Robert Boyle

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.

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The Study of Nature as Devotional Practice

In the Winter issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Peter Harrison considers the “Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England” (2014). In particular, he focuses on the sentiments of chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In his Disquisition concerning the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), Boyle argued that studying nature will excite “true Sentiments both of Devotion and of particular Vertues.” That is, the study of nature is a religious activity. As Harrison puts it, natural philosophy not only provides arguments for the existence of the Deity, it also induces “moral and religious sentiments in the investigator.”

Recent trends in history of philosophy demonstrate that “philosophy” was always more than mere theoretical argumentation and logical abstractions; it was, according to the late French philosopher Pierra Hadot, “a way of life.” In short, philosophy was a spiritual exercise. This “spiritual” element was present in early studies on nature. We see this not only in Plato, Claudius Ptolemy, and Simplicius, but also in the works of early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even medieval authors.

Harrison quickly moves on to the early modern period, particularly in the work of Francis Bacon. In a number of his treatises, Harrison observes, “Bacon framed his justification for the pursuit of natural philosophy in terms of the biblical narrative of the Creation and Fall.” The aim of natural philosophy was to regain control over nature, which was lost after Adam’s fall. Natural philosophy, in other words, was a restoration project. Experimentation was the labor required after the Adamic Fall. According to Harrison, the Protestant idea of a “universal priesthood” and personal piety were essential components to Bacon’s program.

Harrison then turns to Bacon’s successors, the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. Harrison focuses on Thomas Sprat’s work on the History of the Royal Society (1667). According to Sprat, experimental philosophy undoubtedly reveals useful knowledge, but it also has moral ends. Natural philosophy, in short, purges moral deficiencies from the experimenter. But it also does more than this. Its also “promotes a properly informed worship of God.” Clergyman Joseph Glanvill and others would follow this Baconian program. In his “The Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion,” Glanvill affirms that “the Free, experimental Philosophy will do to purpose, by giving the mind another tincture, and introducing a sounder habit, which by degrees will last absolutely repel all the little malignancies, and setle in it a strong and manly temperment, that will master, and cast out idle dotages, and effeminate Fears.”

Returning to Boyle, Harrison observes that he “was also concerned to make an explicit case for the personal piety of the experimentalist.” For Boyle, natural philosophy not only revealed the power and wisdom of God, it also “promoted piety and particular virtues.”

Experimental activity, in other words, was a decidedly religious activity.

 

Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011)

Since my post on Huxley’s treatment of “Nature,” I have occupied my time with readings from Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2009) and Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011). Otis’ work is an anthology of over 500 pages of excerpts and explanatory notes. Sleigh’s work is a sustained argument about the natural relationship between science and literature, covering a diverse range of topics, such as “Empiricism and the Novel,” “Epistolarity and the Democratic Ideal,” Idealism and the Inhuman,” Realism in Literature and the Laboratory,” Scientists, Moral Realism and the New World Order,” “Subjects of Science,” and “Says Who? Science and Public Understanding.” Both books serve well as introductions to the relatively recent field of science and literature.

Charlotte Sleigh - Literature and ScienceIn this entry I begin with Sleigh. She starts by debunking several myths about science and literature, namely science as objective and literature as subjective, essentially the “two cultures” argument presented by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in a 1959 lecture. Science, she says, is all about persuading others that certain hypotheses are true, and “persuasion is primarily an art of language and literature.” “Science,” she goes on to say, “cannot be conducted without language, and language is not a neutral tool. It actively shapes knowledge just as much as does the decision to dissect this animal, use that microscope, perform this test, and so on.” The advent of modern scientific knowledge, moreover, was “intimately connected to the gentlemanly trustworthiness of the reporter. Who did this? Who saw this? Was it someone they could trust?” Further, scientific knowledge is also representational, and thus depends on language. Scientific facts are only meaningful when they are made up of words and images, “and these words and images bring a host of allusions, history and connotations that themselves become part of the representation as the science is further developed.” Indeed, language constructs scientific discovery, “since no scientist can think through the process without the words and images of their culture.”

