Magazine article The American Conservative

The Scientistic Revolution

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Scientistic Revolution

Article excerpt

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton, Harper, 784 pages

David Wootton here has written not a single book but two intertwined ones. One of them, written by Wootton the highly skilled professional historian, seeks to overturn the recent consensus on the "Scientific Revolution," which has been that talk of a revolution is overblown, and what really happened was a gradual development of older ideas into what we now regard as modern science. In this work, Wootton mines his sources to great effect, arguing that, in fact, the Scientific Revolution really did represent a dramatic break with earlier approaches to understanding nature.

But mixed with that historical work is another in which David Wootton, advocate of science as the pinnacle of human knowledge, hopes to convince readers of his worldview. Here Wootton is forwarding a value judgment about the relative worth of the different ways in which humans attempt to comprehend our world. Wootton's great achievement in his historical work should not intimidate us into acquiescing to the conclusion of his philosophical work--which is not, and could not possibly be, the conclusion of an historical investigation since it is not about what really happened in the past.

In On History, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott explains that we can approach the past with various attitudes, and those different attitudes create different pasts. We may contemplate the past in a state of artistic reverie, as Marcel Proust did in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. This produces a "poetic past," a past mined for its artistic yield. More commonly, we encounter what Oakeshott called the "practical past": the past employed as a source of guidance to steer us through present perplexities. Oakeshott argues that the "historical past" is different from these other attitudes towards the past, in that its special focus is strictly upon what the historical evidence indicates really occurred, and not the beauty of those events or their lessons for us today. And it is that past that professional historians are uniquely qualified to comment upon.

Wootton knows that attempts to cloak value judgments as historical conclusions have been subject to serious critique in the past, so he takes time out from his central theses to forestall similar criticism. He sets up a straw-man version of Herbert Butterfield--who in his work on the philosophy of history was an ally of Oakeshott--and then knocks that scarecrow down. Wootton says of Butterfield:

   In 1931 he had published The
   Whig Interpretation of History
   ... Butterfield argued ... it was not
   the historians' job to praise those
   people in the past whose values
   and opinions they agreed with
   and criticize those with whom
   they disagreed; only God had
   the right to sit in judgment ... It
   should be obvious that he was not
   right about this: no one, I trust,
   would want to read an account of
   slavery written by someone incapable
   of passing judgment.

But this is a caricature of what Butterfield wrote. Consider the following quotes from The Whig Interpretation of History: "There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies"; "If [the historian] deals in moral judgements at all he is trying to take upon himself a new dimension, and he is leaving that realm of historical explanation ..."

Butterfield quite explicitly says that, far from being "incapable of passing judgment," it is fine for historians to pass judgments as human beings. Butterfield personally is just as capable of disliking slavery as Wootton. Butterfield's point, however, is that the historian's job is to determine what happened in the past, and condemning or praising various participants in that past is no part of that job. This is analogous to the principle that, as a physician, it is not the doctor's job to pass judgment on the sick who appear before him but to cure them. …

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