will become clear from the papers below, almost all rejected a static conception of the arts. A few (like Regiomontanus and Savile) embraced a narrative of progress, in which the Greeks surpassed the biblical or mythical ancients, and moderns might hope to do the same. Others (such as Ramus and Raleigh) constructed a cycle of degeneration and recovery. But whichever model they adopted, they used their history to address the current state of their discipline. Unlike magic, mathematics was part of the medieval arts curriculum; most of the authors considered in these essays were, in one way or another, concerned with the reform of the syllabus and the introduction of newly discovered texts or techniques into the schools (or into popular currency). The mismatch between their ideals and the actual condition of the sciences all but demanded a historiographical model built upon change, whether for the better or the worse.

Regiomontanus, for instance, saw a break in the history of astronomy, but not between classical and medieval authors—as one might expect a humanist author to do. Instead, the divide occurs between the semi-mythical origins of the sciences, and their practice by historical human beings. He accepts that Abraham and Prometheus had some extraordinary knowledge of astronomy and were instrumental in its foundation as a science; on the other hand, historical records show that Hipparchus first discovered the precession of the equinoxes, a prerequisite to any adequate astronomy or accurate calendar. While Regiomontanus's own astronomy could claim continuity with that of the most ancient human beings, he found room for technical innovation and the increase of the art itself both in history and in its contemporary practice.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:46:35 pm

Many of the authors here connected their reforms of their arts with other movements of reform, especially religious reform. Ramus teasingly hinted at the irenic outcome of a reform of the sciences, completing the process begun in the religious sphere while reconciling Catholics and Protestants through a new, common epistemological clarity. His history itself, [End Page 39] in its repeated redraftings, took on more and more the pattern of Protestant accounts of primitive Christianity and its subsequent effacement by non-Scriptural innovation. Reginald Scot attributes the rise of false charges of magic and witchcraft to the baneful and superstitious influence of Catholicism. A true understanding of nature and rejection of superstition were marks both of the earliest times (before the rise of "witchcraft") and the latest, in which the Protestant churches had done away with Roman excesses, returning Christians to a more primitive—and hence more authentic—relationship both with God and with the world.

As Nicholas Popper writes in the conclusion to his paper, the histories of science he surveys posed a problem of recovery, rather than invention—a narrative which might seem at odds with the progressive optimism of the authors of the "new science," from Bacon and Descartes through to Boyle. But, within their grand narratives, Renaissance historians seemed to uncover a profusion of mathematical practice, not at all made explicit in the ancient sources they drew upon. They legitimized expertise (another focus of modern histories of early-modern science)20 for the wider intellectual culture, a crucial step in the epistemological transformations which led to the Scientific Revolution.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:49:36 pm

I am grateful to Lauren Kassell for comments and substantial advice on this introduction; to Nicholas Popper and James Byrne, who organized a panel at the 2004 History of Science Society annual meeting at which these papers were first presented; and to Anthony Grafton, who encouraged their publication and offered extensive criticisms on all of the papers presented here.

1. Jeanne Peiffer, "France" in Writing the History of Mathematics: Its Historical Development, ed. Joseph W. Dauben and Christoph J. Scriba (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2002), 3–43, at 6.

2. On Montucla, see Noel M. Swerdlow, "Montucla's Legacy: The History of the Exact Sciences," JHI 54 (1993): 299–328.

3. Cited by Christoph J. Scriba, Menso Folkerts, and Hans Wussing, "Germany," in Writing the History of Mathematics, 109–49 at 112. Note also the brief treatment and dismissal of Renaissance histories at 110.

4. Peiffer, "France," 10.

5. For instance, Serafina Cuomo, Ancient mathematics (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).

6. Anthony Grafton, "From Apotheosis to Analysis: Some Late Renaissance Histories of Classical Astronomy," in History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, ed. Donald R. Kelley (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 261–76 (especially 262).

7. Owen Hannaway, "Georgius Agricola as Humanist," JHI 53 (1992): 553–60, at 553.

8. For a survey of this literature, see H. Floris Cohen, The scientific revolution: a historiographical inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 271–303. On humanists as translators and commentators, see Paul L. Rose, The Italian Renaissance of Mathematics: Studies on Humanists and Mathematicians from Petrarch to Galileo (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1975); Noel M. Swerdlow, "The Recovery of the Exact Sciences of Antiquity: Mathematics, Astronomy,Geography," in Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture, ed. Anthony Grafton (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993), 125–67.

9. See Brian W. Ogilvie, "Science," in Renaissance Historiography, ed. Jonathan Woolfson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 241–69, for a comprehensive survey of scholarship in the history of Renaissance science.

10. See especially Anthony Grafton, "The New Science and the Traditions of Humanism," in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 203–23.

Title: Re: Histories of Science in Early Modern Europe
Post by: Bianca on October 16, 2008, 12:50:29 pm

11. Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986).

12. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, "'Studied for Action': How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy," Past and Present 129 (1990): 3–51.

13. See, for instance, Ann Blair, "Annotating and Indexing Natural Philosophy," in Books and the Sciences in History, ed. Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 69–89.

14. Lauren Kassell, "Reading for the Philosophers' Stone," in Books and the Sciences in History, 132–50; Anthony Grafton, "John Dee Reads Books of Magic," in The Reader Revealed, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 31–37.

15. Ann Blair and Anthony Grafton, "Reassessing Humanism and Science," JHI 53 (1992): 535–40.

16. Johannes Stadius, Tabulae Bergenses (Cologne, 1560). The preface, entitled "Astronomiae aetas, usus, peregrinatio, incrementum, utilitas," and occupying the first 25 pages of the work, seems to have been an important source for elements of Ramus's historical narrative.

17. See Grafton, "From Apotheosis to Analysis."

18. Allen G. Debus, "An Elizabethan History of Medical Chemistry," Annals of Science 18 (1962): 1–29.

19. Nancy Siraisi, "Anatomizing the Past: Physicians and History in Renaissance Culture," Renaissance Quarterly 53 (2000): 1–30.

20. See, most recently, Eric Ash, Power, knowledge, and expertise in Elizabethan England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).