Work in progress

I’m slowly working on a book that tries to integrate what I’m learning about history with what I know (or think I know!) about early modern philosophy, and thought I’d post an excerpt that covers, in a general way, putting the two domains together. Comments welcome!


The interested reader is struck by the sharp differences between the histories of science told by historians and those told by scientists. Historians see their subjects in the same way I have portrayed them: as individuals both insightful and benighted, acting in complicated circumstances with mixed motives. In Shapin and Schaffer’s pivotal work, Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton 1985), for example, we encounter figures who are not simply concerned with the most coherent interpretation of experiments conducted with the new air pump. We meet Robert Boyle and the newly-formed Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and discover their interest in establishing an independent, non-Royal society that can stand apart from religious and political intrigue and provide accounts of nature that are not inflected with political strategy. We also meet Thomas Hobbes, who knew better. There can be no such thing as scientists operating in a political vacuum. A society which tries to establish facts independent of royal pronouncements is by that very fact a challenge to the crown. A society in the 17th century that insulates itself against religious discourse is about as Protestant (specifically, as Nonconformist) as a society can be.

Shapin and Shaffer’s work was revolutionary because it provided a model for historical inquiries into science. To understand the battle between Boyle and Hobbes, we need never appeal to our advanced knowledge of “what is really going on” inside the bell jar. After all, Boyle and Hobbes had no access to that knowledge; it was precisely that knowledge they were trying to establish. We focus on the ideas, tensions and conflicts that were in fact impinging upon them at the time, as revealed in letters and published texts. Historians of science need not attend to the “true” scientific story any more than historians of politics should attend to the “true” conclusions of political science. Scientific truth, in other words, is not an historical agent. We are left with human motivations, politics, religion, etc, which are sufficient on their own to determine human trajectories.

But turn now to Steven Weinberg’s more recent history of science, To Explain the World (Harper 2015). Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics who took an interest in the history of his subject, taught courses about it, and subsequently wrote this book. In the history of science as Weinberg presents it, truth is very much an agent. It runs as a silver thread through his chapters as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton manage to get some things right, and some things wrong. We find, from this perspective, that both Bacon and Descartes are quite overrated, as they did not manage to get much right. Galileo and Newton are lone geniuses who were somehow able to transcend the murky thought of their times and hook some genuine insights onto that silver thread. A footnote reassures us that even though Newton did experiment with alchemy, he was really only trying to do chemistry, and his work “thus did not represent an abandonment of science” (218). Befuddled philosophers criticized Newtonian gravity as an occult force, insisting that scientific theories should be founded on pure reason, but (perhaps by being good students of Newton) “we have learned to give this up” (219). The last third of Weinberg’s book is devoted to technical notes which lay out the truth toward which our heroes aspired. It is a final cause toward which both the book and the history of science itself are drawn, pulling each noteworthy scientist inexorably toward the truth as we know it.

Well. It is no difficult task to show the inadequacies of such a history. Galileo and Newton were geniuses, but far from lone; no scientific advancement has ever emerged Minerva-like from a single Olympian head. The enormous influence of Bacon and Descartes is of course quite distinct from the question of how much they got right – and summing up their influence as “overrated” underestimates the power of ideas, right or wrong, to shape the development of science. No, Newton the alchemist was not merely groping toward modern chemistry; and, no, the criticism of gravity as an occult force did not arise merely from rationalistic philosophers who should have known better (indeed, it troubled Newton himself no end). And, as Weinberg must surely know, final causes rarely provide much in the way of explanation these days.

The larger question posed by histories like Weinberg’s is to what extent a history of science – and, by extension, a history of philosophy – should concern itself with scientific or philosophical truth. For it is undeniable that, when Boyle and his Royal Society brethren placed a lit candle and a mouse under bell jars and commenced to pump out the air, the candle went out and the mouse died. It is undeniable that bodies do fall with the rate Galileo predicted, and that one can derive Kepler’s laws from Newton’s account of gravity. And it is furthermore undeniable that we can explain these results because – no matter how it may cause an historian to squirm – we know what’s true. We know that vacua exist, and we have an excellent (if still incomplete) grasp of gravity, and we are wizards of mathematics. Pace Shapin and Schaffer, the natural knowledge we have today has always been an historical agent: Newton’s inverse-square law of gravity held (in good approximation) before Newton was born, and indeed even before any humans were born. The political and religious factors described by Shapin and Schaffer may have shaped what the early scientists did and believed, but so too did the very nature of the world – a nature we now know most impressively.

