Wilson 1995

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Wilson, Catherine. The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

1. Science and Protoscience

"Those who agree that there was an acceleration in the growth of knowledge after the turn of the century are divided on whether it is appropriate to speak of it as a scientific revolution or only as an increase in momentum and coordination. Was there a clean break with the past, o rather a return to the mathematizing of the medieval calculators and the direct observation of the ancients? Was the cultivation of personalities alienated from the literary-humanistic culture of the Renaissance a precondition of these changes or a consequence of them?" (3)
re: scientific revolution: "it is not so easy to say exactly what was revolutionary in this alleged revolution, what marked such a radical departure from the interest in nature, its patterns and its deviations, that had always been present" (4)

"was the protoscience of the 17c an immature form of modern science, or was it the form of something else altogether?" (5)

  • earlier historians of science extracted superstitions, etc., and focused on the positive data produced by 17c "scientists," emphasizing similarity to our own time
  • but one could also see the "otherness" of 17c science -- radically different from today
"From the point of view of positivist historiography, the result of documenting these relationships [of otherness, difference] is a loss of signal in noise. From another point of view, the noise is part of what history is trying to say." (6)

drama of tensions, "obstacles" impeding the way to development of science is largely a historian's projections (8) -- actual actors in the period didn't feel these tensions

easy to reconcile tensions by identifying underlying philosophies, then seeing proto-scientists as "natural philosophers" working within these conceptual models; however, philosophy and world of experiments/math/machines were often opposed, the latter having practical value (11)

  • examination of 1717 Oxford curriculum shows that "if protoscience did have metaphysical foundations, they were not taught and learned as such" (11)

term "philosophy" had dual role -- useless speculations, or doctrinal/foundational (12); 17-18c saw it in many different ways

biology and chemistry thought to lag behind in 17c; Baconian science produced "haphazard collecting and showy but vaguely conceived 'experimentation", but no real methodologies (though rigorous in itself, in practice "Baconian method became Baconian empiricism, the paradigm of unsystematic, ungrounded science," 15); theory also thought beneath science -- i.e., philosophy showed an interest in science (e.g. Descartes), but science did not always show an interest in philosophy (e.g. Malpighi rejecting "book learning" for experimentation) (14-5)

theoretical physics is pure, abstract; Baconian science invites amateur observation (19); until Darwin (who gave biology the pure abstractness of philosophy), biology and chemistry were unimaginative and uninnovative (19) <-- typical claim of historians of science

mechanism and corpuscularianism, seen as philosophical foundations that made science possible, had elements of telepathic communication and 'sympathetical limbs' -- which "are as much the phenomena of empirical science as magnetism is" (22)

Wilson connects these methodologies to educational methodologies, e.g. in Comenius (23-7)

"The programmatic statements of the 17c atomists and corpuscularians are, then, not the meaningful figure against the background of a proliferating but inchoate empiricism; they are philosophy, which is to say that they are not only, and perhaps not primarily, a support for science, but also a reaction to it and a substitute for it." (27)

"The rhetoric of new beginnings and new methodological foundations can obscure the ways in which 17c science was a restoration and a continuation of the reasoned natural history of the ancients, which had been lost in, and to a certain extent repressed by, Christian culture and scholastic philosophy." (28)

  • Aristotle wrote about much the same things, 17c proto-scientists performed much the same experiments as him -- "the thing simply had to be done better, more precisely" (28)
  • new technologies of reading, writing and looking enabled this
  • "Success in drawing in and equipping new observers and theoreticians of nature, in creating a scientific community, depended on the introduction of print and was assisted by the development of techniques for reproducing visual images in printed form. Anatomical works, letters and reports to scientific societies, specially commissioned studies, compendia, and review journals, not philosophical treatises, were what created a scientific community." (28)
  • Wilson suggests that works that became influential (e.g. Aristotle) in early modern period were largely accidents of history and technology (28-9)

can't focus purely on the literary -- must also look at the "loci and their props" (29)

