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Excellent, but given the substance, should have been compressed into many fewer pages
on March 4, 2012
The more concrete parts of this book made for very interesting reading. I found fascinating the discussions of the philosophical and religious mentality of the scientists who forged the scientific revolution, and how that mentality was rooted in various aspects of history, and how the scientists' philosophical ideas interacted with their interpretations of science and scientific experiments.
Sometimes the author's philosophical discussions seemed a bit thin to take up as many pages as they do, though the book as a whole is not long. On some pages he is a little too occupied -- or perhaps not sufficiently interesting -- with regard to the debate over the extent to which one can speak of an "essence" of the scientific revolution, i.e., whether something neatly identifiable as "the scientific revolution" actually happened, or whether, on the contrary, that is a kind of myth, and in reality what is called "the scientific revolution" is too full of heterogeneous strands (including many cultural strands from the medieval past) to constitute an identity deserving of a simple label.
The discussion of "essentializing" vs. not doing so is certainly sometimes very interesting, but the author could have compressed what he evidently has to say about the various aspects of the question into, say, 75 fewer pages. The book in those excess pages, though well- and gracefully written, skirts too close, for my taste, to insubstantial academic abstraction (as opposed to juicy, packed, philosophy and history). The book's focus on historical evidence that undermines "essentialism" has some validity, and for the most part the author doesn't fall into the trap of many such discussions, which are often inspired to some extent by the academic intellectual movement called "deconstruction." The author however avoids that trap and never mentions deconstruction or its relation to the critique of essences. More important, the author avoids what is perhaps deconstruction's worst flaw -- in being skeptical of "essences," some deconstructionists go to an extreme, and give the impression that nothing is anything, or everything is nothing, or every thing is whatever anyone says it is or isn't, indifferently.
(This paragraph is perhaps a bit of a digression from the review: Surely the thing is to see that there are indeed "essences" -- whether of historical periods, of things, or of beings -- even if "essences" are not perfectly pure or perfectly non-self-contradictory -- and sometimes they are merely infinitesimally above 50 percent purity -- and even if the character of any given essence will always be at least somewhat in dispute since human beings cannot stand omnisciently outside history or declare with apodictic certainty what the living, impure, "essence" of any given reality is. In fact, though I put the word "essence" inside quotation marks, consistency would require me to put the quotation marks themselves in quotation marks. In other words, while it's true that to a certain extent to speak of an "essence" to a given reality must be a bit of an exaggeration, not a perfectly literal truth, nevertheless, good exaggerations have a chance to approximate gradually more closely to the literal truth. If a thing has something like an essence, even though not a perfectly pure one, we can still speak accurately of an essence, as long as we don't do so over-literally or with hubris and godlike epistemological confidence. Humble human epistemological confidence has huge enough potentials. Human limitations are not good reason to abandon the ideal of objectivity altogether, as deconstructionists and anti-essentialists sometimes seemed to do when they sought at every possible turn to confute and contradict any and every coherent rational account of anything. Far from it. Recognizing the imperfect purity of "essences," and their imperfect accessibility to finite knowers, can adumbrate a living, vital, even profoundly spiritual reason or Compassion-Logos as the basis for a renewed ideal of critical objectivity. Reason can become an organ by which one can approach asymptotically toward spiritual and physical objectivity. Reason can even become a means of knowing the spiritual world and meeting living, complex, spiritual beings and realities within and beyond nature. But this paragraph is only a digression, and the author of the book doesn't consider "spiritual" questions or go clumsily and idiosyncratically into the philosophical weeds like this. He sticks pretty much to ordinary historical facts and their interpretation.)
This was a graceful and often fascinating book, particularly in the more concrete first part. But after that, it becomes sometimes abstract in a way that seemed to verge on the trivially academic -- if not trivial in substance, then in spreading that substance too thinly over too many pages. But perhaps those parts of the book would be fascinating to others, including specialists in the question of whether or to what extent to essentialize the scientific revolution.