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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.4 (2000) 818-820

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Book Review

Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750

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

Wonders--regardless of whether they appear in the form of natural marvels, ominous prodigies, sports of nature, or divine miracles--have always represented the eruption of exception from the rule, of chance into the ordained causal chain, of fleeting and ephemeral phenomena into the inexorable course of time, of bizarre singularities into the universal partitions of being. Wonders defy taxonomies. They make the barriers between categories permeable: natural and artificial (automata), individual and specific (monstrous births), natural and supernatural (salamanders, phoenixes, basilisks, barnacle geese), wild and civilized (Tartars, Pygmies), animate and inanimate (magnet, quicksilver), human and animal (satyrs, centaurs, cynocephali), male and female (hermaphrodites, bearded women), sacred and secular (comets, eclipses), local and distant (African and Asian exotica).

The main topic in the ambitious history of wonders written by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park is precisely this challenging and shifting character of marvels. As the authors point out, a history of wonders has been made possible by relevant changes in the intellectual disciplines in the last twenty years, and particularly by the questions posed by anthropology, philosophy, and cultural history to standards of rationality and order. In writing this history, they say they have purposely "abandoned a plot of linear, inexorable naturalization for one of sensibilities that overlapped and recurred like waves" (p. 11). Instead of adopting the narrative conventions that are usual in the historiography of science, they have written a story that is "not punctuated by clearly distinguished epistemes or turning points, but is instead undulatory, continuous, sometimes cyclical" (p. 17). [End Page 818]

The traditional narrative wants the decline of wonders to result from the rise of the Enlightenment with its secularized and disenchanted view of the natural and human world. More often than not, the shift has been depicted as a transition from humankind's childhood to its adulthood. The authors still place the end of marvels in the Enlightenment, but this is not due to the alleged triumph of rationality, but because savants programmatically started ignoring wonders and excluding the domain of the preternatural. In this reading, the Enlightenment project was not so much a process of naturalization of wonders as one of exclusion and neutralization. The domestication of the subversive potential of wonders assumed different strategies--transforming wonder into the calm admiration of God's work, on the one hand, or finding natural causes to explain prodigies and supposedly divine inspirations, on the other.

In Daston and Park's reconstruction, medicine plays an important role. They call "preternatural philosophy" the result of empirical investigations conducted by physicians, natural philosophers with medical interests, apothecaries, and collectors from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance. These investigators focused their attention on individual cases and singular events that resisted the explanatory scheme of the scholastic demonstrative science, such as healing powers, occult properties, specific forms, and new exotic naturalia made available by voyages of exploration. Philosopher-physicians like Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Pomponazzi, Girolamo Cardano, Theophrastus Paracelsus, and Giovanni Battista della Porta arranged all this unruly material into metaphysics and cosmologies based on astrological influences, magical activities and the powers of the soul. As meticulously documented by Daston and Park, physicians turned out to be the "principal cultural mediators in the arena of natural inquiry" (p. 172) by constructing the preternatural philosophy.

Sensibilities and metaphysics are supposed to be the main focuses of this history of wonders. As the authors claim in their introduction, "the history of science does look different when organized around ontology and affects rather than around disciplines and institutions" (p. 18). With regard to sensibilities, Daston and Park have written a parallel history based on the twofold character of wonder: as a subjective experience, and as an objective referent. Marvels cannot be examined in isolation from the emotional responses caused in the beholder, especially because both natural...


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