Friday, October 1, 2010

Baconian vs. Augustinians or Whig vs. Tory

The Baconian view of science prevalent in the 17th century can, not surprisingly, be more or less summed up by Sir Francis Bacon's Utopian novel, The New Atlantis (1627). This fictional work lays out the perfect society, a la Sir Thomas Moore, in which science rules every aspect of society under the watchful and benevolent eyes of its most erudite scientists. Sir Francis Bacon, notable for such memorable quotes as, "we must put nature on the wrack and wrest her secrets from her," and "Nature must be a spouse for fruit, not a mistress for pleasure," believed that the best society would be one organized around the pursuit of pragmatic knowledge, a technocracy or a technocratic empire overseen by a priesthood of scientists who would dole out knowledge to the admiring masses as they saw fit. According to this view, nature was something to be exploited without mercy or moral: if it can be done it will be done; such an approach to science and human progress completely eschews questions of whether it should be done. Such views dovetailed neatly with contemporary Whig political views.
The Whigs of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries believed wholeheartedly in unrestricted laissez-faire capitalism, in reform of the traditional English social order, in expanded Empire, trade and industry across the face of the globe. Opposed to these priests of progress were the Tories. Tories favored tradition most of all: Monarchy over Parliament, cottage industry over industrialization, and country over Empire. Just as the Whigs had authors and artists who championed their cause in the arena of public opinion, so too did the Tories, among whom were the likes of Alexander Pope, William Blake, and Mary Shelly.
Proponents of Tory-ism charachterised nature in a much more wholistic way, as a "great chain of being" in which every organism had a place and played a part, where the persuit of knowledge was tempered by reason and a moral "common sense." In this view, a heavy emphasis is placed on tradition and the past: what is worth knowing is the wisdom gleaned from hundreds of generations of trial and error: if it ain't broke why fix it?
From today's perspective it's obvious which team won: science reigns supreme. However, it also seems apparent the pendulum may have swung too far, that technology has run amok and that a balance conducive to human happiness has yet to be discovered. In this author's mind notions such as these make studying the debates of previous generations both fruitful and fitting.

1 comment:

  1. Science definitely does come out on the winning side within today’s society. Scientists are highly revered, in my opinion, and are not seen as forces to be argued with. Science is seen as fact whereas in the arts, nothing is concrete. What I really liked about what you highlighted in this discussion is that despite this being a true reflection of our society, is it something that we as human beings are proud of or even satisfied with? The balance of human happiness does have yet to be discovered. As we discussed in class recently, is technology a good thing or a bad thing? Depending upon how one uses technology this point can be argued endlessly. Is science a good thing or a bad thing? Depending upon how we use it, this point can also be (and has been) hotly debated. The question we can answer, however, is how do we use science, does it satisfy our needs, in the end, does it answer our questions, and can a balance be found between this science technology and humanity?