A Christian Virtuoso: Robert Boyle’s Religious Vocation

Michael Hunter, the leading expert and custodian of Robert Boyle’s (1627-91) legacy, delivered a paper last night at a seminar here at the University, entitled “‘Physica Peregrinans': Robert Boyle, His Informants and the Role of the Exotic in Late Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy.” Hunter examined Boyle’s records of interviews he conducted with travelers returning from exotic locations throughout the world. Boyle intended to publish these interviews in a book, Physica Peregrinans, or “The Traveling Naturalist: Containing Answers given to Severall Questions propunded by the Author to Navigators & other Travellers in remote Countreys .” During the Q&A, it became apparent that Boyle rejected the scholastic, Aristotelian approach to common experience. According to Hunter, for Boyle “nature was in fact often surprising and exciting in its fecundity and variety, and people’s conception of what was possible needed to be expanded accordingly.” Equally noteworthy, it seems that Boyle used empirical investigation in support of the supernatural in nature—that is, he offered “a natural history of the supernatural,” as Peter Harrison put it during the discussion following the paper.

Robert Boyle

The Shannon Portrait of the Hon. Robert Boyle, F.R.S., by German painter Johann Keresboom (1689)

My knowledge of Hunter’s work on Boyle is limited. I have read Hunter’s “The Social Basis and Changing Fortunes of an Early Scientific Institution: An Analysis of the Membership of the Royal Society, 1660-1685,” a lengthy essay published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London in 1976. Hunter would go on to greatly expand this piece into his well-known The Royal Society and its Fellows, 1660-1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution (1982). The only other work of Hunter’s I’ve perused was his 2007 article in the British Journal for the History of Science, “Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society: A Reciprocal Exchange in the Making of Baconian Science.”

So after the talk I paid a visit to the University library and found Hunter’s more recent work on the great English scientist, Robert Boyle: Between God and Science (2009). Boyle, who ranks with Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin as a seminal figure in the history of science, was also a deeply, and resolutely, religious man. As Hunter wrote in his article on Boyle in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), “The central fact of Boyle’s life from his adolescence onwards was his deep piety, and it is impossible to understand him without doing justice to this.”

In his Robert Boyle: Between God and Science, Hunter aims to bring this fact out. As a natural philosopher, Boyle not only dabbled in all branches of physics, he also experimented in alchemy, anatomy, botany, biology, medicine, and mathematics. He wrote on epistemology and moral philosophy, on scientific method and scientific theory, and just as vigorously labored with biblical exegesis and theology. Indeed, his first two published books were Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659) and New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660). Natural philosopher and religious apologist, Boyle sought to justify the ways of God to men.

Like most men, however, Boyle did have doubts. Richard S. Westfall, in his Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1958), had made much of these doubts. In answering hypothetical atheists, he argues, Boyle attempted to satisfy his own doubts about the implications of the new science. But as Hunter points out, doubt had a positive role in Boyle’s faith. Boyle once wrote, for instance, that those “whose Fayth hath never had any Doubts, hath some cause to Doubt whether he hath ever had any Fayth.”

Boyle was so committed to his faith that, upon the urging of Archbishop Ussher, he learned Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic in order to read the Bible in its original languages. Hunter even suggests that Boyle’s interest in natural philosophy and experimentation was largely spurred by his concern to combat the rise of atheism and materialism.

Boyle’s religion was central to his vocation and vision of science. “For Boyle,” Hunter writes, “science and theology were truly complementary.” But as with Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and other seminal figures in early modern science, Boyle’s “successors found it easy to adopt his methodological prescriptions and his mechanistic worldview in conjunction with only a vestigial form of his passionate theism.” But that is not the real Robert Boyle. He was, as Stephen D. Snobelen puts it in his clever summary of Hunter’s book, the

Seventh son, gentleman, wealthy landowner, Etonian, visitor to the Continent, Protestant educated, multilinguist, moralist, alchemical adept, forerunner of modern chemistry, champion of experimental philosophy, popularizer of the air-pump, promoter of natural philosophy, early Fellow of the Royal Society, formulator of what came to be called ‘Boyle’s law’, prolific author, citizen of the Republic of Letters, a director of the East India Company, principled lifelong celibate, medical reformer and practitioner, hypochondriac, man of tender conscience, man of charity, pious believer, Bible reader, lay theologian, apologist for reasonable Christianity, high priest of nature, advocate of natural theology, founder of the eponymous lectureship in defence of the faith, backer of foreign Bible translations, supporter of overseas missions and governor of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England—Boyle was all of these things and more.

