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Animism and Empiricism: Copernican Physics and the Origins of William Gilbert's Experimental Method

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 1, January 2001
pp. 99-119 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0004

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.1 (2001) 99-119

In the second year of this journal's run, way back in 1941, appeared Edgar Zilsel's classic and still widely cited paper on The Origins of William Gilbert's Experimental Method. Focusing on Gilbert's De magnete of 1600, undoubtedly a seminal text in the history of the experimental method, Zilsel argued that Gilbert borrowed his methodology from elite craftsmen, artisans, and other manual workers involved in mining, smelting, smithing, compass making, navigation, sailing, and other activities which involved working with iron or with magnets. On its appearance the paper contributed to a growing and still continuing debate in the history of science about the relative importance of scholars and craftsmen in the origins of modern science. Although Zilsel's general thesis has been critically evaluated in terms of that wider debate, his very specific claims about the role of elite craftsmen in providing Gilbert with a ready-made experimental method, have never been properly considered. This paper attempts to reassess Zilsel's claims about the origin of Gilbert's experimental method and, in so doing, to arrive at a richer understanding of what Gilbert was trying to do in De magnete and to suggest an alternative source for his experimentalism.

The first thing to note about Zilsel's argument is that it had two strands. One of these pointed to actual experimental techniques used by Gilbert and showed that they can all be found in earlier writings on magnets. To be more specific, the techniques in question are to be found either in the thirteenth-century "Letter on the Magnet" written by Petrus Pergrinus or Pierre de Maricourt, first published in 1558, or in The Newe Attractive, a work on the magnetic compass written by a retired mariner, Robert Norman, first published in 1581 but reprinted three times before 1600. The second strand did not involve experiments at all, with one notable exception, but simply implied or suggested that Gilbert's experimental techniques must have been inspired by miners and foundrymen, or navigators and instrument makers. The problem here, as others have objected, is that it is by no means clear that elite craftsmen were engaged in performing experiments in anything like the sense of the word required for the argument to cut any ice. For Zilsel, however, "we cannot doubt that many of [the miners and foundrymen of the period], stimulated to improvements by economic competition, were wont to try new techniques and to observe natural processes." A few sentences later we are told that it is "obvious" that "among such manual labourers there were experimentalists, though experimentalists with practical aims only and without theoretical knowledge."

The philosopher of science at this point might legitimately want to suggest that an experiment is not an experiment unless it is testing a theory, but we do not have to enter into such arguable niceties. We can see that there is something profoundly tendentious in Zilsel's claims simply by reading on. At this point Zilsel mentioned the only experiment specifically referred to in this strand of his argumentation. Quoting Gilbert, Zilsel showed that Gilbert himself must have descended into a mine in order, as Zilsel says, "to verify the hypothesis" that the polarity of a magnet derives from the polarity of the earth:

We had a twenty pounds' heavy loadstone dug and hauled out after having first observed and marked its ends in its vein. Then we put the stone in a wooden tub on water, so that it could turn freely. Immediately the surface which had looked to the North in the mine turned itself to the North on the water.

Zilsel did not make the absurd claim that Gilbert must have seen miners doing this kind of experiment, but he did all he could to imply that Gilbert's experiment owed a great deal to his acquaintance with miners:

It is almost symbolic that Gilbert performed a laboratory experiment just after having left a pit and talked to miners. Of course Gilbert's experiments were not plain copies of the trials of the miners and foundrymen. But his spirit of observing and experimenting was taken over...



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