The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

The subject line for this entry is the title of a book by Peter Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).  In this book and in two earlier books, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) and ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990), Harrison writes about the role that religion played in creating the conditions that contributed to the rise of science in the early modern period.  In particular, he highlights the Protestant way of interpreting text (less symbolic, more literal) and the idea of the fallen nature of man (taken here to mean the loss of his pre-Fall intellect, and its partial recovery via experimental science).  To give you a sense of his thoughts on these topics, here is a 4′ 48″ video, the second part of an six-part interview of Harrison by John Dickson, in which the author provides a précis of them.

What follows doesn’t pretend to be an appraisal of Harrison’s overall thesis (which seems sound to me).  Instead, I choose to focus on what Harrison refers to as a “complicating factor” – the countermovement (my term) to the main movement that he is principally concerned with.  In century terms, ground zero for modern science is the seventeenth century.  Henri Bergson once referred to this “so different” century as a “sublime parenthesis,” an expression that acutely suggests the great intellectual flux of that time.  It is no exaggeration to say that the course of the next half-millenium was forecast by the outcome of the contest between these two movements in the seventeenth century.  The main movement, which stressed a reductionist approach to science, prevailed.  The countermovement, which stressed a holistic approach to science, lost its intellectual legitimacy and went underground (to resurface periodically, e.g. in Goethe’s scientific work).

The conclusion to Harrison’s second book contains this sensitive, evenhanded account of the countermovement:

It might be perceived to be a weakness of the thesis of this book that we still encounter in the seventeenth century significant survivals of the old symbolic world order, supposedly overturned in the hermeneutical revolution of the previous century.  These are not restricted to margins of intellectual life, moreover, but are manifest even in figures supposedly representative of the new, non-emblematic world view.  Traces of the old mentality are evident in the last great resurgence of Neoplatonism in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, in the survival of astrology, in the vogue for the philosophy of Boehme and Paracelsus.  . . .  These instances, I would suggest, are indicative of an unconscious reluctance to admit the failure of the old world picture, combined with deep misgivings about the partial and fragmentary sciences which were proposed in its place.  Faith in the language of mathematics, confidence in the possibilities of the human intellect, the growing assurance of the superiority of the new knowledge over that of the ancients, these things were accompanied by an acute sense of loss and a yearning for the certainties provided by the old world, now evacuated of meaning.  This accounts for what in many ways is the most remarkable feature of seventeenth-century science – the unwillingness of its practitioners to abandon those things which, in their eyes, had given a deeper significance to the natural world.  Theirs were not the activities and beliefs of men marching towards a brave new world of empirical science without a backward glance, but rather of individuals with an inchoate awareness of the full implications of their new readings of the world, and of the relative impoverishment of a view of nature in which legitimate knowledge was reduced to mathematical relations and systems of classification.  To the optimism generated by the remarkable achievements of the seventeenth century we must juxtapose the ‘dread’ experienced by Pascal as he contemplated the eternal silence of the new cosmos.  The affirmation of the new science was tentative, rather than triumphalist, tinged always with a consciousness of the contingency of the human condition, and a growing awareness of the arbitrary nature of all structures of meaning in a post-Babel world.  Cast over the millennial hope of the new Eden was the ever-present shadow of the Fall.  (The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science, pp. 270-1)

If my sympathies lie more with the countermovement than with the main movement, this is probably due to two factors.  First, I am habitually biased in favor of marginalized thinkers who swim against the tide of prevailing opinion.  You may say it is my weakness, but I can’t help it.  Second, and more importantly, several years ago I read a fair amount by Walter Pagel and Allen G. Debus, both of whom spent much of their lives, in effect, advocating with their peers – historians of science – for a nonjudgmental consideration of the countermovement.  In some measure, Harrison’s comment above is evidence that Pagel and Debus did not labor in vain.

Walter Pagel (1898-1983) was a physician (pathologist) by training and profession.  A Jew, he and his wife and son emigrated from Germany to England (via France) in 1933.  Pagel’s father, Julius, had also been a physician, and a medical historian.  The son would follow in the father’s footsteps, to become one of the twentieth century’s finest medical historians, without the benefit of holding a regular academic position after 1933!  Pagel’s writings, in book form and in articles, particularly about Paracelsus (1493-1541) and Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), were trailblazing.  In my view his earlier works were his best.  In them he seemed freer, more willing to stick his neck out.  In his later works, I find, something had crept in (a scholarly reserve?) and muted them a bit.  His erudition was a constant, of course.  My top Pagel book purchase recommendation – if you can find a used copy – and good luck with that – is Religion and Neoplatonism in Renaissance Medicine (London: Variorum Reprints, 1985).  Published after Pagel’s death and edited by Marianne Winder, the book is a collection of some of his articles from 1935 to 1981.  Here is a review of it I found yesterday that pretty much nails it, and to which I have nothing to add.

