Naïve or everyday presentism

Presentism in history is the attempt to read or interpret the past in terms of the present. By using present-day ideas and perspectives the person doing the interpreting distorts and falsifies the past. Sometimes this is done deliberately in order to support a particular political or philosophical standpoint. Very often however something occurs that I would label naïve or everyday presentism, which takes place when people apply modern terms and concepts to discussion of the past without being really aware that they are not applicable. A very crass example of this occurred recently in the comments at Uncertain Principles when a commentator, calling himself mad the swine, asked the following question;

I’m not sure how much basic physics, chemistry, or biology Shakespeare […] knew…

Now the straightforward answer to the question is absolutely none, as the three disciplines listed didn’t exist during Shakespeare’s lifetime. This might seem fairly trivial but it is indicative of a very serious problem for the historian of science. Our concepts of the various academic disciplines and their boundaries is not applicable to past ages and when using modern terminology the historian must always be very aware that these terms means something very different to their predecessors in earlier ages. In my area for example modern mathematics and Renaissance mathematics have very little more than the name in common but this is something that I intend to write about later and wont go into now.

Going back to the quote above I shall give a brief outline as to when the three disciplines listed did become something similar to that which we understand when we use them today.

The word physics certainly existed in the Shakespearian Age but with a very different meaning to that which it now has. Anybody referring to physics at the beginning of the 17th century would be using it in the Aristotelian sense that is a description of the natural word that specifically excludes most of the mathematical discipline that constitute the modern concept of physics. Modern physics has a long prehistory that includes the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists in the 14th century as well as the Italian mathematicians such as Tartaglia and Benedetti in the 16th century but it is first in the 17th century that physics as we understand it slowly emerges from the work of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens and others. It is often claimed that Isaac Newton is the first modern physicist and his Principia the first modern physics book but in fact anybody reading the Principia has to filter the modern concepts out of a majority of distinctly non-modern material. Modern mathematical physics was born in the generation following Newton in the 18th century.

Chemistry also has a very long prehistory that stretches back into the mists of time and the discoveries of various technologies such as dying, metallurgy, glass making etc that provide one of the areas out of which chemistry grew the other being the arcane alchemy. Although the roots of modern chemistry can be found in the works of Andreas Libavius, Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle in the 17th century, chemistry as we know doesn’t really come into being until the late 18th century and the work of Lavoisier and Dalton.

The same can be said of biology, which also has a long prehistory stretching back into the mist of time and the earliest animal breeders and farmers who practiced a form of trial and error experimental biology. In antiquity biology is subsumed in what was later called natural history, which has a much broader scope than modern biology, which starts to emerge very slowly in the works of the 16th century natural historians. Again like chemistry and physics the modern discipline is a product of the 18th century.

Because we can identify elements of what we now study as biology in the works of Aristotle or physics in the works of Archimedes it is very easy to fall into the trap of considering this to actually be biology or physics as we understand it but it is not. There is a vast difference between our modern scientific disciplines and those areas of study in the past out of which they grew and anybody who wishes to study the past of those disciplines must carry an awareness of this with him.


Filed under History of science

3 responses to “Naïve or everyday presentism

  1. I notice that people often ridicule Newton for practicing alchemy. However, especially given as I understand it, the lack of much in the way of notes left by Newton about what he was doing, I don’t think we can say any more than he was exploring the closest thing to organized chemistry there was at the time. Trades like dying, metallurgy, glass making etc. probably didn’t share information and techniques very much and secrecy was, I’m guessing, pretty wide spread.

  2. Jeb

    I think to ridicule Newton for an interest in alchemy or indeed prophecy is an example of presentism.

    His interests mark him as a man of his time not our own.

    The society and culture he belonged to is a very diffrent ‘kind’ of thing than our own.

    But it’s the seeming surface similarity, which often masks a deep underlying diffrence that make the study of the past such an exciting thing to explore.

  3. jeb

    p.s Its not on alchemy, but concerns astrology

    An astrological diary of the seventeenth century: Samuel Jeake of Rye, 1652-169

    by M Hunter and A. Gregory.

    You can get the introduction on google books, makes a number of interesting points of Samuel Jeake’s use of astrology and his interest in the new sciences.

    Makes a number of observations concerning the decline of religious expression in Jeake’s diary as his interest in astronomy grows.

    Also deals well demonstrating just how difficult teasing out the details of the belief’s individuals hold at this period can be.

    It’s not an easy task.

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