Friday, November 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Edward Grant, A History of Natural Philosophy. From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 361. ISBN 9780521689571. $24.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Eugenia Lao, College of the Holy Cross


Edward Grant's survey of natural philosophy, a mode of investigating the natural world before modern science supplanted it, functions well as a reference for nonspecialists seeking to look up major figures and their works. Those, however, looking for an exposition that will provide a secure foothold in the field will find Grant wanting on two grounds. For reasons that will be discussed below, this book does not illuminate the "big picture" that historical surveys of this kind are designed to convey: to wit, a lucid synthesis explaining what the major intellectual developments were, and how and why those developments occurred. Further, the book is not historiographically up-to-date. Not only has Grant overlooked the most recent significant findings in at least one of the time periods that he covers, but he also hews to a method, now widely criticized in history of science, without sufficiently defending his approach. These two features of the book, the absence of synthetic clarity and the slighting of recent findings and methods, leave the nonspecialist reader standing on uncertain ground.

Despite the difficulties that this book presents, there is much learning in it to admire. Its substantive portion (roughly two thirds, or over two hundred pages) gives a comprehensive descriptive account, organized in chronological order, of the survival of Aristotelianism after antiquity through the Middle Ages. A wealth of detail attends Grant's discussion of the Islamic world's preservation of the Aristotelian corpus during the early Middle Ages, Aristotle's reintroduction to the Latin West in the twelfth century, and the intellectual dominance that Aristotelian philosophy, once it had become a fixture in the university curriculum, exerted in the study of nature in the late Middle Ages. For this material Grant draws heavily from his own extensive scholarship, the totality of which has earned him a reputation as a respected historian of medieval science.1

Much less space (about a third of the book, totaling roughly a hundred pages) is given to surveying the study of nature outside the Middle Ages: antiquity on the one side, extending from ancient Egypt to late antiquity, the post-medieval period on the other, spanning the early modern era to the nineteenth century. Each represents a substantial segment of time containing epistemic developments no less significant and complex than the changes seen in the medieval period. Grant himself considers "the most profound change" in the history of natural philosophy to be the Scientific Revolution of the early modern era (xii). Hence, since topics as vast as Babylonian astronomy, practically all of the Greek philosophy of nature (Hellenistic physics is curiously omitted), and the Copernican revolution are treated with comparative brevity next to the medieval material, the reader is prompted to wonder what accounts for the unevenness in depth of treatment. The absence of explanation leaves that question an unanswered one.

Regarding the "big picture", the difficulty of extracting one from this book is chiefly due to Grant's style of presentation, which militates against the perception of continuity. The book is organized, almost without exception, around a sequential discussion of writers and scholars, from the pre-Socratics, to Avicenna, to John Buridan, to Isaac Newton. This organization atomizes information so that the burden of synthesis is placed on the reader's shoulders. Grant's prose increases the difficulty: much irrelevant detail (such as snapshot biographies of each writer) obfuscates the relevant, while a tendency to discuss concepts without laying the necessary foundations (such as a section on Lucretius with no prior explanation of Epicureanism) challenges not merely synthesis, but even understanding. And finally, it should be noted that the chronology Grant follows is based on when each author lived.2 As a consequence one will often find authors placed in a sequence even when their thinking appears to be unrelated. Such organization also impedes synthesis, since the flow of the prose counters the reader's effort to apprehend how the thinking on nature changed from one era to the next.

I noted in my introductory paragraph that this book is not current, both in the methodology it employs and in its representation of the state of knowledge. The clearest evidence of Grant's reliance on outdated information is provided by the footnotes for the non-medieval sections, most of which point to mid-twentieth century scholarship (1950s to 1970s). The nonspecialist reader, lacking independent expertise, must take it on faith that subsequent research has not made it necessary to qualify or revise anything. One example of an important oversight suggests, on the contrary, that it will be prudent for her to be skeptical. In the preface Grant, explaining that the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century was characterized by the mathematization of natural philosophy, claims that this change was "a phenomenon that has received relatively little attention in the vast literature" (xii). This change, however, is identified as one of the defining transformations by a textbook that preceded Grant's, which suggests that the phenomenon is indeed widely recognized in the field.3 Further, Grant treats the Scientific Revolution throughout the book as an unproblematic category, with definite, agreed-upon features. Yet another textbook that also preceded Grant's begins, "there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution", because "as our understanding of science in the seventeenth century has changed in recent years, so historians have become increasingly uneasy with the very idea of 'the Scientific Revolution'".4

