This paper aims to assess the credibility of the legitimation thesis; the claim that the development of experimental science involved a legitimation of certain aspects of artisanal practice or craft knowledge. My goal will be to provide a critique of this idea by examining Francis Bacon’s notion of ‘mechanical history’ and the influence it exerted on attempts by later generations of scholars to appropriate the knowledge of craft traditions. Specifically, I aim to show how such projects were often premised upon socio-epistemological ideals that served to reinforce, rather than relinquish boundaries between artisans and natural philosophers. It will be my claim that a closer examination of the presuppositions underlying attempts by early modern natural philosophers to appropriate craft knowledge reveals, not a desire to legitimize aspects of artisanal practice, but rather strategies aimed at demonstrating the inferiority of the local ways of knowing upon which it was based.
In the history of science it has long been common to explain the development of experimental science, in part, by illustrating how scholarly attitudes towards manual labor underwent deep changes in the early modern period. What I will call the legitimation thesis refers to the claim that the development of modern science involved a legitimation of certain aspects of artisanal practice or craft knowledge. For much of the twentieth century, this thesis served as a distinguishing characteristic of the work of historians of science writing in the externalist tradition, such as Edgar Zilsel and then later Paolo Rossi, who both sought to ascribe a central role to craft practitioners in narratives charting the development of experimental science. In Rossi’s words:
The new interest in technical and mechanical methods, based on a belief in their educative powers, is typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The accomplishments of the artisan, engineer, technician, navigator and inventor were considered of equal importance to intellectual achievements, and Bacon, Galileo and Harvey (among others) explicitly acknowledged their debt to the artisan. (Rossi 2009, p. 1)
some sixteenth century scholars (realized) that the understanding of the material world attained by artisans and others might actually be superior to those of scholars, who only read books. The crafts thus were not only a source of specific techniques and knowledge of materials but also a way of viewing matter and nature. The writings of Paracelsus, Francis Bacon, Descartes and others, articulated, legitimized, and used this new approach to nature to gain new and productive knowledge. (van Beerkel 2013, p. 3)
It is esteemed a kinde of dishonour vnto learning to descend to enquirie or Meditation vppon Matters Mechanical…But if my judgment bee of any waight, the vse of HISTORIE MECHANICAL is of all others the most radicall and fundamentall towardes Naturall Philosophie. (Bacon 2000, p. 64)
Yet despite these claims forming a common theme in early modern natural philosophy, we should be hesitant about taking them at face value. The traditional deprecation of the mechanical arts, for example, the surpassing of which has long been regarded a necessary step in the development of experimental science by proponents of the legitimation thesis, is no longer understood to be a universal feature of medieval society. As Elspeth Whitney claims in her study of the historical status of the mechanical arts:
It is now often acknowledged that many of the attitudes long associated with the Middle Ages and considered to be inimical to an appreciation of technology, including an emphasis on theoretical over practical knowledge, intellectual over manual labor, and a concern with inner spiritual and moral needs rather than material progress, were more flexible than assumed and were held neither absolutely nor without modification. (Whitney 1990, p. 5)
A greater problem for the legitimation thesis however, lies in the conflicted nature of appraisals of craft knowledge by early modern scholars. Compare, for example, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two New Sciences in which his interlocutors affirm the value of the artisan’s workshop as a source of knowledge (Galileo 1954, p. 1), with his condescending description of spectacle maker Hans Lippershey:
We know that the Fleming who was first to invent the telescope was a simple maker of ordinary spectacles who, casually handling lenses of various sorts, happened to look through two at once, one convex and the other concave, and placed at different distances from the eye. In this way he observed the resulting effect and thus discovered the instrument. But I, incited by the news mentioned above, discovered the same thing by means of reasoning. (Galileo 1957, p. 245)
In this paper, I want to assess the credibility of the legitimation thesis by examining more closely the epistemic role and function accorded to craftwork by early modern natural philosophers. To do so, we will begin by examining Francis Bacon’s notion of mechanical history, and explore the influence it exerted upon attempts by later generations of natural philosophers to appropriate craft knowledge. Due to the central place that Bacon accorded craftwork in his reformed natural philosophy, it has long been common to consider him an emblematic figure of the legitimation thesis; Antonio Pérez-Ramos, for example, in his seminal study of Bacon’s conception of natural inquiry attributes to Bacon the conviction that “it is only by imitating the ways of artisans and mechanics that the natural philosopher can come to grips with Nature and her mysteries” (Pérez-Ramos 1988, p. 145). By situating Bacon’s work within what he termed the “maker’s knowledge tradition”, Pérez-Ramos’ influential study served at once to both affirm the legitimation thesis and attest to Bacon’s central role within it. However, as Sophie Weeks notes, the claim that Bacon equated knowing with making is complicated by the lack of epistemic value that he ascribed to artisanal practice in his work (Weeks 2007, p. 181n135). According to Weeks, any claim that Bacon sought the rehabilitation of the mechanical arts faces the challenge of “reconciling Bacon’s negative assessment of the productive power of the arts with his necessary inclusion of them in primary history” (Weeks 2008, p. 151).
