Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 2)

In his first chapter on “Site,” Livingstone demonstrated that science embraces a huge range of activities carried out in many venues. In heterogeneous spaces, nature is differently experienced, objects are differently regarded, claims to knowledge are adjudicated in different ways. It is only when the practices and procedures that are mobilized to generate knowledge are located—sited—that scientific inquiry can be made intelligible as a human undertaking. In important ways, scientific knowledge is always the product of specific spaces. To claim otherwise is to displace science from the culture of which it is so profoundly a part. In his chapter on “Region,” Livingstone considers the making and reception of scientific knowledge within defined political boundaries, prefaced with the observation that those boundaries are themselves human constructions.

On Region

We live on a highly differentiated planet, divided by regional mosaics. “Traditions of thought, channels of intellectual exchange, linguistic heritage, educational customs, codes of cultural communication, forms of religious belief, and numerous other constituents of human consciousness are decisively operative in producing regional identity.” Moreover, these regions are not fixed, static entities; rather, region is dynamic, “constructed through the tangled circuits of social relations.” As such, the conduct and content of scientific endeavor, from “styles of patronage, pedagogic traditions, and conduits of intellectual transmission to networks of communication, patterns of social organization, and expressions of religious devotion has conditioned local practices of scientific inquiry and the reception of scientific knowledge.”

At the regional and national scale, Livingstone links scientific practices to issues of cultural identity. The practices of science are interrelated to the cultural practices of the people in their homeland. Both the facilitation of scientific enterprises and the receptivity the scientific claims vary regionally and nationally.

Thus the “European Scientific Revolution” must be understood not only in terms of linear histories of science that highlight the common rationalistic elements of the scientific enterprise but also in relation to the cultural specifics of religion and politics of relevant geographies. Livingstone finds the category troublesome. First, the idea that there was some single event called “the” scientific revolution is the product of self-conscious labeling on the part of apologists and historians. Second, the idea of a momentous “revolution” suddenly inaugurating modernity fails to do justice to the lengthy historical transformations connecting the medieval with the modern. And third, that imagined regional unity—Europe—may be usefully prised open to disclose external influence and internal variation. Thus the idea of an autonomous European science is sustainable only at the expense of a series of strategic exclusions.

According to Livingstone, one must take seriously the regional geography of science. Indeed, particular and cultural circumstances and different national settings all influence scientific ideas in significantly different ways. Early modern science, he says, “followed the contours of geocultural variation.”

Livingstone supports his argument drawing our attention to the ways science was conducted in several geographical regions. On the Italian peninsula in the 1500s, for instance, scientific practice was chiefly cultivated by princely patronage. Such was the case with Galileo, who managed to acquire the munificence of the powerful Medici family. Galileo had moved from the University of Padua (in the Venetian Republic) to Florence in order to become philosopher and chief mathematician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici, in 1610. It was during his stay in Florence when Galileo first became seriously involved in the heliocentric debate, publishing his treatise, Sidereus Nuncius (1610), which was the first published scientific work based on observations made through a telescope. Galileo dedicated this work to Cosimo II. Interestingly enough, the courtly culture of the Medici dynasty had a theatrical style in which controversial subjects were unfettered, but would have been seen as improper elsewhere. According to Livingstone, “Galileo’s clash with the church is not to be thought of as an inevitable confrontation between science and theology; rather, it was an embodied struggle between religious authorities and new ways of knowing in a specific regional setting.”

In any case, the Galileo affair was not representative of Italian science. The Jesuits, for example, pursued observational astronomy, electricity, medicine. hydraulics, and natural history without dispute. As John W. O’Malley has observed, “Jesuits taught mathematics, astronomy, physics, and other sciences, wrote on these subjects, ran observatories and
laboratories, and attained renown in these fields.”

Another Italian site of knowledge were anatomy theaters, where public dissections of cadavers were carried out. “The defilement ordinarily associated with dead bodies,” writes Livingstone,” was sanctified by having its social meaning inverted. What was criminal outside became science inside. What was profane was made sacred.”

Cultural conditions and knowledge making enterprises were correspondingly different along Europe’s western fringe, the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal. Here we see most profoundly Islamic influences, notably in works of astronomy and medicine. Another distinguishing feature was its maritime imperatives, stimulating a scientific tradition conspicuously different that of Italy’s courtly culture. Indeed, founded on the tradition of exploration, science in this region was “stamped by imperial utility.” Thus Iberian science, stemming in large part from the imperatives of empire, was a markedly different pursuit from that practiced in the Italian court under the patronage of powerful family dynasties.

This brings Livingstone to the conclusion that “scientific inquiry in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas meant very different things—in what was investigated, who had the power to make knowledge, and why certain lines of inquiry were pursued.”

