Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 10.  Curiosities and the Curious.

New Philosophers and New Philosophy:
Science moves from private space into the public arena.
Exploration of the new world stimulated interest in natural wonders.  Eyewitnesses brought back reports of wondrous plants and animals.
How can the discerning armchair observer separate the real from the imaginary?
Changing Views of Knowledge
400 BCE-500 CE • philosophers • academies
• museums
• libraries
• critique and expand on work of predecessors • intellectual gratification
500-1450 • learned professionals • monasteries
• universities
• master work of predecessors • explicate and glorify God's creation
1450-1600 • wealthy
• powerful
• virtuosi
• private studies
• patron's home
• observe Nature directly • personal and national benefit
1600-1730 • merchants
• literati
• scientific circles
• learned societies
• interrogate Nature • acquire and disseminate useful knowledge

A New Philosophy

By the turn of the seventeenth century, an ever-widening group of people could and did read.  Ready access to the world of ideas engendered a sense of intellectual restlessness and growing dissatisfaction with others' ideas about the world.  Those with sufficient resources and leisure time, or who could locate a wealthy patron to support them, pursued philosophical ventures on their own and sought new ways of arriving at certain knowledge about the structure and working of the world.

There were common threads running through these early efforts:

  • reason and observation are useful, but limited, methods for studying Nature
  • the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics
    • quantification of natural phenomena is key to "reading" it
  • processes as well as things can be measured and compared
    • space
    • time
    • motion?
    • respiration?
    • digestion?
    • thinking?
  • natural processes can (and often must) be adapted to make measurement possible
  • instruments enhance limited human capacities
  • real world events abide by simple patterned rules, but these rules may be masked by the fact that events only approximate their ideal mathematical representations
    • that's not only OK -- there's simply nothing we can do about it -- so we have to learn to deal with it
    • but how???

Plant samples were collected and displayed in teaching gardens like the one at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands:

Rather than rely on pictures in books, students could see plants for themselves, examine their stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds and observe their growth and decay.

Beautiful and/or intriguing objects, both natural and man-made, were collected by wealthy and worldly individuals who organized and displayed them privately in rooms called Kunstkammers or "cabinets of curiosities."

The cabinet of pharmacist Francesco Calzolari (1522-1609) at Verona, 1622

The cabinet of pharmacist Ferrante Imperato (1550-1631) at Naples, 1672

Who were the New Philosophers?
  • Virtuosi:
    • wealthy patrons
    • curious literati
    • merchants and craftsmen
Where did the New Philosophers pursue their investigations?
  • Operated outside normal boundaries of intellectual discourse:
    • used vernacular, not Latin, used for communicating ideas
    • vested authority in firsthand experience rather than books
How did they pursue their investigations?
  • New Philosophers needed a new model to guide their practice to establish the what, where, how, and why of scientific investigation
  • In 1620, Francis Bacon produced a handbook for New Philosophers entitled Novum Organum (1620)--The New Method

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

In the New Method, Bacon described the study of nature as a new kind of puzzle:
  • the natural world is a maze
  • the scientist is an explorer who travels through the maze of nature like Columbus
  • a scientist can get somewhere and make discoveries if he travels enough
  • the scientist/explorer must use signposts--crucial experiments to determine which way to go next
 excerpts from Bacon's New Method

Those who have treated of the sciences have been either empirics or dogmatical.

The former, like ants only heap up and use their store, the latter like spiders spin out their own webs.

The bee, a mean between both, extracts matter from the flowers of the garden and the field, but works and fashions it by its own efforts....

The true labor of philosophy resembles [that of the bee], for it neither relies entirely nor principally on the powers of the mind, or yet lays up in the memory the matter afforded by the experiments of natural history and mechanics in its raw state, but changes and works it in the understanding....

[T]he reverence for antiquity, and the authority of men who have been esteemed great in philosophy ... have retarded men from advancing in science....