The Persistence of the Conflict Narrative in the Academy

In the latest issue of Zygon, Thomas Aechtner, Lecturer in History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland, decisively demonstrates the historical bankruptcy of postsecondary textbooks and reference materials in anthropology publications. He argues that these publications continue to “present the conflict model’s narrative as the historical account of religion and science interactions.” Thus it continues to thrive not “merely as a popular artifact, but also as a conspicuous historical narrative in modern university-level pedagogical and reference materials.”

Publishers such as AltMira, McGraw-Hill, Peason, Routledge, Sage, and Wadsworth (and surely others), persist in publishing textbooks and reference guides that use the “conflict thesis” as an organizing narrative. Aechtner lists several recent textbooks, including Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts (2000), Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2006, 2008), The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (2009), 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook (2010), Anthropology: A Global Perspective (2012), and others still, which all continue to reduce the complex interactions between science and religion into caricatures. Discussions of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, Heliocentrism, Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, Darwin and evolutionary theory, science and secularization, merely preserve the narratives of Draper and White without ever questioning their accuracy or legitimacy. As Aechtner writes, “the cumulative picture of historical science-religion interactions sketched by many introductory anthropology materials is unquestionably one of conflict.”

Aechtner wonders why, despite the abundance of revisionist historiography, do these textbooks continue to use the conflict model for history. Perhaps, he muses, it is “due to genre constraints and publication limitations associated with such works.” That may indeed be true. However, as he goes on to point out, there are cases where authors of these textbooks deliberately misrepresent science-religion relations. For example, both Anthropology: A Global Perspective and Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective cite John Henry’s excellent work, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002). But whereas Henry is careful to note that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, the authors of these textbooks completely ignore such measured and important qualifications. “This demonstrates,” writes Aechtner, that such textbooks “seem to disregard and even contradict a fundamental message about science and religion contained so forcefully within the very pages of their cited source.” In short, the conflict narrative “persists within university-level pedagogical and reference books used to teach the uninitiated on contemporary postsecondary campuses.”

Students beware.

Walt Disney’s History of Science

Some interesting reading this morning. In a recent blogpost by Adam Richter, PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, he argues that popular, American attitudes toward science derive largely from Disney World attractions, particularly  “Tomorrowland,” where “progress” is a major theme. Indeed, this theme of progress is pervasive in Disney productions. Connected with this theme of progress is corporate industry. Attractions such as the “Test Track,” “Spaceship Earth,” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure,” are sponsored by Chevrolet, Siemens, and ExxonMobil respectively, and hosted by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye. “For historians of science,” he writes,” I think it’s helpful to view Disney World’s attractions as artifacts that reflect particular American attitudes toward science since the mid-20th century.” Disney’s whiggish vision of the past and progressive vision of the future are, of course, deeply flawed—if not profoundly troubling. Richter, however, sees this as an opportunity. If historians of science could tap into that kind of imagination, creativity, and articulation, the public would greatly benefit.

But Walt Disney achieved his ends largely through anachronism. In the comment section of Richter’s post, Gabriel Finkelstein, historian and expert on Emil du Bois-Reymond at University of Colorado Denver, suggested a recent piece by Andre Wakefield in History and Technology, “Butterfield’s Nightmare: the history of science as Disney history” (2014). Wakefield argues that “narratives that link the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution together in an imagined causal series are prone to Disneyish anachronism.” This is the “American mid-twentieth-century form of Whiggishness.” An interesting and provocative example Wakefield discusses is Disney’s production Our Friend the Atom (1957), a scientific propaganda film. As Wakefield notes, Our Friend the Atom “represented a joint venture between General Dynamics, which manufactured nuclear reactors, and the US Navy.” It was also hosted by Nazi war criminal Dr. Heinz Haber. In telling viewers (children) the nature of the atom, Haber and Disney provide a “history of the atom,” complete with Democritus, Aristotle, the Dark Middle Ages, the “inventor-scientist-experts” of the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, before concluding with our current Atomic Age. As Wakefield concludes, “Disney’s fable…is also a fable about the history of science and technology. Disney history collapses time. Past, present and future become indistinguishable. 2000 [sic] years of history disappear in the blink of an eye, giving way to the very sudden arrival of the Scientific Revolution, which then almost immediately becomes the Industrial Revolution. All of it portends a clean and happy consumer future of unbounded freedom and possibility.”

