Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The New Medievalism



When Thomas Browne in his idiosyncratic and bizarre Religio Medici asks that burning and old age philosophical question, 'how many eyes does a snail have?,' he does not heed the advice of what a philosophical contemporary Francis Bacon might suggest, 'Get a microscope and look!' Rather, he begins, 'Aristotle says...'; and then continues, 'Galen says...' Rather than just looking himself, he consults the ancient and medieval philosophers: what do they say?

Browne may be one of those thinkers, as Bacon says, 'interested in words not things,' inherited traditions of interpretation and not the world itself. Bacon thought that medieval philosophers were so engrossed in the picture of the world and the patterns that they believed it to have, that they failed to see the world as it is. Though we may understand - in our own post-Baconian world - that there is no such thing as the world 'as it is,' without perspective (or even traditions of interpretation). But we can understand Bacon's frustrations: 'look at the snail; will you?!?'

But what would we do? Are we closer to Browne or Bacon? A student stated the obvious: 'what would we do? we'd google it.'

As twitter and facebook become the prisms through which we see the world - newspapers I have been told only exist now to be cited on twitter - we have less in contact with a reality which is not virtual. Does this make us - post-modern as we think we are - akin not to Renaissance men such as Bacon, but closer to Thomas Browne and the medieval mindset he represents?

Are we inhabiting, despite our pretensions to the contrary, the New Medievalism? And are there some things - not only snails - at which we should be looking more closely? What are we missing?

11 comments:

Lindsey Shapiro said...

Literary theory has a lot to answer for!

Watashiii said...

Maybe it's just me, but I see less myths then I did before massive use of the web. People have an urge to fix mistakes and a lot of them prefer to look at snails and post about them.

Internet is getting better as we speak, and so are the people, but it's a long way to go before we can believe everything

wdk said...

So I may be guilty of the very thing I'm attributing to the web: not checking the facts. You may be right. Though, someone suggested an 'app' for making sure their life was not totally subsumed in virtual reality: a door knob.

Hydriotaphia said...

Sorry mate but you're completely and utterly wrong on several accounts. Where do I begin? Well to start - it's in his encyclopaedia 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' not 'Religio Medici' a work which opens with a paraphrase of Bacon's words and is quite explicitly based upon Baconian enquiry, (it that

In the 4th edition of Pseudodoxia (1658) Browne queries whether snails have eyes stating - And for my own part AFTER MUCH ENQUIRY i am not satisfied that these are eyes, or that those black and atrementious spots which seem to represent them are occular realities'.

However by the 6th edition of 1672 he states -But this now seems sufficently asserted BY THE HELP OF EXQUISITE GLASSES, which discover those black spots or globules to be their eyes.

Browne took an active interest in the activities of the Royal Society , sent his scientific observations to them, had the transcriptions of their philosophical debates sent up to him at Norwich and coined into the English language many scientific words including ELECTRICAL and ELECTRICITY.

But as you state in the previous 'I may be guilty of the very thing I'm attributing to the web: checking the facts' I suspect you may have some weird agenda to debunk Browne and 'prove yourself' his intellectual superior. Not quite.

The net sure does spawn a lot of Pseudo-doxia's and vulgar errors. Long live BOOKS!

Hydriotaphia said...

Can hardly say Bacon and Browne were of the same generation. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) Sir T.B (1605-82). Would you define yourself of the same generation to someone 44 years older than yourself?!!

Hydriotaphia said...

Er, excuse me but when Bacon died in 1626 the microscope had not been invented! When it was invented in the 1670's Browne enthusiastically recommended it to his son. And you're a lecturer at University!! Better stick to writing about what you actually know about or brush up on your intellectual history before erroneously slandering people you know very little about!

Perhaps you ought to explain where your dislike of Browne originates from, it may be a misreading of yours.

wdk said...

My bad. No microscope. Wow!

I do like the idea of Browne in spectacles. And I think one can be forgiven - though I'm not sure by hydriotaphia - for thinking that Bacon and Browne were of the same generation. Notwithstanding Browne's interest in the Royal Society, I do think his sensibility was more like Donne and Milton then Bacon's (Is that good enough company for you?). Browne was probably - again I'm just quoting form memory - a kind of amphibian, between the world of early modern science and the metaphysical poets which I think he has much more in common (again, from me, that's a compliment). Here, I'm not quoting from memory: Browne on the limits of reason. I don't think you could find Robert Boyle writing in a similar vein:

As for those wingy mysteries in Divinity, and ayery subtilties in Religion, which have unhindg'd the braines of better heads, they never stretched the Pia Mater of mine; me thinkes there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith; the deepest mysteries ours containes, have not only been illustrated, but maintained by syllogisme, and the rule of reason: I love to lose my selfe in a mystery to pursue my reason to an oh altitudo. 'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved ænigma's and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan, and my rebellious reason, with that odde resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impoßibile est.

But thank you for coming to Browne's defense! (even though he wasn't attacking it)

Hydriotaphia said...

The fact remains that the wrong book was cited on snails eyes, wrongly imagining that Browne was not a follower of Bacon when he was 9 even a friend of his descendants in fact),also imagining Browne and Bacon to be contemporaries (a quick check of biographical dates takes less than a minute) and that the microscope was available to Bacon when not invented until the 1670's. 'Exquisite glasses' by the way refers to the magnifying glass.
Donne and Milton were primarily poets, a genre Browne abandoned early on, preferring a poetic form of prose in the 2 Discourse of 1658. In essence Browne's sensibility is not so much shaped by metaphysics as by Hermeticism.

Robert Boyle testified and admired Browne's scientific investigation. So all in all an ill-informed, fabricated and erroneous post based upon hearsay, unfamiliarity with Browne, his scientific credentials and the development of science in the 17th century.

There is a shift in Browne's sensibility as the 17th c. progresses, so its little use quoting 'Religio Medici' Browne's spiritual testimony if debating his science and unfamiliar with 'Pseudodoxia' Browne's major work of scientific journalism which was written during a 10 -30 year span later.

The Stanley Fish perception of Browne is generally discredited these days.

Sorry to come over hostile but how would you react to your cultural heritage being quite seriously and erroneously portrayed in a false light?

Once more I am requesting, where does your idea of Browne as medieval originate from other than a reading of Stanley Fish? Is your hostility anything to do with a misreading of the chapter in P.E. entitled 'That Jews stink' where Browne repudiates that abhorrent medieval prejudice and many others throughout P.E.

wdk said...

Medieval is not a curse-word for me, and did not mean to mis-represent anyone's heritage.

I did not know about Browne's reference to the Jews.

I am a great admirer of his.

Thanks for corrections!

Hydriotaphia said...

Well that's alright then, apologies humbly accepted and given on the whole matter.

By the way Browne could read Hebrew and was immersed in the study of the Cabala.

wdk said...

I have my own theories - on the kabbalistic (and alchemical) origins of modernity...