Leonardo artist-engineer redux.

I dashed off a brief post yesterday on what I thought was a fairly trivial subject, that is the category error that I still think that Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones made in posing the question, “Leonardo great artist or great scientist. I was totally surprised at the resonance that my comments, basically made in passing, provoked. No post of mine has ever been so often re-tweeted on twitter and the post itself provoked some very strange mostly negative reactions both on twitter and here in the comments.

One person on twitter accused me of having claimed that there was no art before the invention of the word artist! Now I been back and re-read what I wrote and as I told the man I cannot find this claim or anything remotely like it anywhere in what I wrote. Obviously he was not alone as Bob O’Hara, who I regard as an Intertubes’ friend made a similar accusation writing here in the comments:

I find this logically troubling, as it also implies that there were no Neanderthals before 1864, when the name was invented…

Bob is actually making a grammatical error here, which I will explain in a minute but before I do I will explain the main point of my post from yesterday in slightly different words.

Jones and the art gallery curators he was quoting in labelling Leonardo as an artist or a scientist were actually assigning him what in German is termed a Berufsbild, a nice compact term for which the English is the much clumsier occupational profile. They were also implying, in accordance with common usage, that these two occupational profiles are largely mutually incompatible, in conflict or even contradictory. Taken to an extreme one can either be an artist or a scientist but not really both at the same time. Before the negative comments flood in about the last two sentences they are deliberately more than somewhat exaggerated in order to bring out what seems to be the problem for Mr Jones. I am well aware that it is possible for someone to be both a scientist and an artist and in fact I have several friends and acquaintances who are.

My suggested solution to Mr Jones’ rather artificial conundrum was to point out that Leonardo was in fact neither an artist nor a scientist but a Renaissance artist-engineer, a occupational profile in which his two activities, subjects of the two exhibitions, fine art painting and anatomical drawing are in fact just two facets of a complex multi-faceted occupation. So far so good!

What seemed to offend most of my critics is my claim that the use of both the terms scientist and artist applied to Leonardo would be incorrect, anachronistic and ahistorical. All of them are convinced that one can apply both terms to people from the past even if they weren’t used in their own times, Sorry folks if one is being a good historian, and I do try to be one, without a lot of qualifications and explanations one can’t and one shouldn’t. At least not when the terms are being used as occupational profiles.

Coming briefly back the Bob O’Hara the term Neanderthal is a name for an extinct species of hominoid (please feel free to crucify me if my biological terminology is wrong) and not an occupational profile, two completely different grammatical categories so your logical implication doesn’t exist.

The occupational profile artist did exist in the Renaissance but referred to somebody closer to our use of the term artisan than the current occupational profile associated with the term artist today. A brief illustration. If Frances Bacon, the 20th century painter and not the 17th century philosopher-statesman, were to go to a royal court and say, “make me court painter and I will design and build an awesome weapon of destruction for you that will scare the pants off your enemies” he would probably be regarded as barking mad because painters don’t design and build weapons. Rulers don’t employ court painters anymore but that’s not really relevant to my point. Now not only might Leonardo do something like this he actually did, because designing and building weapons was a normal facet of the occupational profile of an artist-engineer. By the way he got the job but failed to deliver the weapon.

When we use the term artist as an occupational profile it connotes a completely different set of activities to those which belonged to Leonardo’s occupational profile so unless one hedges it round with subsidiary explanations one shouldn’t really use it when talking about Leonardo in historical context.

My restrictions on the use of the term scientist actually provoked more protests than those on the use of the term artist. This is a point that is very subtle and is not even really appreciated by many historians of science. I will try to explain but I fully expect in doing so I shall only provoke even more criticism.

People have of course studied the natural world and tried to explain it for thousands of years but the occupational profile of those who have done so has changed and shifted from culture to culture and from age to age. The term scientist was coined in the 1830s by William Whewell, in analogy to the term artist by the way, because the great, and at that time aged, Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to the new generation of those engaged in investigating the natural world being referred to as (natural) philosophers, the preferred term for those thus engaged in the 18th century. This was a time when those thus engaged were gradually becoming more professional and dedicated to single disciplines replacing the enthusiastic polymath amateurs of the previous generations. Also it was a time when religious and other metaphysical considerations were being separated out from scientific and empirical ones. By the time this change had been completed people began to use the term scientist as a general term to denote all physicists, chemists, botanists, zoologists, geologists etc. Now the occupational profile of these scientists was substantially different to that of the people investigating the natural world in, say, the 17th century.

Now several people said that it is perfectly alright to call somebody doing scientific work in the 17th century a scientist even if the term hadn’t existed then after all science is science. For a historian, I’m afraid it is not. I will try to explain why.