As Weeks suggests, the apparent contradiction in Bacon’s appraisal of the mechanical arts is eased by recognizing the way Bacon directed his criticisms towards the traditional productive ends of the mechanical arts while at the same time promoting the value of their operative (i.e., experimental) means (Weeks 2008, p. 152). However, while this is correct, we should not make the mistake of understanding Bacon to have maintained a neutral attitude to craft practice. To the contrary, his writings display systematic attempts to devalue not only the goals, but also the methods of the mechanical arts. As this article aims to show, the same tensions are apparent in the work of later generations of natural philosophers, in particular, members of the early Royal Society who also often sought the acquisition of craft knowledge while simultaneously attempting to denigrate the epistemic processes by which it was produced.
Examining Bacon’s notion of mechanical history within a wider context of attempts by later generations of natural philosophers to appropriate craft knowledge reveals the presence of common socio-epistemological ideals which served to reinforce, rather than relinquish boundaries between artisans and natural philosophers. It will be my claim that a closer examination of the presuppositions underlying such projects reveals, not a desire to legitimize aspects of artisanal practice, but rather strategies aimed at demonstrating the inferiority of the local ways of knowing upon which it was based.
Furthermore, I aim to show that the popularity of the legitimation thesis is best explained through recourse to a pervasive tendency to regard empiricism as a unitary phenomenon; as a commitment to the idea that knowledge issues primarily or exclusively from experience. Recent literature which suggests that this interpretation of empiricism is anachronistic when applied to early modern thinkers Vanzo (2014) has raised important questions about the extent to which we may equate a scholarly interest in craft knowledge with a desire to legitimize craft practices. Accordingly, it will be my claim that it is by failing to distinguish between different forms of empirical practice that the legitimation thesis has managed to retain credibility, despite the invalidation of a number of crucial assumptions on which it had depended. A thorough assessment of the relation between craft practice and early modern natural philosophy therefore calls for a more nuanced approach, which is fine grained enough to recognize the differences between the kinds of empirical practices advocated by natural philosophers, and those practiced by contemporary artisans.
In addressing the legitimation thesis, this paper seeks to contribute to a growing body of scholarship,1 exploring the relationship between craft practices and experimental science in the early modern period. Relevant to our purposes is a recent study by Pamela Long which serves to reaffirm the legitimation thesis by arguing that one of the important foundations upon which the new sciences developed was the widespread cultural acceptance of the empirical values of artisanal practices (Long 2011, p. 130). Specifically, Long’s study contends that the development of experimental science involved a process in which natural philosophers adopted “values and practices (which) closely resembled those held by contemporary artisans and practitioners,” (Long 2011, p. 3) and therefore seeks to problematize the historiographical categories of “artisan” and “scholar” by highlighting how the terms often fail to correspond to discrete species of epistemological practice. However, while I agree with Long that it is often difficult to clearly demarcate the goals, values and practices of university educated men from artisans in sites of knowledge exchange such as mines, arsenals, and workshops, many of the former nonetheless developed a variety of strategies for demonstrating how their activities were entirely distinct from those of artisans. In other words, far from being neutral descriptors of epistemological activity, the categories of “craftwork” and “natural philosophy” represent complex social titles towards which early modern intellectuals spent a great deal of energy negotiating their relationship in the light of public opinion. This article contends that without accounting for the ways in which natural philosophers situated their activity in relation to artisanal practice, our understanding of the influence of craft traditions upon the development of experimental science remains incomplete.
Before we turn to an analysis of Bacon’s notion of mechanical history however, it will be necessary to take a closer look at some aspects of the empirical practices employed by craftsmen in the early modern period. For an investigation of the local ways of knowing in which craft knowledge consisted will provide us with a backdrop against which Bacon’s views on the nature and goals of technology can appear most clearly.
2. Local Knowledge and Craft Skill
In the sociology of science, local knowledge is term employed primarily to reflect the nature of the processes by which knowledge is produced. As David Turnbull notes, the study of local knowledge reflects a conviction that “knowledge claims are not adjudicated by absolute standards; rather their authority is established through the workings of local negotiations and judgments in particular contexts” (Turnbull 2008, p. 1198). While this approach to studying knowledge production has proved fruitful in the history and sociology of science, I want to approach the issue of local knowledge from a different direction: by exploring the methods by which knowledge is transmitted and applied in different practical contexts. Unlike medieval scholasticism, for example, whose practitioners sought natural knowledge that could apply universally, craft traditions produced forms of knowledge whose application was understood to be restricted in various ways. Craft skills represent a natural example of local knowledge, because, as forms of intimate experiential knowledge of a particular region of reality, they do not completely transcend the conditions of their production and instead retain a connection to the location in which they were cultivated. At a basic level, the field of application of craft skills can be understood to be limited in two general ways:
Firstly, because of variations in natural materials, the spatial location in which skills are developed often limits their applicability to other contexts without modification. Majolica pottery techniques, for example, often failed to be reproduced outside of Italy due in part to the natural variation of clays available in different regions (Long 2011, p. 235). The same applied for mining techniques in the early modern period, where variation in the qualities of local ores prevented the straightforward adoption of techniques without modification and experimentation (Long 2011, p. 110). The local nature of craft skills is therefore partly a consequence of the fact that for the artisan, the world of natural materials is not uniform and consistent but rather irregular and dynamic.