  • "the laboratory, an alternative site of intellectual labor to the solitary study of the humanist scholar, appeared both in the utopian imagination and in fact in the first half of the century." (29)
  • scientific societies: Lyncean Academy, Academy of Cimento, Royal Society, French Academie des Sciences, Collegium curiosae
  • laboratory as a modification of the scientist's study and "the extension of other palceS: the workroom and the nursery with their tools and playthings, the anatomical theater of the medical school, the autopsy room where the causes of death were investigated, the astronomical observatory where data were recorded, and the collector's cabinet, which was itself a miniaturized world of samples." (30)

curiosity cabinets: (re)creating the world in minisature; concupiscence, a desire for possision; "the desire to have one of everything, to possess the whole world in microcosm" (30)

can't distinguish between scientists and amateurs in 17c; anachronistic (33-4) -- distinction is the result of institutions/professionalization processes not yet in existence

2. The Subtlety of Nature

"Despite the tendency to present a 17c Democritean revival in these terms, there was no sudden upset of the old ontology of substances ,manifest and occult qualities, virtues, and forces, and it sreplacement with an incommensurable one. Rather, the corpuscularian philosophy established itself in the first half of the 1600s as the product of a progressive refinement of the Renaissance notion of "subtlety," and a materialization of hidden resident spirits." (40)

subtilitas: the subtle, the obscure; Girolamo Cardano, De subtilitate (1560) -- declaration against the spirit of Aristotle, by which truth is reached through reason and observation (40-1)

  • only a subtle instrument like the microscope can discover the subtleties of nature

clinging interest in Renaissance occult observation (e.g. Robert Fludd) (42-3)

Paracelsus: Nature provides clearest text, is wisest of teachers; "to write or depict in a way that is transparently instructional is to usurp nature's role; the true sciences cannot be writen down without becoming dead letter" (44)

footsteps, signatures of God

this language remains in Bacon, just w/warnings against arbitrariness; scientific revolution built on same line of inquiry (46)

Bacon's method: "insofar as the subtlety of nature is greater than that of the understanding, insofar as sight cannot "penetrate into the inner and further recesses of nature," the scientist must turn away frmo both vision and reason. The inductive method is the necessary device for dehumanizing the inquiry," a machine working upon nature between the mind and its subject, guaranteeing objectivity (48)

MATERIAL SUBTLETY -- forms, inner subvisible structures

"Bacon had proposed, for the first time, a route to knowledge of the occult, specific properties and virtues of things that proceeded discursively and disinterestedly" -- don't need spirituatlity/sensitivity, but application and exactness (49)

relationship between occult qualities and corpuscularianism (54-6)

"Above all, the microscope takes away the privilege of surface. What the object looks like on the outside is no guide to what it is in the sense of what it can do; the key to its powers is to be found in its inner invisible structure. And in the interior of things there is no resemblance: here is indeed a new world even if we must call in the language of every day -- of ropes, fibers, globules, forests, looms, and children's toys -- to describe it." (62)
  • humans weren't meant to find this world -- in fact, invisible to the eye, which deceives "true" appearances; "the secrets of things were, in this sense, not meant for us to find out at all; we are always, in this new world, intruders. That nature is a system of signs meant for us to read is no longer a tenable view. Nature is not a book." (63)

3. Instruments and Applications

"What is needed is an examination of the interaction between the history of technology and the history of science that takes into account the problems that arise in connection with the idea that a science based on the use of machines and instruments gives a truer, better, or deeper account of the world." (70)

Price, "Of Sealing Wax and String": making and deployment of instruments displays different kings of knowledge

technologies only exploited in the context of hopes/expectations; problem of trustworthiness though -- how did "this ideal of instrumentally mediated knowledge succee[d] in getting itself established, how the notion of a scientifically revealing experience became uncoupled from the broader notion of experience in general" (71)

Galileo -- early promoter of artificial optics (vs. Bacon, who was indifferent to them) (75)

early illustrations of insects seen magnified, 75-6

early microscope manufacturers "existed in an uneasy state of mutual dependence with the virtuosi themselves, on whose commissions they relied, but whose demands for openness and reciprocal exchange of technical data violated the tradition of craft secrecy" (77)

Descartes, famous microscope design: instrument taller than user, manned like a telescope (79); sun used as a light source (although specimens tend to vaporized by the heat)

problems of the early microscopes: 80-84

insects the first objects of observation and description (85)