[B]y far the greatest obstacle to the advancement of the sciences ... is to be found in men's despair and the idea of impossibility....

[T]he secrets of nature betray thmselves more readily when tormented by art than when left to their own course....

[M]en will ... only begin to know their own power, when each person performs a separate part, instead of undertaking in crowds the same work.

In another book, The New Atlantis (1626), Bacon described an island utopia (Bensalem) which possessed an ideal research academy (Saloman's House) where New Method's principles were put into practice.
Scientific Societies

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the formation of an increasing number of scientific groups formed to promote discussion and to disseminate the "new" philosophy.  These were not merely groups of enthusiasts, but assemblies of individuals representing a broad cross-section of educated society.  Many of them used Bacon's vivid description of Saloman's House as a model to organize their own "scientific societies."

"Intelligentsers" encouraged and maintained active communication among widely-scattered virtuosi:

  • Fabri de Periesc (1580-1637) of Montpellier
  • Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) of Paris
  • Henry Oldenburg (1615-1677) of London


Accademia dei Lincei [Academy of the Lynx-Eyed] (1603-1630)

The Lincean Academy desires as its members philosophers who are eager for real knowledge, and who will give themselves to the study of nature, and especially to mathematics.  At the same time, it will not neglect the ornaments of elegant literature and philology, which like graceful garments, adorn the whole body of science.

  • founded by Prince Federigo Cesi (1585-1630) secret society whose four original members shared an interest in natural science and the occult:
    • Cesi (Il Celivago--the heaven-wanderer)
    • Johannes Van Heeck (L'Illuminato--the enlightened one)
    • Anastasio Di Filiis (L'Eclissato--the eclipsed one)
    • Francesco Stelluti (Il Tardigrado--the slow one)
    • Galileo Galilei (inducted as the fifth member in December 1611)
  • selected the lynx as their symbol to represent the importance of clear-sightedness in science
  • meetings held at Cesi's spacious villa in Rome
  • made use of Cesi's large library and cabinet of curiosities
  • members conducted own individual investigations
  • group discussed results at meetings
  • oversaw publication of worthy books written by members: 
    • Galileo's work on sunspots (1613)
    • The Assayer (1623)

Accademia del Cimento [Academy of Experiment] (1657-1667)

  • founded by Grand Duke Ferdinand II and Prince Leopold de' Medici of Florence
  • modelled after Saloman's House described by Francis Bacon in New Atlantis
  • members set to work in common on tasks of importance to science; unknown is too vast for one man to tackle single-handed
  • motto:  "Provando e Riprovando"--Testing and Retesting; or Testing and Refuting
  • members included:
    • Vincenzo Viviani (student and disciple of Galileo)
    • Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (leading scientist in Italy; specialized in mathematizing and mechanizing physiology)
    • Francesco Redi (physician; conducted experiments on spontaneous generation)
    • Carlo Renaldini (an Aristotelian professor of philosophy)
    • Lorenzo Magalotti (a man of letters with an interest in science)
  • Medici brothers used wealth to purchase the services of finest instrument makers
  • published record of experiments performed with these instruments--Saggi di Naturali Esperienze (1667)


Gresham College

  • founded in London (1598) thanks to bequest of Thomas Gresham (1519-1579)
I will and dispose, that ... the ... maior and corporation of [the City of London] ... shall give and distribute to and for the sustentation, mayntenaunce, and findinge foure persons from tyme to tyme to be chosen, nominated, and appointed ... to read the lectures of divynitye, astronomy, musicke, and geometry, within myne nowe dwellinge house in the parishe of St. Hellynes in Bishopsgate streete and St. Peeters the pore in the cittye of London ... the somme of two hundred pounds of lawfull money of England ... to every of the said readers for the tyme beinge the somme of fifty pounds of lawfull money of England yerely, for theire sallaries and stipendes, mete for foure sufficiently learned to read the said lectures....
  • lectures in science, geometry, astronomy were delivered in both English and Latin
  • citizens of London invited to attend
  • became meeting place for non-academic laymen