Secondly, variation through time also establishes limitations to the applicability of crafts skills. In this respect, the military art of fortification provides a fitting example. In the middle ages, the development and employment of light yet powerful bronze canons allowed the French to breach Italian fortifications at an unprecedented rate. Italian engineers responded by designing fortresses with an extremely low profile, a design that was so successful it “spread throughout Europe and the New World, persisting without fundamental change for 400 years until the end of the nineteenth century” (Ferguson 1993, p. 69). This example shows how military engineers were faced with a juggling act, in which they had to contend not only with variations in the environment, but also with temporally emergent developments in military strategy and technology.
Following Donna Haraway, we might say that the spatial and temporal constraints that characterize the applicability of craft skills reflect their status as forms of “situated knowledge.” However, while craft skills are to a large extent dependent on context in this way, it is important not to consider this characteristic to be a barrier that entirely prevents their transmission. Pamela H. Smith, in a recent study exploring artisanal knowledge in the scientific revolution, notes how “artisanal knowledge was inherently particularistic; it necessitated playing off and employing the particularities of materials… contrary to intuition, however, the particularistic nature of experiential knowledge did not preclude developing skills of abstraction and generalization” (Smith 2007, p. 43). These skills played a central role in facilitating the transmission and extension of craft knowledge. However, because local knowledge, as we have seen, is context dependent, the extension of such knowledge to foreign contexts almost inevitably involved modification. In order to allow for the required flexibility, craft skills often operated with forms of standardization that allocated a central role to personal judgment.
Learning to achieve the correct heat in a blacksmith’s furnace, for example, traditionally involved the employment of rules of thumb; throwing in a lock of hair and waiting until it begins to burn or dipping pieces of paper into molten metal and looking for it to blacken without burning, were some of the techniques used to determine temperature. Volumes, on the other hand, were often measured in inherently variable units like walnut shells or goose’s eggs (Smith 2010, p. 32). While technical maxims, adages and rules of thumb like this could be acquired through reading, the personal judgment required to apply them issued primarily from practice and experience. It was therefore common for early modern artisans to affirm the limitations of the printed page; take the sixteenth century Hugenot potter Bernard Palissy, for example, who wrote that “even if I used a thousand reams of paper to write down all the accidents that have happened to me in learning this art, you must be assured that, however good a brain you may have, you will still make a thousand mistakes,” (Palissy 1957, p. 242) or his contemporary, the Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio, who stated that “the light of judgment cannot come without practice, which is the preceptress of the arts” (Biringuccio  2005, p. 280). Artisan authors like these, drew attention to the situated nature of craft knowledge by reminding readers of the limitations of technical treatises in determining craft practices. For despite providing rules or principles to guide technical practice, practitioners are left to determine for themselves the amount of hair to be thrown into the furnace, whether the paper burns in the right way, or what constitutes the average size of a walnut. The vagueness characterizing the technical rules of craft traditions should not, however, be considered a defect—the best that could be achieved by craftspeople who lacked access to the instruments or rigorous methods of modern experimental science. To the contrary, this vagueness represents perhaps the most advantageous feature of local knowledge, for it provides the flexibility required for extending intimate, experiential expertise beyond the locale in which it was originally cultivated.
Despite receiving articulation in a wide variety of technical treatises, these forms of local knowledge were destined to receive little attention in scholarly descriptions of craft practices, which often arrived at very different conclusions regarding the nature of artisanal knowledge. In the next section, we will see how early modern natural philosophers conceived of the nature of knowledge as they turned their attention towards artisanal practices in the early modern period.
3. Francis Bacon’s Mechanical History
While it was not uncommon for university educated scholars of the late middle ages to emphasize the value of craft traditions as a source of knowledge, the outlines of a systematic project to harness and further this knowledge was first articulated by Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning. A central element of this project was the development of a history of trades that could:
minister and suggest for the present, Many ingenious practizes in all trades, by a connexion and transferring of the obseruations of one Arte, to the vse of another, when the experiences of seueral misteries shall fall vnder the consideration of one mans minde; But furder, it will giue a more true and real illumination concerning Causes and Axiomes than is hetherto attained. (Bacon 2000, p. 65)
To procure an History mechanique to be compiled with care and diligence and to professe it that is of the experimts and observations of all Mechanicall Arts. The places or thinges to be inquyred are; first the materialls, and their quantities and proportions; Next the Instrumts and Engins requesite; then the use and adoperation of every Instrumt; then the woork it self and all the processe thereof wth the tymes and seasons of doing every part thereof. Then the Errors wch may be comytted, and agayn those things wch conduce to make the woorke in more perfection. Then all observacions, Axiomes, directions. Lastly all things collaterall incidt or intervenient. (Bacon 1868, p. 65)
Bacon’s proposals were destined to have a stimulating effect on his successors, who set about putting them into practice. Attempts to catalogue technical knowledge thus became a common feature of the intellectual culture of the enlightenment. The enthusiasm was far reaching; examples of such works include the French Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Johann Beckmann’s Geschichte der Erfindungen, and the various catalogues of individual trades produced by the Royal Society’s John Evelyn and William Petty. Yet like most events characterized as turning points in the history of science, Bacon’s contribution is best understood not as wholly revolutionary, but rather in the way Peter Dear suggests that we understand the emergence of experimental practice – as a “genuine novelty… but a novelty that possessed a wholesale continuity with what went before” (Dear 1995, p. 2). In the same way, Bacon’s project to reform natural knowledge featured a combination of polemical renunciations of the Aristotelian scholastic tradition alongside quiet affirmations of some of its most fundamental assumptions.