"A powerful effort is made to win the reader over through the charm and human interest of the presentation: the three naturalists ruthlessly exploit the attraction noted by Bachelard, which depends for its effect on the possibility of comparisons between objects of the macroworld and those of the microworld, on a premise of reduplication." (85)

in pre-Newtonian Royal Society, "living subjects occupied more attention than celestial mechanics; Boyle even went so far as to say that the contrivance of the eye of a fly or a man's muscles was superior to the sun and the system of the heavenly orbs. it was not simply a question here of the prestige of the mathematical sciences after the Principia and Newton's ascendancy, but one of positive avoidance. There were theological reasons in the earlier period for preferring to concentrate not on lumps of matter in infinite spaces but on exquisite contrivances." (86)

Hooke's Micrographia; drawings were "composites, not records of individual observations"; "not meant to be direct reproductions of a momentary optical experience, but rather an improvement on momentary witnessing that would give the general form stripped of the idiosyncrasies of the individual specimen or observation" [ideal copy] (87)

"Micrographia was meant, it has been argued, as an offering to the Royal Society's sponsor, King James, as evidence of the accomplishments of the society. It upheld, as John Harwood points out, the society's claims to be directly concerned with 'thins,' to be dedicated to an ideal of objectivity, and if what Micrographia delivered was not precisely useful knowledge, the society had at least shown itself capable of producing something other than talk and socializing." (87) -- more interesting than Wilkins's Essay; "but Hooke's most prescient statements are deeply buried in the observations, where they are often tangential to the ostensible subject matter; Hooke used his assignment to communicate some of his freest speculations on physics in general." (87)

Leeuwenhoek, more proprietary about his microscopes; provided witnesses, but did not give enough detail to allow others to replicate the experiment; 88-93

Malpighi saw correspondence between plants, animals; believed in hierarchy of forms; "believed that plants had glands and some organs, and that their sap was analogous to blood. This led him to the problem of the boundaries, overlaps, and analogies in the three kingdoms of nature. He believed he had found respiration and circulation in plants, and that the ovary of the plant and the uterus of the mammal were the same organ, seeds, and fetuses the same kinds of beings. he found peristaltic motion in the vessels of both plants and animals, and, though he later repudiated as exaggerated the claim that plants were animals (defended on the basis of a spurious macroscopic comparative anatomy by Ovidio Montalbani, who edited Aldrovandi's Dendrologia in 1668), he had identified a distinct realm of organic life in a period in which the boundaries of the three kingdoms were notoriously variable." (96)

Shapin and Schaffer's theories; knowledge as a new commodity in the c17, manufactured by process of replication and virtual witnessing

  • often taken as social constructivism (all knowledge is then relative), but could be seen as blurring boundaries between constructivism and realism: knowledge is always constructed from points of contact with reality, but constructedness doesn't make it any less "real" -- just shows the futility of asking such questions
  • c17 microscopists act as test case for S & S's theory
    • they relied on multiple witnessing, virtual witnessing and replication (100)
    • however, protoscientists also knew these procedures didn't result in error-free objective knowledge; danger of getting trapped in one's own dreamworld of microscopical iconography (100)

4. Preexistent and Emergent Form

generation/reproduction: Aristotle believes human is sketched and painted in full, trope that persists in the Renaissance (105-6); Descartes, theme of clay and potter (106)

Gabriel Harvey on generation, 106ff

seeds contain preformed plant; animal eggs contain preformed animals (115-6)

Nathaniel Highmore, History of Generation (1651); drawings of germinating beans/seeds showing folded up leaves, alongside chick embryo (116); Sir Thomas Browne, Religio medici: "In the seed of a Plant, to the eyes of God, and to the understanding of man, there exists, though in an invisible way, the perfect leaves, flowers and fruits thereof: (for things that are in posse to the sense, are actually existent to the understanding)." (116); Henry Power, seeds are "nothing but their own Plants shrunk into an Atome" (116)