Beyond the scant attention Grant pays to recent scholarship in some areas, his approach to history and history of science requires contextualization. Throughout the book he makes qualitative comparisons about different cultures' intellectual products, and persistently uses biological metaphors to describe change. He speaks, for example, of the praise that medieval natural philosophers deserve despite their lacking the "sophisticated methodologies" used in the seventeenth century (234). He uses biological metaphors in a description of the nineteenth-century sciences as having "reached sufficient maturity and development" to leave the "nest" of their "mother", natural philosophy (303); and in the assertion, "history is akin to the relationship between the human embryo and the full-blown adult" (322). Statements like these indicate that Grant holds to a progressive, evolutionary view of history. Such teleological or present-centered modes of explanation, which were influentially attacked by Herbert Butterfield in connection with constitutional history, are also no longer a mainstream approach in history of science.5 Considering how much the criticism of present-centered history has altered the way in which the field is practiced today, it is surprising that Grant disregards the need to defend what other specialists would very likely regard as a problematic approach. As for nonspecialist readers, they must seek other sources for a more balanced sense of the state of the field.

On a related methodological issue Grant does engage in explicit and sharp polemics. The book is written partly in response to a longstanding debate that Grant has had with the scholar Andrew Cunningham. Cunningham belongs to the dominant school of thought that favors using actor's terms and categories over analytic terms and categories, as a means to avoid the fallacy of imposing present thinking upon the past.6 In a series of publications largely made in the 1990s, Cunningham applied this principle to draw a clearer distinction between "natural philosophy" and modern "science" – between the category used by actors in the medieval and early modern periods, and the category used by moderns.7 Grant, for his part, takes the view that the difference between actor's terms and analytic terms is superficial. Because actor's terms are "mere names, or labels", it is possible for the modern historian to identify the category of "science" (whatever we called it in the past) as always having existed (319). This methodological difference between Grant and Cunningham appears to lie at the heart of their disagreement.8

I find that Grant's application of "mere" to names and labels is too dismissive of the valid theoretical grounds that buttress the position taken by Cunningham and many others. And as the attitude is representative of Grant's general procedure in dealing with his opponent, I have not found his arguments persuasive enough to side with him. But it is worth noting that although Grant frames the debate in the rather narrow terms of a conflict with his nemesis, the debate over actor's and analytic terms cuts to the core of fundamental questions about the very construction of history of science as a discipline and how it should be practiced. Presented in different terms, the questions seem complex and difficult.9 We may view, then, the polemics with which Grant concludes his history less as an example of idiosyncratic axe-grinding and more as an instance of general and ongoing reflection about the nature of history of science.


1.   His major works include Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (Cambridge, 1994), The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge, 1996).
2.   Note, however, that Grant breaks this organizational principle, otherwise strictly maintained, when he discusses Lucretius, Seneca, and Pliny the Elder after his chapter on late antique Neoplatonism.
3.   Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and its Ambitions, 1500-1700 (Princeton, 2001), esp. 65-79. This book does not appear in Grant's bibliography.
4.   Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago and London, 1996), 1 and 3.
5.   Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931). Nick Jardine, "Whigs and Stories: Herbert Butterfield and the Historiography of Science", History of Science 41 (2003): 125-40, at 126-7 surveys the widespread rejection of teleological narratives among historians of science from the 1960s to 80s.
6.   Jardine, "Whigs and Stories", 127 dates the rise in concern with "conceptual anachronism" among historians of science to the 1970s and 80s.
7.   As a starting point cf. Andrew Cunningham, "Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of Science", Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (1988): 365-89, and "How the Principia Got its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously", History of Science 29 (1991): 377-92.
8.   Cf. the series of exchanges between the two scholars in the open forum published in Early Science and Medicine 5.3 (2000): 258-300.
9.   Cf. Jardine, "Whigs and Stories", esp. at 128 where he references his own work on the utility of "conceptual anachronism"; and at 133-4.

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