Disney history may be imaginative, creative, and attractive, but it is a fabricated history.

The English Deists

In addition to reading Cunningham, I have spent the last several days reading works on the Cambridge Platonists and seventeenth-century latitudinarian theologians: Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Peter Sterry (1613-72), George Rust (d.1670), John Wilkins (1614-72), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), John Smith (1618-52), John Worthington (1618-71), Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-51), Simon Patrick (1626-1707), John Tilloston (1630-94), Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99), Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), John Norris (1657-1711), and Richard Cumberland (1631-1718). Peter Harrison has provided extensive comments on these figures in his Religion and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990),  The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), and The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The Cambridge Platonists attempted to “establish some final court of appeal on matters of religious doctrine” against the rising religious pluralism in the aftermath of the English Reformation. They did this by grounding religious belief not in institutional authority but in the “certitude of the mind itself.” Their religion was a “rational religion.” Although each held a strong view of “reason,” the Cambridge Platonists continued to take the doctrine of the Fall quite seriously.

In addition to Harrison, I have found Jackson I. Cope’s Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist (1956), C.A. Patrides’ The Cambridge Platonists (1969), Richard S. Westfall’s Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1970), and Jon Parkin’s Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England (1999) helpful in contextualizing the lives and thought of these men.

Hudson - The English DeistsStudying the Cambridge Plantonists has quite naturally led me to the so-called English deists: Charles Blount (1654-93), Matthew Tindal (1656-1733), Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1679-1729), Thomas Morgan (d.1743), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and Peter Annet (1693-1769). This is how I came across Wayne Hudson‘s insightful two volume work, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (2009) and Enlightenment and Modernity: The English Deists and Reform (2009).

Hudson points out that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians looked back on this group of thinkers as attempting to “undermine belief in revealed religion, while claiming to believe in natural religion.” We see this, for example, in John Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers (1754-6) and Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth century (1876). This pattern of interpretation, a paradigm of belief and unbelief, has now become common parlance. Hudson, however, seeks to challenge this interpretation.

According to Hudson, “the writers known as English deists were not atheists or deists in an exclusive or final sense, but controversialists working with various publics for a range of purposes in a period in which ‘the public’ was being constructed.” There were “multiple deisms” and multiple social roles in which each figure was active. Most of the so-called English deists in fact denied that sobriquet. As Hudson writes: “Blount used the term ‘deist,’ but not of himself. Toland denied all his life that he was a deist. Collins used it only once in print, and then of others. Tindal never claimed in print to be a deist, although he outlined the stance of a ‘Christian deist,’ a position also adopted by Morgan. Chubb admitted that he was trying to promote deism, but refused to call himself a deist in a sense exclusive of Christianity, while Woolston and Middleton claimed to be trying to defend Christianity against ‘the deists.'” This is consistent with the fact that most of the English deists were “constrained by livelihood or social role to be Christians, and some of them were obliged to maintain a level of involvement with the established Church.”

The claim that the English deists were religious rationalists is also challenged. Religious rationalism begins with Richard Hooker’s (1554-1600) Of Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593), in which he insisted that reason could know the law of God without revelation. The Cambridge Platonists supported another form of religious rationalism, one informed by patristic and scholastic sources, as well as Renaissance Platonism. But like Hooker, they were all supernaturalists who found salvation only in revelation. And finally the latitudinarians articulated a “reasonable version of Christianity in plain language,” yet continued to hold a high Christology.

