From vice to virtue: Curiosity and work in early modern England
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- Aldridge, L. Metascience (2012) 21: 677. doi:10.1007/s11016-011-9624-3
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How was curiosity rehabilitated from a vice—the cause of the original sin—to a virtue? How was the concept of work reimagined from the punishment for that sin to humanity’s natural state and the means of overcoming the effects of the Fall? And how was innocence liberated from its association with ignorance in order to be considered vital for epistemological objectivity? These are a few of the key questions addressed by Joanna Picciotto in her monumental work, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England. Her answer lies in the seventeenth century’s appropriation of the figure of the innocent Adam as an intellectual exemplar used to justify experimental science, an emergent public sphere and the concept of intellectual labor itself, an appropriation that began most significantly with Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration: “By transferring the primal scene of discovery from Eve’s eating of the fruit to Adam’s naming the creatures—and by linking the act of naming to the work of experiment—Bacon redeemed curiosity from its association with original sin: associated with investigative labor rather than appetite, the first sin became the first virtue” (p. 3).
Picciotto’s analysis of the process and effects of this rehabilitation takes place in two stages. In Part I of the book, titled “Contexts”, she examines how the ethic of imitatio Adami emerged in the seventeenth century and what new devotional and intellectual practices it encouraged. She traces the change from a sacramental theology centered on the consumption of Christ in the Eucharist to the productive and experiential Protestantism, where believers need to “work out” their salvation. This development in religion was paralleled by the rise of Baconian experimentalism in natural philosophy, seen especially in the writings of key members of the Royal Society of London such as Thomas Sprat and Robert Boyle.
Part II, “Texts”, documents how experimentalism influenced “intellectuals who worked exclusively with words” (p. 13), that is, poets, playwrights, and other authors. Whereas Part I focuses primarily on the “virtuosi” of the Royal Society, Part II is a close reading of a variety of literary texts, including three poems—Andrew Marvell’s The Last Instructions to a Painter, William Davenant’s Gondibert, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost—and Celia Fiennes’ travel memoir, Journeys. Picciotto’s analysis of these works reveals an emphasis on the production of knowledge for public consumption by the way of virtual witnessing. Just as the virtuosi of the Royal Society penetrated nature with their new instruments—the telescope and the microscope in particular—“pamphleteers, poets, and periodical writers fashioned a new image of the author as a productive spectator: one who serves the public by extending the realm of the visible” (p. 14).
The central theme of Labors of Innocence—experimentalism as a means of regaining humankind’s prelapsarian physical and intellectual capabilities—invites comparison with Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). As Picciotto notes, Harrison’s book, which was published after her own was drafted, covers a broader historical and geographical range than her own study. It is worth reading Labors of Innocence alongside The Fall of Man, as the two books have complementary themes. While Harrison argues that different assessments of the effects of the Fall led to varying approaches to restoring Adam’s original state, Picciotto is concerned with one particular strand: the rise of experimentalism in religion, natural philosophy, and literature. Thus, Picciotto is providing a deeper analysis of one of the intellectual recovery projects identified by Harrison.
Like Harrison’s work, Picciotto’s analysis falls broadly under the umbrella of the “Merton thesis”, but again like Harrison, she is not advancing a causal thesis. Instead of arguing that developments in Puritan theology caused the rise of modern science, she is documenting a particular resonance between the two. Rather than claiming that the emphasis on experiment in natural philosophy led to a similar focus on experiment or experience in religion, or vice versa, Picciotto is exploring the employment of a common mythic tradition in both the experimental faith of the Puritans and the experimental science of the Royal Society of London. This work does not strictly break new ground in the history of science—her discussion is consistent with the work of luminaries such as Michael Hunter, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer—but the advantage lies in Picciotto’s concern with how changes taking place in natural philosophy were reflected in other cultural practices. In doing so, she untangles a complex web of interactions between natural philosophy, divinity, and literature in the early modern period.
Labors of Innocence is a colossal work, both in its physical size (almost 900 pages) and its breadth of scholarship. From Robert Hooke to John Milton and from Shapin and Schaffer to F. R. Leavis, Picciotto proves herself well versed in the history of both science and literature. However, her dense prose betrays her background as an English literature scholar rather than an historian of science. This is not a book for the casual reader. It takes some determination to decipher some of the more specialized jargon and to trace the narrative through the detailed analyses of literary works. A careful reading will be rewarded, but Harrison’s shorter and more accessible book may better suit a newcomer to this topic.