Plain and Simple Language.

It’s nice having Jim Harrison as occasional commentator here at the Renaissance Mathematicus because he continually delivers new thoughts for things to post on and so saves me the trouble of thinking something up myself. Now there are two types of commentator who deliver up comments that generate new posts, Type I are the idiots who say something that needs to be smacked down, preferably with a wet haddock or something similar, which can be fun but is not necessarily very productive. Type II are intelligent, thinking readers who stimulated by what they have read make valid and thoughtful criticisms that require and even sometimes demand replies, Jim is definitely Type II. In the continuing debate on the role played by Christians or Christianity in the emergence of modern science in the Early Modern Period Jim posted a longer comment that included the following remark,

For example, the emergence of something like modern science with the Royal Society involved new ways of reading and writing that put the emphasis on the plain and the literal that effectively applied the canons of Protestant hermeneutics to secular purposes.

Now this comment provokes, in me, at least three questions

1)    What role if any did the Royal Society play in the emergence of modern science?

2)    To what extent did the Royal societies call for plain and simple language aid the emergence of modern science?

3)    Does this really derive from Protestant hermeneutics?

My answers to these questions are not intended to be deeply researched final statements on the subject by are at best first reactions based on my current knowledge of the subject matter. They are however questions that I will continue to investigate in my general research into the evolution of modern science in the Early Modern Period.

I am firmly of the opinion that the Royal Society played a considerably smaller role in the emergence of modern science than is commonly claimed. In fact I think that the reverse is true, modern science had been evolving since the beginning of the 15th century and by the middle of the 17th century had achieved a fairly firm foothold in the European intellectual theatre and organisations such as the Royal Society and the Académie des sciences in Paris were created to fill a demand made by the already largely emerged modern science.

The Royal Societies call for a plain and simply language is actually a reflection of a tendency that had been developing throughout Europe since at least the beginning of the 17th century two high profile examples being Galileo’s publication of his main works in Italian and not Latin and Descartes doing likewise in French. In general this was a reaction against the scholastic tradition that was closely associated with the Latin language as its medium of discourse. The modern scientists who were breaking with the scholastic tradition wrote in the vernacular and for the common man and not the scholar. To what extent the common man could comprehend, say, the works of Galileo is another question but at least polemically this was the intention. Interestingly despite its clearly stated intentions the Royal Society continued, at least in its early years, to issue its major publications in the high Latin of the scholastics; Newton’s Principia, originally published in 1687, did not appear in English until 1729.

Were the new ways of reading and writing really a product of Protestant hermeneutics? The answer, in my opinion, is yes and no. To deny the existence of plain direct vernacular writings within the Protestant tradition would be foolish given such obvious artefacts as the Lutheran Bible, the King James Bible and Cranmer’s English Book of Common Prayer but, for me, the question is whether this approach originates with Protestantism to which I would and do answer, definitely not. The hermeneutics that is so central to the early Protestant writings precede the Reformation and were even possibly one of its causes. If this philology didn’t originate with the early Protestants where did it come from? The answer is, in my opinion, the Renaissance Humanists. The Renaissance Humanists were concerned with recovering the texts of classical learning in pure form and not in the corrupted form in which many of them were know following centuries of copying, with the inherent mistakes, and multiple translations from Greek into Syriac, from Syriac into Arabic and from Arabic into Latin often by way of Hebrew. This attempt to purify the source texts of knowledge required the development of new hermeneutic methods and the invention of modern philology. This critical approach to written texts led the Catholic Church to take a fairly negative view of Humanism as they feared that the Humanists would start to apply their newly developed philological tools to the Bible and the Patristic literature, which is of course exactly what happened. It is no accident that all of the early leading Protestants such as Luther, Melanchthon, Osiander, Zwingli, Calvin, Müntzer and Cranmer were Humanist scholars and Luther, Melanchthon, Osiander and Müntzer were all philologists.

There are also examples of the new text analysis of the Humanists being applied within the emerging new science by Humanist scholars before the Reformation. In 15/16th centuries in Italy there were attempts by Humanists to reconstruct the works of Archimedes using the tools of the new philology, activities that provably influenced the emergence of the new science of motion in the works of Benedetti, Tartaglia and finally Galileo. The astronomer Regiomontanus set up the worlds first ever scientific printing and publishing house in Nürnberg in the 1470s with the express purpose of published new reliable versions of the classic astronomy texts freed of their errors by the new Humanist text analysis. Unfortunately he died before he could realise his aim. Isaac Casaubon, one of the great Protestant philologists, demonstrated, post Reformation, that the so-called Hermetic corpus were in fact 2nd century CE forgeries thus leading eventually to their removal from the scientific discourse and the demise of alchemy, although this took some time.