The distinction between an object science and a subjective literature also breaks down when “one considers the human identity of scientists.” Scientists, like everyone else, experience passion, curiosity, and awe that motivates their work. Again, these are human motivations. Indelibly, literary and scientific work “remain human activities undertaken for very human motives.”

During the nineteenth century, “the distinction between scientific writing and other kinds of publications blurs considerably.” Indeed, other scholars have argued that during the nineteenth century “science was literature.” “Knowledge was less specialized than it is today,” Sleigh explains, “and educated readers would respond to both the scientific and the literary elements of any text.”

In chapter one, Sleigh considers “the transition to modern science that took place in the later seventeenth century and the literary implications of the natural philosophers’ switch from textual to observational knowledge,” that is, “empiricism.”  She focuses on Robert Boyle and the founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660. Recent scholarship shows, however, that “experimental science and novelistic prose were not merely parallel developments born of the social shifts of the seventeenth century.” Rather, “there was also a closer and more necessary relation between them, stemming from the fact that not all scientific witnessing could be done face-to-face.” Thus some scholars have “characterized Boyle’s writing as a ‘literary technology’ that was no less important than physical technology (the air pump) and social technology (the new gentlemanly codes of observation) in making knowledge.” She then compares these developments to several pieces of literature, particularly Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1727), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) and The Wrench (1978).

In chapter two, Sleigh shows how a Benthamite model of law in courtroom hearings is employed in the reading and writing of epistolary fiction, “the layers of the text allow[ing] the reader to hear multiple perspectives and even to simulate participation in the dialogue concerning the novel’s economy of virtue.” Mary Shelley’s lusus naturae, Frankenstein (1818), an “examination of the powers of reason and experience,” is “both epistolary in nature and presented for readers’ judgment” over heated debates regarding vitalism.

Chapter three looks at the early Victorian era, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and William Whewell’s model of scientific method. For Whewell, science was more “than the grindings of pure, mathematical, deductive logic.” “Induction, rather than deduction,” he says, “is the source of the great scientific truths which form the glory, and fasten on them the admiration of modern times.” The underlying assumption here, as Sleigh points out, is that “a person had to have the correct idea in mind before she or he could weigh up the claims of scientific observations.” Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, first published in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34, and then published as a single volume in Britain in 1838, and Edgar Allen Poe’s editorship of Southern Literary Messenger and other writings “did not conform happily” to Whewell’s agenda. Poe goes so far as to suggest that “science could be done by the power of imagination better than it could by either of Whewell’s methods; that is, by inductive or deductive logic.”

Chapter four discusses the origin of realism in literature and laboratory, situating it in the “political turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century continental Europe.” Here Sleigh works closely with the work of French novelist and critic Emile Zola (1840-1902), who “came to present the scientist as a heroic figure.” Zola, among many other mid-nineteenth-century writers, artists, and dramatists, “professed a commitment to reality in their work.” They espoused “naturalism,” who “claimed to describe [things] as they inevitably were.” The science of evolution, Sleigh points out, “provided yet more evidence for Zola and the realists that humans obeyed the laws of nature.” “From positivism, statistics and evolutionary theory,” she continues, “naturalists gained confidence that they could explain and predict human behaviour, through a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors.” Zola subsumed this confidence in his novels, particularly his Thérèse Raquin (1867), where its characters are depicted as “predictable as chemicals in a test tube.”

Chapter five develops these themes further, in the form that realism took in Victorian Britain. Unlike continental thinkers, “Victorian realism was essentially moral rather than ontological,” which transitioned from “a theological form in the nineteenth century to a rather more secular version of authoritarianism in the twentieth.” Here we find case studies on George Eliot (1819-1890), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), and H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Like the continental realists, Eliot’s novels were packed with accurate details. But unlike Zola and continental realists, rather than just explaining the “how,” she concerned herself with the “why” of human behavior. Sleigh makes comments on Eliot’s translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (trans. 1860), Romola (1862-63), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Sleigh, these writings suggests “that it is not so much facts captured that matter as the spirit in which they are searched out,” a “kind of moral realism.” Similarly, Charles Kingsley’s writings, particularly his Two Years Ago (1857) and The Water Babies (1863) expresses the authority of the heroic scientist on firmly moral grounds. Indeed, the true scientist has Christ-like qualities, who courageously and selflessly pursues reform and truth.

