Transcript: 396. Lorraine Daston on Renaissance Science

Comets! Magnets! Armadillos! In this wide-ranging interview Lorraine Daston tells us how Renaissance and early modern scientists dealt with the extraordinary events they called "wonders".

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: You are a historian of science, among other things, and one of the many topics you've researched in that area is something you call in some of your work "wonders." So these are wondrous or monstrous, strange, striking phenomena that attracted the attention of a lot of scientists in the Renaissance and the early modern period. And we're going to talk about the sorts of things they said about it, how they accounted for these. But can you maybe start by just giving us a sense of what sorts of things or events fell into this category and also how information about them was disseminated?

Lorraine Daston: The short definition of a wonder in this period is anything that's new, rare, or unusual, anything that snags your attention as being extraordinary. This could include exotic animals, armadillos from South America. It could include phenomena whose causes are opaque. So for example, magnetic attraction and repulsion. It could include strange phenomena, things that glowed in the dark without shedding heat. It could include monstrous births like two-headed cats. It could include visions seen in the sky of three suns, perihelia, seen in the sky or especially in the war-torn centuries of the 16th and 17th centuries, armies battling in the clouds. All of these - comets, new stars, all of these would have been classified as wondrous. There's an important distinction though, which can't be made in all European languages. You can make it in Latin, you can make it in English, you can make it in French, but not in German and probably not in Dutch. And that is between a marvel and a miracle. So a marvel is something that is extraordinary, but in principle could be explained by some complicated concatenation of natural causes. Whereas a miracle is something which could be caused only by God, in which God suspends his ordinary providence, what we would call, although the term was still known in the 17th century, the laws of nature, violation of the laws of nature. Both of those can trigger wonder and therefore belong in the canon of wonders. But from the standpoint of natural philosophy, from what we would call science, they belong in two quite separate categories.

Peter Adamson: So something like a magnet that attracts metal, that would be not a miracle, but still wondrous, whereas something like someone rising from the dead would obviously be a miracle. So to go back to this question about how information about these things was disseminated, I take it that we're mostly not talking about eyewitness reports in the text, but rather scholars who are reporting in the text that we can read that 'someone said that this happened' or 'someone said that they saw this,' or are we actually dealing with lots of texts that say, 'I experienced this firsthand?'

Lorraine Daston: We're dealing with both. We're dealing, especially after about 1650, with eyewitness reports which are sent into what we would now regard as the first scientific journals. So for example, the wonderfully named Miscellanea Curiosa that was published by the first scientific academy in the German lands, which later became known as the Leopold Diener book was originally named the Academia Naturae Curiosorum, the academy of those who are curious about nature, encouraged its far-flung correspondents, doctors mostly, to send in things that were unusual, which they had seen themselves. They placed a premium on autopsia, which meant eyewitnessing. And the same rules held for the first journals of the Royal Society of London and the Paris Academy of Sciences. They were extremely interested, if possible, in eyewitness reports. However, these strange reports, so for example, of a two-headed child born in Plymouth sent in by the local curate to London, or reports of a phosphor which glowed in the dark sent in to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. These reports would then be placed in the context of what we would call a longer baseline. So the academicians, once they received such a report, would scour their sources from antiquity on to try and find other occurrences in medieval chronicles or ancient medical texts so that they had the beginnings of an inductive generalization. So they began to try to domesticate these marvels by fitting them in to a category. Aurora borealis is a good example. Quite unusually, auroras were visible in the latter part of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century in latitudes as low as that of London and Paris. Very unusual. And some of these were witnessed by the academicians themselves. Others were witnessed by provincial correspondents. And the attempt was to then go backwards and see whether or not you could start looking for periodicities of these phenomena, much in the way that Halley, Edmund Halley, who was an astronomer and member of the Royal Society of London, was looking for periodicities of comets, the one that eventually became named for him with a periodicity of 75 years. So it was both. It was both eyewitness reports, but then immediately an attempt to situate the eyewitness report, the freshly arrived report, in a historical series of similar events.