The kind of knowledge Bacon sought from craft practice, for example, cohered with the epistemological standards of scholastic science and was in this respect deeply traditional. In Aristotle’s hierarchy of knowledge, perception and experience were regarded as inferior to explanatory science because the latter operated according to universal suppositions. During the middle ages, Latin scholasticism had maintained the conception of scientia as universal knowledge by placing an epistemological premium on certainty (Pasnau 2010). Scientia, for this reason, came to be construed as a form of knowledge centered squarely on causal principles, the universality of which ensured they remained valid in any context of application. Bacon’s notion of “causes and axioms,” as context independent principles which could be applied universally, therefore also functioned to affirm the standards of knowledge promoted by his scholastic contemporaries. However, the idea that these forms of knowledge could be derived from and applied to craft practice marked a departure from scholasticism. For the scholastics, there were a variety of reasons supporting a categorical distinction between theoretical and operative knowledge:
Firstly, the scholastic tradition had long upheld the Aristotelian principle that scientia demanded certain demonstration and accordingly excluded craft knowledge from the realm of science (Eamon 1996, p. 54).
Secondly, for Aristotle, téchnē had represented a form of knowledge that was partially communicable; while the forms with which it operated could be grasped by rationality, the processes by which production itself was achieved could only be learnt through practice (Mitcham 1994, p. 122).
Thirdly, for scholars sympathetic to the Aristotelian tradition, there were also metaphysical reasons supporting the categorical distinction between craft and science. In The Mechanical Problems, a text traditionally attributed to Aristotle (although its authorship is now disputed), we find the claim that:
Nature often operates contrary to human interest; for she always follows the same course without deviation, whereas human interest is always changing. When, therefore, we have to do something contrary to nature, the difficulty of it causes us perplexity and art has to be called to our aid. The kind of art which helps in such perplexities we call Mechanical Skill. (Aristotle 1984, Mechanics, 847a13)
Armed with these distinctions, Latin scholastics of the Middle Ages often agreed in regarding theoretical knowledge of nature to possess little operative value. The gulf between operative and theoretical knowledge during this period was reflected in the character of technical literature itself. As Paolo Rossi noted, “[while] medieval technical writings gave ample instructions on the way ‘to work’ [and] offered themselves as a collection of rules, recipes and precepts. They were ‘completely devoid of ‘theory’ understood as an attempt to derive the precepts from general principles and then to base them on a totality of verifiable facts” (Rossi 1970, p. 33).
Despite forming a pervasive feature of scholastic thought, the framework segregating scientific knowledge from technical practice was not destined to endure. As is well known, Bacon’s reform of natural knowledge marked a departure from the scholastic tradition by arguing for the identity of truth and utility:
human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause puts the effect beyond reach. For nature is not conquered save by obeying it; and that which in thought is equivalent to a cause, is in operation equivalent to a rule. (Bacon 2004, p. 65 italics added)
4. Empiricism and the “New” Science
While it may no longer be common to view developments in the history of science as responses to perennial philosophical problems of knowledge, some of the misunderstandings generated by this once common approach remain. In particular is the tendency to conceive of empiricism in an early modern context as the epistemological thesis that experience is the primary source of knowledge. As a recent paper by Alberto Vanzo explains, the kind of empiricism that is featured in a dichotomy with rationalism is anachronistic when applied to early modern thinkers such as Bacon (Vanzo 2014). This suggests why Bacon, who has commonly been regarded one of the fathers of empiricism, rejected the label, characterizing the empirical philosophy as “weak and past cure,” (Bacon 1996, p. 3) and having “begotten tenets more deformed and monstrous than those of the Sophistical or rational family; because it does not base itself on the light of common notions” (Bacon 2004, p. 101). In the Novum Organum, Bacon made sure to distinguish clearly the method he recommended from those of the empiricists:
my route and plan (as I have often clearly declared and am happy to declare again) does not lead me to extract works from works, or experiments from experiments (as empirics do), but to extract, (as legitimate interpreters of nature do), from works and experiments causes and axioms, and in turn from causes and axioms new works and experiments. (Bacon 2004, p. 175)
when I speak of an experimental philosopher, or Virtuoso; I do not mean, either, on this hand, a Libertine, tho’ Ingenious; or a Sensualist, tho’ Curious; or, on that hand, a mere Empirick, or some vulgar Chymist…who too often makes Experiments, without making Reflection on them, as having it more in his aim to Produce Effects than to Discover Truths. (Boyle 1690, p. 52)
For Bacon and his immediate successors then, empiricism referred not to an epistemological thesis, but rather to a particular form of expertise; practical knowledge based on experiential regularities yet lacking the guidance of axioms and causes. This characterization of empiricism, along with the criticisms experimental philosophers utilized to challenge its epistemological value exhibited strong continuities with appraisals of the cognitive category of empeiria in classical Greek philosophy, from which the term “empiricism” itself originally derives. Both Plato and Aristotle posited a natural division between, on the one hand, aisthēsis (sense perception), empeiria (experience), and on the other téchnē (art) and epistēmē (science).3 The division itself was founded upon the idea of explanatory knowledge; the latter categories denote forms of explanatory knowledge because they were understood to operate with universal causal principles. The former, on the other hand, denoted forms of local knowledge; aisthēsis provided sensory perceptions which, when mediated by memory, combined to form empeiria—knowledge of experiential regularities. The limited capacity for generalization that characterizes empeiria secured its status as an inferior form of knowledge to both téchnē and episteme:
whereas medicine studies the nature of the patient before it treats him and knows the reasons which dictate its actions and can give an account of both, cookery on the other hand approaches in a thoroughly unmethodical way even that pleasure which is the sole object of its care; it makes no study of the nature of pleasure or of the causes which produce it, but with practically no attempt at rational calculation simply preserves, as a matter of routine and experience, the memory of what usually occurs, and produces its pleasures in this way. (Plato 2004, Gorgias 501a)
While we find similar criticisms of empiricism in the early modern period, the range of professions with which it had become associated was now vastly larger and included physicians, politicians, and craftspeople (Vanzo 2014). By characterizing these forms of expertise as “empirical” early modern natural philosophers often sought to cast doubt on their scientific status. For it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that in the early modern period the empirical philosophy was conceived and promoted as being antithetical to the new scientific practices. Indeed, the dichotomy between science and empiricism would continue to find articulation as late as William Herschel’s 1830 publication of A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, in which he claims that:
Art is the application of knowledge to a practical end. If the knowledge be merely accumulated experience, the art is empirical; but if it be experience reasoned upon and brought under general principles, it assumes a higher character and becomes a scientific art. (Herschel 2009, p. 70)
It is in distinction to the mechanics of the artisan that Bacon introduces an alternative technological method designed to remedy the theoretical “blindness,” which he claims to afflict contemporary mechanical practices. Bacon’s strategy is complex and consists of various stages; the first, literate experience (experientia literata) represents a methodology for organizing both experimental activity and results in a way that facilitates the extraction of axioms and causes.4 The second, interpretation of nature, includes processes by which causal knowledge is systematically extracted from experimental knowledge and by which causal and axiomatic knowledge is refined through further experimentation (philosophical mechanics) (Weeks 2008, p. 173). Finally, true natural magic, which applies the knowledge gained to discover “radical and fundamental alterations or innovations of nature” (Bacon 1858, p. 366).
The emphasis Bacon placed upon method in his ideal of technical practice corresponded to a wider rhetorical strategy utilized by early modern natural philosophers to support the contention that their technical activities were not only radically different than the traditional practices of the artisan, but also fundamentally superior. The idea that the value of technological achievements stemmed, in part, from the method by which they were achieved, emerges clearly, for example in Galileo’s quote mentioned above (p. 1), where he emphasizes how he had employed reasoning, rather than the experimental methods of the artisan to craft his telescope. To the contrary, as Paolo Rossi notes, ample evidence exists to suggest otherwise; Galileo’s device derived from experiment rather than mathematics (Rossi 1970, p. 116). And Galileo was certainly not alone in mis-describing the methods by which he worked; Lynn White Jr. noted, for example, concerning sixteenth century fortification literature, that while it was common for authors to claim that their constructions derived from the use of mathematics, “their methods were essentially empirical” (White 1972, p. 47). Eugene S. Ferguson observes the same phenomenon in Ramelli’s sixteenth century treatise on engineering, whose “intimate knowledge of mechanical principles…derived from experience in workshop and field” rather than mathematical calculation as claimed (Ferguson 1993, p. 154).
At the same time as natural philosophers sought to present their technical practices as different from the way they occurred, many also promoted misrepresentations of artisanal practices themselves. For the tendency among natural philosophers to emphasize the value of determining processes of making by rational or mathematical principles often resulted in the complete exclusion of alternative ways of explaining the development of technology. The result was a characterization of artisanal work as inherently undetermined or accidental; an idea that finds repeated articulation in Bacon’s work:
Printing, a gross invention; artillery, a thing that lay not far out of the way; the needle, a thing partly known before; what a change these three have made in the world in these times; the one in the state of learning, the other in the state of war, the third in the state of treasure, commodities and navigation. And those, I say, were stumbled upon and lighted upon by chance. (Bacon 2011, p. 125)
In other words, while earlier stages of Bacon’s strategy may have allocated a restricted role to chance by sanctioning exploratory experiments (Bacon 1858, p. 435), the ultimate goal of Baconian inquiry was to provide mankind with the technical capacity to alter nature with complete certainty. This ideal is clearly stated in the New Atlantis (1627), when the Father of Bacon’s ideal scientific society, Salomon’s House, describes the trials they perform upon “beasts and birds” and boasts of the extent to which they have achieved control over the growth and development of natural organisms: “by art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is; and contrariwise dwarf them, and stay their growth: we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is; and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also, we make them differ in colour, shape, activity, many ways.” However, in contradistinction to the account of craft knowledge offered in Bacon’s work, the Father is careful to add, “neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise” (Bacon 2008, p. 482).