In the later part of the nineteenth century, scientists became “more assertive in their efforts to dominate moral culture.” As Sleigh correctly points out, “histories of the supposed ‘conflict’ between religion and faith were written at this time.” The teaching—and, quite honestly—preaching of T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall are noted. As Ruth Barton pointed out, Tyndall’s 1874 Belfast Address “demonstrates an almost religious faith in science. “Believing, as I do,” writes Tyndall,

in the continuity of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.

Similar to Eliot, “there came for Tyndall a point where observations had to stop and only ‘veracious imagination’ could stand in. What governed this imagination was a moral economy of heroism: a lonely servitude to truth.” And here is where H.G. Wells comes in. He was, according to Sleigh, a “spokesman for the truth and social value of science.” It was Huxley’s views on evolution that guided his The Time Machine (1895). Other writings of Wells are more explicitly didactic in nature, including Anticipations (1901), A Modern Utopia (1905), The Outline of History (1918-19), The Open Conspiracy (1928), The Science of Life (1929-30), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932). Sleigh concludes this chapter with a brief look at William Morton Wheeler’s “The Termitodoxa, or Biology and Society” (1920), which she describes as “a thinly disguised demand for biologists to be given the social authority to practice their eugenics in human society,” and Aldous Huxley’s more ambivalent view of the value of science in his Brave New World (1932). Aldous Huxley and others began to “recognize that ‘pure’ science was in fact nothing of the sort, and that its alternative title, ‘high science,’ actually gave a great deal away about its class identity and purposes.”

Chapter six discusses the subjectivist reaction against the objective, realist perspective, particularly in subjectivist psychologies of associationism, Bergsonism, Freudianism, and beyond, producing literature and art that came to be known as “modernist.” According to Sleigh, the two brothers William (1842-1910) and Henry James (1843-1916) “form a happy pairing of science and literature.” Briefly discussed are William James’ “subjectivity of thought” in The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908), which is an example of “subjectivity without a subject.” Sleigh also includes May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier (1919), which more explicitly than the James’s combined “the relativistic insights of physics and psychology.” Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1905) is called “novel of modernity,” incorporating the science of thermodynamics, Darwinian and biological degeneration, and the subjectivity of time and space. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the subjectivity of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, “an astonishing attempt to write a work of literature focalised by a character—whom we are given to understand is a Neanderthal—who barely possesses language.” Golding’s book “tapped into a specific debate of about fifty years’ standing regarding the order of mental and physical evolution.”

The final chapter brings us to the twenty-first century. The production of science is now inextricably linked to its consumption. Thomas Kuhn is noted for his “distrust of the big-progress story told by scientists.” The 1960s counterculture movement disputed scientific authority. “[The] promise of happiness, wrapped up in fake scientificity, together with the gabbled list, obligatory under the advertising code, of bizarre and occasionally horrific possible side-effects…undercuts the notion of heroic progress, and offers instead a cynical account of the promises of science in a climate of profit.” A crucial account of scientific hubris is told in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981), the maverick scientist “Allie Fox is arguably more of a Frankenstein figure than Frankenstein himself.” This theme of uncertainty is also exemplified in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) and Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) and The Corrections (2001), each responding to a number of man-made environmental incidents.

Sleigh offers at the end of each chapter a helpful selection of annotated relevant texts for further reading. This is extremely helpful as a reading list, encouraging readers to broaden or reconsider their existing arguments in light of the issues she raises. “Even though science and literature are more specialist fields than they were in Darwin’s day,” as Sleigh writes at the close of her introduction, “novels can still open up these questions about the credibility and value of science. Indeed, literature reveals that belief in science depends on many things—credibility, trust, rhetoric, representation and human motivation—beyond facts themselves.”

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 2)

In 1948 English historian Herbert Butterfield presented a series of lectures for the History of Science Committee at the University of Cambridge. There he argued that historians have overlooked an episode of profound intellectual transformation—one apparently comparable in magnitude to the rise of Christianity and that was deeply implicated in the very formation of the “modern mentality.” This episode was of course the Scientific Revolution. But as we have seen from previous posts, the idea of the “scientific revolution,” or, more precisely, “revolutions in science,” had its origins in eighteenth century thought.