Peter Adamson: And are those new developments? I mean, is that one of the things that would differentiate the treatment of wonders in the Renaissance, whatever we mean by Renaissance, and what we sometimes call the early modern period? I mean, if you compare the treatment of wonders in, say, the 15th or 16th century to the way they deal with it in the 17th century, are those two big differences that they start relying more on eyewitness testimony, and that they start trying to contextualize what they've seen, or the reports that are coming in against older reports?

Lorraine Daston: The first, depending on eyewitness testimony, has a much longer history, but not necessarily in the context of what we would call science. It has a longer history in the context of miracles. The medieval Catholic Church, especially after about the 13th century, began to take a rather jaundiced view of locales that wished to have a saint beatified in order to create a pilgrimage shrine which would attract wealthy tourists to their town. There was a clear economic interest in having a saint in your town. So by the 13th century, the Catholic Church had set rather high standards to start the canonization procedures, namely three well-attested miracles. These miracles had to have been seen by eyewitnesses, and they had to be independently corroborated. So many of the procedures, the protocols that were later adopted by academies of science, had been pioneered by canon lawyers in the Middle Ages for investigating - with a skeptical eye, it should be said - they were called, not for nothing, "devil's advocates" - of the reports of miracles by local bishops hither and yon throughout Christendom. So that part was in the context perhaps of what we would call natural philosophy new, but not new in terms of procedures to test the allegedly wondrous by eyewitness report. The business of putting them into context, however, that is, scouring the historical sources for an inductive series, that is new. And that represents in many ways the adoption by scientists of techniques that had been perfected by the Renaissance humanists. So the Renaissance humanists had begun to collate texts faced with the riches that arrived first in Italy and then further north of the Alps after 1453 and the fall of Constantinople and the arrival of scholars from Constantinople, Greek-speaking scholars with manuscripts. The humanists began creating tools like concordances, indices, tables of contents in their new critical editions of these works. Those could be used to create the kind of series in the 16th and 17th centuries that the scientists were interested in.

Peter Adamson: So I take it from everything that you've just said that the lazy assumption that we might have had that scholars from these early periods would have been very credulous in just repeating anything that they heard, like crazy stuff about people with feet instead of ears or whatever, that they were actually much more careful about what they were willing to lend credence to. And I suppose that they often report amazing sounding things and then say, yeah, but we're not so sure this really happened.

Lorraine Daston: It's a really good question. And I think there's really no easy answer. Some of the things which they believed are at a glance to us absolutely ridiculous. So for example, the monstrous races of which Augustine speaks in the city of God, some of which are the seapodes, for example, who have one large foot, which they use as a parasol to shade them from the sun, or the blemmyes, who have no head but have their facial features in their chest. We cannot look at these without smiling, and we know at a glance that this couldn't possibly be the case. But you can also set your threshold of incredulity too high. Let me give you an example. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, these new scientific academies I mentioned receive reports of stones falling from the sky. Not surprisingly, the stones that fell from the sky fell in the open fields where they were witnessed mostly by peasants or other shepherds or other people who spent a lot of time in the open fields outdoors at night. The academicians resolutely refused to credit such reports. They dismissed them as the superstitions of peasants since it was mostly peasants who were witnessing them until in around 1800, there was a meteor shower within three kilometers of Paris, at which point the learned academicians of Paris had to eat their words and go out and investigate themselves. Was it unreasonable of them to be incredulous about stories of stones falling from the sky? This is a really difficult question and we live in a moment now where we are once again in a perplexity about credulity and incredulity and where to set the threshold. I don't think there will ever be an easy answer to this question.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, because you can make mistakes in both directions, obviously.

Lorraine Daston: That's right. And imagine that you live in the 16th century in a European city, a port city perhaps, which is being flooded by novelties of all kinds from both the far west and the far east. Who would have thought that something like an armadillo could exist? People were equally amazed by the arrival of paper money from China. What kind of people would accept paper as legal tender as opposed to gold and silver? Since you had seen or had witnessed by reliable witness such marvels, would anything surprise you? There's a wonderful treatise written in the mid 17th century by a French British, French English divine Merit Casabon, for whom Casabon in George Eliot's Middlemarch, I think, was named. He writes about witchcraft and he writes with some doubt. He writes, very learned people, he's thinking of the doctors, Johannes Weill and others, have claimed that there are no witches. But if there were no witches, that would mean that learned and upright magistrates have condemned thousands of innocent people to death. This is a thought too horrible to countenance. And then he averts his eyes from that abyss. So the question of what to believe and what not to believe tormented people in the 16th and 17th century as well.

