Page 1

124

Book reviews

the seemingly non-lawful behaviour of the weather. Moral philosophy is chiefly represented by Catherine Larre`re’s subtle and thoughtful piece on moral Newtonianism, while the theological dimension is the main focus of four papers. Two chapters explicitly concerned with Protestant Germany seem to have implications for our understanding of Protestant attitudes more widely. Sachiko Kusukawa shows links between Protestant providentialism and an emphasis on a regular and law-like nature, while Anne-Charlott Trepp argues that this emphasis stems from a belief that salvation depended in part on an ability to recognize and appreciate the (God-given) order of nature. Sophie Roux provides a pivotal piece on the importance of theological issues in debates about the causal efficacy of physical laws, and this is echoed by Armogathe, whose ‘ Deus legislator’, taking for granted the primacy of legal ideas over natural philosophical developments, seeks to show ‘that one cannot understand the transfer of concepts which have a juridical origin onto the physical world unless one understands the theological matrix that undergirds them both ’ (p. 265, emphasis in original). I hope it is clear even from such a brief survey of the contents that this is a book of many facets, allowing glimpses into abundant and complex aspects of early modern thought. Furthermore, thanks to the way the papers in some cases harmonize with one another, and in some cases clash with one another, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As the editors point out in their introduction, this volume is intended to mark an opening to a new area of research, not to present the final word. Certainly, the success of this preliminary exercise vindicates the editors’ belief that the burgeoning of natural-law theories in the early modern period demands interdisciplinary collaboration. JOHN HENRY University of Edinburgh PALMIRA FONTES DA COSTA, The Singular and the Making of Knowledge at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century. Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Pp. xvi+214. ISBN 978-1-4438-0357-1. £39.99 (hardback). doi :10.1017/S0007087410000117 For a ‘Bacon-faced ’ early Royal Society, ‘ singular experiences ’ offered the opportunity to delve into the inner recesses of nature. Had not the great Sir Francis commended the possibilities opened up by the study of ‘nature erring’ as a way of better understanding the normal course of natural processes ? Pathology could be a guide to the ordinary. Such aspirations provide the theme of this comprehensively researched book which constitutes a useful addition to the still scant literature on the Royal Society in the eighteenth century. Palmira Fontes da Costa shows how exploring the way in which the eighteenth-century Royal Society used such ‘singular experiences ’ provides an illuminating guide to the dynamics of that institution. ‘Singular experiences ’ involved the society acting as a corporate body in determining the authenticity or otherwise of such reported events. Such singularities were often linked to medical phenomena such as ‘ monstrous births’, so their study brought to the fore the role of medical Fellows. For them the Royal Society’s meetings were an opportunity for sociability and corporate intellectual activity ; at the same time, the discussion of ‘ singular instances ’ exhibited their professional expertise. The book, then, further reconfirms the club-like character of the Royal Society, at least in the first half of the eighteenth century. To that extent it takes further Steven Shapin’s emphasis on the way in which the early scientific movement was shaped by the canons of gentlemanly civility, including an emphasis on the importance of social standing in determining the reliability of evidence. Yet this study also qualifies such a view, by suggesting an increasing emphasis on the importance of professional competence in weighing the validity of particular evidence. Another underlying theme is the way in which the early Royal Society was evolving modes of determining the


Book reviews

125

reliability of evidence. The Baconian ideal of a complete natural history embracing all natural phenomena began to be pared down to more manageable proportions, and the omnivorous collection of data gradually gave way to a greater focus on what could be authenticated and, ideally, experimentally verified. As the author shows, two important steps along this path were the establishment in 1752 of a Royal Society committee to determine what had sufficient scientific standing to be published in the Philosophical Transactions and the decision in 1779 to give away the Society’s Repository or museum. These were indications that the Royal Society was adopting a much more critical approach to the collection of data and the accumulation of curiosities. The result, suggests the author, was that by the later eighteenth century the society had begun to be less club-like in character, with fewer public exhibitions and less conviviality. The changing and more restricted view of what was meant by ‘natural history’ led to a body more preoccupied with following scientifically defensible modes of authenticating knowledge than with the amusement and edification of its members. Some of the more significant of these findings are already in the literature thanks to the author’s articles. The book adds further detail and a more comprehensive overview of the subject, including material on the larger cultural setting, such as the continued genre of satires of the Royal Society. The origins of the book in a doctoral dissertation are evident both in the depth of research and the tendency, at times, for the detail to overwhelm some of the overall conclusions. It is, however, written with authority and with an eye to the major debates about the character of the Royal Society. At last, the life of that institution in the eighteenth century is beginning to emerge from the shadows to which it has long been consigned. JOHN GASCOIGNE University of New South Wales MIKE JAY, The Atmosphere of Heaven : The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. vii+294. ISBN 978-0-30012439-2. £20.00 (hardback). doi :10.1017/S0007087410000129 On 21 March 1799, there was an advertisement in the Bristol Gazette for a ‘ New Medical Institution … for treating diseases, hitherto found incurable, upon a new plan ’. The plan, enshrined in the institution’s name, was ‘pneumatic ’: to investigate the therapeutic value of the airs that chemists had recently discovered, and to use these airs in ministering to the city’s poor. It was, according to its creator and chief Thomas Beddoes, ‘ perhaps, the first example, since the origin of civil society, of an extensive scheme of pure scientific medical investigation’. Mike Jay’s The Atmosphere of Heaven presents the short lives of the pioneering Pneumatic Institution and its dynamic leader in glorious detail, interweaving an illustrious list of physicians, philosophers and poets who gathered around them between the optimistic early days of the French Revolution and Beddoes’s death in 1808, in an account that offers much for both academic and general readers. Thomas Beddoes is not unknown to historians of science, but his fame now certainly does not represent that during his own lifetime. Polyglot, physician, philosopher, poet and popular novelist, he had, before setting up the institution, reached the position of reader in chemistry at Oxford – he was the university’s most popular lecturer – but was blocked from taking the chair when the Home Office intervened. In the official view, he was a ‘ most violent democrat ’ (p. 68), likely to corrupt young men into political dissent. To rehabilitate his posthumous public profile, Beddoes’s widow commissioned his former assistant, John Stock, to write her husband’s memoirs, leaving out any controversial politics or personal associations. The result was an uninspiring biography that served only to accelerate Beddoes’s departure from popular memory. However, since the latter decades of the twentieth century efforts have been made to return Beddoes to a more prominent position in the historiography of science and medicine, culminating most

Book Review by John Gascoigne of The Singular and the Making of Knowledge  

Book Review by John Gascoigne of The Singular and the Making of Knowledge

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you