Looking Up: Science and Observation in Early Modern Europe

Looking Up(ed.) Looking Up: Observation and Science in the Early Modern Period. Language, Media, and Education Studies, ed. Marcel Danesi and Leonard G. Sbrocchi, no. 24. Ottawa: Legas and the Center for Communication and Information Sciences, 2002.




Introduction: Charles Peirce, Semiotics, and the History of Science

In 1939, Alexandre Koyré gave the idea of a “scientific revolution” in the early modern period international recognition with the publication of his book Galileo Studies.[1]  Koyré saw changes taking place in science as a linear aggregation of scientific knowledge, which profoundly changed the way humans viewed their world with the discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Other scholars soon followed in arguing that during this period science had changed fundamentally, ushering in the “modern” world. [2]  The most popular interpreter of the changes taking place in the sciences during this period has been Thomas S. Kuhn.  Kuhn attempted to give a structural description of this change in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Scientific revolutions occurred with a scientific “community’s rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it.”[3]  Kuhn proposed that science was not a linear progression of ideas, but it was a series of “non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm were replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.”[4]  In other words, a scientific “paradigm” (the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Einsteinian universes, for example) persisted as the general theory accepted by a society and its scientists until a sufficient number of unexplainable “anomalies”, or discrepancies, occurred between the theory and observations conducted according to its method.  Then a period of crisis existed in which rival theories competed until one was generally accepted as best explaining the universe.[5]  Implied in this argument was the idea that “normative science” existed in larger epistemological contexts guiding how a scientist could understand, define, or even practice science during a given period.  Kuhn’s ideas have been extremely influential to the history of science, as well as to a host of other intellectual disciplines, and have in many senses taken on a life of their own.[6]

Few historians of science, however, know that at the end of the nineteenth century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) developed a similar theory of the history of science. [7]  Peirce developed his theories largely in reaction to the prevailing Social Darwinism of his age, whose adherents claimed that human society had “evolved” continuously since ancient times through the “survival of the fittest,” culminating in the triumph of the advanced capitalist nations of northern Europe and the United States.   At the core of Peirce’s philosophy were critiques of the historical inevitability and the claim to definitive knowledge which Social Darwinists proclaimed.  Peirce’s “General Review of the History of Science” constituted an “onslaught on the doctrine of necessity. . . while there is a certain force of necessity in the universe, there is a certain power of spontaneity too.”[8]  And he expressed “abhorrence of the doctrine that any proposition whatsoever is infallibly true.” At best, science or logical investigation could be “indefinitely approximating to truth in the long run.”[9]

Peirce’s writings on the history of science comprise over 1100 pages, and focus on discontinuities in the history of thought.   Peirce argued that whatever Darwinism’s value for understanding biological evolution, “in the history of science it has made . . . no figure at all except in a retrograde motion.”[10]  Meaningful change in the realm of ideas occurred through “cataclysmic evolution, according to which the changes have not been small and have not been sudden.”[11]   In his essay “Evolutionary Love,” Peirce summarized his argument in a manner remarkably similar to Kuhn’s notion of a revolution: “A habit of thought having been overthrown is supplanted by the next strongest.  Now this next strongest is sure to be widely disparate from the first, and as often as not its contrary.”[12]

Peirce, like Kuhn, went further to argue that scientific thinking was not an individual process, but a collective one, conducted by communities of inquirers who followed particular methodologies.  They had to test their conclusions both according to their own rules and defend them against other audiences.  Thus, while a great change in scientific thinking could occur, a period of “crisis”, to use Kuhn’s term, would always exist because these alterations would rarely be unchallenged or universally accepted.  Moreover, all scientific epistemologies would fail to explain some data, and therefore the best a scientist could hope for would be to approximate “truth” asymptotically in the long run.