"Invisible College" (1645-1660)

  • formed around 1645-46 by group (mainly physicians and mathematicians) meeting at Gresham College
  • members included Royalists and Puritans
  • individuals looked for areas of agreement (Order and Harmony in nature) outside politics and religion
    About the year 1645, while I [mathematician, John Wallis (1616-1703)] lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academical studies were much interrupted in both our Universities) ... I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy, and other parts of human learning; and particularly of what has been called the New Philosophy, or Experimental Philosophy.  We did by agreements, divers of us, meet weekly in London on a certain day, to treat and discourse of such affairs....  These meetings we held sometimes at Dr. Goddard's lodgings in Wood Street (or some convenient place near), on occasion of his keeping an operator in his house for grinding glasses for telescopes and microscopes; sometimes at a convenient place in Cheapside, and sometimes at Gresham College, or some place near adjoining.

    Our business was (precluding matters of theology and state affairs), to discourse and consider of Philosophical Enquiries, and such as related thereunto:  as physic, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, navigation, statics, magnetics, chemics, mechanics, and natural experiments; with the state of these studies, as then cultivated at home and abroad.  We then discoursed of the circulation of the blood, the valves in the veins, the venae lactae, the lymphatic vessels, the Copernican hypothesis, the nature of comets and new stars, the satellites of Jupiter, the oval shape (as it then appeared) of Saturn, the spots in the sun, and its turning on its own axis, the inequalities and selenography of the moon, the several phases of Venus and Mercury, the improvement of telescopes, and grinding of glasses for that purpose, the weight of air, the possibility, or impossibility of vacuities, and nature's abhorrence thereof, the Torricellian experiment in quicksilver, the descent of heavy bodies, and the degrees of acceleration therein; and divers other things of like nature.  Some of which were then but new discoveries, and others not so generally known and embraced, as now they are, with other things appertaining to what has been called The New Philosophy, which from the times of Galileo at Florence, and Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam) in England, has been much cultivated in Italy, France, Germany, and other parts abroad, as well as with us in England.


Royal Society of London (1660-   )

  • organized (November 1660) by members of the Invisible College as a "college for the promoting of Physio-Mathematical Experimental Learning"
  • chartered by King Charles II (1662)
  • motto:  "Nullius in Verba"--"Deeds rather than Words"
  • group hired Robert Hooke to serve as "curator of experiments"
  • intelligentser Henry Oldenburg (1615-1677) began publishing (March 1665) Philosophical Transactions:  giving some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours, of the Ingenious in many Considerable Parts of the World
    • first scientific journal


Montmor Academy (1648-1664)

  • organized following the death of intelligentser Marin Mersenne (1588-1648)
  • aimed to gain knowledge of natural world and advance the comforts of life
  • meetings held at Paris home of Habert de Montmor (1600-1679), wealthy patron of René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi

Académie des Sciences (1666-   )

  • members of Montmor Academy, jealous of success of Royal Society, petitioned Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister for Internal Affairs in court of Louis XIV, to sponsor a similar society in France
  • few of early activists were invited to be members of the Académie--no amateurs or dilettantes
  • members became civil servants with salaries paid by the crown
By the second half of the seventeenth century, scientific societies had evolved.  Participants aimed to develop the sciences rather than promote the new philosophy.  The task of scientific societies was less to secure the scientific revolution than to maintain its momentum and reap its harvest.

The New Philosophy engendered new patterns of social organization--

--with participants as seekers, probers, and witnesses.

A meeting of the Accademia del Cimento

The New Philosophy defined a new role for instruments--
--to measure Nature accurately so that patterns of small, but essential differences could be identified.

A seventeenth century optician advertises his wares:  magnifying glasses, spectacles, telescopes, prisms, and microscopes.
The New Philosophy introduced new fields of investigation--



The New Philosophy encouraged new relationships between scientific practitioners and their national leaders--

Greenwich astronomers at work under the king's watchful eye.

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