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July 18, 2011 / Tobin Craig

David Wootton’s “Galileo: Watcher of the Skies”

I’ve just finished David Wootton’s biography of Galileo.  The book is a marvel, full of startling observations and arguments and it deserves a careful study by anyone interested in early modern science and the tension between science (or ‘natural philosophy’) and religion.  Now thankfully this is not a history of science or ideas blog, but a blog about the interaction between science and politics.  But Galileo, and the ‘Galileo case’  is more than a mere episode in the history of science.  As Wootton recognizes, and discusses in the final chapter of the book, Galileo’s life is for us today a profound symbol that is often invoked as a stand-in for all kinds of arguments about the relationship between science and the broader culture.  In offering a radical new argument about Galileo and his place in the founding of modern science, Wootton thus challenges us to rethink certain pieties and presuppositions about that relationship.

The first big claim Wootton makes is that Galileo is an unbeliever, or if not, radically heterdox, a ‘deist’ avant la lettre.  He concealed this, however, beneath a (rather thin) veneer of protestations of orthodox piety.  This allowed his followers, moved by a desire to secure his legacy (Viviani above all), to construct a story of the poor misunderstood Galileo, good Catholic to the end.  This story is still widely held today, even or precisely among the mainstream of Galileo scholars.  But we know that Viviani aggressively altered the historical record destroying much correspondence and other materials that in his view lent credence to suspicions about Galileo’s private beliefs on the fundamental questions.  Wootton does a fine job presenting what can only be a circumstantial case, but which I believe to be very strong largely because the alternatives are incredible.

But this means that Galileo did not openly say all he thought, and that some of his public claims of orthodox piety are misrepresentations if not lies.  This is difficult for historians of science to accept, first because it requires speculative reconstruction of the ‘inner-life’ of a thinker (thus the turn away from biography in history of science) but also, I think, because we are all wedded to the notion that the scientist/philosopher is the truth-teller, and Galileo in particular.  Indeed, in some respect it is Galileo’s boldness that makes the attribution of dissembling harder to swallow.  But if Galileo would never compromise to protect beliefs held by his fellows (as Brecht beautifully portrays in his play), this is not to say he might not prudently dissemble to protect himself from persecution.  (Perhaps here Galileo, the great hero/’martyr’ to today’s iconoclasting atheist-scientists, might have something to teach his latter-day followers.)  But if Galileo was so prudent, how did he end up convicted?  Wootton’s answer, not original but well presented, is that he simply overreached, and misunderstood the disposition of the church at a critical moment.

Secondly, Wootton argues, again persuasively, that Galileo was a ‘committed’ Copernican before the telescope and so long before he had much evidence for it.  This is an exciting insight, and casts new light on Galileo’s whole career, which on Wootton’s telling, is importantly dedicated to vindicating his early adoption of Copernicanism.  But if not ‘the evidence,’ what was the basis of Galileo’s Copernicanism?  That is a question to launch a new study of Galileo’s whole career and thought, one that might just change one’s understanding of modern science tout court.  Wootton would be a great departure point.

The third big claim Wootton makes for Galileo is that he is THE founder of modern science, and properly understood as a “scientist.”  Wootton knows well that the English word for scientist doesn’t appear until the 1830’s, but points out that Italian knows ‘scienza’ as science much earlier (as in Galileo’s own Two New Sciences).  First of all, I want to applaud Wootton for speaking of founders of modern science, and therefore acknowledging that modern science was an invention or discovery, and that it has an essence.  It is not adequate to say, as so many today do, that there are many sciences, and science is an indefinite thing.  Nevertheless, in attributing so much (or so little) to Galileo, his argument is misleading.  Wootton doesn’t see that Galileo’s atheism/heterdoxy and his ambiguous relation to modern science (Wootton nicely shows that Galileo both was and was not an experimental scientist), even his wilingness to accept Copernicanism before the telescope and before the evidence warranted it are all of a piece.  Galileo is not a founder of modern science, much less a scientist, he was a natural philosopher, in some sense in the classical mold.  Unlike Descartes and Bacon, Galileo never presented a thematic work advocating the institutionalization of a methodical inquiry into nature.  Galileo did try to defend his own inquiries, and in so doing expressed methodological insights, but he was primarily concerned with understanding nature, and the eternal character of the whole, and he knew that this philosophical enterprise put him at odds with (orthodox) religious belief.  A scientist, by contrast, is the creature of science-as-method, and as such is committed to the bracketting of the fundamental metaphysical questions.  Part of what Wootton’s biography reminds us, or ought to remind us, is that modern science as we have it today precludes the possibility of a Galileo, both in its hyper-specialization, and in its oblivion of the distinction between science and philosophy, even if many of our scientists don’t understand this, and so commit their own imprudent overreaching.


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