The convergence of power and certainty that characterized Bacon’s ideal of technical activity also functioned to reinforce conceptions of existing craft practices as unplanned and accidental, ideas which were destined to become an increasingly common feature of the enlightenment intellectual landscape. In The History of the Royal Society (1667), for example, Thomas Sprat argued that of the existing “Arts that we use, that the greatest part of them has bin produc’d, either by Luxury, or chance, or necessity: all of which must be confess’d to be mean, and ignoble causes of the Rational Mechanics” (Sprat 1667, p. 393). Robert Boyle, on the other hand, in seeking to emphasize the potential for improvement in the trades, suggested that while it may seem that “Art has curiously pryed into, and imployed, almost all of the materials that Nature could afford it,” in actuality:
tradesmen have really dealt with but few of Natures Productions, in comparison to those they have left unemployed; and that for the most part they have, in the things they daily converse with, scarce made use of any other, than the more Obvious qualities of them; besides some fee more lurking properties which either Chance, or a lucky Sagacity, rather than Inquisitiveness or Skill, discover’d to them. (Boyle 1671, p. 40)
5. Craftwork as Unconscious Execution
The dichotomy between practice and principle provided early modern natural philosophers not only with a means for distinguishing their activities from those of artisans, but also a strategy with which the work of the artisan could be demoted from the realm of human activity and likened to animal behavior. While classical literature had set a number of precedents for this line of thinking, early modern natural philosophers employed these ideas for new purposes, and in doing so, arrived at very different conclusions regarding the nature of craft practice.
The classical world had associated craftwork with the behavior of animals in a variety of ways. Aristotle, for example, had considered empeiria to be a faculty shared by both humans and animals,5 while reserving the explanatory forms of knowledge, téchnē and episteme, for human subjects. Yet, while Aristotle regarded the rational component of téchnē to restrict it to the exclusive domain of human activity, some thinkers did not hesitate in using the term téchnē to characterize the activity of animals. We thus find Oppian writing of the téchnē of the crab, or Ion of Chios of the téchnē of the hedgehog (Detienne and Vernant 1991, p. 45). According to Plutarch, Democritus even suggested that humans learnt their crafts from observing the activity of animals;
we have become pupils (of animals) in the greatest arts: of the spider in weaving and mending, of the swallow in building, of the songbirds, the swan and the nightingale, in singing, by our imitation of them. (Plutarch 2010, 974a)
Roughly two millennia later, Bacon would echo this position in The Advancement of Learning, claiming that “men are rather beholden to a wilde Goat for surgerie, or to a Nightingale for Musique, or to the Ibis for some part of Phisic” (Bacon 2000, p. 108). Unlike Democritus however, who sought to illustrate the way in which art imitates nature (Warry 2013, p. 103), Bacon employed this idea to support his contention that the method utilized in craftwork,
…is no other method than that which brute beasts are capable of, and do put in ure; which is a perpetual intending or practicing of some one thing, urged and imposed by an absolute necessity of conservation of being. (Bacon 2000, p. 109)
we must hope for far more and better things to come at shorter intervals from men’s reason, effort and deliberate intention, than from chance, the animal instinct, and the like, which have hitherto been the origin of our discoveries’ (Bacon 2004, p. 165)
In the Metaphysics, Aristotle had drawn a distinction between master artists who operate by knowledge of causes and manual workers (cheirotechnēs) who, as “men of experience…act by habit very much as lifeless things do by nature” (Aristotle Metaphysics 980a30, trans. Ross). Throughout his work, Bacon employed this framework while at the same time suggesting that the technical achievements of mankind had never progressed beyond that of the manual worker. Bacon’s project can therefore be understood as aiming at the realization of Aristotle’s master artist,6 and for this reason privileged forms of knowledge distinct from those he attributed to manual workers; the classification of knowledge he provides in the Advancement of Learning, for example, leaves no place for the kind of expertise he attributes to manual workers; the two forms of operative knowledge he outlines, mechanic and magic, are both conceived as functioning in accordance with causes, axioms or principles (Kusukawa 1996).