Peter Adamson: What about the advisability, even maybe the moral advisability, of being so curious about these things? Because I'm really struck by the fact that there's this organization founded where they explicitly say, we're curious about natural phenomena because of course in the Middle Ages curiosity was usually used as a term of abuse. So you weren't supposed to be curious and that meant delving into details that weren't important or something like that. So looking back over the classical heritage and so on, did they find encouragement in figures like Augustine say to delve into these wonders or were they worried about the fact that they were wasting their time and being frivolous?

Lorraine Daston: Augustine has very harsh things to say about people who investigate natural phenomena or allow their curiosity unbridled to take over their lives. He castigates the learned astronomers because they attempt to find the causes of eclipse rather than displaying a proper awe for the works of God. And he finds curiosity even more pernicious at its very best. Curiosity is frivolous. It distracts you. He describes very characteristically in the first person, a moment when he is at prayer and he allows himself to be distracted by a lizard that scampers across his path. That is the motif of an attention which is undisciplined and a self which is incontinent. That's the best construal of curiosity. The worst construal of curiosity is that it's a meddlesome busybody who is prying into the secrets of neighbors or the prince or still worse, blasphemously, of God. So curiosity has a very bad reputation. One of the sins imputed to Lucifer, the fallen angel who becomes Satan, is curiosity. It's in the neighborhood somewhere between the sins of lust and pride. That is not a good neighborhood to live in in the Middle Ages. But its star begins to rise in the 16th and 17th century. And by the time we get to the 17th century, there's a whole philosophical anthropology best represented by the political theorist Thomas Hobbes, which takes curiosity to be the most salient feature of human beings, perhaps even more salient than the fact that they have reason. And Hobbes associates curiosity with a form of an appetite which, unlike the other appetites, like lust or hunger or thirst, is insatiable. And he finds that insatiability to be actually admirable and a source of inexhaustible pleasure. All of our other appetites, hunger, for example, can be sated, curiosity not. For Hobbes, that ennobles curiosity.

Peter Adamson: That would really be a message you could get out of Aristotle, too. I mean, the beginning of the metaphysics all humans desire to know, and he talks about the pleasure that comes along with knowledge and philosophical contemplation. He dissects shellfish. So it's a very Aristotelian attitude, I would say. So it's not like all of antiquity is telling you not to hear it.

Lorraine Daston: Absolutely not. No. One has to be a little careful here. When Aristotle uses very, very rarely the word periargeia, which is the Greek word for curiosity, it is in this pejorative, busybody sense. But in terms of what we would call curiosity, there is, of course, the beautiful passage in the Parts of Animals in which he quotes the fragment of Heraclitus and says, Heraclitus welcoming visitors into his kitchen, saying, "there be gods even here." And Aristotle says, "there is nothing so disgusting in nature, but that there aren't marvels revealed when you look at it closely enough, there be gods even here."

Peter Adamson: And how do they feel about the emotional charge that you get out of these stories? So I'm not just talking about the intellectual curiosity, but the pleasure that you would get out of it, or maybe the terror you would get out of it. I mean, something like armies fighting in the sky, that's not just cool. It's really frightening. And again, looking back to the medieval age, these very strong emotional reactions, I take it would have been seen as a kind of downside of thinking about wonder. Is there a positive way of spinning that in the Renaissance and early modern period, such that they - so would someone like Hobbes, for example, say, 'well, actually, no, you should let yourself be guided by your emotions here, your pleasure, and your titillation that you feel when you hear these stories, is actually going to spur you on to discover more about nature?'