Butterfield’s Cambridge lectures, published as The Origins of Modern Science: 1300-1800 (1949), were limned from a tradition of other twentieth-century historians and philosophers—scholars such as Pierre Duhem, Ernst Cassirer, E.A. Burtt, and, most importantly, Alexandre Koyré, who  regarded history as a special resource for illuminating the evolution and progress of science. In fact, it was Koyré who, in 1943, appraised the conceptual changes at the core of the “scientific revolution,” as “the most profound revolution achieved of suffered by the human mind.” It was so profound that human culture “for centuries did not grasp its bearing or meaning; which, even now, is often misvalued and misunderstood.”

Osler - Rethinking the Scientific RevolutionThese traditional narratives by early twentieth-century scholars have customarily focused on a list of canonical figures. These figures usually include Nicholas Copernicus, Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Margaret J. Osler’s (ed.) Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (2000) problematizes this canonical list. Questioning the canon leads, according to Osler, to inquire why and how it was formed in the first place. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution is in memory to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Richard S. Westfall, best known for their studies on Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

Osler’s introduction frames and outlines the discussion in this illuminating work. She argues that one must seek balance, recognizing that intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking. Historians, then, need to “recognize the role that their own assumptions play in their constructions of the past. There is no escaping them, but consciously acknowledging them staves off the temptations of claiming objectivity and progress.”

This new approach, Osler argues, is at odds with traditional accounts of the scientific revolution. From nineteenth-century positivist Ernst Mach, historians have told a story that stresses radical discontinuity of the scientific revolution from what came before. This is the story Westfall reiterates. This assumption also embodies an “essentialism” about science, according to which science it defined as unchanging and unambiguously identifiable in every historical era. This essentialism creeps into the interpretation of the scientific revolution itself: having defined the nature of the scientific revolution, historians, such as what H. Floris Cohen has done in his The Scientific Revolution, searched this event and explanations of it. Cohen, who undertook the daunting task of examining the entire historiography of the scientific revolution, as we have seen, nevertheless remained committed to both the reality of the revolution and to its historiographical utility.

Following the work of Quentin Skinner, Osler argues that taking agency seriously means using actors’ categories to account for the development of ideas. She means, in other words, to appropriate ideas of historical actors, to work within their particular social, ideological, and intellectual contexts. Osler argues that “future research must address the interests and concerns of subsequent generations, which created the perception that a scientific revolution occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then bequeathed it to us.”

Since historians of science have interpreted Newton’s work as the climax of the narrative they call the scientific revolution, this radical shift in understanding of the meaning of his work forces us to reconsider may of the received opinions about the nature of the scientific revolution.

The first essay by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, presented at the Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society in 1993, opens the discussion by stating her intention “to undermine one of our most followed explanatory frameworks, that of the scientific revolution.” Following I.B. Cohen’s work, Dobbs argues that the narrative of the scientific revolution was constructed in the eighteenth century, when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views. Newton, according to Dobbs, is key: “as science accumulated more and more social prestige in the later eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the image of Newton as principal cultural hero of the new science was handed on and further polished by succeeding generations of scientists and historians.” Indeed, Newton is “the hidden end toward which the whole narrative [i.e. the scientific revolution] is inexorably drawn.” Newton is not only the First Mover in historians’ account, he is also the Final Cause of the scientific revolution.

But this is not the Newton of history. Dobbs summarizes the central problem in a long passage, worth quoting at length:

But to my mind the issue of the proper interpretation of our scientific heroes has been the most pressing problem of all, a problem that was at least in part generated by the concept of the Scientific Revolution. I think the problem arises somewhat in this fashion: we choose for praise the thinkers that seem to us to have contributed to modernity, but we unconsciously assumed that their thought patterns were fundamentally just like ours. Then we look at them a little more closely and discover to our astonishment that our intellectual ancestors are not like us at all: they do not see the full implications of their own work; they refuse to believe things that are now so obviously true; they have metaphysical and religious commitments that they should have known were unnecessary for a study of nature; [and] horror of horrors, they take seriously such misbegotten ideas as astrology, alchemy, magic, the music of the spheres, divine providence, in salvation history.

