disgusting fancy

Among the scholars who are doing the history of science outside of the Whiggish framework - the latter referring, of course, to Herbert Butterworth’s famous phase about the framework that sees the history of science as essentially a progress - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s The Leviathan and the Air Pump is one of the most cited texts. It focuses on the New Learning in 17th century England, which was in many ways an extension of the Baconian experimental impulse. Robert Boyle was not only the premier experimenter, but, more than Bacon, the natural philosopher who set the rules for experimentation.

One of Shapin and Schaffer’s ideas is that the experimental method, depending on witnesses for its veracity, evolves a prose style of witness. Shapin and Schaffer point to Thomas Sprat’s injunctions about the proper mode of representation in his history of the Royal Society – which was, in effect, also a polemic on behalf of the society. Sprat enumerates the inveterate injury done by rhetorical ornament, which was at first the “admirable instruments in the hands of Wise Men” but now have turned disgusting – “They make the Fancy disgust the best things, if they come sound and unadorn’d; they are in open defiance against Reason, professing not to hold much correspondence with that, but with its Slaves, the Passions; they give the mind a motion too changeable and bewitching to consist with right practice.” In fact, as Sprat enumerates the faults of the ornate style, he himself falls into a Passion – “For now I am warmed with this just Anger” – but, apparently, this Slave is true to reason, rather than its betrayer. And although Sprat sees the ornaments of rhetoric as being almost beyond reform, he does make a very Protestant recommendation: “They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only Remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been a constant Resolution to reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants before that of Wits or Scholars.” [Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, II,117-118]

Shapin has written a biographical sketch of Boyle that picks at what he was like as a person – and how one would, at this distance, ever found out. Born of a rich, rapacious pioneer of the land grab game in Ireland, an ennobled Elizabethan nabob who at one point might have been the richest man in the Kingdom, Boyle’s father despised Ireland – which was the source of his wealth – yet had his children taught Gaelic. Boyle himself certainly retained in his own voice the Irish English intonation, one that his tutors at Eton never could extinguish. More than that, Boyle he was a stutterer. According to his own account, Boyle picked up the stuttering habit when he was a boy from mocking the speech of others. Shapin imagines this might be Boyle mocking the Irish English of others.

While his elder brother was one of the great rakes at Charles II’s court, Boyle was an Anglican of a species now long extinct – an enthusiastic Anglican. Recent work on Boyle has emphasized this aspect of his intellectual character. While maintaining a corpuscular philosophy and advocating for the experimental method, Boyle wrapped these concerns in a general world view that allowed him to attack both Catholics and atheists for a wrongheaded view of God – both, in his opinion, being all too eager to pull God into his creation, and thus fumbling the very root of divinity: God’s exteriority to the world. It is that exteriority that allows God to be a supreme chooser – he can chose the way the world will be because he is not caught within it.

Boyle was an Anglican and directed his Free Enquiry, as well as his other philosophical and theological treatises, against both the Catholics and the ‘atheists” – the latter comprehending all who would make God immanent in nature, instead of standing outside it. But his brothers, as Shapin points out, were notorious Restoration rakes – the very type to be attracted to the libertine philosophy.

While the language of natural philosophy, for Sprat, is going to cast off the Wit’s devious metaphors and the disgusting fancies of the scholar in order to embrace the language of the artisan, Boyle, who was more noble than Merchant, had his own problems with taking the language of the vulgar for the instrument of the wisdom. For where, after all, are the vulgar getting their notions? Are they educated witnesses? Is there any way to escape ambiguity – which is, in its way, as disgusting as metaphor, insofar as it is not the plain way to truth:

“I have often look’d upon it as an unhappy thing, and prejudicial both to philosophy and physic, that the word nature hath been so frequently, and yet so unskillfully employ’d, by all sorts of men. For the very great ambiguity of this term, and the promiscuous use made of it, without sufficiently attending to its different significations, render many of the expressions wherein ‘tis employed, either unintelligible, improper or false. I, therefore, heartily wish, that philosophers,m and other leading me, would, by common consent, introduce some more significant, and less ambiguous terms and expressions, in the room of the licentious word nature; and the forms of speech that depend on it: or at least decline the use of it, as much as conveniently they can…”

Boyle then gives 8 rules for avoiding the word: 1. Use the word God for natura naturans; 2. use the word essence, or quiddity (tho a barbarous term); 3 “If what is meant by the word nature” is what ‘belongs to a living creature at its nativity” – say, “the animal is born so” – or say that a thing has been generated such. 4. for internal motion – say that the body moves spontaneously; 5. use – “the settled course of things”; 6 for the “aggregate of powers belonging to a body” use constitution, temper, mechanism or complex of the essential properties or qualities; 7. when used for universe, use the word world, or universe; and 8. “If, instead of using the word nature, taken for either a goddess, or a kind of semi-deity; we wholly reject, or very seldom employ it.”

With those hand rules to hand, Boyle can then confidently enter into the thickets of Aristotelianism, before doing battle with the vulgar.