History Unveiled Science Unfettered:
A Conference in Celebration of James E. McGuire

University of Pittsburgh,
January 19, 2002


The Book of Nature: Then and Now

James J. Bono
The State University of New York at Buffalo

Most of us associate the "Book of Nature" with Galileo's famous assertion that this grand book ("questo grandissimo libro") is written in the language of mathematics ("Ņ scritto in lingua matematica"). To this book of nature, Galileo explicitly opposes books produced by the imagination of mere human authors: for nature, he says, takes no delight in poetry ("la natura non si diletta di poesie").

Galileo's vivid description of the Book of Nature represents the most famous example in a long line of attempts to demarcate nature--and the study of nature--from imaginative language and the poetic. Yet, the very fact that he employs an old and honored trope, the metaphor of the "Book of Nature," to launch his methodological and philosophical innovations invites us to consider the role played by tropes like metaphor in the history of scientific thought and practice.

This talk will address the crucial, if oftentimes ignored, role played by the metaphor of the "Book of Nature" in the generation of new approaches to studying and understanding nature. My chief examples will be drawn from the so-called "Scientific Revolution" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, perhaps more surprisingly, from the world of contemporary science. The "Book of Nature," I shall argue, was not a single, stable concept, but a moving target--a trope whose unruly "twists and turns" continually provoked attempts to domesticate and master it.

My story begins with the multiple possibilities for reading Nature as a Book suddenly unleashed upon late Renaissance Europe in the sixteenth century by the revival of several traditions: classical rhetoric, philosophy, and medicine; natural magic and occultism; spiritual reform and piety; millenarian and eschatological conceptions of history; and both textual and Christian Humanism. From Paracelsus to Newton, I shall emphasize the way in which new, recast, and contending stories depicting Nature as a Book directly underwrote precise, and at times innovative, attempts to read the text of nature. Diverse "readings" of nature required of their readers different sets of "tools." Through brief consideration of figures like Paracelsus, Bacon, Harvey, Boyle, and Newton, I shall suggest how the metaphor of nature as a book was employed in service of a variety of new techniques, or "technologies," for describing and understanding nature.

The persistence of this metaphor in the late twentieth century may at first seem no more than a playful anachronism, a literary flourish inconsequential to the real work of science. I shall argue, by contrast, that it is consequential. The legibility of nature, and attempts to define scientific practices capable of both "reading" the elementary characters, vocabulary, and syntax of specific natural phenomena and "writing" their traces as science, constitute assumptions common to such disciplines as molecular biology and immunology. Building upon the work of Hans-Jˇrg Rheinberger, Alfred Tauber, and the late Lily Kay, my talk will explore the transformation of the archaic metaphor of nature as a book and the role that transformation plays in shaping the "discourse of genetic scripture" in molecular biology and in fashioning the conception of the body as a "text," and the immune system as a semiotic and cognitive system, in immunology.

Both modern and early modern examples display, I shall suggest, the fundamental importance narratives exercise in determining the uses made of specific metaphors in specific scientific discourses and contexts. I hope to suggest through these emphases upon early modern thought and upon narrative--what Ted McGuire calls "stories about nature"--something of the particular richness and importance for me of J. E. McGuire's work as a scholar and thinker.

The Inverse Square Law

Ofer Gal
Ben Gurion University

The inverse square ratio between gravity and distance is considered one of the foundations of Newton's physics. The question who deserves credit for the discovery of this ratio instigated a bitter dispute between Newton's contemporaries and is still seriously considered by present-day historians of science. I shall argue that this is a misleading question, since the ratio was never 'discovered'. It was, rather, a common mathematical tool in natural philosophy and celestial mechanics, which seventeenth century practitioners availed themselves of and molded according to needs. Yet the new meaning, import and function that Newton ascribed to this tool in the 1680s are of great interest. They embed the fundamental change in his concept of force and its relation to motion that followed his correspondence with Robert Hooke in the winter of 1679/80 and enabled the subsequent writing of the Principia Mathematica.

Whither the History of Science: Reflections on the Historiography of the Chemical Revolution

John G. McEvoy
University of Cincinnati

Philosophical principles linked to the disciplinary identity and development of the history of science have left their mark on the historiography of the Chemical Revolution. This paper examines three stages in the disciplinary development of the history of science, focusing on the interpretive strategies adopted by historians of the Chemical Revolution and the philosophical strategies that shaped them. While positivists and whigs appropriated the Chemical Revolution to an interpretive matrix triangulated by essentialism, historicism, and idealism, postpositivists linked it to anti-essentialist forms of realism, and sociologists of knowledge sought its nominalistic deconstruction. None of these interpretive strategies do justice to the autonomy and specificity of history. Instead of grasping the Chemical Revolution as a product of history, a specific mode of temporality, they view it as a scientific discovery, a moment of rationality, or a matrix of social interests, which happened to have occurred in the past. A model of the Chemical Revolution ≠ based on the views of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault ≠ is outlined, which links the specificity and autonomy of history to its complexity.

Newton's "Experimental Philosophy"

Alan Shapiro
University of Minnesota

Newton was a master of experimental science, and in his optical research he raised physical measurements to a wholly new level of precision. Yet in the great naissance of Newtonian studies of the last forty yearsčin which Ted McGuire has played such a significant rolečNewton's experimental science has not been studied as intensively as his natural philosophy, mathematics, and mathematical physics. In part, this is because of the attention naturally lavished on the Principia and also because Newton himself wrote little about the nature of "experimental philosophy." I will examine Newton's writings on the role of experiment in science and show that he broadly acknowledged a major role for experiment only relatively late in his career. I will also examine his experimental practice, especially in optics, and attempt to describe some of the characteristics of that practice. I will show that he introduced precision measurement in the early 1670s in his investigations of "Newton's rings," after he had already carried out his research on the nature of color and refraction but well before he wrote the Principia (1687) with its goal of precise agreement between mathematical theory and observation.

Clio meets Minerva:
Interrelations between History
and Philosophy of Science

Barbara Tuchanska
University of Lodz

According to a radically normative view of philosophy of science such a meeting is unnecessary: history of science is irrelevant to tasks facing philosophy of science. According to a less extreme position they cannot meet as equals, but philosophy of science can use the history of science. However, why do we have to accept the view that philosophy of science is an evaluative discipline? Why ought we to tell scientists how to do science instead of asking philosophical questions which refer to the epistemic, social, or historical nature of science?

On the basis of such questions the philosophy and history of science can together articulate a hermeneutical circle of ontic and ontological relationships. Within this circle philosophy of science may thematize the historicity of science ontologically but it needs the history of science to show ontic, phenomenal forms of science's historicity. History of science, on the other hand, presents science as a historical process, but it presupposes ontological assumptions, in particular, a conception of the nature of the historical.