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Humanism and science

The slides for this week's lecture can be downloaded here

'Humanism' is the name that historians give to an intellectual movement that flourished in Europe between roughly 1400 and 1600. Humanists or humanisti were defined in the first instance by the kind of subjects they studied and the way they studied them. They advocated the studia humanitatis, ie. the study of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, and they insisted that these subjects must be studied with reference to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanism may seem antithetical to modern science, insofar as the humanisti focused on texts rather than things, on recovering the past rather than discovering new knowledge, and on history and literature rather than science and mathematics. Yet the connections between humanism and science were remarkably rich, as the primary and secondary readings show. Humanist scientists had a knack for moving forward while looking backwards.


For an overview of humanism and science, read the text by Dear and the shorter one by Blair and Grafton. Then choose either natural philosophy or natural history, and do the secondary and primary readings listed under the heading you choose. The two primary texts (by Cardano and Fuchs) are typical and influential examples of how people studied nature in the Renaissance. The secondary readings should help to put the primary readings in context. Ask yourself:

What was the author (Cardano or Fuchs) trying to do - what were his overall aims in the text in question?

Why was the author's project controversial at the time?

What was 'humanistic' about the author's approach to their topic?

Essential readings

Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences, chapter 2 ('Humanism and Ancient Wisdom: How to Learn Things in the Sixteenth Century') - Warwick ebook

Blair, Ann, and Anthony Grafton, ‘Reassessing Humanism and Science’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 53 (1992), 535–40 - Warwick ejournal

Natural philosophy

Cardano, Girolamo, De Subtilitate, trans. by John Forrester (Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013 - first published in Latin in 1560) - read the Introduction up to page xxxiv, and an extract (pp. 382-392) from the chapter entitled On Stones. The full texts of the Introduction and On Stones are available here and here respectively.

Natural history

Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Chapter 5, 'Accidents and Arguments: Fuchs' De Historia Stirpium' - course extracts

Leonart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium (1542) - browse the illustrations in this text and choose one that strikes you as especially odd or telling. For the sake of comparison you might also be interested in the illustrations in other sixteenth-century botanical texts, such as:

Arnaldo da Villanova, Tractatus de virtutibus herbarum (1st edition 1499) - click here to view the 1509 edition
Otto Brunfels, Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1532)
Carolus Clusius, Rariorum aliquot Stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam... (1583)
Basilius Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (first published 1613) - click here to view the 1640 edition

Further reading on humanism and science

General works

Daston, Lorraine, ‘The Sciences of the Archive’, Osiris, 27 (2012), 156–87

Pomata, Gianna, and Nancy G. Siraisi, 'Introduction', in their Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005) - warwick ebook

Grafton, Anthony, and Nancy G. Siraisi, 'Introduction', in their Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe. Dibner Institute Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press - warwick ebook

Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta. The Mastery of Nature: Aspects of Art, Science, and Humanism in the Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Specific works

The papers in the three edited collections cited above, ie. Reassessing Humanism and Science, Historia, and Natural Particulars.

Nauert Jr., Charles G., ‘Humanists, Scientists, and Pliny: Changing Approaches to a Classical Author’, American Historical Review, 84 (1979), 72

Dear, Peter. Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools. Ithaca: London, 1988.

Jardine, Nicholas. The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho Against Ursus,’ With Essays on Its Provenance and Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Joy, Lynn. Gassendi, the Atomist: Advocate of History in an Age of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ogilvie, Brian W. The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Rose, Paul Lawrence. The Italian Renaissance of Mathematics : Studies on Humanists and Mathematicians from Petrarch to Galileo. Droz, 1975.

Further reading on humanism

Blair, Ann, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010) - excellent study of humanist techniques for managing huge amounts of textual information

Grafton, Anthony, Defenders of the Text (Harvard, 1991) - a classic study of humanist scholarship; note especially the chapters on Poliziano (for examples of humanist citation practices) and Kepler (for an example of a leading scientist who was also a humanist)

Kristeller, Paul, ‘The Humanist Movement’, in Rennaisance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains, ed. by Paul Kristeller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 3–23 - a standard chapter-length summary of the humanist movement

Rabil, Jr., Albert, ‘Humanism: Renaissance’, in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. by Maryanne Cline Horowitz (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005), iii, 1029–33 - good short summary

Various chapters in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (CUP, 1988), the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy (CUP, 2007), and Philosophers of the Renaissance (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), all available online as Warwick ebooks. See also the three volumes of Renaissance Humanism, ed. Albert Rabil Jr.