Yeo, Richard. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science

By Rioux, Jean | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Yeo, Richard. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science


Rioux, Jean, The Review of Metaphysics


YEO, Richard. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. xviii + 398 pp. Cloth, $45.00--In this work, Richard Yeo provides us with a well-researched and documented account of the practices and views of prominent English note takers of the seventeenth century, showing along the way how important the written record of observations was to the development of empirical thought in the early modern period.

Yeo begins with a preface and introductory first chapter which describe period forms and methods of observational note taking and the characteristics and interests of the self-styled English "virtuosi," including an account of note takers, their methods, and purposes, from the past all the way through their impact upon the development of modern empirical science. Chapter one concludes with an extended discussion of how seventeenth century thinkers conceived of the relation between note taking and memory.

Chapter two goes into detail, first addressing the taking of notes in the light of the tension between writing and memory as initially described by Socrates himself: the more one writes, the less one remembers. Seeing the development of the art as a response to this problem, Yeo briefly supplies the arguments given by Renaissance writers and Jesuit scholars in defense of the practice. Figures dealt with include John Aubrey, Francesco Sacchini, Francis Bacon, and Richard Holdsworth. The chapter concludes with an examination of the notebooks of John Evelyn, Abraham Hill, and Robert Southwell.

Chapter three addresses the impact of the previous discussion upon the development of the new sciences, especially in the light of the writings of Francis Bacon. A new emphasis, Yeo argues, came to be placed upon the need, not merely for knowledge, but for information, empirical information. The virtuosi came quickly to see that Bacon's new science would require many details to be discovered, sorted out, and preserved. The development of empirical science was not the work of an individual over a lifetime, but would take many generations. Much was to depend upon the written accumulation of empirical facts--hence the taking of notes was increasingly valued.

Chapters four through seven get into still greater detail, each emphasizing the note-taking practices and notebooks of individuals.

Chapter four takes up the seventeenth-century scholar Samuel Hartlib. In fact and in intention, Hartlib aspired to collect as much such information as he could, which then needed to be further tabulated and indexed. Placing more emphasis upon the importance of being able to locate what one needed to know over having retained it individually in memory, Hartlib's collected papers provided later historians with massive amounts of data, albeit mostly secured and accumulated as a private store of information, with its precise extent dictated by the predominant interests and desires of a single individual. …

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