restricted access Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (review)
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Configurations 8.3 (2000) 419-423

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Book Review

Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750

Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998. 511 pp. $36.50

I experienced a curious sensation while reading this book on wonders: I felt as if I were reliving the last twenty years in the history of science, or, more honestly, reexperiencing the course of my own intellectual development. Almost twenty years ago to the day, I became really excited about the history of science by reading the reports of wonders and monsters in the early volumes of the Philosophical Transactions; for my senior thesis, however, my advisors steered me to the more acceptable topic of mathematics in the early years of the Royal Society. Some of the main themes of Daston and Park's book, such as humanist practice and the centrality of court society for legitimating the new philosophy, had, it seemed to me, leapt out at me from archival documents in Germany and Austria while I worked on my Ph.D. dissertation. Similarly, while I was in graduate school another important component of this book, Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, had suddenly appeared everywhere, and their transformation in the first half of the eighteenth century into vulgar waxworks and freak shows had seemed particularly significant in explaining a break between early modern and modern--but, like other themes treated in this book, these phenomena did not fit into conventional narratives of the scientific revolution. Another of Daston and Park's foci, the shifting boundaries of art and nature, had become a central theme of my courses when I began to teach. In a word, from the moment I decided to major in history of science as an undergraduate, all these themes, and many more of the early modern European phenomena recounted by Daston and Park, had seemed compelling, but fragmentary. Crowds of people such as physicians and alchemists, objects such as those in the Wunderkammern, early modern practices that cultural historians were daily bringing to light, did not cohere, they did not fit into the linear, progressive narratives of the scientific revolution I had read in college, nor did they form a narrative of their own.

Now, within the bounds of a single (and beautiful) cover, we have that narrative. Wonders and the Order of Nature is like a familiar landscape seen in a new and [End Page 419] brilliant light. It rolls out before one: case studies and microhistories--the historiography of science of the last twenty years--that were previously fragmentary, are now formed into a smooth and elegant tapestry of countryside, through which the authors guide the reader. As a result, this book is deliciously satisfying, and it is very hard to discover anything with which to disagree.

Daston and Park claim not to offer an "alternative grand narrative for the Scientific Revolution" (p. 18), but in fact their book does give us a history of the transformation in attitudes to nature that is a tremendously important aspect of the scientific revolution. They pursue this narrative through a "history of wonders as objects of natural inquiry" and a history of "wonder as a passion of natural inquiry" (p. 14)--in other words, a history of objects and a history of sensibilities. These two interlocking themes result in a cultural history of objects and their classification and significance (a history of the orders of nature), a social history of the communities of individuals who thought about or worked with the objects of nature, and an intellectual history of natural philosophy. This narrative is not linear, however, but instead reveals overlapping complexes of cognitive and emotional responses to wonders that ebbed and flowed from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries. It is neither teleological nor linear, but it is clear and powerfully argued, while at the same time being wonderfully sensitive to the categories of the past and to the concerns of those who self-consciously and unconsciously helped shape them.

What is this narrative? Daston and Park begin in about...