Gal, Ofer and Raz Chen-Morris. Baroque Science

By Tkacz, Michael W. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Gal, Ofer and Raz Chen-Morris. Baroque Science


Tkacz, Michael W., The Review of Metaphysics


GAL, Ofer and Raz Chen-Morris. Baroque Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xiv + 333 pp. $45.00--Among the problems faced by historians developing an account of the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the difficulty of properly relating the new science to medieval natural philosophy. For much of the twentieth century, the problem was formulated in terms of a stark dichotomy of continuity or discontinuity. Studies of the past few decades, however, have taken a more subtle approach--this new book is among them. Yet it also stands apart, for its authors present a new perspective on early modern science and its relationship to its past. By focusing on the increasing dependence on observational instruments and more thorough mathematization of natural philosophy in the sixteenth century, they chronicle both the success of the new science as well as its loss of certitude. The result is a picture of a period in the history of science that is characterized as much by paradox and anxiety as it is by clarity and confidence. It is on this account that the authors designate the period from Kepler to Newton as "Baroque," intending the term in something like its original use in traditional logic for an excessively complex syllogism. Despite its evident success, then, the science of this period was Baroque insofar as its achievement was complicated by its attendant distortions, tensions, and unintended consequences.

The authors argue that the remarkable advance in the capacity and accuracy of optical instrumentation in the early modern period allowed unprecedented access to the very far and the very small, but only at the expense of significantly altering the empirical relationship of the observer to the object of study. Further, the successful reduction of local motion to exact mathematical laws was compromised by the obscure and artificial methods upon which they were based. Just as the sensuality of Baroque art manifested an indulgent extravagance in its obsession with detail, so the methodology of the new science becomes deeply involved in the empirical complexities of necessarily mediated observation and mathematical reduction.

The first part of the book relates the rise of instrument-mediated observation in the context of the abandonment of the medieval science of perspective in favor of a new optics. Whereas the older optics studied human vision as the end of an optical process providing knowledge of visible objects, the new optics treats the eye itself as a mediating instrument. It is Kepler, the authors argue, who removes the observer from optics by insisting that light is the generator of images, not merely what enables the medium to convey visual forms to the perceiving eye. Images are mechanical effects produced by light on the mediating parts of optical instruments, including the retina of the eye. …

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