This post is already long enough so I wont go into any more detail. I shall deal with Regiomontanus’ attempts to reform astronomy in a future post and also probably with the 15/16th century Archimedean renaissance and its influence on the mathematisation of physics in the Early Modern Period. For now I think I have written enough to explain why I don’t accept Jim Harrison thesis.

I will however add one thought, as a sort of footnote, to the above. Presentations of the so-called Scientific Revolution usually present this as having taken place almost exclusively within the mathematic sciences, principally astronomy and physics, however the changes in learning that evolved in the period between roughly 1400 and 1700 actually involved a much larger spectrum and one of the disciplines that emerged in this period was, as I have explained above, modern philology.


Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

3 responses to “Plain and Simple Language.

  1. Whatever the virtues (or vices) of my comments, they are just comments, not treatises. Nevertheless, maybe I should be more guarded. I didn’t intend, for example, to give the Royal Society exclusive credit for the birth of science. I was thinking of it as exemplary of a longer and wider movement, one which, in England, went back crucially to the figure of Francis Bacon and included the long struggle against Aristotelianism in and out of the schools—think Peter Ramus, another Protestant.

    I completely agree that humanism had a huge amount to do with the development of a different way of reading, much of which can be summed up by the Latin slogan, ad fontes—to the sources. The humanists, however, were also Christians and mostly Augustinian Christians to boot. The developments we’re speaking about crisscross Protestantism and Catholicism and also religion and science—recall that Luther based his German translation on the Greek New Testament edited by Erasmus, who never broke with Rome. Again, one thinks of literal adherence to scripture as unfavorable to geology, but I suspect that the attempts to come up with a more-or-less Biblical geology that were a feature of the 17th and 18th centuries in England actually furthered research because you can find evidence against a specific factual claim while trying to shoot down an allegory is a losing proposition. As Bacon wrote “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.”

    I certainly don’t think that science is the first born son of John Calvin or anybody else. It’s a pretty complicated story. For example, besides whatever role the Protestant way of reading and speaking had on Boyle and Hooke and the rest, one could also point to another Puritan theme that surfaces fairly often in their writings. Many of these folks, Bacon especially, apparently understood the careful, detailed study of nature as a way to repair the damage wrought by the fall of man and restore both Adam’s prelapsarian knowledge of things and man’s once unchallenged dominion over nature as per the long quotes in Peter Harrison’s 2007 book “The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science.”

    As I insisted before, I don’t look at the religious roots of science with any apolegetic intent. I’m actually interested in the history, which, in Internet polemics, is pretty much drawn in crayola. Anyhow, far from giving religion exclusive or even decisive credit for the emergence of scientific institutions, I’m inclined to think that the rules and practices of the learned societies of England, France, Holland, Germany, and Italy were at least in part a defensive response to the printing press and the flood of nonsense it unleashed on Europe. You have to have some discipline to carry on a sensible conversation in the day room of a madhouse. England in 1645 was definitely a madhouse. So’s the Internet, come to think of it.

  2. Jeb

    Its a madhouse but Thony and John Wilkins site are very good teaching resources for someone like me. Making comments is a bit more problematic as it is a bit elitist to say the least. I have little understanding of philosophy and science my background is in ethnology, folklore, literature and performance.

    My comments must look as bad as some of the comments bioligists and philosophers make when they stray into my area of expertise. Some are putting in the inter-discplinary research required to tackle aspects of the subject (the aussie mob), some are clearly not or have intrests in only one area, which leads to very diffrent conclusions.

    I find reading the posts intresting but making comments is not as I don’t think disscussion really takes place a lot of the time.

    I also find I want to ask questions about areas I am uncertain about, or make comments in areas I have little understanding of, rather than pontificate in subjects I am familiar and confident with, as thats boring and I need little help in these areas.

    So I must look like type 1 in need of a haddock most of the time. But at least I can note that many very fine academics look just as bad when they comment on areas beyond their own expertise.

    Some blogs are great teaching and research resources. Comments threads less so. It may be more productive to say nothing and just read I feel.

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