Richard Olson, Science Deified & Science Defied: The Historical Significance of Science in Western Culture.
With this volume,Richard Olson brings his ambitious trilogy on sciences significance in Western culture forward from about 1640 to about 1820. Science, he maintains, was culturally significant during this period chiefly because of the influence it exerted, not on beliefs about the physical world, but rather on ways of analyzing human nature and society, of improving modes of production and distribution, and of judging the merits of the arts. In developing this thesis, he presents science's unique activities and habits of mind as its distinguishing features. Yet he does not suppose that it was an isolated enterprise. Instead, he sees science as a dynamic cultural institution that throughout the era was both influenced by and active in influencing other cultural institutions.
Primarily interested in science's influence, Olson does not furnish a detailed exposition of the development of natural knowledge. Most literate Europeans and Americans, after all, acquired but a nodding familiarity with the instruments, techniques, facts, and theories spawned in their own lifetimes. He relies, accordingly, on brief discussions of Cartesianism, the geometrical spirit, the mechanical philosophy, and Newtonianism to provide the background needed to characterize the scientific revolution's impact on the educated public's physical world view.
When addressing the new science's influence on ideas about human nature and society, Olson offers a much more extensive, and impressive, synthesis. In his view, three major scientific approaches to moral and political issues blossomed during the Enlightenment--the economic, historical, and psychological traditions. Political economy, whose leading eighteenth-century champions were Richard Cantillon, Francois Quesnay, and Adam Smith, followed up on Thomas Hobbes and William Petty's supposition that individuals behaved in the economic realm as rational, self-centered decision makers. Conjectural history, which was represented most effectively in the eighteenth century by the Baron de la Montesquieu, Adam Ferguson, and again Smith, used comparative methods to move from James Harrington's ideas about the primacy of social groups and institutions as historical agents to a staged, progressive picture of historical change. Sensationalist psychology, whose preeminent eighteenth-century proponents were David Hartley, Claude Helvetius, and Etienne Condillac, elaborated on Hobbes and John Locke's presumption that pleasure and pain were the ultimate motivators. In the course of delineating the three traditions, Olson depicts the first two as important sources of Enlightenment liberalism and, interestingly, the third as the main seedbed for more radical ideas about equality, distributive justice, and education.
Besides influencing social thought, science played a growing role in technological change in the course of the eighteenth century. Its puissance was first manifest in Britain when aspiring improvers adapted scientific activities and habits of mind to the problems of agriculture, civil engineering, and manufacturing. Exemplary here, in Olson's portrayal, was Josiah Wedgwood who made a fortune in pottery by using experimental methods to improve his products and rational management techniques to increase the efficiency of his manufactories. The endeavors of improvers to reap comparable benefits from new scientific facts and theories were frustrated until the late eighteenth century when, as harbinger of things to come, they began turning novel findings to practical account--e.g., in the development of the chlorine-bleaching industry.
Science's influence even extended to aesthetics. Here, in Olson's view, the psychological tradition initiated by Hobbes, Locke, and Hartley was of central importance. Hobbes himself drew on his early version of sensationalist psychology to explain how poets created metaphors that pleased and thereby inspired readers. Hobbes' concern with literary creativity was taken up and developed by John Dennis and a host of eighteenth-century writers. Most notable among them was Edmund Burke whose Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757; 2nd ed. 1759) had a profound influence on British and German aesthetic criticism. Burke, Olson convincingly argues, used sensationalist psychology--despite his own antagonism to science--to codify, popularize, and deepen the growing interest among artists and writers in the sublime.
Olson, having traced the new science's widening influence on social thought, technology, and aesthetics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, turns in the volume's last chapter to the Romantic reaction to this trend. Since this is the only chapter whose subject matter lies squarely within the purview of Nineteenth-Century Prose, I look somewhat more closely at it than its predecessors so as to convey a nicer sense of the volume's merits and limits.
In his analysis of Romantic denunciations of science's influence on politics and industry after the French Revolution, Olson focuses on a few French and English authors--Joseph de Maistre, Burke, William Blake, and William Wordsworth. This selectivity enables him to give more than passing attention to each figure, but it may give hasty readers the mistaken impression that Romantic criticisms of the scientistic mentality from elsewhere in Europe were mere echoes. In discussing his four authors, Olson gives interesting glimpses into the biography of each as well as a thoughtful, comparative account of the author's stance. His discussions do a superb job of illustrating the chapter's thesis that the Romantics took offense at the French revolutionaries' scientistic justifications of their attacks on the political status quo and at the entrepreneurs' uses of science-based technology and management to transform traditional modes of production. But they do rather little by way of exploring the contextual and biographical sources of each figure's position. More serious, they avoid the difficult yet important problems surrounding the reception of the Romantic critique of scientism. Who paid heed, for what reasons, and with what consequences for science and society?
Despite this volume's limitations, readers of Nineteenth-Century Dose should find much that informs and interests them in Olson's treatment of science's increasing influence between 1640 and 1820. They will, I anticipate, find even more in the third volume when it appears a few years hence.
University of California, Irvine
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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