Review of The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas

The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas
by Charles Coulston Gillispie

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2017 (1st edition 1960)
600 pp. Paper, $35.00
ISBN: 9780691172521

Reviewed by
Enzo Ferrara
October 2017

“Non semel quaedam sacra traduntur” [1] – Lucius Anneus Seneca wrote this quote in his Naturales Quaestiones (65 AD), one of the few works that in ancient times dealt with “scientific” matters, collecting facts of nature from contemporary sources. The Roman philosopher and politician had always an eye for possible moral advancements based on objective observations; the intent of his encyclopaedia was, in fact, to discover a foundation for ethics in the knowledge of nature. A similar outlook is foreseeable two thousands year later in The Edge of Objectivity, the masterwork of Charles Coulston Gillispie, published in 1960 (with the second edition and a new preface here presented, issued in 1990) and originated from lectures the author gave at Princeton University. Although he was a chemist and not an historian – as his critics harshly remarked, – Gillispie had previously tackled science’s history with Genesis and geology” (Harvard, 1951), a ponderous volume on scientific thought in the 1790-1850 Great Britain. He would have pursued historical research later also, with a volume on Lazare Carnot, Savant (Princeton, 1971), a biography of Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1978), and two works on Science and polity in France at the end of the old regime (Princeton, 1980) and The Montgolfier brothers and the invention of aviation, 1783-1784 (Princeton, 1983). However, none of them reached the popularity then attained by The Edge of Objectivity.

People can see science as a continuous refinement of inductive thoughts emerging from the “objective” observation of separated facts, and its chronicle as a sequence of discoveries not always correlated by unifying themes. Otherwise, we can see science as knowledge evolving by comparison of experimental practices to theoretical hypotheses made by scientists through generalizations of fundamental ideas. The latter was the side chosen by Gillispie. His subtitle, An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas, represents the author's intention: to provide a selected yet huge corpus of information on mankind’s efforts to unravel Nature’s secrets. Although very different in their purposes, Alexandre Koyrè’s études and Arthur Koestler’s sketches on the history of science are valued as references in the final chapter, Bibliographical essay. Here Gillispie claims he intended to narrate the structure in the history of classical science. “This book – he wrote (p. 521) – is no attempt to recount in summary the whole history of science from Galileo to Maxwell and Mendel. Instead, its purpose is to set out in narrative form what I take to be the structure of classical science. This I find in the route which the advancing edge of objectivity has in fact taken through the study of nature from one science to another!”

The history of science, in the view of Gillispie, reflects thus the advancements of what he calls “objectivity”, which is more a concept of philosophy than science. Anyhow, although many important men and ideas are not included, the volume offers an organic whole, concentrating on the most brilliant scientific minds of all times. Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton are in the earlier part, followed after the Enlightenment by Lavoisier, Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin and Mendel; then Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein. Their major developments are accounted, assisted by quotations that convey the spirit of scientific work in different ages.

Since the text first appeared, its value for the history of science was unquestionable. Quarrels verted on the meaning of objectivity, not for its equivalence to positive or even rational attitudes, rather for its description of a uniformitarian nature and uncritical identification of kinds of model presupposed by fundamental science. Gillispie presents science as a collective and progressively mounting construction. For example, the numerical representation of natural phenomena, which originated in the separation of mind and matter conceived by Descartes, found in the Cartesian method a great means for physics marrying it to algebra and geometry, eventually giving place to the coordinate system in daily use among all branches of science.

Science has become increasingly objective in all its disciplines – the author claims, – the process began in physics with kinematics, developed then through chemistry and biology to return ultimately to the physics of XIX-century – though the complexity of quantum mechanics makes it difficult to maintain an objective and uniformitarian view of nature.

