An Excerpt from the Introduction: Making and Knowing
Harold J. Cook, Pamela H. Smith, and Amy R.W. Meyers

It has always been important to speak about the foundations of knowledge. But it is not only a difficult subject, it is sometimes also an unsettling one, for it is not always about the quiet thoughts of sunlit rooms. The ancients knew this well. The goddess Athena, for instance, is best known in the modern world as a symbol of wisdom and science, but to those who encountered her in person, she also commanded in war. Her companion was the owl, a bird both able to see things we cannot and a fierce predator. Because we humans are mainly daytime creatures, we most often notice the owl at moments between light and dark. The wisdom of the owl comes to our minds on the edge of field and wood, at dusk, aware of the movement of wild things before it sets flight to seek out warm-blooded prey, the bird that can see in the darkness. The goddess of wisdom is clearly associated with those moments when the unexpected makes itself known. Sometimes the real world is not at all what we would like it to be, but moves just out of sight, emerging unexpectedly when we approach. Nature can be beautiful as well as fierce. But it is not always kind. And so it was in the early modern world: a great deal of what we might call scientific knowledge arose not from daylight moments of peaceful contemplation but from the edge of darkness, with sword and shield in hand, and eyes wide open.

The combination of war and wisdom embodied by Athena is still found in the associations ordinary people around the world make when they think of science. For instance, Amatav Ghosh tells of a confrontation between himself (originally from India but studying for a degree in Britain) and an Imam from the Egyptian village where he had been living. A conversation they had begun quickly boiled over into a chauvinistic argument about which of their two “civilizations” was better, which caused them each to invoke the matter of superiority more generally, with their voices rising uncontrollably until they choked on their words. He writes that

At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood one another perfectly. We were both traveling, he and I: we were traveling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there, in person: I could have told him a great deal about it, seen at first hand, its libraries, its museums, its theaters, but it wouldn’t have mattered. We would have known, both of us, that all that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this–science and tanks and guns and bombs. 1

The association between science and the cunning crafting of powerful things, as embodied by Athena and her owl, remains very much alive.

But her wisdom applied to peaceful activities as well. Ordinary people might add to the modern list of Athena’s gifts not only the libraries, museums, and theaters mentioned by Ghosh, but televisions, computers, electrical grids, and antibiotics, clean drinking water, and modern surgery, as well. It is because wisdom arises from activity in the world that Athena combined wisdom not only with war but also with the arts, industry, and even justice: to manufacture things suitable for a goddess took a combination of superb skill and craft, allowing insight into the weighing of actions that made for a balanced view of human activity. The English word craft implies not only ability with hands but understanding of how to accomplish one’s purposes, as in craftiness. The Greek equivalent is “metis” (Μῆτις), meaning something like the knowledge that comes from doing things with purpose, or in a somewhat archaic English, “cunning.” 2

Twentieth century ideas of science, however, tended strongly not to consider Athena’s attributes in the round, but to emphasize her birth from the head of Zeus. In Greek mythology, Metis was the Titan and goddess of wisdom: when pregnant, Metis’s husband, Zeus, swallowed her to insure that she would not bear a son mightier than himself; inside him Metis set about weaving and smithing for Athena, the daughter she would bear, and these activities caused Zeus agonies so great that he called on his son Hephaestus to split open his skull, from which emerged the full-grown Athena clothed in the robe and helmet made by her mother and carrying the Aegis, the shield that would protect her from sword and arrow. It was a part of this myth, the idea of wisdom emerging fully formed from the head of the chief ruler of the heavens that seemed to apply to science. Relativity Theory seemed to have fully emerged from Einstein’s head rather than from experimentation, and Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others involved with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics also emphasized creative thinking as the foundation for the new physics. That is, the new science of the twentieth century was considered to be “philosophical” at heart, and the history of science therefore a history of concepts, even a branch of the history of philosophy. The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead recollected the 1919 lecture at the Royal Society when Arthur Eddington announced the astronomical confirmation of Einstein’s theory, with a portrait of Isaac Newton looking down on the scene while his “great adventure in thought” was replaced by a new one. It marked a watershed in the history of science, Whitehead thought. While earlier science had been marked by the discovery of “brute facts,” what made the new science revolutionary was “this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalisation.” 3 Contemporary scholars such as E.A. Burtt and E.J. Dijksterhuis began to write about the metaphysical foundations of science, 4 while the Institute for Advanced Study was established in Princeton in 1930 with the explicit intention of furthering abstract thought, thus famously making no provision for laboratories for the scientists who worked there. A story still told to new members is that during Einstein’s period of residency at the IAS a reporter asked to see his lab, and he replied, touching his pen to his temple, “here it is young man, here it is.”

In the period after the Second World War such views were amplified in Western Europe and America. Historians and philosophers of science argued strongly for the separation of what was termed “pure” science from applied science. For instance, I. Bernard Cohen, the first professor of the history of science at Harvard, had it: “Who, after studying Newton’s magnificent contribution to thought, could deny that pure science exemplifies the creative accomplishment of the human spirit as its pinnacle?” 5  It was a view that was certainly understandable in someone like Charles Gillispie, who had served as an artillery officer with the US Army in Europe and experienced more than enough destruction and human misery, therefore self-consciously wishing to pursue a kind of history far removed from the darker aspects of life; he could see in the history of science something uplifting and hopeful about the human spirit, he thought. 6  People like him also shared in the widespread attempt to keep science out of the hands of politicians, which was seen as one of the major failings of both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes. 7  This was an important and honorable line of argument, which was not only shaped by the Cold War but also led to much very fine academic research and writing that remains worth our serious attention. Today the argument continues to have importance, when all members of the modern university feel the pressures from government, industry, and religious and political ideologies for making research relevant to contemporary affairs in one way or another: thus, continuing to defend the ability of academics to follow their research wherever it may lead–whether they be scholars in the humanities and social sciences or in the natural sciences–remains something of interest to us all. But these kinds of entanglements have sometimes been creative, too, and whether we consider them good or bad, they form a part of the history of knowledge that requires our attention. There is danger for historians in treating investigations on the dusky edges of the as-yet-unknown simply as peaceful thoughts arising for their own sake instead of uncomfortable dilemmas and conflicts arising from creative human engagement with need, nature, and the unknown.

[Continued in book.]

Notes:

  1. Amatav Ghosh, In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale (New York: Vintage, 1994), 236.
  2. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 269–300.
  3. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927; reprint New York: Free Press, 1967), 13, 3.
  4. Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1954), first published 1924; on Burtt, also see Lorraine Daston, “History of Science in an Elegiac Mode: E.A. Burtt’s Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science Revisted,” Isis 82 (1991): 522–31; E. J. Dijksterhuis, “Moet Het Meetkunde-Onderwijs Gewijzigd Worden?,” Nieuw Tijdschrift voor Wiskunde 1 (1924): 1–26, later elaborated in his De Mechanisering van het Wereldbeeld (1950), published in English as E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, trans. C. Dikshoorn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), first published 1961; more generally, H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). For a recent warning about the dangers of treating science as metaphysics, see Gary Hatfield, “Metaphysics and the New Science,” in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, and Robert S. Westman, Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 93–166.
  5. I. Bernard Cohen, The Birth of a New Physics (New York: Norton, 1985), 184, first published 1960.
  6. Recollection of his personal remarks at a meeting of the History of Science Society, about 1992.
  7. A. Rupert Hall, “On Whiggism,” History of Science 21 (1983): 45–59.

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