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Yeo, Richard. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science.

YEO, Richard. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. xviii + 398 pp. Cloth, $45.00--In this work, Richard Yeo provides us with a well-researched and documented account of the practices and views of prominent English note takers of the seventeenth century, showing along the way how important the written record of observations was to the development of empirical thought in the early modern period.

Yeo begins with a preface and introductory first chapter which describe period forms and methods of observational note taking and the characteristics and interests of the self-styled English "virtuosi," including an account of note takers, their methods, and purposes, from the past all the way through their impact upon the development of modern empirical science. Chapter one concludes with an extended discussion of how seventeenth century thinkers conceived of the relation between note taking and memory.

Chapter two goes into detail, first addressing the taking of notes in the light of the tension between writing and memory as initially described by Socrates himself: the more one writes, the less one remembers. Seeing the development of the art as a response to this problem, Yeo briefly supplies the arguments given by Renaissance writers and Jesuit scholars in defense of the practice. Figures dealt with include John Aubrey, Francesco Sacchini, Francis Bacon, and Richard Holdsworth. The chapter concludes with an examination of the notebooks of John Evelyn, Abraham Hill, and Robert Southwell.

Chapter three addresses the impact of the previous discussion upon the development of the new sciences, especially in the light of the writings of Francis Bacon. A new emphasis, Yeo argues, came to be placed upon the need, not merely for knowledge, but for information, empirical information. The virtuosi came quickly to see that Bacon's new science would require many details to be discovered, sorted out, and preserved. The development of empirical science was not the work of an individual over a lifetime, but would take many generations. Much was to depend upon the written accumulation of empirical facts--hence the taking of notes was increasingly valued.

Chapters four through seven get into still greater detail, each emphasizing the note-taking practices and notebooks of individuals.

Chapter four takes up the seventeenth-century scholar Samuel Hartlib. In fact and in intention, Hartlib aspired to collect as much such information as he could, which then needed to be further tabulated and indexed. Placing more emphasis upon the importance of being able to locate what one needed to know over having retained it individually in memory, Hartlib's collected papers provided later historians with massive amounts of data, albeit mostly secured and accumulated as a private store of information, with its precise extent dictated by the predominant interests and desires of a single individual. This practice led others to seek out ways to catalog notebook information in more accessible and useful ways.

In chapters five and six, Yeo focuses upon Robert Boyle's views regarding the relative importance of memory and empirical note taking, which, in contrast with Hartlib's method, emphasized the overall importance of one's judicious selection of things of which to take note. Boyle was suspicious of categorizing information too soon, lest the structure first thought of unduly alters how one regards the information. Yeo carefully contrasts this method to those of John Beale, who advocated (and advised Boyle to consider) categorizing information early on in the process. No longer at issue was the question of whether empirical data needed categorization--the only question was how one ought to do so. Yeo continues his consideration of Robert Boyle, now with an emphasis upon memory, recollection, and communication, each seen as a separate aspect of the art of taking notes, in chapter six.

Chapter seven focuses upon the seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke. Seeing in Locke a master artist in this realm, Yeo spends much of the chapter on Locke's carefully worked out system of note taking. Employing many examples from Locke's notes and journals, he provides us with an exceptionally clear account of the lifetime achievements of a lifelong note taker. From Locke's early views as to how, when, and regarding what notes should be taken, to his reflections upon the issues of memory and knowledge, the extent of note taking, and categorization, mentioned above, Yeo clearly sees in Locke a paradigm of how this art, with its roots in ancient writers, came to have such an impact upon how we regard and practice empirical science to this day.

From this close consideration of personal note taking and note takers, Yeo moves to collective note taking in chapter eight. At issue are the challenges and advantages of note taking projects, friendly agreements to amass collections of information far beyond what would be possible for an individual. Principal figures here include John Ray and Henry Oldenburg (one of the Royal Society of London's first secretaries). The chapter ends with a discussion of Robert Hooke and the advent of institutionalized note taking. Yeo's conclusion in chapter nine comes quite readily: the practices and views of empirical note takers in the sixteenth century did much to shape the way we conceive and practice the empirical sciences today.--Jean Rioux, Benedictine College
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Author:Rioux, Jean
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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