Although these writers certainly impacted the English deists, and many of them quoted the Cambridge Platonists consistently in their own writings, it is “misleading,” writes Hudson, to suggest that the deists “simply took the latitudinarians’ principles one step further.” Indeed, the English deists “almost all rejected Athanasian Christianity, in so far as it treated God as a person to whom human beings had obligations.”

Although the English deists are often associated with the Enlightenment, Hudson claims this association also needs revision. There are three forms of Enlightenment that must be distinguished: the Protestant Enlightenment, Radical Enlightenment, and Early Enlightenment. As Hudson argues, “if these writers had really been the outright enemies of Christianity they were accused of being, they would have lost their jobs and ended in prison.” Moreover, “they were not free citizens of an international secular republic of letters, but writers dependent on Christian acceptance and toleration, without which it was difficult for them to pay their bills and buy books.”

In his first chapter, Hudson provides the “genealogies of deism,” concluding that “whereas in Catholic countries deism was more clandestine and sometimes aggressively anti-Christian, in Protestant countries thinkers might interest themselves in various deisms without abandoning Christianity or their social and political identities as Protestants.”

In the following chapter on Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), often referred to as the “father of English deism,” Hudson argues that Herbert was a “Renaissance eclectic influenced by Platonism, Stoicism and Hermeticism.” He was likely influenced by the theistic naturalism of Jean Bodin (c.1529-96), and many of his contemplates viewed his work on religion as ecumenical, particularly his De Veritate (1624), De Religione Gentilium (1663), and De Religione Laici (1645). Indeed, his work was sympathetically read by Rust, Whichcote, More, Culverwell, and Cudworth. But Herbert’s work was undoubtedly more radical than the Cambridge Platonists, for his “natural theology was more extensive and more certain than the modest conclusions of Christian natural theology.” And as Hudson explains, Herbert also “rejected any idea of original sin and believed in a compassionate God and in the goodness of human beings.”

Hebert was also apparently interested in magic, medicine, and occult philosophy. Hudson bases these claims on two untranslated Latin poems Herbert supposedly composed, A Philosophical Disquisition on Human Life and On the Heavenly Life. Hudson includes these poems in an Appendix.

The remaining chapters of The English Deists discuss the standard list of English deists, but with much qualification. Blount, for example, is said to have combined classicism, multiple deisms, and borrowed heavily from free-thought and Protestantism alike. Toland promoted enlightenment attitudes and practices but retained some version of classical theistic naturalism. Collins, who called for toleration of a great diversity of views, included rational Christianity in his new social epistemology. Tindal, a lawyer and civil philosopher, promoted the theology of Protestant liberal thought, and did not challenge orthodoxy directly until the end of his life. As Hudson remarks in his conclusion, “until at least the 1720s, the main task [of the deists] was to attack ‘priestcraft’ and the High Church party and to argue for the liberty of belief and opinion.” The English deists were constrained in thought and activity by the Early Enlightenment, and therefore must be read in the context of the Protestant Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.

What’s in a name? Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica

Newton PrincipiaThemes from Andrew Cunningham’s 1988 essay were further developed in his “How the Principia Got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” published in 1991. Cunningham wants to concentrate on Isaac Newton’s famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), particularly the phrase “natural philosophy” in the title.

What is the “natural philosophy” in Newton’s book? Like many others in his day, Newton was a philosopher of nature rather than a scientist. According to Cunningham, Newton derived his natural philosophy from German physician and natural philosopher Johann Magirus (c.1560-96), particularly his Physiologia peripatetica of 1597. What was unique about Newton’s natural philosophy was his introduction of new mathematical principles. Other than that, he continued the traditional role of the natural philosopher. And this is what Cunningham wants to draw our attention to: “that over and above any other defining feature which marks natural philosophy off from modern science…natural philosophy was about God and about God’s universe.”

Cunningham admits that he is doing nothing new by emphasizing Newton’s theology. By the early 1990s, many scholars had already pointed out Newton’s unique and voluminous theological musings. But many historians of science continue to characterize natural philosophers as religious men in a religious age doing “science.” But this is a mistake. The point Cunningham wants to make in this essay is that, by contrast, the projects of natural philosophers were always “about God and His creation, because that is what the point of natural philosophy as a discipline and subject was.” Indeed, “each and every variety of natural philosophy that was put forward was an argument for particular and specific views of God.” Reiterating his point from the previous essay, Cunningham claims that “modern science does not deal with God or with the universe as God’s creation.”

