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Canonical: Matters of Exchange October 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building, EWP Book Club.
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Building off of my preliminary reaction to Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, the key to understanding how the book works is to take notice of its lack of authorial voice.  Evidence of intense and skilled scholarship is to be found everywhere in the numerous detailed and intertwined narratives that Cook presents (what I referred to as an “elegant” style).  But commentary to help readers understand what the scholarship has revealed is generally not to be found.  Thus, the book is not very argument-intensive.  When Cook does show up to offer commentary, it is usually pretty unadventurous.  Some variation on “a lot of different people had to come together to make this work happen” pops up for a couple of paragraphs at the end of most chapters.  Until the end, anyway….

“Just the simple, curious, unexpected facts” ma’am

As I pointed out, the book does put forward what we can call the “commerce thesis” about facts being produced by the agreements necessary in a culture of commerce and connoisseurship.  Straightforward enough.  However, commenter Loïc (of the History of Economics Playground) expressed serious reservations about the elegant style allowing for an unannounced stacking of the deck in favor of the argument.  I felt the book was responsible enough, but am now thinking that Loïc has a point that applies here, too.  In the last chapter and conclusion of the book, Cook unfurls an aggressively old-fashioned argument about the rise of science—what he calls a “new science” or a “new philosophy” in contrast to “old ways of knowing”.

Cook is very explicit in the importance he attaches to the rise of empirical knowledge obtained via the senses and communicated through networks of trusted sources and its overtaking of a natural philosophy based upon authority and theorization that was closely connected to moral philosophy and theology.  This “new science could lay claim to being a universal method of investigation, even when those participating in it hesitated or disagreed about its conceptual foundations.”  Speculation and conceptualization still exist, of course, but they become a secondary and disposable concern next to the “objective facts” that everyone can agree upon.  Thus, for example, in the last chapter (“The Refusal to Speculate”) we have Hermann Boerhaave turning away from natural philosophy and the arguments between various schools of Cartesians, Spinozans, and Aristotelians so as to take up empirical medicine.

I think this argument is fine as far as it goes—indeed, it should be considered already well-established.  I believe that an empirical medicine and botany were established in the period that Cook suggests, and that the establishment of an active concern for the veracity of observations and the problematization of “speculation” were important developments in intellectual culture.  But it is far more questionable whether it is useful for creating a coherent historical account to identify a coherent and progressive “new” way of thinking that was in conflict with an “old” way.  Is it legitimate to single out empirical medicine and botany as exemplary sciences (a position astronomy might hold in older accounts)?

My concern is that this leads us back into singling out individuals within a culture, or even carving out sections of specific works (say, the works of Buffon), as either forward-looking science or backward-looking philosophy.  This flies quite directly in the face of attempts by scholars such as Simon Schaffer or Peter Dear to create more consistent historical taxonomies of intellectual practice where theorizing and fact-gathering were not carefully delineated, and their insistence on taking these practices seriously as potentially progressive intellectual forces.

We ought to be aware that Cook is making a fairly radical (and somewhat positivist) historical/epistemological claim concerning the primacy of the presentation of facts over arguments about ideas.  In this view, there exists such a thing as science, and it is equated or nearly equated with the acquisition and transmission of information, and downplays systematization.  Thus when we briefly come to Linnaeus at the end, we see him developing “his simple methods for allowing students and laypeople to describe useful plants on field trips, resulting in the binomial system.”  We, notably, do not have him establishing a “System of Nature” which is a reflection of God’s plan, even though Linnaeus explicitly saw himself as doing so.

A Schematic of Expertise

As I said, Matters of Exchange is well-executed within its chosen domain of empirical medicine and botany.  What the book does best is create a sort of “schematic of expertise” within the Netherlands and the Dutch trade empire.  The book is full of ornately detailed, hands-on discussions of the material practices of dissection, the preservation of specimens, illustration, translation, book writing, university life, medical practice, the development and maintenance of networks of contacts, and so on, and links these practices together in the pursuit of common goals in useful ways.  One might fruitfully turn from here to the history of economics literature on Quesnay.  Of course, a more inclusive account might have included navigation, time-keeping, surveying, ship-building, canal-building, etc.  That surely would have overly belabored the author, but it also might have given calculation and theorization practices more impetus.