Newton, alleged epitome of austere, scientific, mathematical rationality, pursued alchemy, apocalyptic theology, hermetism, and other occult practices. The problem, then, according to Dobbs, is a historiographic one. Newton’s “system was very quickly co-opted by the very -isms he fought [i.e. mechanism, materialism, deism, atheism], and adjusted to suit them. He came down to us co-opted, an Enlightenment figure without parallel who could not possibly have been concerned with alchemy or with establishing the existence and activity of a providential God.” In the end, Newton was not one of history’s all-time winners; rather, he is one of history’s great losers, “a loser in a titanic battle between the forces of religion and the forces of irreligion.”

In short, Dobbs calls historians of science to understand the presuppositions and assumptions of their historical actors rather than searching for anticipations of modern ideas in their thought.

Richard S. Westfall, on the other hand, wants to defend the traditional historiography. He argues that the historian’s task is not mere antiquarianism, “We are called to help the present understand itself by understanding how it came to be. We strive to find a meaningful order in the multifarious events of the past and thus, explicitly or implicitly, we pass judgment on the relative importance of events.”

In defending the historiography for which he was one of the most distinguished spokesmen, Westfall responds with reasserting the scientific revolution as “our central organizing idea,” because without it “our discipline will lose its coherence and, what is more, the cause of historical understanding take a significant set backward.” Thus Westfall, Osler argues in her introduction, is “fundamentally forward-looking, based on the assumption that what is interesting in the past are those developments that led to our present understanding of the world.” The crucial difference between Westfall and Dobbs, then, is that Westfall assumes that thinkers in the past are similar to us and that what is important for the historian is that aspect of the thinkers works that has survived until the present or that had led to our present way of looking at things.

Peter Barker agrees that Dobbs’ work “not only shifted the boundaries of Newton scholarship, she changed its center.” In his essay Barker wants to reexamine the “role of religion in the Lutheran response to Copernicus.” According to Barker the doctrine of the Real Presence, stipulated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, article 10, that “Christ’s body and blood is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine of the sacrament,” encouraged Lutherans to study any and all aspects of nature, for to do so was coming to know more about God. “For Luther and his followers, the Real Presence was distributed throughout all objects.”  These Lutherans became known as the “Wittenberg Astronomers,” and including Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553), and Hilderich von Varel (1533-1599). In short, according to Barker, Lutherans expressed an early and strong interest in Copernicus’ work, even arranging for it publication. By the end of the sixteenth century, if you were a Protestant studying almost anywhere in German-speaking Europe, you would have been taught the Copernican system. By the time of Kepler’s education at Tübingen in the 1580s, for example, distinct positions on Copernicus’ work had emerged in northern Europe.

Another compelling essay in Rethinking the Scientific Revolution comes from Jan W. Wojcik’s “pursuing knowledge: Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.” Wojcik is concerned with the different views of Boyle and Newton regarding the power and scope of human reason. “I think that the most important difference between these two natural philosophers is that they had dramatically different conceptions of God’s intentions concerning human understanding…to what can be known in both natural philosophy and theology, and how that knowledge can best be attained, exactly who can attain this knowledge, and when it might be learned.” Boyle, for example, was content to assent to mysteries, and that God never intended any human beings to a complete understanding of either nature or theological truths during this lifetime. Newton, on the other hand, insisted that God had revealed Christian doctrine with the intent that it be understood in a plain and natural sense, and that God in fact intended at least some individuals to achieve a complete understanding during this lifetime. Despite their differences, Wojcik argues, “it is clear that for both men theological concerns was an absolute priority.”

Moving into their more esoteric studies, Lawrence M. Principe discusses “the alchemy of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton: alternate approaches and divergent deployments.” His title already suggests that Newton and Boyle—much like everything else—approached alchemy from different angles. According to Principe, those seeking the secrets of alchemy approach the subject through three kinds of sources: (1) the written record left by past adepti; (2) direct communication with living sources; and (3) laboratory investigation. Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, for example, consists of material not his own. “By far the great part of Newton’s alchemical output is in the form of transcriptions, translations, extracts, collations, and compendia of various alchemical authorities. By contrast, most of Boyle’s alchemical tracts are in fact gifts from their authors or copies made by others, rather than copies made specifically by Boyle.

