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  • "In no one Thing, they saw, agreeing":Communicating Experimental Philosophy in Cowley and Butler
  • Simon Malpas

[T]he truth is we want good Poets (I mean we have but few) who have purposely treated of solid and learned, that is, Natural Matters (the most part indulging to the weakness of the world, and feeding it either with the follies of Love, or with the Fables of gods and heroes) …1

I acknowledge that we ought to have a great Dread of their Power: I confess I believe that new Philosophy need not (as Caesar) fear the pale and melancholy, as much as the humorous and the merry: For they perhaps by making it ridiculous because it is new … may do it more Injury than all the Arguments of our severe and frowning and dogmatical Adversaries.2

For those engaged in experimental philosophy during the Restoration, wit and poetry presented a threat and a promise. Developments in science were radically re-evaluating familiar ideas of nature and knowledge, and this generated equal measures of fascination and bafflement among the public.3 The natural philosophy being undertaken by experimental pioneers was almost entirely new and strange to the community at large. According to Steven Shapin, "The categories of knowledge and their generation that seem to us self-evident and unproblematic were neither self-evident nor unproblematic in the 1660s"; in fact, for "Restoration England there was no one solution to the [End Page 49] problem of knowledge which commanded universal assent. The technology of producing knowledge had to be built, exemplified and defended against attack. … The foundations of knowledge were not merely matters for philosophers' reflections; they had to be constructed and the propriety of their foundational status had to be argued."4 Part of the process of establishing the legitimacy of experimental philosophy was gaining support among a potentially sceptical public, and the poetry of the period was perceived by some as well positioned to contribute to this effort. The attitudes expressed in the passages above from Cowley and Sprat, both advocates of the new science, encapsulate two forms of this problem of establishing and communicating the proper foundations: first, hope that the knowledge being revealed might find champions among the poets to encourage interest, engagement and understanding; and, second, fear that science might be mocked out of existence by the barbs of the wits and satirists.

As has frequently been noted by historians, the formation of The Royal Society in the immediate aftermath of the Restoration acted as a focus for debates about the nature of scientific enquiry. Originating with the plan to form a "College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning" at a meeting that followed a lecture by Christopher Wren at Gresham College in London on 28 November 1660, it was granted Royal charters on 15 July 1662 and 23 April 1663, the latter formally naming it "The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge." Although far from being the only location where experimental and natural philosophical work was being undertaken, the Society's chartered status made it the public face of the new science and, hence, the chief target for interest, understanding and criticism from the broader lay public.

Despite its formal incorporation and the prestige associated with Royal patronage, the Society's early years were precarious both financially and in terms of public esteem. Charles II's attitude, although indulgent, was often amused: Samuel Pepys' diary for 1 February 1664 reports that "Gresham College he mightily laughed at for spending time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat," and the visiting Italian Count Lorenzo Magalotti records the king referring to them either as "my ferrets" or "my fools."5 Hunter asserts that natural philosophy "became a rather superficial courtly fashion in the 1660s – while the royal entourage was at Salisbury during the plague in 1665, for instance, evenings were whiled away with lectures by Sir William Petty and others 'upon something that nobody understands but themselves' … Fellows were said to come to meetings 'only as to a Play to amuse themselves for an hour or so.'"6 Quentin Skinner goes further by claiming, quite unequivocally, that...


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