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Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Primer: Joseph Marie Maistre and the Image of the Machine April 16, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Marie Maistre (1753-1821) , underscored the irredeemable fallenness of mankind, which was rooted in original sin and visible in the seemingly endless wars, conflicts, and revolutions in human history.  The  French modernist poet Baudelaire considered Maistre an antidote against the naive optimism of the eighteenth century.  Like  Chateaubriand in his Genius of Christianity (1802), Maistre was a defender of religious sentiment and its role in politics  (Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, pg. 707.) A staunch defender of the Catholic Church and strong governance, Maistre believed that providence was the active force behind universal history.  Maistre defined human beings in this scheme according to their lust for power.

As Isaiah Berlin notes in his introduction to Maistre’s Considerations on France, Maistre “is painted, always, as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority; proud, bigoted, inflexible…brilliant…vainly seeking to arrest the current of  history….”  Maistre, in Berlin’s view, is all of these things, and all the more interesting for them,  “for although Maistre may have spoken in the language of the past, the content of what he had to say is the absolute substance of anti-democratic talk of our day” (Considerations on France, Introduction, xii, xiii.)

Like Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Schiller, Maistre was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and the Terror.  The experience “turned him into an implacable enemy of everything that is liberal, democratic, high-minded, everything connected with intellectuals, critics, scientists, everything to do with the forces which created the French Revolution” (xiii)  The Revolution and the Terror convinced him that the idea of progress was an illusion.  Instead, Maistre underscored the sacred past, the “virtue, and the necessity, indeed, of complete subjugation.”  In the place of scientific rationality, Maistre offered the alternative of “the primacy of instinct, superstition, and prejudice.”

More charitably, Owen Bradley notes that in Maistre’s critique of science, “his attack on the excesses of technical rationality raises the essentially modern question of the sociopolitical consequences of the scientific organization of (more…)