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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 478-481



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Book Review

The Sciences in Enlightened Europe

Biographies of Scientific Objects

Labyrinth. A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science


William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer, eds. The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Pp. xi + 566. $85.00 cloth, $27.50 paper.

Lorraine Daston, ed. Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Pp. ix + 307. $55.00 cloth, $19.00 paper.

Peter Pesic. Labyrinth. A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000). Pp. 186. $21.95 paper. [End Page 478]

It might not quite be a truth universally acknowledged, but it is certainly a remarkable trend that the thematic generality of books about the history of science often stands in inverse proportion to their length. Behind this development is a move in recent scholarship away from accepting such expeditious notions as the "spirit of the Enlightenment," and the determination that local, unconventional, and heavily documented approaches give us a better view at a historical epoch and its cultural and scientific practices. Two of the books under review are examples, perhaps summations, of this new, localized approach, whereas the third, Peter Pesic's Labyrinth, employs the older, smaller but more general formula.

As the subtitle to his short study says, Pesic searches for the hidden meaning of science. Although one focus of his discussion is on the early seventeenth century (William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, and the French cryptanalyst and algebraist François Viète), Pesic uses these historical attempts at deciphering nature as examples of a timeless structure, that of the labyrinth, in which he sees all scientific investigation situated. Kepler, Newton, Einstein, to whom separate chapters are dedicated, equally inhabit this labyrinth, as Pesic argues, but with a crucial distinction: they compile evidence that this labyrinth might not have a center. Pesic does not deplore this loss of a center, but he also does not draw any consequence from its absence, such as concentrating on more local and perhaps contradictory events in the development of the sciences. If sometimes overly dramatic in tone, as in the following, "When Albert Einstein was four or five, his father showed him a compass. Watching it, the child felt that there was something deeply hidden behind things. He trembled and grew cold" (1), Pesic's book is nevertheless elegantly written and it is quite well documented; its shortcomings, to my mind, lie in the author's own misunderstanding of the subtitle. For the book really discusses the meaning of the hidden in science, not the hidden meaning of science; its master trope is that of depth, the idea that the natural sciences are bent on uncovering nature's deep secret rather than, say, imposing order on the multiplicity of data. But precisely the practice that Pesic takes for the paradigmatic scientific activity, cryptanalysis, is bound to abstract from all deep meaning and treats its texts as randomized surfaces of signification. While the search for a single secret is a well-tested narrative principle, it curtails the variety of scientific practices during the four centuries Pesic surveys.

Ample space is given not only to the variety of scientific practices, but also to the variety of scholarly approaches in the collection The Sciences in Enlightened Europe. If there is an overriding commonality to this massive volume, it is the fascination with the strangeness of the Enlightenment that all fifteen contributors manage to convey. The book opens with a thoughtful introduction to the historiography of the Enlightenment from Cassirer to Habermas. Charting the development of intellectual history and the history of science from Germany to England and the United States, and then back to France and Germany, this overview brings the major names in the recent history of science, such as Gillispie, Cohen, Koyré, Sarton, et al. into intellectual contact with each other. Against the overarching narratives of the "old" history of science, the editors profile their own enterprise as a history of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 478-481
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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