“Without the Help of Glasses”: The Anthropocentric Spectacle of Nehemiah Grew’s Botany


This article takes issue with a widely-held critical consensus about early modern natural philosophy, which posits that scientific apparatuses and prostheses, particularly the microscope, were enthusiastically embraced by natural philosophers, who prized them for opening up vast new regions of the knowable to the scientific observer while cultivating a “culture of fact” that sought the epistemological ground for knowledge in the ostensibly certain and manifest ocular proofs that these new prostheses provided. The botanical publications of Nehemiah Grew act as a case study to reveal that a sustained program among some mainstream natural philosophers to reject the use of microscopes and other instruments of perspectival dislocation, in favor of an “anthropocentric visuality” that instead grounded all facts in the proportionate range of the visible that was available to the unassisted human eye. Although Grew has been hailed as a father of microscopy, in fact his intention was to “first give a proof, How far it was possible for us to go, without the help of Glasses.”