In Bacon’s proposed reform of science and technology then, the skills of craftwork not only lose their hitherto central role, but they are also explicitly naturalized. These ideas were echoed by members of the early Royal society such as Thomas Sprat, who argued not only that accidental discoveries motivated by necessity, which he took to be the driving force of mankind’s existing technological achievements were the most natural method of advancing the trades (Sprat 1667, p. 381), but also one most suited to animals:
the second occasion that has given help to the increase of Mechanics has bin Chance: For in all Ages, by some casual accidents, those things have bin reveal’d, which either men did not think of, or else sought for in vain…this indeed can scarce by styl’d the work of a man. The Hart deserves as much prays of Invention, for lighting on the herb that cures it; as the man who blindly stumbles on any profitable Work, without foresight, or consideration. (Sprat 1667, p. 394)
Yet the notion that craft practices were distinguished by a reliance on instinct came to be employed for more purposes than simply distinguishing the technical activity of the scholar from the artisan. In particular, the association between craft practice and animal behavior formed an important cultural resource to which scholars appealed in attempting to explain the challenges they faced in capturing the tacit knowledge of artisans on the printed page. In his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot (1751), for example, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert complained that:
There are some artisans who are also men of letters, and we would be able to cite them here; but their number would be very small. Most of those who engage in the mechanical arts have embraced them only by necessity and work only by instinct. Hardly a dozen among a thousand can be found who are in a position to express themselves with some clarity upon the instrument they use and the things they manufacture. We have seen some workers who have worked for forty years without knowing anything about their machines. With them, it was necessary to exercise the function in which Socrates gloried, the painful and delicate function of being midwife of the mind, obstetrix animorum. (D’Alembert 2009)
…an imitative system of labour, in which three of the five animal senses are engaged, seeing, feeling and smelling; and in which the mental faculties have usually but little participation…if you ask (an experienced practical maltster) to state the mode by which he judges, he is quite unable to express the means by any clear and definite language, because the mind has no participation in the determination; and as his experience is incommunicable in words, so it is in practice, for he cannot impart to another by any mental instruction, the discernment of the animal faculties, which he has himself acquired by long continued observation. (Wigney 1838, p. 224)
We find the culmination of this line of thinking in the words of George Wilson, who, in an almost ironic return to the classical notion that humans learnt their crafts from animals, characterized animals as perfect craftsmen:
The bird is an exquisite architect; the beaver a most skillful bridge builder; the silkworm the most beautiful of weavers; the spider the best of net makers. Each is a perfect craftsman, and each has his tools always at hand…their most wonderful works imply neither invention, contrivance, nor volition, but only a placid, pleasant, easily rendered obedience to instincts. (Wilson 1855, p. 8)
In the final section of this paper, we will turn our attention to how natural philosophers, by misrepresenting the nature of craft practices in this way, sought to claim possession not only of the knowledge produced by craft traditions, but also the essential aspects of craft production itself.
6. Revisiting the Legitimation Thesis: Natural Philosophy and the Appropriation of Craft Knowledge
Attempts by natural philosophers to appropriate craft knowledge in the early modern period were both more diverse and more extensive than has previously been recognized. A thorough assessment of the legitimation thesis requires tackling this complexity. We can begin by noting how, in analyzing the stance scholars maintained towards craft practices it is helpful to distinguish between two senses in which the appropriation of craft knowledge was attempted.
Firstly, there is appropriation in the weak sense, understood as a desire to access the knowledge produced by craft traditions. This occurred for a variety of reasons. Following Bacon, the refinement and representation of craft knowledge on the printed page was often considered a necessary requirement for technological progress. As Thomas Sprat wrote, the completion of a history of trades promised:
to bring innumerable benefits to all practical Arts: When all the secrets of Manufactures shall be discover’d, their Materials describ’d, their Instruments figur’d, their Products represented: It will soon be determin’d, how far they themselves may be promoted, and what new consequences may thence be deduc’d…In short, by this help, the worst Artificers will be well instructed, by considering the Methods, and the Tools of the best: And the greatest Inventors will be exceedingly inlighten’d; because they will have in their view the labours of many men, many places and many times, wherewith to compare their own. (Sprat 1667, p. 310)
the Phaenomena afforded by trades are… the fitter to be translated into the History of Nature by Philosophers (than those) whose profession ‘tis to manage those things, being generally but Shop-keepers, and their servants being for the most part but Apprentices and Boyes, they neither of them know themselves how to describe in writing their own practices, and record the Accidents they meet with. (Boyle 1671, p. 123)
Yet the acquisition and compilation of craft knowledge by philosophers was not only promoted in terms of facilitating technological advances. Later generations of natural philosophers also argued that codification was necessary to prevent the loss of existing technical knowledge. This contention was often based on the mistaken assumption that because artisans did not, as a general rule, attempt to record their knowledge in discursive form, that useful technical knowledge was lost upon the demise of individual craftspeople. As William Yeo notes, compilers of craft knowledge throughout the eighteenth century often “saw themselves as engaged in a rescue mission, saving manual skills from an oral culture that could not adequately transmit this knowledge” (Yeo 2010, p. 151). In this respect, Diderot, for example, writes under the entry for “Art” in the Encylopédie that “we invite artisans for their part to take advice from scientists and not allow their discoveries to die with them” (Diderot 1992, p. 5). This concern, of course, ignored and therefore obscured methods, such as the institution of the apprenticeship, which artisans had long utilized to transmit and preserve experiential knowledge.
Secondly, there is appropriation in the strong sense, whereby natural philosophers sought not only to acquire the knowledge produced by craft traditions, but also to claim responsibility for the forms of knowledge on which they were based. The presuppositions for this line of thinking were provided by an ideal conception of craft practice as consisting primarily in the execution of theoretical principles to which the craftsman had no access. Arguments for the unrealized potential of the mechanical arts, common throughout the seventeenth century, were often premised upon conceptions of contemporary craft practices as merely scratching the surface without making “use of any other than the more obvious qualities,” or using only manual dexterity to diversify “a small number of known things into differing shapes,” rather than performing “a diligent or accurate search into the qualities of those productions” (Boyle 1671, p. 40). In contrast, natural philosophers sought to characterize the true goals of technical activity in terms of radical innovation stemming from knowledge of theoretical principles, thereby supporting the contention that “invention is a heroic thing, and plac’d above the reach of a low and vulgar genius” (Sprat 1667, p. 392).
