Home > Uncategorized > Harold J. Cook “Victories for Empiricism, Failures for Theory”

Harold J. Cook “Victories for Empiricism, Failures for Theory”

Cook, Harold J. 2010. Victories for Empiricism, Failures for Theory: Medicine and Science in the Seventeenth Century. In: Wolfe, Charles T.; Gal, Ofer (eds.). The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge. Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 9-32.

For much of the early modern period, then, the conservative wing among the physicians continued to argue that only a proper form of learning that was essentially literate and philosophical could form a mind capable of good judgment. But another argument had emerged and by the later seventeenth-century had, in many places, come to dominate: good judgment could even better arise from the kind of mental discipline that demanded the acquisition and ordering of as much of the material detail about nature as possible. In other words, it was not the grasping of fundamental axioms and methods of argumentation (or the logos as known through right reason) but the acquisition (and memorizing) of correct material detail – of exacting descriptive information – that established a disciplined inner character and allowed the exercise of good judgment. The active pursuit of information could itself lead to virtue. (14)

The new science therefore encompassed not only a complete knowledge of nature but the active hunt for new and deeper knowledge of it. Certainty lay in the particulars rather than the generalities. (14)

Hans Sloane, later President of both the Royal Society of London and the London College of Physicians, wrote in his book about the natural history of Jamaica that true knowledge was now based on “Observations of Matters of Fact,” which were “more certain than most Others, and in my slender Opinion, less subject to Mistakes than Reasonings, Hypotheses, and Deductions are … These are things we are sure of, so far as our Senses are not fallible; and which, in probability, have been ever since the Creation, and will remain to the End of the World, in the same Condition we now find them.” (15)

He [Descartes] had come to see that while his first principles could be used to construct the building blocks of creation, when it came to animals and humankind, especially, they could only explain the effects discovered – one could not imagine all that existed merely by proposing first principles. In effect, first principles are far better at post hoc explanation than at predicting real things. One of the reasons for not publishing his early De mundo, he told the world, was that “every day I am becoming more and more aware of the delay which my project of self-instruction is suffering because of the need for innumerable expériences which I cannot possibly make without the help of others.” (23)

By the time he came to write the sixth of his famous Meditations, around 1640, he was prepared to be quite different from the Descartes of most undergraduate lectures. Although he never took back his earlier proofs for the mind being distinct from body, “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but … very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit.” (24)

He therefore shifted the apparent reason for publishing his work: while most people interpreted it (and still do) as casting doubt on our knowledge of the world via the senses, so that only pure intellect and God’s existence can be known with full clarity, Descartes argued that he only wanted to show that knowledge of the latter was more certain even than knowledge of the world, which should not be doubted: “The great benefit of these arguments is not, in my view, that they prove what they establish – namely that there really is a world, and that human beings have bodies and so on – since no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things.” (24)

And what does nature teach us in general? “There is nothing that my own nature teaches me more vividly that I have a body.” He went on from these arguments about the body and sensory experience to say something even more surprising in light of his youthful meditations: the original source of his doubts – how could he tell if he were dreaming, or awake, or being deceived by a demon? – had no foundation. “I should not have any further fears about the falsity of what my senses tell me every day; on the contrary, the exaggerated doubts of the last few [meditations] should be dismissed as laughable. This applies especially to the principal reason for doubt, namely my inability to distinguish being asleep and being awake. For now I notice that there is a vast difference between the two …” (25)

The last work published in his lifetime was, then, Les Passions de l’ame. For Descartes, the passions mediated between body and soul, and are affected by both. He drew no equivalence between passion and error, as did most classical thinkers. Even more strikingly, in the end he declared the passions to be good. One should not become anxious about one’s passions, for they teach us what is necessary for life. Even more powerfully, all the pleasures that are common to both soul and body, such as love, “depend entirely on the passions.” […] Many scholars are now excitedly pursuing this text and the preliminary correspondence as the key source for understanding the mature views of Descartes. It throws great doubt on the question of Descartes as an advocate for the power of disembodied thought. As a consequence, an empirical and passionate Descartes now stalks the literature. (26)

Medicine is not only an excellent descriptive focus for understanding the causes and effects of the scientific revolution; medicine and closely-related topics of investigative activity helped to cause the changes as well. But because medicine had no single conceptual revolution but countless ones, it fits uncomfortably among the historiographical approaches that flow from philosophical idealism, among which I include many of the cultural studies approaches of the very recent past. (27)

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