- Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750
Wonder, standing at the beginning of thought (as Aristotle said), has not ceased to affect us, and so a vast history is suggested. To this largely unwritten history, this splendid book is a learned, insightful, and ingenious contribution. Spanning the history of Western civilization, “wonder” is located in an immense semantic field populated by many related terms that also have unstable and changing meanings: marvels, miracles, monsters, prodigies, curiosities, relics, “strange facts,” and so on ad absurdum and ad infinitum. Included, too, are errors and jokes of nature that challenge normal science (I am surprised not to see mention of scientific anomalies; Thomas Kuhn seems not to be in great fashion among historians of science these days). Park and Daston take us on a tour of many varieties and scenes of these exotic epiphenomena, elucidating many aspects of the intersection between nature and the second nature that is human and is itself full of wonders, as well as prone to wonder.
Wonder, according to a seventeenth-century handbook of philosophical terminology, is “amazement at a new and unfamiliar thing whose cause is unknown” (admiratio est stupor de re nova et insolita cujus causa ignoratur). It is a condition caught between faith and superstition, between natural philosophy and “preternatural philosophy.” This book displays its presence through the analysis of many works and persons both familiar (among them, Bernard Mandeville, the Dutch satirist; Marsilio Ficino, the Italian Platonist; and Emperor Frederich II—himself a “wonder,” stupor mundi) and unfamiliar (Giovanni Battista Olivi, the physician; Konrad Wolfhart, the writer, and Jan Swammerdam, the Dutch microscopist.).
It is impossible to capture here the range and richness of this volume, which elicits reactions not unlike the Wunderkammer and cabinets de curiosité which it examines. The story line, or several story lines, provided by the authors avoids the vulgar Whiggery, progressivism, Weberian ideas of disenchantment, and teleology of older-fashioned history of science, inclining rather to the culturalist views of the current state of the art. Yet, this approach modifies the conventional story only a little by expanding horizons beyond professional scientific practice—which this subject requires in any case—so that, for example, “The quiet exit of demons from theology coincides in time and corresponds in structure almost exactly with the disappearance of the preternatural in respectable natural philosophy” (361).
That wonder began as, and remains, a largely visual phenomenon is marvellously displayed by the illustrations accompanying the text. Indeed, the authors might have pursued this strategy further, along the lines of Thomas Prier’s adventurous account of pre-Aristotelian “sight and wonder” in Thauma Idesthai (Gainesville, 1989). I wonder, too, that [End Page 293] the authors did not notice the many Biblical prodigia, mirabilia, portenta, visiones, etc.—all rendered in English as “wonder(s).” However, it is part of the charm and value of this book that it provokes such lines of inquiry beyond its chosen horizons. It is in every good sense a wonderful book, throwing light not only on the age of preternatural philosophy but also on popular culture. Even today, wonders never cease—“believe it,” as Ripley says, “or not.”