Lorraine Daston: These three emotions - or perhaps better "passions" in the sense of a passion being something that grabs us by the lapels that happens to us, which we suffer patiently, rather than a kind of sloshing around of nervous fluids, which is the origin of the term emotion, these passions of wonder, horror, and terror form a triangle, which is quite precarious. That is, it's very easy for one of them to tip into the others. Let me give a concrete example from the early modern period. There's a whole group of phenomena, for example, armies battling in the sky, three suns in the sky, monstrous births, comets, rains of blood, which are associated with portents. That is, they are messages sent by God, ominous messages, that something cataclysmic is about to happen. That tradition is still very much alive in the 16th and 17th century. In fact, the printing press, in a sense, gives it a new lease on life because it's possible to print illustrated broadsides. These are one-page sheets, usually taken up half with a woodcut, illustrating the two-headed calf that was just born, or the army seen battling in the sky, or the rains of blood. The rest is a very short text, which we might think of as the ancestor of our journalism. It answers the when, what, why, who questions, where questions. But it's interpreted as a portent, as I say, a message sent by God. So those phenomena are meant to elicit terror. However, one begins to see by around 1600, increasing numbers of such broadsides, which include ballads, which celebrate the wonder of such phenomena, indeed advertise that for a small sum in a coffee house or at the year's fair, you too could see the two-headed calf if you wanted to. We have sermons that are preached on the occasion of the birth of a monstrous child, in which the minister has to harangue his congregation into terror because they think it's a pleasurable wonder. So these three emotions, horror, terror, wonder, are always in a relationship of instability with one another. And there is a clear trend, much remarked upon and much disapproved of by religious authorities, of seeing ever more pleasure in these strange phenomena and ever less terror and horror.

Peter Adamson: What about the idea that wonders are an exception to natural laws? You mentioned this before, the heading of miracles. And in fact, this is how Hume deals with miracles. He talks about a miracle as a departure from natural laws. And I guess you find this way of thinking about miracles all the way back through the tradition. Now, you said before that there's a difference between a miracle and a marvel, right? So a miracle is a violation of natural law and a marvel isn't. It's just inexplicable, maybe you are really striking. But does that mean that they don't in any way feel that wonders shake their confidence in the stability of nature? Because on the one hand, you've got marvels, which are just hard to explain, but must be subsumed under natural laws somehow. And then you've got miracles and they don't count because that's God stepping in from the outside. So in other words, what I'm asking is whether wonders effectively have no import for their sense of the universality and generality of natural laws, or are they worried about the fact that the laws as they see them might have kind of holes?

Lorraine Daston: Now, the boundary between a marvel and a miracle was always blurred. Thomas Aquinas discusses this in the 13th century. And Aquinas makes the criterion subjective. So he says, what for an astronomer, for example, an eclipse is neither a marvel nor a miracle, because one knows how to explain it, is for the unlettered peasant, a miracle. So there is a sliding scale depending on your state of knowledge or ignorance as to, first of all, whether or not you feel wonder, and secondly, where you classify the event on the marvelous to miraculous scale. That really changes in the early modern period. And one reason it changes is that very idea of natural laws being articulated. So Aristotle has a very strong idea of natural regularities, what happens always or most of the time. But he's perfectly aware and says at various junctures in his work that extraordinary events happen every now and then, every once in a blue moon. But for Aristotle, these are not the stuff of natural philosophy. You should be investigating the regular, what came to be called - later than Aristotle - is what Bacon calls them: 'the customs of nature.' And those are what happens always or most of the time. We might call them statistical regularities. Starting in the middle of the 17th century, you get a much more hard edged view of what these regularities are. It's Descartes who begins to use the language of legality. It's not unknown in the Middle Ages, but its realm is very much restricted. There are laws in astronomy and there are laws in grammar. Those are the sources of the two most ironclad regularities according to medieval scholars. But starting with Descartes, you get the idea that there are certain regularities which are so fundamental that they are actual proclamations, edicts of God, Deus Legislator, God the lawmaker. These are not just every regularity, but rather the fundamental laws of motion from which all other phenomena can be deduced. These are watertight. They allow of no exceptions whatsoever, except by the divine legislator who promulgated them in the first place. For the first time, you get a much sharper line between the marvelous and the miraculous. That being said, there is a very special role, a special epistemological role that's being played by the wondrous, especially in the late 16th and early 17th century, which is the moment when the entire edifice of natural philosophy and astronomy begins to crumble. Copernicus publishes on the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies in 1543. Vesalius publishes on the Fabric of the Human Body also in 1543. The reports of the new world have been coming in since 1492. It is clear to every learned person by the second half of the 16th century that there were many things which the ancients did not know or which the moderns knew better. The litany that is repeated over and over again is: 'gunpowder, the printing press, and the magnetic compass show the superiority of the moderns over the ancients.' At that moment, philosophers, scientists are confronted with a truly horrifying thought, which is 'everything that the best and brightest have believed for centuries is probably wrong.' What do you do in such a situation? Well, what some of them did, what Francis Bacon did, but not only Francis Bacon, was to say, let's create a whole collection of anomalies, of exceptions to Aristotle's bland generalizations of what happens always or for the most part. They will be a standing reproach and a challenge to us to formulate regularities which are both broader and more watertight than anything in the old discredited natural philosophy. These collections of wonders become a battering ram against the old natural philosophy.

