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Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). ISBN: 9780226923987, xiv + 333 pp. $45.

Reviewed by Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis


[1] Baroque Science is the central statement of the ‘Baroque Science’ project led by Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris at the University of Sydney. The volume Science in the Age of Baroque (Springer, 2013), has been published simultaneously, after a number of workshops and several papers. The goal of the project is to show that the New Science of the seventeenth century – capitalized throughout the book – and the Baroque are not opposites but mirror images; products of the same cultural challenges. It aims to overcome the seeming contrast between the Baroque obsession with details, paradox, imagery and sensuality on the one hand, and the search for universal regularity of the New Science on the other. Baroque Science argues that three inter-related paradoxes are at the heart of the New Science, concerning the role and nature of observation, of mathematics and of objectivity. In all three cases the supposed straightforward rise of early modern science is revealed to have been a struggle with the contradictory implications of the new methods of observation – the employment of mathematics and the disciplining of the mind. The argument is lucid and precise, focusing on epistemic issues regarding the New Science, yielding an original view of the Scientific Revolution.

[2] The first three chapters, which comprise the first part of the book, show how observation became essentially mediated in early modern science: not simply because of the use of instruments but because the eye, itself, came to be seen as an instrument. In the Paralipomena of 1604 Johannes Kepler took the crucial step of recognizing that light forms a picture on the eye’s retina in a way similar to the creation of images by pinholes, cameras and telescopes. Juxtaposing Kepler’s conclusions with contemporary and earlier accounts of optics, vision and instruments, the authors make clear how fundamental the break with tradition was. Instead of being a ‘self-authenticating process of communication between object and reason through the eye’ (p. 27), vision became a mediated process of projection. Descartes fully addressed the epistemological challenge raised by Kepler’s optics, avoiding the pitfalls of skepticism and articulating the essence of sensual representation based on the analysis of image formation. Galileo and Hooke illustrate the resulting ‘radical instrumentalism’ that conflates art and nature and makes the telescope and microscope reveal the endless variety in nature. The authors’ argument regarding the epistemic implications of the telescope is searching and illuminating, making clear that it did not so much reveal the mathematical order of nature but necessitated a profound rethinking of the interaction between the natural world, observation and reason.

[3] This theme is continued in both chapters of the volume’s second section, discussing the equally challenging consequences of the ideal of a mathematical science of nature. The authors convincingly argue that mathematization was not the uncovering of the mathematical essence of nature, but the creation of mathematical tools for getting to grips with the messy richness of phenomena. They offer a new reading of the development of the inverse square law, liberating its history from the confines of astronomy by emphasizing the link with optics and showing how it expresses the Baroque sensitivity for disorder rather than a conquest of universality. In the single chapter which constitutes the final, third part of the volume, they discuss Descartes’ realization that the passions are crucial for warranting the proper employment of imagination and mediated sensation in arriving at legitimate knowledge. This concludes their argument that ‘Baroque paradox reversals’ (p.280) – of reason and passions, of art and nature, of order and complexity – were at the heart of the New Science of the seventeenth century.

[4] Baroque Science stands in a respectable tradition in the historiography of science. It has all the strengths and all the limitations of a classical history of ideas. The authors offer probing and original interpretations of a collection of texts of protagonists of the Scientific Revolution, taking seriously the aspirations and challenges they addressed within the intellectual context of their time. The New Science was hard-won and its epistemic substructure often defied the original expectations of its pioneers. Baroque Science shows how it was informed by early modern culture but it does not present it as a cultural phenomenon: the epistemic considerations underlying the New Science developed autonomously, seeking cultural legitimization afterwards. Consequently, the authors read the telescope exclusively as an astronomical instrument, passing over the vast array of cultural meanings that Eileen Reeves and others have revealed. Moreover, such an approach tends to obscure historical ambiguities and nuances that only later became definite. The telescope was, initially, an instrument for observing the physical features of the heavens; only half a century after its introduction it had become an instrument for positional astronomy. Hevelius had no problem employing the telescope for his selenography, but without an exact theory of the telescope he could not accept it as an instrument of precision. Ignoring distinctions like these, the argument of Baroque Science, at times, tends to the monolithic and linear. The authors lucidly explain how the particular branch of early modern natural philosophy epitomized by Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hooke and Newton took shape, but they do not discuss its position within the myriad of conceptions and practices of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century or consider its reception and impact. At this point the argument is too narrow and generalizations are too broad. ‘The human observer gradually disappears from optical treatises’ the authors claim in their opening sentence (p. 16), but this only applies to the specific texts which they discuss. Outside the traditional canon of physical optics, perception remained important – understanding colorito, for example, required the active participation of the organs of cognition.

[5] Baroque Science does not offer a full history of science in the Baroque, and it need not. The penetrating analyses of texts offer a novel and inspiring view of the Scientific Revolution. The book is superbly written and perfectly accessible for the general historian. I highly recommend it. The focus on epistemology and the Baroque intricacies of man, nature and knowledge – the connection of scientific and artistic pursuits – has considerable relevance for other students of early modern culture. Although the authors do not explicitly make this ‘Baroque Science’ into a northern phenomenon, the story largely unfolds north of the Alps. It would be interesting to examine how, and to what extent, this specific cultural setting contributed to the emergence of a science of mediated perception and disciplined imagination.

University of Twente, June 2013