The same is true of England. Similar to its Iberian counterpart, but nevertheless conspicuously distinct, overseas voyages contributed to a remarkable transformation in regional consciousness. What made English navigational concerns so distinct was its post-Reformation setting, and thus its political and religious geography. In England the “triumph of experimental philosophy took place in the midst of religious turmoil.” Protestant impulses in England directed scientific endeavors in a variety of ways. First, Protestant aversion to ecclesiastical control nurtured an anti-authoritarian stance in matters of natural knowledge. Second, the virtues of hard work, an inclination toward social improvement, and dedication to a life of personal piety fostered a philosophy of self-reliance and harmony with the utilitarian thrust of new scientific enterprises. And third, Protestant expectations of the imminent return of Christ in the ushering in of his millennial kingdom fostered misgivings about abstract, speculative disputes of precisely the sort that typified thought elsewhere, particularly France.

These sentiments inclined English science and scientists toward a “physicotheology,” in which nature was investigated for evidences of God’s handy work, His design. “The character of God was to be found in the orderliness of his creation. Natural philosophers from Boyle to Newton consistently used their investigations to disclose the regularity that the creator had built into the fabric of the universe and to demonstrate the ways he intervened to preserve its stability.”

Another characteristic feature of science—or, more properly, natural philosophy—in Protestant England was a propitious exegesis of God’s two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Inaugurated by the Reformation, allegorical biblical interpretation was replaced by a more literal and historical exegesis. This move also bore on how the text of nature was read.

And finally, in England it was the gentleman who constituted the culture paradigm of truth teller. “Because gentlemen enjoyed financial independence, they had no need to fabricate falsehoods.” The economic subservience of the poor made them suspect as truth tellers. Merchants and traders were in the same boat: because the economic survival required material advantage, their word was not to be trusted. “To the extent that Italian science was a spectacular courtly affair, its English counterpart was a subdued gentlemanly pursuit.”

But Livingstone wants to revel in more complexity. “In different towns and cities, in different counties and provinces, in different municipalities and parishes,” he writes, “scientific endeavors have been molded by subregional particularities.” Looking at the circumstances of Victorian Britain,  political conditions directly impress themselves on the culture of science. Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, and Sheffield all attest to scientific practices that were constituted in different ways by different urban cultures.

The consumption, or reception, of science is also marked by local circumstances.”The meaning of particular scientific texts and theories has varied from place to place.” Here Livingstone briefly examines the work and reception of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Robert Chambers (1802-1871), and, most importantly, Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Different Victorian cities met the challenges of Darwinism in different ways. For instance, Robert Rainy, the principal of the Free Church College in Edinburgh, “openly accepted the legitimacy of evolutionary speculation,”while J.L. Porter, in Belfast, was telling his students that evolutionary theory “threatened to quench every trace of virtue.” Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851-1878, insisted that it eliminated purpose and plan; to Hodge Darwinism was atheism.

Rainy’s sentiment is characteristic of Edinburgh thinkers who thought about the issue of Darwinism. This was largely because Darwinism paled in comparison to other intellectual assaults on the religious mind, most conspicuous among them was the new Biblical criticism. In a retiring presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Belfast, John Tyndall, proclaimed that religious beliefs should be subject to scientific constraints:

All religious theories, schemes, and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, insofar as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thoughts of controlling it…Every system which would escape the fate of an organism too rigid to adjust itself to its environment must be plastic to the extent that the growth of knowledge demands.

Tyndall’s claims understandably produced a flood of angry responses from clerics and layperson alike. But most importantly, and perhaps the perspective taken by Porter and others, many who had strongly supported scientific activity as long as they believed that it would support religious ends now withdrew their support of what they perceived as a heartless, soulless, and anti-Christian science.

While Hodge proclaimed Darwinism as atheism, another Princeton scholar, namely James McCosh, read evolution as a story of divine design. Thus even within Protestantism, regional cultures and concerns led to different responses to evolutionary ideas. “The reception of Darwinism thus displayed an uneven regional geography. In some cases religious commitment was crucial. In others racial neuroses or political fixations controlled the diffusion of the Darwinian mind-set…Whatever the particulars, local circumstances were decisive in shaping how regional cultures encountered new theories. In the consumption of science, as in its production, the distinctive regionalism manifests itself.”

Science has been, and continues to be, promoted as a universal undertaking untouched by the vicissitudes of the local. This account, however, is historically misleading. “Science has borne the stamp of the regional circumstances within which it has been practiced.” Science has served dramatically disparate agendas in different ideological spaces. Treating scientific knowledge as a universal phenomenon, untouched by the particulars of location, fails to accurately depict its development and immense power in society.


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