Peter Adamson: Something that you say that goes along these lines in some of your work, which I really liked, is an analogy where you described the older Aristotelian medieval science as smooth because it deals with these universal generalizations, and the late Renaissance, early modern science as grainy because it pays so much attention to particular events. Is that basically what you mean by that, that there is this turn to looking at one-off situations and testing the old universal claims of Aristotelian science against these one-off exceptions?

Lorraine Daston: Not only exceptions, but also particulars which are more humdrum and everyday. You'll remember from Aristotle's poetics that he distinguishes between philosophy and deep poetry, which deal with universals, and historio, which deals with particulars. Historia here is in the broad sense of not only our sense of history, civil history, but also natural history, anything that deals with particulars. It's quite clear to Aristotle that the prestigious endeavor is philosophy or even poetry, which deals with universals. That hierarchy begins to be reversed starting in the early 16th century for very interesting reasons. It starts first with the doctors. The doctors, who are the people who have in the medieval university system been most likely to have received a natural philosophical education, start to collect what they call observaciones, observations. They revive the idea of the Hippocratic case, but even more than the individual medical case history, they begin just to start recording individual observations, often of strange cases, which they begin to publish. They publish them in collections that start with the head and go down to the toe for easy consultation by other doctors. The doctors who do this are doctors who are usually employed not at the universities, but either at the courts or as the municipal physicians of larger cities, say, Augsburg or Bologna, who have, first of all, wide practices, and secondly, whose daily bread is actually trying to deal with individual cases so that the system of rewards, of academic rewards, which rewards studying universals at the universities, no longer holds for them. Their patients, including their princely patients, wish to have knowledge of particulars, particular drugs, for example, the medicinal properties of botany. Starting with those doctors who, remember, are the people who are most likely to know something about natural philosophy and who compose, for example, two thirds of the membership of the Royal Society of London in its early years and the complete membership of this Academia Naturale Curiosorum, this move to look at particulars spreads. When we talk about empiricism, we have a rather, I must say, rough-hewn view of what it means. What's really going on in the 16th, 17th century is that these, first of all, these doctors who are the vanguard of this movement, but then humanists and lawyers and other sharp observers are pioneering new forms of systematic empiricism. Observation and experiment, observatio and experimentum are two words you very seldom find coupled in medieval Latin texts. You also very seldom find them in connection with what university professors do. That's what either shepherds do in their fields, sailors on their ships - or experimentum, artisans in their workshop. You start to see first the doctors and then the natural philosophers putting these two together and making them into what Bacon called learned experience, systematic experience.

Peter Adamson: It seems like there's a paradox there actually because it means that roughly at the same time that this very careful attention is being paid to particular events, whether wondrous or not, you also have this increasing confidence that there will be general, rigorous, unexceptionless laws of nature. And is the reason for this that they are confident that these laws must exist? They don't know what they are yet, but once they do enough close observation of particulars, they'll be able to somehow get back to the universal. So it's almost like they'll redo Aristotelian science, but they'll get it right this time. And this time there won't be any exceptions.

Lorraine Daston: I think that's very much the vision that someone like Descartes or Leibniz has. And also Bacon. Bacon's view is, all right, we're going to, as you say, the understanding should not be allowed to fly on wings. It should be hung with lead weights. You're going to use all of these wonders, these anomalies, what he calls the natural history of predator generations of monsters to slow you down, to make sure that unlike the Aristotelians, you don't leap prematurely to a generalization. But eventually we are going to get, just as you say, to the right kind of generalization, one broader and more ironclad than any Aristotelian generalization.


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