This path could be satisfactory if the notion of objectivity is made clear. Usually, in science to objectify is to quantify through measurements, and one would expect such terms as “quantification”, “consensus”, or “reproducibility” as pertaining to scientific affairs. “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, – Lord Kelvin wrote (Popular Lectures, 1883) – when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.” This is a questionable affirmation as not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. At least, Kelvin provided a readily applicable sense for objectivity. Unfortunately, Gillispie was not so clear and augmented confusion putting a bias to favour atomistic theories – from Democritus, to Dalton and Lavoisier – as superior paradigms supporting objectivity in science. Atomism, according to him, is a precondition of objective science and a standard mode of inference from the visible to the invisible. “Atomism [is] the subsistence of reality in ultimate particles whose motions the laws describe (…). – he wrote (p. 499) – And it must be admitted that the atom (…) was a minute ball-bearing in dynamics, a carrier for valence in chemistry, an infinitesimal concretization of energy in electricity, a population of the unobservable in statistical mechanics of gases, and everywhere the postulation as an image of reality.”

Unfortunately, the rather naïve mechanism that facilitated the objective view through atomistic paradigms in mechanics and chemistry in the XVII century became a hindrance to the later systematic physical theories that included the wave-particle dualism and electromagnetic forces in empty space. Furthermore, through the atomistic view Gillispie supported the idea of similar situations recurring in the history of science, whose difficulties have been resolved by strategical processes of objectification. Major troubles are when this ambiguous criterion of science declines as intellectual virtues, and accordingly scientists are praised or blamed.

In the struggle to promote objectivity as an advanced value in successive sciences Gillispie annotated: “The historian of science may therefore be pardoned for wondering what might have been the influence on biology had these scientists [Nägeli and Weismann] known the history of science, and whether they might then have noticed the interest of Mendel’s work? Suppose they had thought to compare the simple whole numbers of his ratios to Dalton's, by which the chemical revolution was reduced to numerical terms. Suppose they had known of the relationship of the corpuscular philosophy of the seventeenth century to the Newtonian synthesis. Might they not have saved themselves much unprofitable reasoning, and advanced the progress of their science by several decades?” (p. 335).

This approach works for a large part of earlier scientific developments: Galileo is more objective than Aristotle and Newton than Galileo; and Newton, dominant figure of the early chapters, certainly believed and was successful in assessing that the forces of nature are mathematically expressible. Francis Bacon is appreciated for “application of the inductive method, creation of a universal natural history, and the public organization of science” (p. 78), but disdain is on its utilitarian view of science. The increasing objectivity of the Enlightenment reflects in the passage from the French elegant discourse of philosophes to the British factual accomplishment of scientists, accompanied by the key change of science language. But, Newton was as well aware that the accountable phenomena of nature are unknowable in terms of ultimate causation, and Bacon, who did not make any scientific discoveries, was the first to foresee that eventually science would have become a business of everyday recognising knowledge as a way of power, and not much else. Furthermore, if objectivity lies in mathematics, Lavoisier is a failure as well as Darwin’s actual objectification of biology – it is amazing that On the Origin of the Species, the most important book of science ever, does not contain a single equation.

When the emphasis is on the dawn of theoretical physics, e.g. Maxwell, Boltzmann, Einstein, and we learn that it is possible to equate abstract and mathematic thought, Gillispie is hard to follow. His book also misses the unfolding knowledge of subatomic particles. “To carry the story of fields and particles beyond Maxwell – he justified (p. 494) – would require either a higher mathematical competence than this history has so far exacted of the reader (or the author), or else a wider departure from the text that has been the policy by which the book has been composed”.

There is something fascinating in the vision of Gillispie: science is perhaps the only field in which history taught some lessons – to science itself at least, – but the idea that the path paved by scientists can be dealt with as a history of glory towards the “true” knowledge is difficult to share. Most people – among them was Lev Nikolàevič Tolstoy, see Modern science (1898) – would disagree that the grandeur of science, although objective, is competent to tell us how to live or to justify about our place on the Earth. More convenient is to assume that science advancements blend with human history along a tough path of successes and disillusions, glory and infamy. Yet, Gillispie deserves thankfulness for gathering complements of curiosity and scepticism on scientific virtues from the undergraduates of “Humanities 304” at Princeton 1956-1958. He wrote a superb book on the history of science whose paradigms, whatever their interpretation, are but cruel ones: in all disciplines they cut away any man-centred attitudes to reality, while revealing the amoral even if assessable and often uncomfortable outlines of the natural world – which is the highly respectable and central message of the book.


[1] “Sacred mysteries cannot be understood at once”, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones (VII, 30.6).