Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

From Skepticism to Science: La Cueva De Salamanca and the Construction of Modern Thought

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

From Skepticism to Science: La Cueva De Salamanca and the Construction of Modern Thought

Article excerpt

Jose Maria Lopez Pinero has argued that the "mentalidad contra-reformista," which brought with it a resurgence of Scholasticism I and the concomitant imposition of ideological orthodoxy in Spain, effectively put an end to what had been up until the end of the sixteenth century a society open to scientific investigation. (1) Not only did the expansion of the Spanish empire into the Indies lead to new discoveries in such diverse fields as cartography, engineering, mineralogy, and natural history, but Spain also remained open to new ideas emanating from northern Europe. Copernican heliocentrism, which put into question the Ptolemaic universe, was taught at the University of Salamanca and the anatomy of Vesalius, which challenged the received wisdom of Galen, found a home in the Yalencian School. By the end of the century, however, Spain had closed itself off to the intellectual currents that would give rise to the physics of Galileo, the chemistry of Boyle and the mathematics of Newton. "Durante casi un milenio," says Lopez Pinero, "nuestro pais habia ocupado un puesto de importancia en el panorama cientifico europeo, pero en este periodo realmente crucial se cerro en si mismo, permaneciendo totalmente al margen de las corrientes europeas" (qtd. in Gonzalez Blasco 42).

The "mentalidad contrareformista" that had taken hold in Spain could not put a stop to the epistemological crisis that was taking root in Europe, however. Responding to Aristotle's insistence that nature abhors a vacuum, Torricelli in Italy, Pascal in France and Boyle in England devised experiments to demonstrate the existence of the void, which posed a powerful threat to the Aristotelian notion of the filled universe. To the great philosopher's argument that the laws of motion that governed the celestial and sub-lunar worlds were fundamentally different, Newton responded with mathematical proof that they were the same. Aristotelianism was under attack everywhere except in Spain, where the neo-Scholasticism centered primarily at the University of Salamanca silenced those who would seek to challenge traditional modes of thought. (2) But an Aristotelianism that thrust Spain back into the perfectly filled universe with an immovable Earth at its center could offer neither certainty nor solace to those for whom the medieval worldview no longer held. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the world had lost what Joan Ramon Resina has called its "immanent meaning" (221). European thought, says Resina, was experiencing a crisis that "entailed the dissolution of transcendentally authorized formal categories" (221). Meaning had become unstable, replaced by an epistemological uncertainty that the resurgence of Scholasticism could not overcome.

La nueva filosofia officially arrived in Spain in the last moments of the seventeenth century when, on May 25, 1700, Carlos II established the Regia Sociedad de Medicina. (3) It had been a long time coming. Lopez Pinero has maintained throughout his work that seventeenth-century Spanish thinkers were slow to accept the new scientific ideas emanating from northern Europe. "Solamente en las dos ultimas decadas del siglo," says Lopez Pinero, "rompieron abiertamente algunos autores espanoles con los esquemas clasicos e iniciaron la asimilacion sistematica de las nuevas corrientes" (qtd. in Gonzalez Blasco 42). In Spain, la nueva filosofia, which was already well established in France and England, found a home in a group of physicians who met in Seville to take up the practice of experimental philosophy. The Society, provincial in origin but international in aspiration, maintained correspondence with members of the Royal Society in London and the Academie des Sciences in Paris. But the Spanish attempt to participate fully in the intellectual revolution taking place in northern Europe was, for Anthony Pagden, "flawed and ultimately unsuccessful" (126), not because of fear of the Inquisition, but because Spain could never fully accept the epistemological implications of uncertainty, a strange--or perhaps not so strange--reaction to the disquiet that abounded in seventeenth-century Spain, when political insurrection and economic stagnation became the hallmark of an empire in decline. …

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