Principe also examines what specific benefits these two students of alchemy expected to reap from such activity. In the case of Boyle, for example, the rewards were increased natural philosophical knowledge, medicinal preparations, and defense of orthodox Christianity. Boyle also expected to obtain the alchemical summum bonum, the secret of the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone. Newton, on the other hand, expressed doubt in the real existence of the Philosopher’s Stone. Rather, for Newton the study of alchemy was a search for the existence and means of divine activity in the world. Thus an area of relative commonality between Boyle and Newton’s alchemical investigations lies in the service they believed alchemy could render to religion. Indeed, both men “sought alchemy as a corrective to an overly mechanized and potentially atheistic worldview.” Principe shows the ways in which alchemical ideas were important to Boyle and Newton, who are frequently considered to be mechanical philosophers.

By elucidating the similarities between Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) and Isaac Newton, Paula Findlen raises the question why Newton was incorporated into the canon and Kircher was not. “Both were deeply religious men, committed to the study of nature as a sure path toward the revelation of divine wisdom, who began their academic careers as professors of mathematics. Both valued the learning of the ancients, searching ever further into pagan and Christian past in hope of illumination.” And no where is their commonality most clearly evident, says Findlen, than in their alchemical investigations. Thus “it is only the judgment of later generations that forged our distinction between genius and crackpot.”

In an essay by James G. Force, “the nature of Newton’s holy alliance between science and religion: from the scientific revolution to Newton (and back again),” he argues that we must cease to consider Newton as a cause for the final product of the scientific revolution, agreeing with Dobbs in large part in her astute moderation of the extreme generalities of the grand theorists of the scientific revolution. Newton was not some “protodeist who did not realize the paradoxical nature of his own thought”; rather, he is “a far more complex thinker for whom the Lord God of supreme dominion constitutes the key to understanding the nature of his particular ‘holy alliance’ between science and religion.”

J.E. McGuire, known for co-authoring the oft-cited “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan'” (1966), a fascinating and important study of Newton’s belief in the ancient wisdom of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean traditions, underscores in his essay, “the fate of the date: the theology of Newton’s Principia revisited,” the connection between Newton’s alchemy, theology, and natural philosophy. According to McGuire, “God is the ground of all being,” the “spiritual tonos,” the “structuring structure” of Newton’s cosmos, and therefore the Principia acts as a “conduit through which that structure is disclosed.”

While twentieth-century scientists and historians may value Newton’s contributions to mathematics and physics, religious fundamentalists, as Richard Popkins demonstrates in his “Newton and Spinoza and the Bible scholarship of the day,” are more impressed by his approach to biblical scholarship. But Newton, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Richard Simon (1638-1712) all took seriously the problems that had arisen in the collection, editing, and transmission of Scripture, and that Newton was not committed to claiming the inerrancy of the biblical texts.

Margaret C. Jacob concludes the collection by arguing that the “revolution in science” was constructed in the eighteenth century when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views.