Recently, however, historians of science have begun refocusing their attention away from the approach towards scientific change as argued by Peirce and Kuhn.  The historical narrative has shifted to an interest in interdisciplinarity that emphasizes science as a social practice, embedded in a complex cultural and political milieu.  Scholars of the history of science have called into question the idea of a “paradigm”, questioning the intellectual hegemony of “normal science”.  For example, a scientific “field” such as medicine, can be a community composed of competing epistemologies, methodologies and practices as shown by Anita Guerrini and Anna Marie Roos.[13]  Simon Schaffer’s “The Consuming Flame: Electrical Showmen and Tory Mystics in the World of Goods” elegantly shows that scientific practices and displays are never separate from their social, political, and cultural contexts.[14]  Furthermore, the “great men” who might initiate a scientific revolution are often caught up in more traditionalist assumptions about their practices and deeply affected by their cultural contexts.[15]  Recent work in the history of science seems to suggest that it is more useful to understand science at any given time composed of various disciplines, all in different stages of flux, in which one “paradigm” rarely eclipses another and none holds imperial sway over the other sciences.  It is just this approach that Steven Shapin has taken in his important contribution to the debate over sixteenth and seventeenth century science, The Scientific Revolution.  He argues that “science is a historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs.”[16]

Interestingly, Peirce’s theory of signs, or semiotic, seemingly ironically allows us to explore the limitations of his own theory of a “catastophic” evolution in science, or a scientific revolution.  So important to the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies, Peirce’s semiotic has filtered into analyses of early modern science through these disciplines.  Peirce argued that a “sign” was composed of three parts, the “representamen”, the “interpretant”, and the “object”.  The “object” was the thing or idea to which the sign referred.  The “representamen” was the form the sign took, for example, either linguistic or representational.  The “interpretant” was the understanding of what the sign meant by the interpreter.  Implicit in Peirce’s theory of the sign was the idea that meaning arose from the interpretation of the “representamen”, suggesting that all forms of communication, both linguistic and visual, were subjective.  Since meaning was so subjective, the idea of a dominant, or normative, science was undermined by the innumerable cognitive paths scientific understanding could take.  This is actually the direction that the study of the history of science has taken, with an emphasis on scientific discourses and the context in which they are formed.[17]  Semiotically speaking, scientific signs (theories, experiments, etc.) inevitably trip over the boundaries of meaning.   They play with each other in the social, political, and cultural worlds, and they are inherently historical, in that they have meanings that change over time.  For instance, analogies with Copernican science were used to justify absolute monarchy, in which a “Sun King” such as Louis XIV represented the centralized power around which his nation united.  Social Darwinism in the nineteenth century enabled defenders of capitalism and the advanced industrial nations to argue that they had earned the right to dominate the world.


This volume is an interdisciplinary approach to seventeenth and eighteenth century science.  These essays adopt historical, literary, and semiotic perspectives to demonstrate how cross-disciplinary studies can broaden our knowledge of early modern science.  They focus on the practice and interpretation of science, its cultural and social dimensions, and overwhelmingly suggest that there was no fixed paradigm for science during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Rather, older practices and traditions intermingled with new ones.

Theresa Neumann’s essay on John Wilkins’ immensely popular 1638 essay, The Discovery of a World in the Moone, reveals that acceptance of this de-natured universe nevertheless required a human face, in particular, the humanization of a moon discovered to be imperfect, containing mountains and valleys as revealed by Galileo through the telescope.  Wilkins, by attempting to balance science and entertainment, enabled the growing audience of educated, literate Europeans be able to reconcile the imperfections astronomers were finding in the heavens with the sovereignty of an absolute God.  He argued that an imperfect moon may be both habitable and a possible destination for future human travel, proof that God could create multiple worlds whose inhabitants had the opportunity to redeem themselves morally.  Wilkins’ writings and Galileo’s discoveries thus prepared the way for a new view of nature in which the sublimity of valleys, mountains, and thundering seas could be viewed as beautiful and divine rather than imperfect.

Sandra Logan, in turn, examines how astute playwrights – Ben Jonson in The Alchemist (1610) and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley in The Changeling (1623) – themselves semiotically analyzed the nature of scientific inquiry at the beginning of the seventeenth century, looking at both the signs of science as well as at the authority of the scientist.  Jonson points to the fact that the quest for knowledge idealized by scientists was in practice often a quest for power and status by those who would manipulate or exploit that knowledge.  By showing the absurdity of a supposed scientific test for virginity, Middleton and Rowley in turn show how improperly applied science could exculpate the guilty.

Medical practice was particularly resistant to the new science, as Anna Marie Roos shows. Richard Mead (1673-1754) and James Gibbs  (d. 1724), two of the most important medical writers in early-eighteenth century England, attempted to explain in a scientific manner how Newton’s universe still permitted heavenly bodies to effect personal, mental, and physical health. While the rhetoric of medical science may have been Newtonian, its practice was traditional.  Mead’s and Gibbs’ use of Newtonian theory, iatrochemistry, and mechanical philosophy to explain the causes of solar and lunar disease had little influence on the beliefs and treatments of the period.