(Still, I do have to tell the following story.  When I lived in Nebraska and requested interlibrary loan (ILL) books at UNL, I had to pick them up at the ILL office rather than at the circulation desk (here in South Carolina, at USC-Columbia, the circulation desk handles everything).  This meant that I got to interact directly with the people who handled my ILL requests.  Now, it must be part of the professional librarian code of conduct, or something, not to make comments to patrons about the books they check out.  Or, maybe the librarians in that particular office just weren’t overly sociable.  However it was, in all the times I stopped by the office to pick up a book, I never once had a librarian make the slightest remark about any of the books I’d requested.  Until, that is, the day I came in to pick up a book by Pagel titled The Smiling Spleen : Paracelsianism in Storm and Stress.  Since I was a “regular,” most of the staff there knew me by sight.  As soon as she saw me come in, and without a word, the librarian walked over to the shelf containing the outgoing books, pulled mine out, brought it over, and dropped it on the counter where I was standing.  “Okay,” she said, with a smile, “I have to tell you that the title of your book had us all laughing hysterically.  What’s this book about?”  I explained that the author, Pagel, had been a pathologist and a medical historian, and that people used to “essentialize” their internal organs, as being the seats of various personality traits, much more than they do now – to be good-spleened meant to be compassionate – and so on.  But even I had to admit that it was the most unusual title for a book that I’d ever seen.)

Allen G. Debus (1926-2009) was both a chemist and an historian by training and, except for a five-year stint in private industry in the 1950s working as a research and development chemist, he held academic positions at the University of Chicago his entire career.  While pursuing his doctorate at Harvard in the history of science, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to University College in London.  When he was in England, he met Walter Pagel, who agreed to be a long-distance dissertation advisor for him.  The two men became good friends and corresponded regularly over the years (Debus edited a Festschrift for Pagel).  But while Pagel’s primary focus was the history of medicine, for Debus, it was the history of chemistry.  Of course, the seventeenth century was prime territory for both men, and there was considerable overlap in their studies because, in that era, the same man could figure prominently in the history of both chemistry and medicine (e.g. Jan Baptista van Helmont).  For many years the story of the history of science had been told mainly in terms of astronomy and physics – the physical sciences – and, to a lesser extent, medicine.  But what about chemistry?  In history of science studies, chemistry was considered the subbasement, a place for “the study of ‘lesser men’ and outmoded concepts” (Debus’ The Chemical Philosophy, p. 2).  Or, turning our metaphor upside down, chemistry’s burden was seen to be its crotchety Thurberian relative living in the attic, whose name was Alchemy.  Debus was a pioneer in pushing for an equal place setting for chemistry at the table of the history of science (and that’s my last Home Ec metaphor, I promise).

Returning to our original author, Peter Harrison, a figure from the seventeenth-century that he mentions (albeit briefly) in each of his books is the English preacher, teacher, educational reformer, physician and Helmontian alchemist, John Webster (1611-1682).  As may be inferred from his long list of avocations, Webster was a Renaissance man.  He undoubtedly had one of the largest private libraries in the north of England of his time (estimated at 1662 volumes).  An excellent summary of his life and career, written by Peter Elmer, can be found online here.  While reading Elmer’s summary, I was struck by certain affinities between John Webster and Lev Shestov – more on that in a moment.

Webster’s ideas and opinions were drawn from eclectic sources.  Although he is generally, and correctly, classed with the Paracelsians and Helmontians (i.e. the scientific countermovement), Webster also praised the accomplishments of men like Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, and he was a strong supporter of the Royal Society (i.e. the scientific main movement).  He is a reminder to us of the danger of drawing the line between the two movements too cleanly, too neatly.  Webster, and many others of that period, were suspended, magnetically, as it were, between two poles.  In the span of the seventeenth century – a mere blink of an eye on the human evolutionary timescale – man’s mental compass had to adapt to a sudden reversal of the magnetic poles.  In the historical moment when this flip occurred, even great minds knew not which way to go.  Newton himself, most now believe, “wasted” years of his life on religious questions and alchemy.  Where before there had been the settled religious certainty of an Aquinas, and ahead lay the settled scientific certainty of a Laplace (who, when asked by Napoleon why his works on nature never mentioned its Creator, famously replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis”), it may be that at this juncture, and perhaps only then, sublime natural truths were briefly visible.

Harrison’s interest in Webster is mostly due to the fact that the latter “discusses the nature of the Lingua Adamica, and by implication suggests not the construction of an artificial universal language, but the recovery of the natural universal language” (‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment, p. 150).  Webster believed that God gave Adam this natural universal language when He created him (i.e. it was not man’s invention), and that it was lost in the Fall.  Webster, as cited by Harrison, wrote:

No truly, the mind receiveth but one single and simple image of every thing, which is expressed in all by the same motions of the spirits, and doubtlessly in every creature hath radically, and naturally the same sympathy in voice, and sound, but men not understanding these immediate sounds of the soul, and the true Schematism of the internal notions impressed, and delineated in the several sounds, have instituted and imposed others, that do not altogether concord, and agree to the innate notions, and so no care is taken for the recovery and restauration of the Catholique language in which lies hid all the rich treasury of natures admirable and excellent secrets.  (Ibid.)