At this juncture it is worth mentioning the tireless, and more recent, work of Stephen D. Snobelen, whose main scholarly area of interest is Isaac Newton’s theological and prophetic writings. In several places, beginning with “Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite,” The British Journal for the History of Science 32 (December 1999): 381-419; “‘God of Gods, and Lord of Lords’: the theology of Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia,” Osiris 16 (2001): 169-208; “‘A time and times and the dividing of time’: Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 A.D.,”The Canadian Journal of History 38 (December 2003): 537-551; “To discourse of God: Isaac Newton’s heterodox theology and his natural philosophy,” in Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945, ed. Paul B. Wood (2004), pp. 39-65; “Lust, pride and ambition: Isaac Newton and the devil,” in Newton and Newtonianism: new studies, ed. James E. Force and Sarah Hutton (2004), pp. 155-181; “Isaac Newton, Socinianism and ‘the one supreme God’,” in Socinianism and cultural exchange: the European dimension of Antitrinitarian and Arminian Networks, 1650-1720, ed. Martin Mulsow and Jan Rohls (2005), pp. 241-293; “‘The true frame of Nature’: Isaac Newton, heresy and the reformation of natural philosophy,” in Heterodoxy in early modern science and religion, ed. John Brooke and Ian Maclean (2005), pp. 223-262; “‘Not in the language of Astronomers’: Isaac Newton, Scripture and the hermeneutics of accommodation,” in Interpreting Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: History of a Dialogue, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer and Scott H. Mandelbrote. Vol. 1 (2008), pp. 491-530; “Isaac Newton, heresy laws and the persecution of religious dissent,” Enlightenment and Dissent 25 (2009): 204–59; “The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica: a preliminary survey,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 52 (2010): 377–412; “The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, Newtonianism, the the Enlightenment,” in The persistence of the sacred in modern thought, ed. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs (2012), pp. 149-84; and “Newton the believer,” in The Isaac Newton Guidebook, ed. Denis R Alexander (2012), pp. 35-44, Snoblelen reveals Newton as a true Renaissance man, who spent decades delving in the secrets of alchemy and even longer studying the Bible, theology and church history. Leaving behind four million words on theology, “Newton was one of the greatest lay theologians of his age.” In his essays, Snobelen’s explores Newton’s theology, prophetic views and the interaction between his science and his religion.

Reading Newton in light of his own preoccupations rather than those of twentieth-century historians forces us, as Dobbs concluded in her essay, to reconsider many of the received opinions about the nature of the “scientific revolution.”

Peter Dear’s Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science

I came across Peter Dear’s “Historiography of Not-so-Recent Science” (Hist. Sci. 1, 2012) while doing some research last week at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Library. It is a fine article, reviewing some of the most recent themes and trends on the historiography of science on the period c. 1500-c.1700; that is, on the late Scientific Revolution.

What I found interesting about the article, and worthy of a post here, is the attention Dear gives to recent work on Francis Bacon and Empiricism, Alchemy and Anatomy, Networks and Circulation, Ideas and Intellectual Culture, and Big Names.

To start with, Dear draws our attention to recent work by Sophie Weeks, who “presents a Bacon who sought above all, not just a systematized way of producing by artifice the properties of natural bodies, but whose ambition extended to a kind of ‘magic’ that would create novel things hitherto unheard-of, by forcing nature into paths that it had never followed by itself when ‘free and unconfined.'”

There has also been a “renewed focus on alchemy.” In particular, Dear notes the prolific writings of “William Newman and Lawrence Principe,” who “have striven to establish a particular thread of alchemy as having been central to the intellectual history of science in the seventeenth century.” Although these two authors have played down the spiritual significance of the alchemist’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone, their scholarly work has shown, however, “that both practical techniques and theoretical alchemical doctrines concerning atomism and corpusculariansism played important roles informing the work of such natural philosophers as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.”

Pamela Smith’s recent work reveals the movement of material objects as well as of instrumental practices (including such items as plants, instruments, books, astronomical data, ethnographic reports) along the trade routes of the modernizing world, especially those of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and thus creating the first “global networks.”

An “intellectualist history of science,” as Dear calls it, is perhaps the most vigorous modes of history of science writing. This is a history of ideas, a history of a specifically intellectual culture. We find this mode in authors such as Steven Nadler, Christa Mercer, Roger Ariew, Stephen Gaukroger, and  Dan Garber. He draws attention to Peter Harrison’s most recent work on the “importance of the Fall from Grace as an element in seventeenth-century evaluations of the potential of human knowledge” and the emergence of modern science.

Finally, Dear still recognizes the importance of the biographical approach to the history of science. John Heilbron’s recent work on Galileo is one example. There is also a veritable cottage industry of work buzzing around the life and work of such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Michael Hunter, for example, has made a career on Boyle, whereas Rob Iliffe has created a remarkable website dedicated to publishing in full an online edition of all of Newton’s writings—whether they were printed or not, “The Newton Project.”

Dear aptly concludes that “grand overviews survive in the pedagogically necessary genre of the textbook, but the days of the large scale historical account of the Scientific Revolution seem to be almost gone.”