Newton, therefore, cannot be turned into a “scientist.” He was motivated, for example, to create a natural philosophy against the perceived atheism of Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) natural philosophy. Indeed, Newton had clearly informed Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in 1692 that “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work wth considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” And, in responding to to Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) condemnation that his own work was atheistical or materialist, Newton published his General Scholium in the second edition of the Principia, where he explicitly claimed that discourse about God “certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”

Thus, according to Cunningham, Newton’s wasn’t a religious thinker in a religious age doing “science”; rather, “religious attitudes went into constituting each and every variety of natural philosophy, because natural philosophy was itself about God and His universe.”

When natural philosophy and natural philosophers of the seventeenth centuries are taken seriously, certain important consequences follow. First, according to Cunningham, figures such as Newton distinguished between natural philosophy, which deals with God and His universe (the book of nature), and religion, which deals with revelation (the book of scripture). Secondly, natural theology cannot be the same as natural philosophy; rather, natural theology derived its arguments from the findings of natural philosophy. Thirdly, the question now arises: “when and why people stopped looking for God in nature”? Cunningham does not provide an answer. He simply poses the question for future studies. And finally, we need a better understanding of the meaning of scientia, or “science” in the seventeenth century. Since Cunningham’s essay, many scholars have done just this. Most recently, Peter Harrison has traced the history of the concepts of both “science” and “religion” in his The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not merely concerned with God and His creation. “The ‘scientific’ work of particular natural philosophers,” Cunningham writes, was not merely “theologically or religious concerned or informed.” Rather, natural philosophy as such was “a discipline and subject-area whose role and point was the study of God’s creation and God’s attributes.” Anyone who took up the practice of natural philosophy had “God in mind.”

What is Natural Philosophy?

Andrew CunninghamOver the weekend I came across Andrew Cunningham’s collection of essays in The Identity of the History of Science and Medicine (2012). I had briefly mentioned Cunningham in an older post, but for heuristic purposes I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of his arguments here.

Beginning in 1988, Cunningham published an essay on “Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science.” In this essay he asks whether the historian of science is “studying the right subject?” That is, when the historian sets out to study the history of science, is she or he properly equipped to identify science in the past? The short answer Cunningham posits is no: historians of science have failed to properly identify the nature of science. As such, we also fail to properly understand its history. “It follows,” he writes, “that if we get it wrong—if we are identifying the wrong thing as science—we will be writing myths, hallucinations and romances which can only purport to be a history of science: we will be writing accounts of events which may not have happened, and of the adventures of a something which may well not have existed.” In other words, understanding the nature of this thing we call “science” is absolutely essential—otherwise we are just creating myths.

The source of this error, Cunningham claims, is “that we are actually taking to our investigation a ready-prepared set of finding guides to identify past science.” These guides or assumptions determines (i.e. dictates) what we consider “science” in the past—indeed, it determines all the history that we write. But this is clearly arbitrary, if not entirely mistaken. In short, our conception of “what science is” is absolutely critical.

When we take our modern criteria for “what counts as science” and apply it to the past, we ignore a host of historical complexities and contingencies. Cunningham and others have labeled this attitude as “present-centredness,” when we “look at the past with both eyes in the present.” This is a projection of present concepts back onto intellectuals of the past. Cunningham argues that historians of science need to “get out of the present.”

To overcome our “present-centredness,” historians of science need to remove certain obstacles hindering our view of the past. The first, Cunningham tells us, is our belief in the inherent “specialness of science.” This is difficult, no doubt,  as “science, its claims and achievements, totally dominate our modern outlook. The world we live in, the physical, the technological, and the intellectual world, id deeply pervaded and affected by the presence of science and scientists.” Although I disagree with Cunningham’s claim here (it seems to me that our modern outlook is pervaded by the belief in science rather than science), for the sake of the argument we will assume he is correct. Now, because science has become so pervasive, we take for granted certain claims about the nature of science. The most obvious example, that it is “objective.” But according to Cunningham, this commitment to “objectivity” in science prevents us from raising a “single question about the nature of science, or about the appropriate shape of a valid history of science.” Thus our “present-centredness” has already settled its history, shaping “the past of science to our own preconceptions about the nature and importance of science—preconceptions which are derived from the present”!

