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Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.

Harold J. Cook. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xiv + 562 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $35. ISBN: 978-0-300-11796-7.

That the influx of new objects and reports from Africa, Asia, and the New World challenged classical science and medicine and precipitated changes in biological classification and medical theory is an established aspect of the history of the scientific renaissance and revolution. But Cook has something more in mind than a Kuhnian paradigm shift, namely that global commerce broadened the acquisitive class, which energized the new science. Specifically, Cook claims that a new focus on details--establishing what are termed "matters of fact"--was important to the success of legal and commercial transactions that underpinned global exchange. This commerce was facilitated by the sociopolitical empowerment of the merchant class and a shift from medieval point-to-point trading to warehousing goods at regional emporia, such as Amsterdam. It also sponsored an empiricism that undermined Aristotelian insistence on grounding natural philosophy in knowledge of causes. Students of nature instead turned their attention to the acquisition, investigation, verification, and communication of specific factual information, which depended on familiarity with nature and not on demonstrative epistemic knowledge. In short, the social protocols and methods governing the new experimental science were drawn from natural history, which was promoted by the contractual practices and laws of trade in material goods, which was at root funded by market demand for new drugs and exotic goods. This amounts to a kind of Marxist analysis, but with an emphasis on the important role of the individual consumer's material wellbeing: "The material constraints on our mortal condition are real, the goads and shackles of economic life not least among them" (xiii).

Consequently, materialism--"the passions for goods" as Cook calls it--may have been a more profoundly important historical force than the passions for moral life, religion. "Invoking religion or the Reformation to explain the rise of science--as is often done--is inadequate" (4), he writes, directly challenging not only the Weber-Merton thesis, which explained the Scientific Revolution in the context of Calvinist (Puritan) theology and work ethic, but also recent attention to confessional doctrines as specific contexts for key philosophical innovations. Disarming the contention that the rise of the new science in the Netherlands was due to Calvinist values, Cook asserts that "it is clear that what was far more important was the ability to escape the intellectual constraints that religious figures of many kinds wished to place on everyone" (82-83), a kind of Dutch Latitudinarianism. Cook argues that historians of science should look to the ascent of natural history, which resulted from consumers' interests in material things, rather than to theoretical changes in natural philosophy and metaphysics to explain the rise of empirical and experimental science.

What religious leaders feared most about the new philosophy, about secularism in general, was its emphasis on materialism, which gained scientific credibility with Rene Descartes's mechanical philosophy. Cook credits the development of Descartes's materialism to his years spent in the merchant environment of the Netherlands and in particular to his early friendship with Isaac Beeckman, who also stimulated Pierre Gassendi's advocacy of atomism, probabilism, and empiricism. Many Dutch believed that human abilities and capacities resulted from their physical natures, a point of view implicit in traditional medicine. Under the influence of this mentality, Descartes turned to study of medicine, and his late Meditationes de prima philosophiae expressed the idea that the mind is seated in the brain, backing off implicitly from his earlier dualism. The Passions of the Soul (1649) argued that since the nature of the body and its passions were determined by its constitution and environment, moral philosophy is contingent on material conditions. Dutchman Adriaan Heereboord defended Cartesian materialism as a basis for public good, and the libertine party favored it as support for a politics of republicanism; liberty fueled prosperity. Even the religiously uncontroversial Herman Boerhaave leaned toward a reductionist psychology, and Cook speculates that "it may even have been through puzzling out Boerhaave's meanings on the relation between brain and mind that led La Mettrie into explicit materialism" (397), thus tying Dutch medical materialism directly to the radical enlightenment and the French Revolution.

This thought-provoking book will win admiration for its boldness in calling for renewed scrutiny of the economics of exchange as both motivation and agent of change in intellectual culture, but it will also arouse some quibbling with its arguments specific to the Scientific Revolution. For example, Cook's argument that Europe's intellectuals and religious leaders hampered scientific development by insisting on causal knowledge rather than precise description of nature, which validated empiricism, does not address the importance of changing definitions of causation and attention to efficient causes within neo-Aristotelian philosophy during the period. And his very laudable emphasis on material culture as an important stimulus to empiricism does not adequately explain Tycho Brahe's passion for establishing astronomy on an empirical footing, weakening the general application of his central thesis. The Danish astronomer benefited from Dutch trade in new plants for his extensive aristocratic gardens, but his empiricism is more convincingly located in his quest for a more dependable medicine and prophetic astrology than in the exchange of material goods. Nevertheless, Matters of Exchange offers an expansive argument for reexamining our own historical subjects with an eye toward the interplay of economic, moral, and epistemological factors in the quest for natural knowledge.


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Author:Shackelford, Jole
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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