Let us consider a couple a highly significant investigators who helped shape modern physics, Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday. Both were deeply religious men both were adherents of what one could term extremist minority religious viewpoints and both were what we would now term physicist. However their occupational profiles differ substantially. By this I don’t mean their respective places of employment, social standing or whatever but the role that their religious belief played in their work. Newton’s physics is permeated with his God. The driving force behind his work is that his God had chosen him to reveal the secrets of his creation, In this he was no different from nearly all of his contemporaries, the only major difference being that Newton’s God was not the orthodox one of his times. Those who have never read Newton’s Principia would almost certainly be surprised at how often Newton’s God makes an appearance in this work of mathematical physics. Now Faraday’s God is not overtly present in his work at all, he compartmentalises, as do modern physicists. His physics is one compartment of his life and his religion another, in his writings they do not meet. It is perfectly in order to call Faraday a scientist because he fits our current occupational profile of a scientist Newton with his mathematical theology does not.

Now I have talked with people who argue that you can ignore Newton’s waffling about his God and just extract the physics and it is scientifically valid. This is true but in doing so one must be very aware of what one is doing. Edward Grant a very good historian of mediaeval science once wrote, “ Mediaeval Aristotelian philosophy is not Aristotle’s philosophy.” If you extract the mathematical physics out of Newton’s work freeing it from its theological superstructure what you have, to paraphrase Grant, is Newtonian physics but it is not Newton’s physics.

Others argue that Newton is a scientist because if he had been forced to choose between his empirically based science and his religious beliefs then he would have chosen the former. He was and he didn’t! In the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, Leibniz denounces Newton’s clockwork universe as leading to deism, an anathema for both men. Newton through his mouthpiece Clarke introduces a fudge factor into his physics in order to give his God an active role as corrector and controller of the universe.

Others argue that had Newton been born in the 19th or 20th centuries and known what was known then he would have changed his position and become a modern religion free scientist. If he had been born in the 19th or 20th centuries he would not have been Isaac Newton.

His attitude to religion and its pivotal role in his physics is not the only aspect of his occupational profile that makes him very different from our profile of a scientist I could just as well have discussed his prisca philosophy or his alchemy.

Scientist is a term that refers to an occupational profile that for us has a predetermined set of connotations, those investigating the natural world before the second half of the 19th century had occupational profiles that differed substantially from that of our notion of a scientist so it is best when a historian avoids applying the term scientist to them.

Please, please don’t suggest in the comment that Newton is an exception, after all he was rather peculiar, but what about Herr X or Senor Y surely they were scientists! They weren’t!







Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

6 responses to “Leonardo artist-engineer redux.

  1. Thank you for the follow up Thony. As an observer, I would say you are equally fascinated by semantics as well as historical accuracy!

    Jonathan Jones is not an historian, not even an art historian, but that curious class of writer known as art critic. I have been guilty of flying into diatribes caused by his observations, but luckily had calmer minds remind me that Jonathan Jones and his ilk do not need to be historically accurate in their generalist pieces. They can use a word like scientist without knowing its own etymology, and hence apply its own generalist meaning. “someone who studies things methodically”

    This is of course unsatisfactory in an academic sense, but best leave the nitpicking for when academics attempting to write historical accounts make these mistakes – which is far more worrying than if an art critic does not know about Whewell etc!

    In the middle of all this, I was wondering about a primary source account of what Leonardo referred to himself as in documents. I am imaging “Berufsbild” is not one of them. I can offer that on more than one occasion Raphael refers to himself as “dipintore” and “pittore” = painter, even in personal correspondence to his Uncle Simone Ciarla in 1508 and 1514. For your readers that may be curious – here is an image of the 1508 letter with this in the signature: http://goo.gl/4ot7B
    (ref. Shearman. 2003. Raphael in Early Modern Sources. Yale)

    Many kind regards

  2. Pray tell, as a historian, would it be proper to label Newton as a practitioner of the “black arts?”

  3. Jeb

    ” no art before the invention of the word artist”

    I trained in a high arty farty place and got to call myself not just an actor but a classical one, which simply means I trained at the old vic in a particularly traditional way.

    But the school was at pains at all times to discuss the technique and what we did as a craft and a craft activity. Thinking about the post I noticed when I think about art I think of painters, actors, musicians, writers etc. and think of them all as craft based skills and I know many involved in these trades refer in the same terms.

    Unlike a critic (writing is the exception but this is a skill that also involves observation unlike many critics) most art skills do not involve sitting on you’re arse pontificating, they are learnt by doing and observation. I think craft is the appropriate and proper term.

    Romantic melancholy genius’s of the public imagination do not learn effortlessly, its bloody hard work and you have to learn you’re trade the hard way.


  4. Felicis

    I had no comment on the previous article, but if I had left one, it would have been positive. I am very interested (as an amateur) in the history of science and mathematics, and had never really thought about the word ‘scientist’ and how we use it today (compared to how people in the past thought about themselves, and what terms we should use to refer to them). I thought that your post did a great job of explaining the difference and why there should be a difference – good enough that I added your blog to my daily roundup!


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