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The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine.

This work subtitled Ficino to Descartes constitutes the first volume of James J. Bono's two-part study of the cultural transformation of "science" during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The purpose of the extended project is to recount changes in scientific and medical thought during the Scientific Revolution (c. 1500-1700). The central focus is Renaissance theories of language and their impact on the study of nature. The book contains eight chapters, plus an epilogue, bibliography, and index, and offers an excellent and wide-ranging discussion of Renaissance theories of language and the relationship of human language to the verbum Del. Bono's scope is admittedly broad, yet the figures he analyzes are highly selective; they are in large measure drawn from medical authors, natural philosophers, and occultists such as Fernel, Paracelsus and Harvey, and others who figure prominently in the Scientific Revolution, notably Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Mersenne. Without a doubt, the book's greatest strength is in the selection of this truly prodigious range of figures. Rather than hampering the study, this approach has allowed the construction of a rewarding discussion.

An introductory chapter, "The Word, the Text, and the Narrative," frames the study as an exploration of the nature and origins of language theory and science. The second chapter reviews "Ficino and Neoplatonic Theories of Language," and examines the philosophical sources of a new perception of mankind, integrating Ficino's concept of prisca theologia (a tradition of ancient theological wisdom), used for constructing narrative contexts.

In the third chapter, "The 'Word of God' and the Languages of Man," Bono turns to the increasingly sophisticated theories of language generated during the Renaissance, and analyzes such "master cultural narratives" as those found in the biblical episodes of Adam's naming of the creatures in the Garden of Eden and of the destruction of the Tower of Babel.

The remaining chapters center upon particular figures who adopt specific hermeneutic strategies for reading the book of nature during the Scientific Revolution. For instance, in the fourth chapter, "The Priority of the Text" - in this reader's opinion the best in the volume - Bono deals with bookish culture and contrasts the hermeneutic practices of Fernel and Harvey, two major practitioners of theoretical medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this slightly revised version of a previously published article, Bono examines the scientific programs of Fernel and Harvey which, he aptly points out, were informed by radically different theories of language; Fernel's attitude was shaped by Neoplatonic theories, and he adopted Ficino's notion of a prisca theologia. By contrast, Harvey adopted a narrative of reform and developed a theory of language that involved experimental and observational practices (88).

The fifth chapter entails a study of "Paracelsian Medicine and Occult Natural Philosophy," while a transitional sixth chapter treats Galileo and Renaissance natural history. In that chapter Bono focuses on links between words, symbols, things, and the "Word of God."

The seventh chapter, "The Reform of Language and Science," demonstrates Bacon's rejection of "bookish culture" and retention of a system of traditional tropes while embracing a new descriptive approach to nature. In the final chapter, "Beyond Babel: Mersenne, Descartes, Language and the Revolt against Magic," Bono sheds light on the Cartesian project of a universal science in contrast to the Baconian project of an experimental and natural history (247).

A four-page epilogue permits Bono to sum up his findings. He reiterates the importance of reconstructing the "role of narrative in early modern science," so that "the substance and significance of late Renaissance science and the nature of the changes produced by the Scientific Revolution" might be better understood (272).

Scholars interested in the history of science and in theories of language during the Scientific Revolution will find much in this study of particular interest. In sum, the first volume of Bono's study represents a useful and important contribution to the history of language, early modern science, and medicine, and elucidates aspects of science previously neglected. The anticipated second volume of this study, currently in preparation, will undoubtedly provide further amplification and explanations to issues raised herein. Together the two volumes will constitute a valuable contribution to scholarly discussion of narratives about language in texts and cultures of early modern science.

KAREN R. SORSBY California State University, Chico
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Author:Sorsby, Karen R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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