The goal of relocating the essence of technical activity to the province of the natural philosopher, rather than the artisan, would continue to shape scholarly representations of craft knowledge throughout the modern period. In an early draft of The Wealth of Nations, for example, Adam Smith defended a system of divided labor by arguing that the source of important technological innovations, such as wind and water mills, were:
probably no work man of any kind but a philosopher or meer man of speculation; one of those people whose trade it is not to do any thing but to observe every thing, and who are upon that account capable of combining together the powers of the most opposite and distant objects…to think of the application of new powers which are altogether unknown and which have never before been applied to any similar purpose, belongs to those only who have a greater range of thought and a more extensive view of things than naturally fall to the share of the meer artist. (Smith 1978, p. 570)
It is to the philosopher that the husbandman, the architect, the carpenter and the seamen etc are indebted for the principles of those arts, by which they furnish us with most of the accommodations, and with the elegances of, civilized life. (Bell and Macfarquhar 1797, preface)
This stronger form of appropriation therefore involved the establishment of external epistemological standards for craftwork; theoretical principles that were understood to dictate ideal possibilities for the creation of artifacts which artisans could hope only to approximate but never reach. Implicit in this approach was a conception of artisanal activity as a regrettable, but nonetheless necessary source of interference in the process by which theoretical principles come to be realized in matter. As Newton claims in the preface to the first edition of the Principia,
To practical mechanics all the manual arts belong, from which mechanics took its name. But as artificers do not work with perfect accuracy, it comes to pass that mechanics is so distinguished from geometry that what is perfectly accurate is called geometrical; and what is less so, is called mechanical. However, the errors are not in the art, but in the artificer. (Newton 1974, preface)
Despite repeated calls from scholars to take advantage of artisanal expertise,8 these forms of knowledge were rarely an object of interest for early modern natural philosophers. The method for technological progress that Bacon offers throughout his work, for example, was expressly designed to circumvent the gradual accumulation and refinement of skills and techniques that he associated with craft traditions. According to Bacon:
It is the duty and virtue of all knowledge to abridge the circuits and long ways of experience (as much as truth will permit), and to remedy the ancient complaint that “life is short and art is long.” (Bacon 1858, p. 361)
we question whether (if he should engage himselfe in such an endlesse labour) a man by the bare light and instruction of the Book could attaine to a dextrous practice of a trade, whereunto hath been required seven yeares Autopsia. But are confident that the help of this Book will lessen the former taeditum by more then half. (Petty 1648)
The presuppositions for this line of thinking are evident in the ideal conception of technical activity promoted by Bacon, in which innovation was invariably described as a sudden discovery rather than the gradual accumulation and refinement of skills and techniques. This ideal of “instant” invention emerges clearly, for example, in descriptions of the engineering achievements of Salomon’s House in Bacon’s New Atlantis. As Todd Andrew Borlik notes, “conspicuously absent from the account is any mention of the arduous labor involved in the construction, operation and maintenance of these devices. As in the creation story from Genesis, the inventions of the colleges of the Six Day’s Works—such as observatories, wind machines, air filters, furnaces, telephones, clockwork automata—appear to have been forged by mystical fiat rather than any physical exertion” (Borlik 2008). For Bacon, technological advance occurs ideally in the use of the intellect, through an understanding of the different possibilities made available by axioms and causes. Their material realization on the other hand is a triviality, a mere matter of execution. This ideal conception of technical practice led to the privileging of certain trades as a source for his proposed history of trades, in particular those that Bacon believed could best yield the kind of context independent principles of natural knowledge, and which could best facilitate his ideal conception of technical practice:
among the arts we should prefer those which display, change and prepare natural bodies and material things, for instance agriculture, cookery, chemistry, dyeing the manufacture of glass, enamel, sugar, gunpowder, pyrotechnics, paper and the like. Less productive are those arts which rely mainly on dexterous use of hand or instrument, such as weaving, woodworking, building, the work of millwrights, clockmakers and so on. (Bacon 2004, p. 463)
The legitimation thesis therefore fails to provide a cogent account of the stance natural philosophers maintained towards craft knowledge in the early modern period for a variety of reasons. As we have seen, a closer analysis of Bacon’s conception of ‘mechanical history’ reveals a distinctly negative conception of craft practice in which the discursive knowledge of the natural philosopher is privileged over the experience and expertise of the artisan. In this paper I have argued that this aspect of Bacon’s thought marks yet another dimension of the enormous influence his work was to exert upon the following generations of natural philosophers. For as is clear from the often condescending tone of later scientific accounts of craft practices, later generations of natural philosophers often approached the project of writing a history of trades with the same attitude towards the value and function of experiential knowledge.
The question of whether Bacon himself had any interaction with artisans is the subject of ongoing dispute. While it has long been a dominant contention among historians that Bacon had little actual involvement with artisanal culture (see, for example, Harkness 2007, esp. chapter 6), recent work by Cesare Pastorino has challenged this view by pointing to evidence of Bacon’s involvement with technicians and entrepreneurs in mining enterprises (see Pastorino 2009).
In De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientarium, Bacon notes that “mechanics, after the manner of Aristotle, ought to have been more diligently continued by the moderns, especially with selection of those whereof either the causes are more obscure, or the effects more noble” (Bacon 1858, p. 366).
I would like to thank Dana Jalobeanu, Sorin Bangu, Harald Johannessen and the anonymous reviewers at Perspectives on Science for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.