This is quite the dilemma. What do we as historians of science do? First we need to realize that the very “specialness of science” needs to be investigated. That is, why do we put so much faith in science? Secondly, we need to put this “specialness” completely aside. If we do not do this, Cunningham says, “we will simply be writing self-serving and self-confirming history, from which all properly historical questions have been refused application.” Indeed, our commitment to the “specialness of science” has prevented us from “treating the history of science historically” (my emphasis).

Cunningham purposes some solutions. First, science must be viewed as a “human activity, a human practice.” Science, in other words, is an invented institution. “Everything about the doing of science, everything about its practice, is a human activity, wholly a human activity, and nothing but a human activity.” Secondly, we must resist the urge to make science a “non-human-activity,” to make it, in other words, about “ideas” or “knowledge.” By making it about “ideas” or “knowledge,” we reify “science,” or, even more radically, deify it. But this of course is entirely an abstraction. Instead, the history of science is “centrally about people, about people engaged (or not) in that activity, about how and why they started that activity for themselves to engage in, about how they pursued, changed or abandoned that activity over time, [and] about how their pursuit of that activity affected the way they pursued other activities.”

Cunningham then compares the human activity of science to a game. Like games, science is intentional, structured and disciplined; it has a point and has rules; you either participate in it or you do not; it is indiscriminate, no matter who plays it; the experts are the only skilled players; and it is invented. Comparing science to a game, Cunningham admits, sounds almost sacrilegious. And there is actually a good, historical reason for this.

If the practice of science is an intentional activity, then those who engage in science must have had a “concept of science as an activity they could engage in.” This seems obvious, but many miss what follows: “if a given person in the past did not have or could no have had the concept of science as something to engage in, then he could not possibly have been doing science.” In short, we must let past actors speak for themselves, we must “see things their way.” What was their description of their own activity? In short, we must reconstruct their activity “with the extension, boundaries, aims, typical products that that activity had for its practitioners.”

So, how did people of the past practice “science”? Well, they described this practice not as “science” but as “philosophy” or “natural philosophy.” Whether it was “anatomy” or “chemistry,” each “science” was a sub-discipline of Natural Philosophy. In fact, according to Cunningham, no one called such activities “science” until as late as the 1800s. By the late eighteenth century, however, the intentional human activity of natural philosophy was beginning to be displaced by another human activity, and this activity is “science” as we know it today. So at one point in history, we had two activities, with some overlap: natural philosophy and science. And as Cunningham perceptively points out, “in the games of Natural Philosophy and Science, although both deal with the natural world, and both produce a ‘product’ (i.e. findings or statements about Nature), yet what counts as an appropriate product in the one may well differ from what counts as an appropriate product in the other.”

But what, then, was natural philosophy? How did our historical figures describe and understood their own intentional activity? Whatever their answer, we must take seriously. This is what it means to “get out of the present.” When we do this, we discover that the “single greatest difference between Natural Philosophy and Science is that Natural Philosophy was an enterprise which was about God; Science by contrast is an enterprise which (virtually by definition) is not about God.” According to the natural philosophers, Cunningham argues, nature was the book of God’s works. Thus natural philosophy was the “exploration of God’s creation and an admiration of His wisdom and foresight”; it was the “attempt to discover God’s laws, or an attempt to penetrate the mind of God.” Natural philosophy, in short, was “about God’s achievements, God’s intentions, God’s purposes, [and] God’s messages to man.”

It is important to stress that Cunningham’s argument is about human practices and their intentionality. As we shall see later, many of Cunningham’s critics miss this very crucial point in his argument.

