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  • Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England by Courtney Weiss Smith
  • Seth Rudy (bio)
Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England by Courtney Weiss Smith Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. viii+ 280 pp. US $45. ISBN 978-0-8139-3838-7.

Throughout Empiricist Devotions, Courtney Weiss Smith exhorts readers to "take seriously" the practices and beliefs of what she identifies as "the meditative empiricism." Natural philosophers read the Book of Nature as both empiricists and Christians, and they drew from their reading not only knowledge of the natural world but also moral insights into the workings of human life and institutions. The figurative language with which a wide range of writers gave "literary" expression to that knowledge and those insights, Smith argues, was neither mere ornamentation nor counter to the emphasis on "plain style" and "concrete reality" commonly associated with the work of the Royal Society. By taking seriously the analogies, metaphors, personifications, and descriptions of the meditative empiricism as tools of empirical knowledge production, Empiricist Devotions offers to "reimagine the interconnections among science, religion, and poetry in the period" (2).

Readers familiar with the scholarly works the author cites on the centrality of religion to a modernity born of the New Science (as well as those she does not—David Sorkin's The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna [2008] is notably absent) or those who remember the cross atop a pillar of light in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) will already have seen the edges of "big stories about secularization and modernization" blurred by "the persistence of older religious ideas" (20). Paul Kléber Monod's Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (2013) has likewise complicated those stories by tracing the changing fortunes of occultism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Empiricist Devotions succeeds in further enriching those complexities with nuanced analysis that frequently reveals compelling connections among the practices of occasional meditation, concepts of a clockwork universe, the mediation of monetary value, and the knowledge-work of georgic verse. The book's subtler arguments about these subjects are both more provocative and of far more potential value to eighteenth-century scholars than the larger claims unnecessarily based upon them.

Robert Boyle quickly emerges as a key figure in those arguments: the introduction and two of the book's five chapters begin with his name. In chapter 1, Smith argues that Boyle's Occasional Meditations articulated critical and long-lasting links between religious devotion and natural [End Page 147] philosophy. Boyle, she explains, encouraged observers of the natural world to find theological and moral uses in their contemplations of objects as well as political, economic, and physical ones; his thinking thus "renders Royal Society–sponsored empiricism—often duly focused on the physical and practical—as a small subset of occasional meditation's logic" (51). A great deal hinges on the theoretical and functional overlap between the two empirical modes Smith detects in Boyle's work, and she finds several notable examples in texts by other natural philosophers such as Ralph Austen and Robert Hooke. She notes, for instance, that analogy allows Hooke to draw from his description of a bee sting a "meditative truth" about how humans should wage war; her reading sharply illustrates the apparent ease with which practitioners of the new science slipped between brands of empiricism. Such findings suggest opportunities for further study: the chapter might cast in a new light much of Margaret Cavendish's poetry and prose, and after hearing Micrographia (1665) called an example of "canonical new science" (56), readers might wish to look for traces of the meditative empiricism in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which the author does not examine.

At times, I found it difficult to follow Smith over the important ground she covers in the first chapters. There are sudden shifts in tone and formality, particularly in chapter 1, and she tends throughout to recycle quotations as well as her own phrasing. Early in chapter 2, for example, Smith identifies Samuel Clarke as "the philosopher who formally defended Newton from Leibniz's attack." Just...


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