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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Underwhelming chapter on magic, June 21, 2010
This review is from: The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Studies in European History) (Paperback)
This is on the whole a competent survey text with a modern flavour. It would be too innocuous to review were it not for its one unique chapter on "Magic and the Origins of Modern Science," which is, I believe, Henry's primary area of expertise. This unimpressive chapter opens with a predictable straw man:

"A number of historians of science have refused to accept that something which they see as so irrational could have had any impact whatsoever upon the supremely rational pursuit of science. Their arguments seem to be based on mere prejudice, or a failure to understand the richness and complexity of the magical tradition." (p. 56)

Alas, our hero has barely issued this condemnation before he himself exhibits "prejudice" and "failure to understand" of the most blatant kind:

"Kepler ... can also be seen to have been deeply affected by the magical tradition of numerology. It is well known that a major stimulus to his work in cosmology was his attempt to answer the question of why there were only six planets. This is not a scientific question" (p. 58)

Of course this was in fact an eminently scientific question; Kepler thought so and his contemporaries agreed. Of course nowadays this old question is not part of the scientific corpus; it has been discarded just as the old question of what keeps a cart moving after one has stopped pushing it has been replaced by the new question of what makes it stop eventually. But these old questions were abandoned because they were no longer fruitful, not because they were intrinsically "unscientific"---nothing but "mere prejudice" can lead anyone to claim otherwise.

We may flip ahead to Newton for some more nonsense:

"The fact remains, anyway, that Newton was able to immediately accept Hooke's suggestion [of the inverse square law of gravity etc.], even though it depended upon the occult idea of forces capable of acting at a distance, because he was already attuned to think this way by his alchemical work." (pp. 64-65)

"Fact"?! What on earth is the justification for calling this a "fact"? Newton himself never asserted this "fact." Nor is it a "fact" of necessity, obviously, since history is full of people who "immediately accepted" the inverse square law without being "already attuned to think this way by alchemical work."

Although further examples would severely exacerbate the predicament, these two examples alone are enough, I think, to show that Henry's umbrella-conception of magic is so enormously vague and opportunistic that the entire chapter becomes pointless.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 9, 2013, 3:35:58 PM PDT

On what historical basis do you claim that Kepler's question, as to the number of planets, was a scientific question? It should also be clear that those "historians of science" that Henry is referring to are not necessarily specialists in the period and content being addressed; so your suggestion of prejudice is bizarre, because Henry is a specialist in the period and content.

Your proposition that it is not an historical fact that Newton did accept actio in distans is quite puzzling. He did accept the suggestion. In fact, it appealed to his mentality and mind toward occult properties that are so prevalent in magic and alchemy, having spent so many years studying such arts. (It may have been Keynes who called Newton the last of the magicians, and not the first thinker of the Age of Reason.) What you are referring to as "the fact" is not what Henry is saying is that fact: Henry is referring to the historical fact of how Newton behaved, in accepting actio in distans as a modus operandi for forces.

The one thing you have right is that the nature of magic (e.g., what the content of magic is) is unclear. Some of the natural magic texts completely obscure the line between magic and natural philosophy. Della Porta's "Magia Naturalis" and John Wilkins' "Mathematicall Magick" are great examples.

It takes quite a bit of hubris to claim that one of the top couple scholars in a field has written an "underwhelming" chapter, expressly written in that scholar's area of expertise. It would be surprising if you had any training in history, because your approach to Henry's text is obviously stemming from some prejudice produced by modern-scientific elitism, facilitated by virtue of the presumed lack of training in history. A little more humility in approaching a text, as well as some perspective on who the author is (e.g., author's level of scholarship and area of expertise) and sympathy for the project (i.e., assessment of the current discussion in the literature), would make for a more informed and valuable review to potential readers.


In reply to an earlier post on May 12, 2013, 3:02:16 AM PDT
The question about the number of planets is prima facie scientific since it concerns basic aspects of astronomy. What more "historical basis" do you want than that it was undeniably discussed in scientific treatises by scientists, and that Kepler's theory was quite well received by contemporary astronomers?

The "fact" in the quote I give is not that Newton accepted action at a distance, but that he did so *because* of his background in alchemy. 

If "historical training" means learning not to question scholarly authorities then I would rather be without it. 

In reply to an earlier post on May 12, 2013, 12:58:55 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on May 12, 2013, 12:59:13 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on May 12, 2013, 1:00:12 PM PDT

"Prima facie" for whom? "Scientific," by the lights of the time, would have been those items entailed within "natural philosophy." Mathematics had no necessary relationship to natural philosophy, and that's what Astronomy was, in part: Astronomy was either observation or observation matched by a mathematical framework, and said frameworks were not uniquely determined. That is to say, that one mathematical model or other fit observation was simply one accident among many. It was left to the natural philosopher to determine true metaphysical goings-on, not just supply some mathematical model that, by accident and happenstance, fit the data. Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus go over this, if I recall correctly, in the first fifty pages of their "Making Modern Science." Pierre Duhem has a whole book on this thinking, that mathematical endeavors (especially astronomy) were not necessarily scientific; the book is entitled, "To Save the Phenomena: An Essay on Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo." The difference between mathematics and science, early seventeenth century and earlier, was the difference between espousing accidental correlation through underdetermination and espousing metaphysical reality. This is palpable in the history, as Heilbron notes in his biography on Galileo, in particular, that Galileo only got himself in trouble once he had moved from a chair in mathematics to a chair in physics, the latter being a position of natural philosophy whereby Galileo had the power to assert metaphysical truths about the world. All of this makes complete sense, if you take into account the historical consideration that Scholasticism greatly leaned upon the doctrine of Aristotle, who maintained that mathematics had no real place in natural philosophy, and so, as Steve Clarke notes , in his "Metaphysics and the Disunity of Scientific Knowledge," Galileo was turning away from Aristotelian tradition, which was a component of the friction he produced.

Actually, Newton did accept action at a distance. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "Action at a Distance in Quantum Mechanics" refers to "Newtonian" action at a distance. I suppose Joseph Berkovitz is another scholar (amidst an apparent multitude) that you would like to reject as not competent, and his article, perhaps, "underwhelming"?

No, by "historical training" I mean such things as being able to understand historical contexts on their own terms, not by your own fancy. "Scientific" being a linguistic construct of the nineteenth century, for example, forces us to examine what we mean by imposing "scientific" upon the period. The closest correlate would be "natural philosopher," something astronomers were not; they were often taken to mathematicians, supposing they used mathematics. (Refer to the abovementioned authors.)

I am not one for suggesting that a heterodox not challenge present scholarship. However, I would suggest that any such questioning of scholarship be presented on the basis of informed thought, and not from someone who has read one chapter from one introductory text on a time and subject matter that the individual, otherwise, knows nothing about. Having read a few primary and secondary sources on magic and its relationship to science, I am compelled to assess you as ignorant on the matter, your review incompetent and intellectually reckless, and likely bolstered by some sort of preconceived prejudice against associating science with magic, whatever history might actually say.

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