In the final section of his essay, Cunningham draws our attention to the period c.1780-c.1850, when our modern conception of “science” was first invented. By using the term “invented,” Cunningham simply means the fact that science is a practice and creation of men. The invention of “science,” Cunningham argues, was causally inter-related to the massive political, social, intellectual, and economic changes of the period. The discipline of the history of science was also invented during this same period, in the early nineteenth century. “The inventors of science and their immediate successors,” he claims, “unselfconsciously rewrote the past in a way which showed themselves to be the heirs to a grand tradition.” When historians of science began writing histories of the “inductive” sciences, or histories of “biology,” “geology,” “chemistry,” or “physics,”  such historians “gave science itself a new identity.” They separated the human practice from the concept. That is, “they separated the thought—the ‘idea’—from the thinker.” Ideas, in others words, became autonomous concepts, detached from the lives and practices of their creators. This is of course is what has often been called “whiggish” history.

But there is more. According to Cunningham, science was “invented at the very same time and places in which the bourgeoisie triumphed politically and where industrial capitalism first became the dominant mode of economic production.” Just as capitalism separates the product of man’s labor from the human process, nineteenth-century histories of science separated ideas from their human producers. Cunningham claims this was no mere coincidence. The “scientist” became a “genius,” an “intellectual entrepreneur, engaged in a risky enterprise against great odds; we are in his debt, and hence his ‘originality’ deserves the proper credit.”

But “as long as we write the history of science as the history of discrete ‘ideas,'” Cunningham concludes, “we not only continue to misrepresent the identity of the subject whose history we claim to be studying, but we are also perpetuating the illusions and values that were built into the invention of science itself.”

Visions of Science: Epilogue

James A. Secord closes his Visions of Science (2014) with an Epilogue, concluding that the early decades of the nineteenth century was a “period of projections, projects, and prophesies, of attempts to imagine the future.” This was the promise of the new science. The technological innovations in printing, publication, and distribution diffused the message of the new prophets widely. But this new knowledge had a life of its own, and both Tories and radicals feared it. The Tories feared its ramification on traditional values; the radicals feared it would ultimately distract the worker from his political plight.

The March of the Intelect

“I come, I come! cries the great machine of intellect, ushering in the universal availability of information.” (The British Museum, 1828)

In any event, according to Secord the “secular millennium of useful knowledge trumpeted by Brougham in 1825 never arrived.” While the utopia quickly faded, a new prophetic ethos emerged, which “fed into a deeper and more lasting current of belief in progress.” Every author Secord discusses assumed that science “revealed the laws instituted by divine providence that underpinned the material and spiritual advance of civilization.” This is worth reflection. To these men and women, God had bestowed upon Britain a divine commission to “spread enlightenment across the globe.” They had a powerful vision of progress, and they used the new science to support it. Indeed, the new science need not lead to atheism or materialism. The metascientific works of the nineteenth century engaged the reader to reflect on “scientific law, the uniformity of nature, and divine goodness” simultaneously.

However, this rhetorical strategy was remarkably altered a generation later. The scientific naturalists retained the metaphysical belief in progress, but left out the doctrine of divine providence of Christian tradition. Another generation later, men and women now pay obeisance to scientists themselves.

Secord’s Visions of Science is readable, engaging, and informative. It is written however for a popular audience, with large text, spacing, and margins, encouraging annotations. Even the physical appearance of the book is inviting, the grey jacket cover going well with a black case cloth and red endpaper. His footnotes cite well-known authors, which provides guidance for further investigation. Some specialists will undoubtedly find faults and something to criticize. But it should be obvious at the outset that Secord pursued an non-specialist audience. A helpful Chronology follows the Epilogue, marking important political events and works published from 1819 to 1837. A guide to Further Reading follows, with classic and more recent works on science in nineteenth-century Britain. The work is printed on cheap paper, though, which made annotating difficult even with a fine round stic pen. There are also some embarrassing typos, such as, for example, when Secord writes “Book of Revelations” and “though” when he obviously meant “Book of Revelation” and “through.” This is surprise coming from editors of Oxford University Press.

These criticisms notwithstanding, James Secord has produced an important book. Both specialist and non-specialist will benefit from its insight and analysis of influential, early nineteenth-century popularizers of science.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 342 other followers