The difficulty is that it’s a little hard to understand the significance of what one is seeing: how common are these practices, what does the community look like, in what specific ways did it evolve with time?  It’s a little like one of those “rides” at Epcot Center where you tour around all of these finely detailed diaramas and are impressed with the craftsmanship that went into them, but are sort of left to your own devices if you have further questions.  Time flows, but, again, the lack of authorial voice leaves us guessing as to what changes mattered most as the book winds it way from the 1500s through to about 1700.  As with so much history of science, the existence of the practices seem to matter more than arguments about the details.  What would this account have looked like if we followed one commodity (an herb, say) through time and space, between market, garden, and lecture hall; what specific people changed perceptions of that commodity and for whom?  (I’m thinking of Mark Kurlansky on cod and salt here, but having not actually read these, I’m not sure if he explores the intellectual angle; perhaps Burnett’s Trying Leviathan would be a better model? any other suggestions?)


All reservations aside, I like this book a lot, and would indeed consider it a canonical source on medicine and botany in the early modern Netherlands.  Although short on detailed argument, there are a lot of useful details to be extracted from the narratives.  Better still, many of the subsections of the book have excellent discussions that could provoke good questions.

I enjoyed the chapter about Descartes, and particularly the description of his unpublished but influential theories about the regulation of the passions as a basis for moral and rational action.  Cook does well to connect the potential good to be found in following the passions with the rise of economy-based theories of polity and knowledge.  Since Cook presents knowledge based on the regulation of the passions as a key element of his argument for a new empirical philosophy, it would be interesting to draw a deeper comparison with Hobbes’ equally secular political and moral economy, which he attached to his own account of cognition and a critique of experimental, fact-based knowledge.  (There is some good material in this direction in the discussion of Boerhaave.)

I really liked the discussion of medicine and botany within the constricted trade in Tokugawa Japan, which serves well as a terrific starting-point history of the knowledge trade in the Far East in that era.  I also really, really liked the discussion of embalming and dying (and the link to the emergent chemistry of acids) in the “Industry and Analysis” chapter, which was very close to what I have in mind when I think about a possible merger of economic history with the history of science and technology.

All in all, a terrific book.  But handle with care, because Cook doesn’t give you a map to find your way through the territory, and, I think, smuggles in his argument for the primacy of empiricism without engaging with scholarship that might problematize the story.  Coming up next in “Canonical”: Jungnickel and McCormmach’s Intellectual Mastery of Nature (1986).  Did I ask for a map?  I’ll wish I hadn’t!

NB. Also take a look at Jonathan Israel’s review of the book in the 18 May 2007 Science.  Israel is a scholar of this time and place.  The review is the source of one of the blurbs on the back of the book, but I didn’t read it until I was finished with this reaction post.  Israel also takes note of Cook’s unusually strong commitment to empiricism, and suggests it ought to be a matter for new debate.



1. Loïc - November 7, 2008

You should have a look to this review of the book by Jan de Vries, the dominating figure in the history of early modern netherland economy and trade, published in the American Historical Review. It is interesting to see that his review is mildly positive at best with serious reservations and that one of the point that made him uneasy about the book is precisely what you called “the elegant style”.
keep on the good work.

2. Loïc - November 7, 2008

Ooups! The link is not working, here it is (p. 438-41):

3. Will Thomas - November 10, 2008

Thanks Loïc, it is a good review. I liked de Vries’ point about the marginal treatment of the relationship between theologians and the secular intellectual world. I think Cook was coming from the position of refuting old Weberian ideas about the emergence of science, which I suppose is valid enough, but framing the issue that way comes at the cost of a more thorough treatment of the relationships between theology, philosophy, and the empirical sciences.

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