Emanuele Tesauro’s The Aristotilean Telescope also defended the older universe.  As Cristina Farronato shows, Tesauro understood “Wit” – argutezza – to be the principle of cosmic cohesion that unified a universe characterized by diversity, hidden meanings, irony, and contradiction, as Aristotle outlined in his Rhetoric.  Tesauro argued that Aristotle’s work placed both human and natural existence under a symbolic telescope that penetrated the real complexity of the universe, whereas Galileo’s use of the actual telescope only revealed him to be a dupe of God’s acute wit.  In Tesauro’s writings, the telescope even became a metaphor for knowledge that sought to refute the validity of telescopic observations: true wisdom could be found only through explorations of words and signs, through rhetorical practices accessible only to the learned, rather than through direct observation of “reality” through a telescope accessible to anyone.

Nancy McLoughlin explains how one of the most popular scientific theories of the eighteenth century, Mesmerism, was rejected by scientific communities yet remained viable in the popular consciousness well into the nineteenth century.  Because Mesmer linked his ideas with scientifically discredited notions of astronomical correspondence and presented lower class witnesses to testify to the efficacy of his cures just as ancien regime France was reaching its highest stage of elitism in the 1780s, both Mesmer’s cures and vocabulary were rejected.

Finally, Charles Yood brings us back to Peirce by showing how claims to definitive knowledge or truth are inevitably flawed and shaped by their context.  America’s first encyclopedia, published in 1789, in most respects simply borrowed from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, except in matters relating to the new United States, where a much more favorable portrayal occurred. Yood reminds us that knowledge is never simply “there,” but is produced by real human beings, usually pleading their special case – in this case American exceptionalism and nationalism – using linguistic and methodological conventions directed to a particular audience in a social context.

[1] Alexandre Koyré, Études Galiléennes (Paris: Hermann et Cie, 1939).

[2] See I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985) for an extensive analysis of how scholars have grappled with the idea of “revolution” in science since the early modern period.

[3] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6.

[4] Kuhn, Structure, 92.

[5] See Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 3rd. ed. (London: Verso, 1993) and “Two letters of Paul Feyerabend to Thomas S. Kuhn on a draft of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, ed. Paul Hoyningen-Huene, 26, no. 3 (September 1995): 353-387 and for his analyses of Kuhn’s conceptualization of scientific change.  Feyerabend argues for a more anarchic view of scientific change.

[6] See John Horgan, “Profile: Reluctant Revolutionary” in Scientific American (May 1991): 40, 49.

[7] Good introductions to Peirce’s thought are Roberta Kevelson, Charles S. Peirce’s Method of Methods (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987);  R. Jackson Wilson, In Quest of Community: Social Thought and Philosophy in the United States, 1860-1919 (New York: Wiley, 1968),  and Joseph Brent, Charles S. Peirce: A Life, 2d. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).  For Peirce’s theory of history, see William Pencak, “Charles S. Peirce, Historian and Semiotician,” in History, Signing In: Studies in History and Semiotics (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 53-84.

[8] Charles S. Peirce, “Lectures on the History of Science Commonly Known as the ‘Lowell Institute’ Lectures,” in Carolyn Eisele, ed. Historical Perspectives on Peirce’s Logic of Science (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1985), 150.

[9] Charles S. Peirce, “The General Theory of Probable Inference,” in Justus Buchler, ed., Philosophical Writings of Peirce (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1940), 217.

[10] Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles S. Peirce, ed. C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. Burks, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958), 7.769.  References to this collection are customarily made by volume followed by paragraph number, a convention followed here.

[11] Peirce, Collected Papers, 1.104.

[12] Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.312.

[13] Anita Guerrini, Obesity and Depression in the Enlightenment: The Life and Times of George Cheyne (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000) and Anna Marie Roos, “Luminaries in Medicine” in this volume.

[14] Simon Schaffer, “The Consuming Flame: Electrical Showmen and Tory Mystics in the World of Goods” in Consumption and the World of Goods, eds. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993).

[15] For some examples, see Mario Biagioli, Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Betty Jo Deeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1995); Margaret C. Jacob, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); Walter Pagel, New Light on William Harvey (New York: S. Karger, 1976); and R.S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[16] Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9.

[17] See James Bono, The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) and the essays in Peter Dear, ed., The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

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