Alas! we all study and read too much upon the dead paper rolls of creaturely invented letters but do not, nor cannot read the legible characters that are onely written and impressed by the finger of the Almighty.  (The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science, p. 194)

After noting his eclectic philosophical inspirations, Harrison says of Webster:

In all of this he was sharply critical of Aristotelian learning, which in his view suffered from a misplaced trust in the powers of human reason.  The ‘much magnified natural reason’ of the peripatetic schools, he claimed, was in reality ‘the fruit and effect of the forbidden tree  . . .  a spurious and adventitious faculty which man wanted in his innocency, and was instilled in him by Satan in the fall’.  Confidence in human reason alone, he insisted, gave rise to knowledge that was ‘fleshly, earthly, deadly and destructive’.  Aristotle’s philosophy, in brief, was the corrupted knowledge of the fallen creature.  (The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, pp. 191-2)

In the above, Harrison might as well have been describing Shestov, as Webster – the ideas are vintage Shestov.  Harrison goes on to say:

In speaking of the ‘characters’ of the natural world, Webster was not merely alluding to the ubiquitous trope of the ‘book of nature’, for in his conception, nature was literally written in a language that Adam had once been able to read.  There was a ‘Paradisical language’ that Adam had spoken in Eden, and which he used to bestow names upon the beasts.  Unlike the labels of conventional language, these names were not imposed arbitrarily on things.  Rather they uniquely identified them and perfectly expressed their true natures.  . . .  After the entry of sin into the world, this language of things was ‘defaced and forgotten’.  However, Webster was encouraged by the possibility that this primitive language might be recovered, and with it Adamic learning.  Indeed it was the common belief that the knowledge of the primitive tongue, if reacquired, would confer knowledge of the natures of things.  Bacon himself had asserted that ‘the imposition of names’ was one of the summary parts of knowledge and, moreover, that ‘whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them’.  (Ibid., p. 192)

If we compare Webster’s description of the universal language of nature that Adam had, and lost, to Dostoevsky’s description of the original language possessed, and lost, by the parallel-earth dwellers in his short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the similarity is striking:

Oh, I at once understood, even then, that in many ways I would never understand them; to me, a modern Russian progressive and vile Petersburger, it seemed insoluble, for instance, that they, while knowing so much, did not have our science.  But I soon realized that their knowledge was fulfilled and nourished by different insights than on our earth, and that their aspirations were also quite different.  They did not wish for anything and were at peace, they did not aspire to a knowledge of life, as we do, because their life was fulfilled.  But their knowledge was deeper and loftier than our science; for our science seeks to explain what life is, it aspires to comprehend it, in order to teach others to live; but they knew how to live even without science, and I understood that, but I could not understand their knowledge.  They pointed out their trees to me, and I could not understand the extent of the love with which they looked at them: as if they were talking with creatures of their own kind.  And you know, perhaps I wouldn’t be mistaken if I said that they did talk to them!  Yes, they had found their language, and I’m convinced that the trees understood them.  They looked at the whole of nature in the same way – at the animals, who lived in peace with them, did not attack them, and loved them, won over by their love.  They pointed out the stars to me and talked of them with me about something I couldn’t understand, but I’m convinced that they had some contact, as it were, with the heavenly stars, not just in thought, but in some living way.  (The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, p. 291)

In both cases a kind of language is being described that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around.  It is nothing like our language – equivocal, deception-prone, and powerless – a more advanced form of monkey chatter.  No, it is a kind of fiat-language – univocal, guileless, and powerful – akin to, if distantly removed from, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

As tireless as Lev Shestov was in searching history for argumentative grist for his mill, I’ve found no evidence that he knew about the scientific countermovement whose heyday was the seventeenth century.  In fairness to Shestov, it should be said that a lot of relevant scholarship in the history of science didn’t yet exist when he was alive.  But it remains the case that his argument, as it stands, too simplistically equates science and reason.  If Shestov had known about Webster, I think Shestov would have studied Webster and his philosophical sources closely, and incorporated the scientific countermovement into his argument, thereby improving it.

This entry was posted in Debus, Allen G., Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Fall of man, Fall of man, series of posts, Helmont, Jan Baptista van, Pagel, Walter, Russian literature, Russian religious philosophy, Science, History of, Shestov, Lev, Webster, John. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

  1. Pingback: How I discovered Anne Conway | Extravagant Creation

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