restricted access Histories of Scientific Observation (review)
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Reviewed by
Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds. Histories of Scientific Observation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 460 pp. Ill. $27.50 (978-0-226-13678-3).

Recent years have seen a transformation in the aims of the history of science, which now has more room for the histories of related topics, such as medicine. When considering science as something done rather than something thought, all kinds of interactions with nature are fair game, not only those constituted by certain kinds of theories. The volume at hand is a fine example of the current state of the argument, drawing on many sorts of documents to rethink the practice of “observation” and the significance of it for other scientific activities from medieval to contemporary moments in Europe and its colonies. The editors consider their work to be an “epistemic history,” and in that sense it continues to give pride of place to the history of thought. But readers of this journal will appreciate that its outstanding introduction and many of its fine essays bring the examination of human and animal bodies, plants and remedies, and other “medical” topics into the conversation. [End Page 468]

In their introduction, Daston and Lunbeck argue that observation is a subject that not only is important but also can be tackled historically. They show that observation, as a means of finding out about the natural world, and even as a self-conscious category, was closely associated with experienced investigation, being separated from and subordinated to “experiment” only in the 1820s. They conclude (clearly stated on pp. 3–5) that as a consequence the history of scientific observation shows how our historical attention has been deeply prejudiced by modern philosophical opinions. For them, history both deconstructs and reconstructs the categories by which we organize our ideas, opening up new vistas.

The first three essays—by Katharine Park, Gianna Pomata, and Lorraine Daston—establish the deep history of the subject, examining the rise of the term to a prominent place in European philosophical discourse. Park shows that medieval clerics used the word far more in conjunction with the “observance” of precepts than with looking. The normative sense of observing rules far outweighed any value placed on witnessing and recording natural events. But she also gestures toward the different values imported from Arabic texts, and notes some distinctions between the values of the residents of monasteries and cities. Park finds in the example of the later-fifteenth-century Nuremberg merchant Bernhard Walther (associated with Peurbach and Regiomantanus) a clear interest in recording a series of observations of the heavens. Pomata in her turn shows that something new appeared in the sixteenth century, when the term “observatio” began to appear as a term in the titles of medical books, associated with “experientia” and similar words. The proliferation of the plural form, indicating that carefully noting and writing up the phenomena of bodies had high value, was clear in medical works, although she also indicates the presence of other authorial voices, including legal ones. Her causal suggestions go on to point to neo-Hippocratism as the intellectual source for a new epistemology of collective empiricism. One might also ask about the causal role of alchemy and Paracelsianism, exotic botany and commerce, and other changes in the period, but Pomata makes a persuasive case for a noticeable shift in the production of academic medical literature, and how it became an example to other investigators of nature. Daston follows by describing a change in the eighteenth century, from observation as an epistemic genre to observation as an epistemic category: by about 1750, it had moved from a way of life and a set of techniques to a self-conscious “way of reasoning.” One might say, then, that observation possessed its greatest epistemic authority from the later eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. These three powerful essays provide a fundamental history of ideas framework for observation as a method of scientific practice.

The remaining essays, divided into four further sections, present case studies that are mainly focused on more recent periods, written by some of the best current authors. Part 2 explores the relationships between observation and the persona...


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