Gassendi, 117-121; preformationist ideas take root in the more literary passages: "the image of God as agriculturalist, fructifying the universe by scattering its surface with tiny, invisible seeds; second, the familiar experience of peeling back a bud in early spring or opening a bean in the process of germination and finding inside it tightly folded leaves or flowers; and third, the image of the book digest or compendium that contains the whole intellectual sbustance of the original book but in compact form" (121)

"miniaturized presence" didn't seem to influence the illustrations/observations of protoscientists -- but it did influence how they interpreted the raw material they saw

"The problem for the philosophy of science that is generated is not what we are to do when our theories affect the very character of our observations, leaving us with no certain foundation on which to build. It is rather this: what are we to do when there are strong extraobservational reasons, or observational reasons drawn from outside the immediate context, for supposing that our experimentally generated experience -- deep as it is -- nevertheless contradicts or is only a partial guide to reality? How are we to decide whether a theory to which we are drawn is really consistent or inconsistent with any given observation?" (121)

Adelmann, Marcello Malpighi -- notes that the word "compendium" occurs frequently in Malpighi's anatome plantarum; the bud is "a compendium of the not-yet-unfolded plantlet"; the seed is a compendium of the entire future plant (123)

  • Malpighi made seed-fetus comparison (123)
  • These and other facts seem to prove that there is present in the cicatrix a compendium of the animal, by which I mean the first outlines of the principal parts, or in other words, their outermost boundaries, which through the agency of growth become visible when motion has been communicated to the fluids and the cavities gradually fill and become turgid." (Malpighi, qtd on 124)
  • "The figure of the plant is in its seed; the figure of the chicken is in its yolk. (Wilson 124)

Swammerdam; unfolded pupa to show butterfly folded in on itself, "showing that the larva, pupa, and imago are simultaneously present and nested within each other" (125)

  • very book-like!

Malabranche approaches problem of infinity: if all seeds contain the whole plant, with all of its seeds, etc., then seeds-within-seeds becomes dizzingly infinite (127)

  • connect with plants as books, becomes Borgesian library problem -- problem of knowledge

chapter ends by looking at how microscopists thought of sperm

5. Animalcula and the Theory of Animate Contagion

c17 research into the plague; from "bad air" theory to "bad living things in the air"

6. The Philosophers and the Microscope

problem of science and Christianity; do microscopes increase the glory of God, or make Him null?

Robert Boyle, "The Christian Virtuoso"

"Attention to the microworld helped compensate for the loss of the greater cosmos as an image of divinity and spiritual order. In the new astronomical systems of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the critical feature was not the relegation of the earth to planetary status but the breaking through of the enclosing shell of the fixed stars, which reduced to nonsense the orientating notions of up and down, heaven and earth, with their connotations of excellence and baseness. there was now only out -- toward other suns and satellites, which might even possess their own ensouled inhabitants -- and in, toward this arbitrarily designated earth, which might be out for other intelligent beings in turn. To convert a loss into a gain, it was necessary to stress the discrepancy between divine immensity and terrestrial puniness." (181)

Grew's cosmologia sacra -- "Infinity held no terrors for Grew and seemed to occasion rather a feeling that was a precursor of Kant's experience of the natural sublime, in which fear in the face of overwhelming magnitude is transmuted into pleasure caused by respect for the Creation and the conviction of personal security." (182)

  • peppercorn bulk == 10,000 seeds of hart's-Tongue
"Grew was interested not only in the individuality of the human face and its meaning; he studied with a lens the patterns of the pores and ridges of the human hand as well, and saw in their distinctness and uniqueness proof that god had concerned himself with every particular and every detail." (182)

construction of dignity in studying insects; Thomas Moffett's Theater of Insects (183-4)

Swammerdam's struggle with religion, family, 186-9

did animals/plants spring from decaying matter -- without generation?

