1986 – 9(2)

How then should the historian of science proceed? Referring to his own research, Pagel suggested that:

Instead of selecting data that « make sense » to the acolyte of modern science, the historian should therefore try to make sense of the philosophical, mystical or religious « side-steps » of otherwise « sound » scientific workers of the past – « side-steps » that are usually excused by the spirit or rather backwardness of the period. It is these that present a challenge to the historian: to uncover the internal reason and justification for their presence in the mind of the savant and their organic coherence with his scientific ideas. In other words it is for the historian to reverse the method of scientific selection and to restate the thoughts of his hero in their original setting. The two sets of thought – the scientific and the non-scientific – will then emerge not as simply juxtaposed or as having been conceived in spite of one another, but as an organic whole in which they support and confirm each other. There is no other way to lay the savant open to our understanding [[W. Pagel, 1967. – : 82. ]].

It has thus been Walter Pagel’s desire to interpret the facts of medical and scientific history « as the outward expression of their time ». When this has been done, he explained.

It will then appear that not only certain standards of technical equipment made discoveries possible, but that these can be seen also as the offspring of certain non-scientific ideas and of a particular cultural background … The History of Medicine will then appear much more complicated than it does in the usual perspective of straight lines of progress. Yet we will have to embark on the cumbersome task of reconstructing ancient thought if we wish to write history – and not best sellers [[W. Pagel, 1945. -: 4. ]].

Important though Pagel’s work has been, his influence may well have been less than that of the late Dame Frances Yates who wrote a series of books relating the Scientific Revolution to Hermeticism. A literary historian, Dame Frances first attracted the attention of historians of science with the publication of her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition in 1964[[ F.A.Yates, 1964. – Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chigago-London-Toronto. ]]. Here was an attempt to assess the work of Bruno as a sixteenth-century supporter of the heliocentric theory not because he was a forward-looking scientist, but because the sun-centered system best accommodated his mystical, « Hermetic », views of the sun and the universe. This book is surely one of the most influential to have been published in the history of science in the past two decades. And on the whole this influence has been healthy, since she urged historians to cope with a vast body of texts that never should have been ignored in the past.

The Yates influence has also had dangerous side effects. Overwhelmed by the importance of Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, magic and other mystical strands of Renaissance philosophy, Frances Yates went on to ever more daring positions that were based upon less and less solid evidence. In The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), she came close to insisting that the entire Scientific Revolution developed from Renaissance mysticism and magic [[F.A. Yates, 1972. – The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London-Boston. ]]. Still more recently, she came close to ascribing Newton’s mathematical genius to the influence of the late sixteenth-century mathematician and alchemist, John Dee [[See Ibid., 113, 171-205. ]]. Unfortunately, these suggestions have not been upheld by the sound historical evidence they require. They are speculations which must be considered doubtful at best.

The works of Pagel and Yates have generated considerable interest and debate. And it may be worth noting that neither of them represents any of the older, traditional fields in the history of science. Yates may best be described as a literary historian while Pagel was a classicist and a pathologist as well as an historian of medicine. But they both offered a challenging approach to the history of science – one that may go far toward solving the entire problem of the Scientific Revolution.

Among historians of science the study of the pseudo-sciences has aroused the most conflict in relation to the proper interpretation of the work of Isaac Newton. All would agree that Newton represents the culmination of many strands of early modern physics, mathematics, and astronomy, but how is one to interpret the thousands of folios of alchemical manuscripts he wrote? Among the first to try to integrate them into a total picture of Newton has been R.S. Westfall who had earlier discussed this author only in terms of the traditional postivistic history of science. But by the early 1970s Westfall had become convinced that the Hermetic mysticism of the seventeenth century was an essential ingredient in Newton’s thought and that this philosophy led « the relatively crude mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century science to a higher plane of sophistication » [[R.S. Westfall, 1972. – Newton and the Hermetic Tradition in Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance: Essays to honor Walter Pagal .I-II, ed. Allen G. Debus, New York: 183-98. ]]. And, in the most recent contribution to the study of Newton’s alchemy, B.J.T. Dobbs has gone further to claim not only that much of Newton’s most important work derives from his alchemical speculations, but that the « whole of his career after 1675 may be seen as one long attempt to integrate alchemy and the mechanical philosophy » [[ B.J.T. Dobbs, 1975. – The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or «The Hunting of the Greene Lyon », Cambridge- London- New York- Melbourne: 230. ]].

It is little wonder that more traditional historians of science have expressed their fears of these new developments. At a meeting at King’s College, Cambridge (1968) devoted to new trends in the field, P.M. Rattansi argued the case for contextual history stating that the « historian’s task cannot be that of isolating ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ components, but of regarding it as a unity and locating points of conflict and tension only on the basis of an exploration in considerable depth » [[P.M. Rattansi, 1973. – Some Evaluations of Reason in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Natural Philosophy, in Changing Perspectives in the History of Science: Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham, ed. M. Teich & R. Young, London: 148-166. ]]. In reply, Mary Hesse argued against the inclusion in the field of subjects that were not truly scientific in modern terms. The pseudo-sciences might well belong to history, but they could not be considered as part of the history of science. Anticipating that such an approach might be considered exclusive, she added that it is essential that we should use modern science as a means of weighting the arguments of the past. To use judgments of the past that include non-scientific elements is a waste of our time. Indeed, she concluded, we must be careful what we read or permit ourselves to assess since, by « throwing more light on a picture, we may distort what has already been seen » [[M. Hesse, Reasons and Evaluation in the History of Science, Ibid., 127-147. ]]. Hess’s reaction is by far the most extreme yet to surface from the more traditional historians and philosophers of science.

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