So: what hath Pasadena to do with Athens? In other words, what role does scientific truth play in the history of ideas? Obviously, historians who are trying to uncover the political and religious tensions exerted upon a figure must be concerned with some sort of truth; they would spend far less time in the archives if they didn’t. Is there any principled reason for paying such close attention to social truths while ignoring the truths of nature? The truths of nature may not have been known by the agents, but then again, neither were the agents fully aware of all the social forces acting upon them. Moreover, forces (whether social or natural) need not be known by agents in order for the forces to act upon them. Vacua were every bit as present in the 17th century laboratory as were the religious and political worries of the day, no matter how many people in the room denied their presence. And this we ourselves learn through our fallible estimations of the truth, both historical and natural.

The only sensible approach is to let the requirements of the explanation at hand determine what mode of fact we draw upon. If we want to explain why Hobbes so doggedly attacked Boyle’s accounts, we shall have to draw principally upon his political concerns, and we shall have to proceed in similar fashion if we want to understand Boyle’s political irenicism. If we want to explain why both Hobbes’s accounts and Boyle’s accounts ended up taking on the particular shapes they did, we shall have to appeal to what really happened in those bell jars, and how what really happened figured into the accounts they developed. We know what they were seeing, even apart from what they thought they were seeing. Generally historians of science cannot hope to explain all that they wish to explain without drawing from both history and science. And why should anyone want to traverse the fields of the past without both eyes open?

The same considerations carry over into the history of philosophy, though the value of truth here may be replaced by the value of explanatory adequacy. For my money, Wittgenstein was right when he insisted that philosophy does not have its own facts. Philosophy must outsource the creation of knowledge to the natural and social sciences, as philosophers do not possess any special methods or avenues of insight that surpass those of other empirical inquirers. What philosophers contribute is an exceptionally clear understanding of system mechanics: how a body of general claims might fit together into a systematic unity, and possess both explanatory powers and weak points at which objections and counterexamples can be leveled. To the extent that a science wishes to provide a system of nature, and not just an assemblage of ad hoc explanations, it is helpful to have on hand a “systems engineer” – a philosopher – to assess the integrity of the system, and to locate explanatory gaps in the system.


John Locke, divider of wheat

Thus when we try to understand and explain how John Locke distinguishes between ideas of primary qualities (the ideas that match how things really are) and ideas of secondary qualities (the ideas that don’t), from within our own experience, we must draw upon something more than an understanding of historical context. We need to draw upon our own experience, and our own critical reflections upon the account Locke gives. Locke claims that no matter how we alter an object, we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of shape and size and state of motion. But isn’t it also true that we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of color and taste and texture? Locke answers that, if we continually divide a grain of wheat, at some point its taste (at least) disappears. But then he also claims that, if we are very diligent in our dividing, the shape and size of the wheat-parts may become eventually “insensible”. But then why should we not equally conclude that the taste of the wheat is still in the wheat-particle, but is now merely “insensible”? This sort of critical reflection upon Locke’s account in no way relies upon 17th-century accounts of wheat; nor does Locke mean his account to be mired in his own locale. He is trying to discern facts of human experience, which is ours as much as his. The philosopher who reads Locke must take his attempts at explanation not merely as historical artifacts, but as explanations aiming to explain our experience as well as his own.

On the other hand, when we turn to the more general explanation of why Locke is trying to establish a distinction between reality and mere appearance on the basis of experience anyone may consult, it is there that we may find ourselves turning to Locke’s own historical circumstance, and possibly his interest in providing a Protestant epistemology. Is it an accident that Locke employs wheat as an example, when it is wheat that makes the bread served in holy communion? Is there anything really in the wheat but size and shape and motion? Can we discern, through experience, any traces of Christ’s body – or is the idea of the host only an idea of a secondary property, existing only in the mind of the communicant? History gives us the answer Locke was angling toward, and a wider view of his motivations.

When Locke or any of these other figures were writing, it is fair to say that history, philosophy, and nature were all guiding their hands. It should come as no surprise then that the historian of ideas must appeal to all these forces, as they are relevant, in explaining why they wrote what they did.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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