08 April 2013

Review: A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy by John F.W. Herschel

Trade paperback, 372 pages
Published 1987 (originally 1830)
Acquired April 2012
Read September 2012
A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy
by John F.W. Herschel

I read this for my exams shortly after reading Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times"; unsurprisingly, Herschel has a much more positive view of scientific understanding than Carlyle. (It would be hard not to!) Like Tyndall would later, Herschel sees humans as essentially reasoning creatures, and science (“natural philosophy”) as simply the purest expression of that reason. Reason, he says, makes man the lord of creation. He seems to be responding to the objections of Goethe and Carlyle when he claims that scientific detachment’s necessity of clearing the mind of prejudices makes the mind more susceptible to higher impulses (5). We are elevated by science, he claims (12), seeming like Tyndall—not to mention Gaskell’s Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters.

Most of A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy is given over to explaining the way that science works. That Gaskell may have been thinking of this (or something very like it) comes through quite clearly when he places his emphasis on EXPERIENCE, which can be acquired by either experiment or observation (67). Like Gaskell (and her father, William Stevenson, who wrote several essays on political economy), he points out that the scientist must observe repeatedly to sift out what is important and what is not, taking time to overcome our common sense—for what science ends up telling us lacks common sense entirely (23)! His inductive model seems pretty Stevensonesque: we examine nature, induce a theory, and then verify it via deduction. There are some squishy bits here, meaning he glosses over how we find facts (170), or know if something is actually true (280), but in 150 years, Thomas Kuhn will tell us that these things don’t matter to the operation of science anyway.

I was very struck by a passage which explained how passive observation was like storytelling: “we sit and listen to a tale, told us, perhaps obscurely, piecemeal, and at long intervals of time, with our attention more or less awake. It is only by after-rumination that we gather its full import; and often, when the opportunity is gone by, we have to regret that our attention was not more particularly directed to some point which, at the time, appeared of little moment, but of which we at length appretiate the importance” (67). This seems like nothing so much as the process of reading a novel in serial form! Novel reading is a way of learning about the world, but you control nothing about it and you often focus on the wrong bits.

Active observation, on the other hand, is simply experiment—and surely to reverse the metaphor that would be writing a novel. And indeed, writing a novel has sometimes been seen as a form of social experiment; if you’re Dickens, you write Oliver Twist to examine how the Poor Law affects people, and if you’re Gaskell, you write a ton of novels to examine poverty in a way that Mary Poovey would tell us that statistics can never get to. There’s something to make of this passage, but I don’t know what yet.

Three years after he wrote A Preliminary Discourse, Herschel traveled to South Africa to map all the stars of the southern hemisphere. One can’t help but wonder if he was dreading the trip when he declared that it was obvious “that all the information that can possibly be procured, and reported, by the most enlightened and active travelers, must fall infinitely short of what is to be obtained by individuals actually resident upon the spot” (384). As someone who recently got back to America from South Africa because his wife has to travel there once per year to sample plants, I sympathize entirely.

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