"In summary, the denial of generation by chance was not only a fixture of the orthodox doctrine of special creation in its adversarial relationship to the pagan doctrine of the productive powers of nature. It also exemplified the uniformity of nature -- nature as artifact -- and the economy of means in its production." (205)

re: generation, plants and animals have much in common (205-6)

Leibniz's monadology comes from interest in preformation; "as the animal unfolds itself into perfection, so too does the whole world, and the individual mind" (206) -- Leibnizian pananimism, influenced by Micrographia, other microscopy in c17

"Exact natural historye ncouraged its contemplation as a system: as forming in itself a unity, a plenitude, and a harmony, independent of human interests. It also encouraged the subraction of moral attributes and purposes: the new discourse of nature was as impoverished in cultural terms as it was enriched in observational terms." (212)
"Physico-theology is not interesting simply as an interim episode in the secularization process and in the history of the fortunes of religious feeling and apologetics, but as an answer to the question, how does the book of nature come to be a book? How do the subvisibilia become the subject of literary and pictorial representation?" (213)

Kepler story: contemplating what gift to give his patron, a snowflake falls on him -- he thinks this is a small gift; however, "the wit of the story is that Kepler did not make his patron a present of a snowflake but of a treatise on the snowflake. Small things may still have no value, but, from that point forward, a discourse on them does." (214)

7. The Microscope Superfluous and Uncertain

Ronchi: argues that medieval philosophers distrusted vision, therefore didn't use artifical optical devices like microscopes/magnifying glasses

how did the microscope become accepted?

verbal and visual descriptions both have to make decisions on what is "really" being seen (222-3)

much caution in early descriptions

"Illustrations of microscopic objects were still competing meanwhile with other, more-dramatic images in the pages of proto-scientific academy publications. Grew published his cross-sections of plant stems in the German Miscellanea curiosa, and these regular geometric figures, though not without visual interest, had to share space with a monstrous chrysanthemum, a monstrous lamb, a vegetable shaped like a pair of praying hands, a two-headed calf, a bearded woman, voided stones, and other natural and artificial wonders." (227)

Abraham Cowley's Ode to the Royal Society, in Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667): "You've learned to read her smallest Hand / And well begun her deepest Sense to understand." (qtd on 228)

Hooke: microscope can lead to being able to read the "alphabet of nature"; Glanfill argued that we cannot read the alphabet of nature, but only reason by analogy (228-9); "Boyle, too, despaired of understanding surface effects with the help of an underlying alphabet of forms and interactions and retreated to argument by analogy; and Locke, in his turn, offered his endorsement of analogy" (229)

  • analogies, though, "invite a regress" (230) -- don't lead to new understanding

microscopy couldn't replace reasoning -- could show form, but still didn't explain function; "Grew, who filled pages with detailed drawings of plant parts as seen through a microscope, was forced to ask himself the question, what is this structure for?" (231)

  • "more images amount to more mystification" (231)

microscope offers "only a series of unconnected views" (231)

Malpighi: comparison between plants and animals justified (235)

Locke and the microscope (240-3)

Berkeley and the microscope (244-7); "theory of divine visual language ... instead of a science of inner textures and motions" (248)

8. Truths and Appearances

Bachelard: microscope "constituted an actual impediment to knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because it revealed things that were beautiful but that could not lead to the formation of new theories and things that suggested to observers theories of the wrong sort -- about the organic complexity and vivacity of inanimate nature -- and that made a quantitative handling of the phenomena seem impossible or unimportant" (251)

  • "matter of bad timing" (251)

Wilson argues that the microscope "brought into being new phenomena"; dreamlike, but "had the intractability of fact, and when they could not be fit into preexisting systems, then systems were made around them" (252)

microscope brought new images to be mapped onto human realm of knowledge, but didn't bring better understanding of function

"consciousness of form reached new extremes in the literature with which I have been concerned" (253)

"why should we admit that the image delivered by the microscope is a better image, or a deeper or truer image, rather than simply another image?" -- "We see only surfaces, whatever we see is the effect of hidden machinery; therefore whatever we see is scenery and not truth, and, as an illusionistic object, it can play no causal role." (255)

"the microscope can show us process, not merely successive states. The worry of the philosopher is rather that what we see is always a product -- an idea, a visual image -- rather than something productive, so that it seems to follow that, if there are truly productive entities in nature, we cannot see them." (255)

"it is thus strictly correct to say that our theories do not represent, do not correspond to, reality, and yet it is true that there is a reality beyond our representations and that it is the weight and push of that reality that determines the appearances for us." (256)

"we are only forced again to extract meaning from the optically indeterminate" (256)